The flag of Switzerland, with its unusual square shape and bold red and white cross is recognised across the world for its iconic design.
History of the Swiss flag
Though the Swiss are known internationally for their neutrality, the country’s national flag was first seen in battle. Since then, the flag has remained one of the only square national flags in the world, making it instantly recognisable as the flag of Switzerland.
The design of the Swiss flag
The bold red background of the Swiss national flag corresponds to Pantone 485 C which is a mixture of magenta and yellow. The white cross of Switzerland and the red background on the flag have their origin in the late middle ages.
The meaning of the Swiss cross
Soldiers fighting in the Battle of Laupen on June 21, 1339, attached a white cross to their armour to distinguish themselves from their enemies. The old Swiss confederation incorporated a similar flag as their uniting standard, with a thinner white cross on a red background. The official flag of the Swiss confederation held on to the white cross emblem, eventually incorporating a thicker version of it into the flag seen today, in the year of 1848.
Why is the Swiss flag square?
After the Battle of Laupen, the Swiss cross became the centre point of the country’s national flag, the square nature of the flag comes from the standard first being hung off a halberd pole, the favoured weapon of Swiss soldiers at the time. Its unusual shape has, however, caused several problems over the years, namely during international events such as sporting competitions.
In 2004, the International Olympic Committee ruled that each country competing in the Olympics must use the same rectangular format so that no one flag stands out - meaning for many international sporting events, the country now uses a rectangular version of its national flag. The Swiss civil ensign (maritime flag) is also rectangular.
Interesting facts about the flag of Switzerland
Like much of Switzerland’s history, the national flag has many untold secrets and interesting stories surrounding it. Here are some of the most interesting facts about Switzerland’s national flag:
The Swiss flag is very often confused with the Red Cross
The humanitarian International Committee of the Red Cross organisation was created by Henri Dunant (a merchant and author from Geneva, Switzerland) and Swiss general Henri Dufour in 1864. Dufour proposed the organisation’s flag should be the Swiss flag, simply inverted - causing confusion still to this day.
The only other country with a square national flag is Vatican City
Switzerland is not alone in having to ditch its square flag in favour of a rectangular one for the Olympics - Vatican City has a square flag too. Both countries are outliers in international events thanks to their unusual flag shape.
The first Swiss national flag was the same as modern-day Lithuania
The first version of an official national flag was actually green, red and yellow, used by the Helvetic Republic - the puppet state established by Napoleon in 1798. It resembles the inverted flag of today’s national flag of Lithuania and was designed as a tri-colour similar to the new French flag. The flag was only used for five years before being replaced with the old symbol.
Nobody can quite figure out why Switzerland’s flag is red
Theories range from the colour's representation of the blood of Christ to the cantonal emblem of the de-facto Swiss capital, Bern. Either way, the Swiss have long used the colour red as a sort of national theme.
The flag’s shade of red is popular with others, too
“Switzerland red”, which is Pantone 485 C, is also the same shade of red used by McDonald’s and Lego for their logos.
Swiss cantonal flags
The Swiss national flag is not the country’s only square flag, in fact, quite the opposite is true. All 26 of the country’s cantonal flags are square, and each has its own beautiful design.
The cantonal flag of Zurich, though simple, is elegant. Its blue and white design, dating back to the 1220s, is thought to be symbolic of the white mountains and blue lakes in the region.
Bern’s cantonal flag shows a black bear with a red and yellow diagonal background. Initially, the flag used the same bear emblem, on a plain white background, but changed to the design seen today in the 13th century.
The design of the Vaud cantonal flag is relatively modern in comparison with many of the country’s other regional flags. Dating back to 1803, the flag’s bold green and white design bears the motto "Liberté et patrie" - Liberty and Homeland.
Geneva’s flag is possibly one of the most extravagant cantonal flags in the country. Unlike its minimalistic counterparts Vaud and Zurich, Geneva’s cantonal flag is emblazoned with a bold Imperial Eagle emblem and the Key of St. Peter.
The Basel Stadt flag is best recognised by its distinctive and unusual badge - the Basel staff, traditionally used in the seals of the Bishops of Basel. The staff depicted on the flag is a representation of an actual staff that existed centuries ago, assumed to be a relic.
Lucerne’s flag is very similar to that of Zurich, with a simplistic blue and white design, though is divided horizontally, rather than diagonally. Again, the symbolism behind the blue and white of the flag is thought to represent the colours of the surrounding areas in Lucerne.