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.






The Story Behind the Polish Eagle

It appears on everything associated with Poland—from T-shirts, hoodies and caps, to posters, flags and shot glasses. As Poland’s official symbol, it’s among the first things that come to mind when someone thinks about that country. I am, of course, talking about the famous white eagle of Poland, or Orzeł Biały.

lech, orzeł biały
Poland’s mythical founder, Lech, discovers the nest of the white eagle.

Legend has it that centuries upon centuries ago, Poland’s mythical founder, Lech,  was journeying across the region that is today known as Greater Poland. One evening, as he traversed that primordial landscape, he stumbled upon a large nest containing a majestic white eagle with two eaglets. As Lech approached, the great bird expanded its massive wings across the red light of the setting sun. Inspired by this sight, Lech established the first Polish city of Gniezno, meaning nest, and assumed the white eagle over the red background as his symbol.

In another version of the story, Lech desires to steal one of the eaglets and raise it for himself. The mother eagle defends her nest valiantly, however, and begins to bleed during the fight. As Lech observes the blood begin to stain the eagle’s white feathers, he is moved by its courage and dedication to its young. He immediately stops the attack and makes the white eagle his symbol, although this time the red represents blood and sacrifice.

Like with most legends, it’s impossible to say how much of this actually happened, although typically mythology is rooted in some sort of fact. For example, the famous legend of Krakow’s Wawel dragon probably resulted from the ancient Poles discovering dinosaur or mammoth bones and misidentifying them.

polish eagle coins
Tracings of 10th century Polish coins that contain the symbol of the white eagle.

Known for sure is that the eagle, as a symbol, goes back millennia before the dawn of Poland in the 8th and 9th centuries. Cultures around the world have respected birds of prey for their bravery, dignity and magnificence. For the ancient Egyptians, a falcon symbolized the god Horus, while the Romans used the eagle on their battle standards during war. The eagle symbol was later adopted by the Byzantine, Russian and Prussian Empires and, of course, by the United States.

Poland’s white eagle is fairly unique, although the Poles likely chose it for similar reasons—its courage and nobility. They would have become aware of the eagle’s cultural heritage from foreign coins that made their way up to Poland from the Roman world during trade.

The Polish eagle made its historical debut on Polish coins during the reign of King Bolesław I (992-1025). Its use expanded in the 12th and 13th centuries, appearing on emblems, shields and flags. It would have represented the Poles charging into battle at Grunwald against the German Teutonic Knights in 1410 and at Vienna against the Turks in 1683.

orzeł biały bez korony
During the communist era, the Polish eagle lost its crown, symbolizing Poland’s subservience to the Soviet regime.

When Poland was partitioned, or torn apart, in the 18th century, the eagle became a symbol to motivate Poles to fight and make sacrifices to regain independence. Ironically, the empires that conquered Poland—Russia, Prussia and Austria—all had black eagles as their symbols. The Polish white eagle stood in sharp contrast to this and, to many Poles, represented hope that their nation’s light would not be extinguished by the darkness of the invaders.

Regaining independence in 1918, Poland again adopted the white eagle as its official coat-of-arms. Unfortunately, the German invasion and World War II came not long after, and the eagle once more came to represent courage and sacrifice both to the Polish resistance and the government-in-exile.

When the communists took over under Soviet influence after World War II, the white eagle suffered one of its worst humiliations—it lost the golden crown that it had worn for centuries. The bare-headed white eagle represented a Poland subservient to the ruling Soviet regime.

After communism fell, the Polish eagle regained its crown in 1990 and was adopted as Poland’s official symbol, remaining so to this day. The bird appears on a red background that represents both the blood spilled to safeguard the Polish nation and the sunlit plains of the fatherland.  Its head faces right, as if gazing in the direction of truth, while its wings are fully spread out to protect all Poles and people of Polish descent, wherever they may live.

Dzien Niepodległości
The Polish white eagle in all its glory.