World flags have an incredible amount of importance and symbolism to people all over the globe. They can be flown as a sign of peace and war, or hung as a sign of ceremonial importance, or defaced as a sign of hatred and violence; people have rallied behind flags as a symbol of unity or dissidence alike. Flags have the ability to stir great emotions in all kinds of people, and on a local scale they can represent different groups or organizations. Flags demonstrate ideology and history, and their creation tells about a country or organization’s background and beliefs.
Historically, flags were first flown in battle to let troops know specific information while they were on the field. They were often used to show troop location or organization, and many times they displayed a family coat of arms or house symbol. Countries soon began to adopt flags as well, essentially derived from coat of arms or other religious symbols, but they were usually only used during war. By the beginning of the 17th century ships began to fly their country’s flag peacefully to help identify the vessel, but it was not for several hundred years that flags became to be used casually during times of peace. Many European flags were derived from medieval wartime symbols.
Many countries specifically detail their flag in their constitution or at some point in a piece of legislation, and often times changing the flag requires an act of congress if the country is democratic. Drastic changes often reflect a regime change or shift in national perspective, such as when Serbia decided to omit a star found on the Yugoslavian flag representing communism or when Germany changed their flag after the end of World War II.
One popular flag that is rich with history and symbolism is the Union Jack, the flag of Great Britain. This flag was adopted at the beginning of the 17th century to symbolize the union of Scotland, Ireland, and Britain. Indeed, the flags of all three countries lie within the Union Jack itself, which combines the cross and the saltire as well as their individual colors to form its unique appearance.
The American flag, also one of the most recognizable flags in the world, was officially adopted in 1777. After the American Revolutionary War citizens began to fly the flag casually during times of peace, which not only increased its demand but also led to its adoption as a general representation of America. After, other countries soon adopted this relaxed stance of displaying their flags too, although this would eventually be used as a propaganda tool for countries trying to nationalize their entire population under a similar goal. From a vexillological standpoint, the American flag is also laden with symbolism. The stripes represent the original colonies while the stars represent the current states, and the colors were carefully chosen to indicate freedom, liberty, and the cost of these ideals.
Many world flags share unique characteristics, specifically with regard to shape and color. With the exception of Nepal, all flags are rectangular, although the exact sizes may differ. Many flags also share colors, with red being the most popular, followed by white, green, blue, and yellow, respectively. The flags of Chad and Romania, for example, are both blue, yellow, and red, but the tint of the blue is slightly different. Indonesia and Monaco share flag colors of red and white and have a similar design, but the flag dimensions are not identical. The flags of the Netherlands and Luxembourg are also virtually identical. Some flags are mirror images of each other, such as with Italy and Hungary. Although many flags share similar designs and colors, they are usually adopted under unique circumstances and their colors and shape may have specific meaning to that individual country.
These similarities in flags are often indicative of a shared history or heritage as well. For example, Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela all share a flag derived from the Gran Colombian flag, which was adopted after they gained their independence from Spain. Flags adopted by countries that gained their independence from Great Britain often share similarities as well, such as New Zealand and Australia. Nordic countries like Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland all share the Nordic cross on their flags. Middle Eastern countries like Jordan, Palestine, and Kuwait share the flag of the Arabic Revolt.
The symbolism behind each unique flag varies, even in flags with similar layouts. Many have religious connotations, such as the cross for Christians, the crescent for Islamic states, or the Star of David for the Jewish state of Israel. The colors are often linked to their heritage; red often means blood was shed for freedom and liberty, while white usually means purity and peace. The green-yellow-red combinations in African nations symbolize their own personal unity, while this might have different meanings for other flags in other countries. Other erroneous symbols are also important to that country, such as the maple leaf on the Canadian flag or the eagle clutching the snake on the Mexican flag.
Oftentimes major events shape the image of national flags. Germany adopted their flag after WWII to contrast starkly with the Nazi flag; after the Revolutionary War, the US adopted a flag that represented the original thirteen colonies; the Brazilian flag symbolizes what the stars looked like the exact moment the Brazilian monarchy was dethroned. For other countries the flag represents the tenants their country holds most dearly, such as the yin-yang and purity, hope, and peace on the South Korean flag, which contrasts with their northern neighbor’s flag.
World flags have incredible importance to countries and to the people that inhabit them. They are a way to unify people under a common symbol, although sometimes this effect has been abused. Nevertheless, flags are extremely important, not just for countries, because they are a way to represent a group of people under a common theme, ideology, or belief system.