Flag expert: Czechs only bring out their flag in emotional times

Czech flag, photo: Public Domain

The national flag of the Czech Republic, which is the same as the flag of former Czechoslovakia, will celebrate its centenary on March 30th. While the celebrations of the centenary of Czechoslovakia were grandiose, the flag’s golden anniversary is likely to pass largely unnoticed, overshadowed by the coronavirus crisis and other concerns. I spoke to the country’s leading vexillologist Aleš Brožek about how the flag was selected, why Czechs only bring it out in turbulent times and how to prevent hoisting it the wrong way round. I began by asking him how the flag was selected.

Czech flag,  photo: Public Domain
“It was decided by a team of specialists headed by a professor Gustav Friedrich from Charles University who invited a number of specialists to join the commission. Among them were Jaroslav Kursa [author of the flag] an archivist working at the Interior Ministry who had a good knowledge of heraldry and Antonin Valšík from the Defense Ministry who was a naval officer and had extensive knowledge about flags and flag etiquette. So these two people were the key figures in the committee established at the end of 1918 to create a coat of arms for Czechoslovakia. This was seen as a priority, it was necessary to have passports and the question of the flag was not so important. Therefore they only started to discuss the flag in April of 1919.

“They though the flag could be white and red because the Bohemian coat of arms depicted a silver lion on a red shield. However Poland and Austria both had red and white colours on their flags so they decided to add a third colour – and they chose blue. Red, white and blue are pan-Slavic colours and the only question was how to add the blue colour to the flag. They didn’t want horizontal or vertical stripes, they wanted a more unusual solution. And one of the proposals had a blue triangle, a blue wedge, which reached only to one third of the flag’s length. It was an unusual design and not everyone liked it. Mr. Valšík even conducted tests – hoisting the flag on a steam ship on the River Elbe to see how it would look fluttering in the breeze.”

Did the Czechs and Slovaks have a big argument about what to put on it?

“Well, it was agreed that the blue colour would represent Slovakia. Slovaks had white, red and blue colours on flags they used in the 19th century –so blue was a good choice for them. And the flag thus represented both nations.”

So what do the red, white and blue colours stand for? Because people often think it is red for the blood of the people, blue for the sky and white for purity…

T. G. Masaryk,  photo: Public Domain
“There was never any official explanation for what the colours stand for. It was only said that these are pan-Slavic colours and therefore suitable, but if we want to think that red stands for blood, then why not. Not all national flags have colours that stand for something. So what we know is that the colours chosen were colours from the coat of arms of Bohemia and Slovakia. No other symbolic meaning was there.”

I understand that President T. G. Masaryk wanted five stars on the flag, is that right?

“Well, it was this way, when the proposed flag went to Parliament, it was first debated by the Constitutional Committee and one member of the committee – Josef Záruba-Pfeffermann -disliked the proposal. He suggested a red or white flag –with a so-called flag of American Slovaks –horizontal stripes in white, blue and red (but no stars) inserted. He sent this proposal to Masaryk, who was a friend of his. And Masaryk said yes, that’s a good solution but I would put five stars on it –representing Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, Slovakia and sub-Carpathian Ukraine. So Masaryk didn’t like the flag with the blue triangle, however he was impartial and didn’t want to influence Parliament.”

How was the flag received by the public?

“It was accepted. This was in March of 1920 and people had other concerns. It was several months before it was hoisted because there were no ceremonies taking place right then. So it was first hoisted in October of 1920 when the country celebrated two years of independence.”

And there was a ban on using the flag during the Nazi occupation wasn’t there?

“When the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was established we first continued to use our flag. However it was the Slovak embassy in Berlin which sent a letter to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asking why we were using the flag of Czechoslovakia when the country no longer existed. Also the ethnic German population wanted to change the flag. But we must be happy that the change was only slight and that the three colours remained – fortunately there was no suggestion to add the swastika for example.”

The next big milestone was in 1993 when Czechoslovakia broke up into two independent states. We kept the flag. Was that perceived as a problem?

Slovak flag,  photo: Pixabay,  Public Domain
“It was a problem, because there was a law on the dissolution of Czechoslovakia stating that neither the Czech Republic nor Slovakia could continue to use the state symbols of Czechoslovakia. It was passed in November of 1992 I believe. However when politicians started working on a law about the symbols of the new state, a group of us acted as advisors within the respective committee. One of us – Jiri Louda, a famous heraldic expert emphasized how important the flag was for us and everyone in our group agreed because we all liked the flag so much. So Parliament approved that we would keep the flag. The majority of MPs were in favour, although a few politicians were against because they did not want to make trouble with Slovakia.”

And so Slovakia had to accept it?

“Yes, the Slovaks had to accept it. Of course there were some problems, maybe you remember that then-prime minister Vladimir Mečiar said the Czechs should pay them a million crowns for using the flag, but none of that came about. It was an emotional time.”

How do Czechs feel about their flag? They don’t hoist it in their yards and gardens the way Americans do…

“Yes, I know that Americans or Danes find it hard to understand that we don’t have this tradition. It is only when we are successful in sports that we are proud to bring out our flag. The same goes for emotion-packed, crisis situations like 1968, when the flag suddenly becomes important. But, not under normal circumstances. Actually it would be nice if we could celebrate Flag Day. There are many countries which have one, when they commemorate the adoption of their flag and hoist their flags everywhere. March 30th when we are due to celebrate the Czech flag’s centenary would be a good occasion to start, but that is unlikely to happen. The situation is such that most people today are not interested in state symbols and their history.”

Sometimes the flag is flown the wrong way round. Does that happen a lot?

Photo: A.day.in.the.life,  Foter.com
“That is a problem with flags that are not of a single colour or symmetrical. If you have a flag with horizontal red- white- red stripes, there will be no risk of flying it upside down. With our flag that danger exists and I have some practical advice – remember that the white strip must be on top – like the foam on a beer. Hanging the flag wrong is a frequent problem, by the way, maybe you know that the Union Jack, the flag of Great Britain, is often flown upside down as well.

And the Czech flag has gone far hasn’t it? It travelled to space ( US astronaut Eugene Cernan took it up in 1972)

“Yes, it did. It was also on Mount Everest. I think our flag has been pretty much everywhere possible.”