President Dalia Grybauskaitė

The Lithuanian State (National) Flag

The State flag of the Republic of Lithuania is the national flag, made up of a cloth comprised of three equal horizontal bands: yellow on top, green in the middle, red on the bottom. Ratio - 3:5.

National flags comprised of bands appeared quite late. The French revolution of 1789, which replaced the royal white flag with the tricolour red-white-blue (the edge colours were later exchanged), provided the greatest impetus for their transformation. Three equal bands meant equality for all before the law, as did the new slogan, Freedom-Equality-Fraternity, used to this day on the emblem of the French Republic. By the 19th c. most European states had national tricolour flags, usually composed of the colours of the state coat of arms. Thus the German flag bears the colours of the black eagle with red talons and beak, on a golden field: black-red-gold; the Belgian flag is comprised of the colours of the golden lion with red claws, on a field of black: black-yellow-red. Denmark and the Scandinavian countries assigned the status of national flag to their old existing flags, with the crosses depicted therein symbolizing their patron saints.

The history of the emergence of Lithuania's national colours is a long and complex one which can be divided into two stages represented by people of different social levels and convictions. The first stage involved a democratically inclined nobility, who envisioned a union of Lithuania and Poland; the second included the Lithuanian intellectuals, which worked to revive a national consciousness and who later created an independent Lithuanian state.

Our first source of information on Lithuania's national colours comes from the time of the Thaddeus Kosciuszko insurrection. On May 18, 1794 the Supreme Council of the Insurrection in Lithuania decided to introduce a blue-green national cockade; in solidarity, the city of Vilnius decorated its circa 3,000 strong uniformed Guards with these cockades. As an attachment on uniform caps or other headgear, they represented a sense of national unity until the time of the uprising in 1863, with blue symbolizing constancy, and green - hope. The insurrection, however, was soon suppressed, and Lithuania ended up as part of the Russian Empire. A new discussion on the national colours of Lithuania and Poland arose during the 1830-1831 uprising. Some suggested blue, white and crimson, with the idea that white and crimson represented Poland, and blue - Lithuania; it is likely that the inspiration came from the colours of the knight's shield and from the patron saint of Lithuania, the Blessed Virgin Mary. Others wanted just white, and yet another group - white and crimson. In the end, on February 7, 1831 Parliament declared that the national cockade was to be white and crimson, as per the armorial colours of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. But discussion on this topic did not abate even after the decision by Parliament, including from the historian Joachim Lelewel, who referred to the white and crimson as the colours of Parliament and characteristic of the aristocracy and monarchy. In the end some of the rebels used white and crimson, and others supplemented these colours with the Lithuanian blue. The question of national colours arose yet again during the uprising of 1863. The emblem of the rebels included the Polish eagle on a red background, the Lithuanian knight erroneously on blue, and the Russian Archangel Michael on white; these colours were subsequently used for the cockade and flags, and were referred to as the national colours. After this uprising was also suppressed, the new Lithuanian intelligentsia began to rise to the arena.

The Lithuanian national movement in Russian-occupied Lithuania existed under extremely difficult conditions, including because of the prohibition of a Lithuanian press. Flags which aspired to the status of a national flag thus first appeared abroad. Perhaps the oldest and most constant was the green-white-red flag of Lithuania Minor, known from the 17th c. It was adopted by the student Lituania corps in Königsberg in 1829, and by the Birutė society in Tilsit in 1885. American Lithuanian associations began to use two-colour and tricolour flags in the latter half of the 19th c. Known colour combinations include white-blue (accepted as the national colours in 1900), white-red-blue, red-yellow-blue, red-green-yellow in 1912, yellow-green-red in 1914, among others. The diversity of flags can be explained by the fact that Lithuanians were divided and scattered in small groups, with no unifying centre to consolidate any one version, and thus had only the idea of a national flag.

Discussions in Lithuania regarding a national flag began at the 1905 Lithuanian Congress in Vilnius. Jonas Basanavičius suggested that the flag of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania - the white knight on red - was the most fitting, but the majority of Congress participants felt that the colour red evoked unwelcome associations of revolution. Discussion on the national flag was renewed in 1917, with the emergence of prospects for the restoration of sovereignty. Lithuanian public figures met with Basanavičius and decided that ethnic weavings might disclose the appropriate flag colours. Antanas Žmuidzinavičius took up the search, and subsequently decorated the hall of the Vilnius city theatre with small green-red flags for a Lithuanian Conference held there in September 1917. The conference delegates found the two-colour flag far too gloomy, and a special commission made up of Basanavičius, Žmuidzinavičius and Tadas Daugirdas was then formed to create a new flag. They decided to add yellow, with Daugirdas initially suggesting to insert a narrow yellow band between the red and the green, to symbolize the dawn.

After lengthy arguments, the commission finally decided on April 19, 1918 that the Lithuanian national flag must have three horizontal bands of equal width, coloured yellow-green-red; it was also suggested that a knight be included either in the centre or canton of the flag. Upon receiving this resolution, on April 25 the Council of Lithuania harmoniously confirmed the tricolour as the national flag. Basanavičius noted that the commission had not yet approved the standard of the State flag (the knight on a field of red), but this important reminder went unheeded, and in 1922 the Lithuanian Constitution went so far as to ratify only the tricolour (without the knight) as the State flag; the red flag with the knight which had been used as the state flag for several centuries remained outside the statutes of the law. It must be said that prior to World War II there was a great deal of discussion regarding the colours of the national flag. On May 8, 1940 the State Heraldry Commission had even decided to submit a new design for the flag to the President, replacing yellow-green-red with yellow-red-white (colours taken from the coat of arms created in 1934). It also suggested charging one side of the flag with an image of the mounted knight, and the other with the Columns of the Family Gediminas. Further decisions were suspended by the ensuing political changes.

The Soviet occupation of Lithuania was accompanied by orders on July 30, 1940 to replace the tricolour with a red flag. The latter was replaced on July 15, 1953 by a red-white-green flag; its upper red band took up two-thirds (eight-twelfths) of the cloth, the middle white band one-twelfth, and the bottom green band three-twelfths (one-quarter). By the summer of 1988 the old tricolour was once again surfacing at events organized by the Lithuanian Sąjūdis movement and other public organizations. It was officially hoisted on the Gediminas Castle tower in Vilnius for the first time at 10 a.m. on October 7, 1988. Soon after, at the tenth session of its eleventh convention on November 18, the Supreme Council of the Lithuanian SSR was forced to change a chapter of the Constitution, and to grant the yellow-red-green flag the status of state flag. Its yellow colour represents the sun, light and goodness; green symbolizes the beauty of nature, freedom and hope; red stands for the land, courage, and the blood which has been shed for the Homeland. The colours (yellow approximating orange, a deep green, and red approximating purple) were recreated along the lines of the flags of the independent Republic of Lithuania which had been safeguarded by museums and private individuals. They were confirmed by the Presidium of the Supreme Council on January 25, 1989.

From: Edmundas Rimša, The Heraldry of Lithuania, Baltos lankos publishers, 2008.

Last updated 2015.01.05 12:28