How the Polish Flag Got Its Colors

polish story

Biało Czerwoni, Napewno Oni!

That’s a famous chant that Poles use to cheer on their national teams, and it roughly translates to: The White and Red: It Will be Them!  White and red naturally correspond to the players’ uniforms , which are colored after the Polish flag.

Poland’s national flag consists of two, equally-sized rectangular strips, the upper one being white and the lower one being red. In another article, I discuss the origins of Poland’s official symbol, the famous white eagle.  Delving into the origins of Poland’s national flag and official colors is a natural follow-up.

In the United States, the symbol of the bald eagle and the red, white and blue flag are separate and don’t necessarily go together. Similarly, the Royal coat of arms in the UK and the Union Jack Flag, though both representing the union of Scotland, England and Wales, are quite distinct.

Poland, on the other hand, closely intertwines its national symbol of the eagle with the national flag. In fact, you cannot truly understand the flag without understanding the story behind the eagle, which you can find by clicking here.

Poland’s flag didn’t always exist as it does today. National flags, in general, are a result of nationalism, which only began to develop 200 years ago when people began to think of themselves as belonging to one nation or another. The colors red and white, however, go back much further in Polish history.

The Royal banner of Poland being carried into battle in 1605.

The color white is intricately tied to the white eagle which Poland’s legendary founder, Lech, supposedly  discovered in modern-day Gniezno. It represents purity and innocence. The color red has various different connotations for Poland. In one tale, Lech observed the white eagle spread its wings across the red sunset and was enthralled by the sight. In another tale, the red represents the white eagle’s blood that was spilled when the bird defended its nest against Lech. The red came to symbolize blood and sacrifice, a symbol reinforced during Poland’s many struggles for freedom over the centuries. No matter what its origin, for the earliest Polish nobility, red represented prosperity and valor, and they often honored that color above all others.

As a result, by the 14th century, Polish royalty and nobility were carrying red banners with a white eagle into battle. These early “flags” had the practical purpose of distinguishing combatants on the battlefield. The practice continued for several hundred years, but it’s important to understand that this wasn’t yet a national flag. It was a banner for military and nobility. You wouldn’t have found ordinary people waving it.

That began to change only in the 18th and 19th centuries as nationalism spread across Europe, and Poland began fighting for freedom from the three empires that had partitioned it—Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Already on May 3rd, 1791, Polish civilians were wearing white and red to celebrate the adoption of the Polish Constitution. There was an effort at this time to make red and white the official colors, but it was inconsistent. Some Poles preferred red, white and blue—the colors of the French Revolution. Others preferred only white.

A woman fastens a white and red cockade to a soldier’s hat during a Polish uprising in 1863.

It was during the November Uprising of 1831 that the Poles officially adopted white and red as Poland’s national colors. The Sejm of the puppet-state Kingdom of Poland decreed:

Kokardę narodową stanowić będą kolory herbu Królestwa Polskiego i Wielkiego Księstwa Litewskiego, to jest kolor biały z czerwonym” (The national cockade will be denoted by the colors of the crests of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, white and red.)[i]

Soldiers began wearing a white and red cockade, which was a knotted ribbon pinned to their hats. Civilians, too, began to wear the colors to support the captive Polish nation. Wearing them united Poles with their past and gave them a greater sense of identity and distinction.

When Poland gained independence after World War I, it was finally able to make the red and white flag fully legal. The particular shade of red was presidentially decreed to be vermilion in 1927, although, in the 1980s, the shade changed to crimson.

Today, you can see the Polish flag anywhere there are Poles. It’s on rear-view mirrors, front lawns, painted on peoples’ faces during sporting events and tattooed on people’s arms. For those Poles living abroad or of Polish descent, the red and white flag symbolizes a unique identity that we proudly wear to distinguish ourselves from others and to promote our beautiful heritage.