All you ever wanted to know about the Swiss flag, and more
by Larry Desmond

While the cross was known in Switzerland from early on in the Christian era, historians say that the Swiss flag, as we know it today, had its beginnings in the 13th century. In 1240, Frederick II granted a charter to Canton Schwyz which released it from the control of the counts of Habsburg, and allowed it to fly an unadorned red flag symbolic of its freedom — the white cross would be added later. After the formation of the League of Confederates in 1291 a consensus was reached that the white cross (in various configurations) could be used by Confederation members on their flags for both peaceful and military operations. Individual canton emblems, some with the white cross, remained in use along side the white cross during war when the cantons combined their forces. The soldiers emblazoned their banners, tunics, shields, and armor with the white cross to help them quickly distinguish between themselves and the enemy during often frenzied hand-to-hand combat. In the 15th century the Confederation flag was triangular with a white cross. Things remained the same, more or less, for a long time.

Swiss Flag, 1422
Then in 1814, 523 years after the formation of the Confederation, the official seal of the Confederation incorporated a white cross on red similar to what we see today on the flag. And in 1815, an arm band of red with a white cross began to be worn by all military forces in the field. In 1817, Swiss General Henri-Guillaume Dufour proposed a flag very similar to the current flag and it was first flown in 1821, then adopted by Canton Aargau in 1833, and by the Confederation Army in 1840. That was the flag flown by Dufour’s federal troops when they suppressed the Sonderbund rebellion of 1847. The flag was accepted by the constitution of 1848, but it is not quite the same flag as is flown today.

Swiss flag, 1848
So, what form is required today of the Swiss flag? Well actually, there are two Swiss flags. During World War II a Swiss Naval Ensign with a red background and white cross was put in use, but the flag is rectangular with proportions of 2:3.

Ensign for Swiss ships
For all other purposes the Swiss flag must be square. The size of the red square relative to the size of the white cross is not defined precisely, but in practice the red flag is usually 66-70% larger than the length of an arm of the cross. The Swiss and Vatican State flags are the only nation flags in the world with a square format.

But what dimensions are required of the white cross on all Swiss flags? In 1848 the cross was composed of five equal squares — one in the center and four as arms — a symmetrically square design. Today the flag may still appear symmetrical to the casual observer, but this is an illusion. In reality, each arm of the cross is 16.7% longer than its width giving it a less rock-solid look. This design was accepted in 1889 after considerable discussion among the cantons and remains in use today.

Current Swiss Flag, adopted in 1889
Note: Marilyn Hasler of the PSC suggested the subject of this report. If you have ideas for a Newsletter article please let us know.