The centenary of the end of the First World War was celebrated in countries all over the world in 2018, and this year also marked the 100th anniversary of several national flags. A number of nations gained their independence following the fall of four empires in the Great War of 1914-1918: the Russian, the Ottoman, the German and the Austro-Hungarian. Here are five of them, all of which officially adopted national flags in 1918.
The Finnish flag belongs to the “family” of Nordic Cross flags. Finland was part of Sweden until 1809 when it became a Grand Duchy with the Russian Emperor as Grand Duke. After the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the fall of Nicholas II, “the last tsar”, Finland declared its independence on 6 December 1917.
However, during the first months of independence Finland’s temporary national flag was a banner of the Finnish coat of arms: red, with a golden lion and silver roses. It was on 29 May 1918 that the white flag with a blue cross was officially adopted. Back then, the blue of the flag was slightly lighter than it is today. White and blue have been considered national colours in Finland since the 19th Century.
The Belarusian People’s Republic was a short-lived state. The fall of the Russian Empire and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk between Germany and the Russian Bolsheviks made it possible for Belarusians to declare independence on 9 March 1918. In December, the government of Belarus was forced out of the capital city Minsk by the Bolshevik Red Army and went into exile.
In 1918, the flag of Belarus was a white-red-white “tricolour”. Since then, it has been used by the still existing Belarusian government in exile. When the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, it became the official national flag of Belarus. Four years later, however, the country’s flag was changed again. Today, the white-red-white flag is mostly used by Belarusians to protest the government of Alexander Lukashenko, the first and only President of Belarus since its independence.
The Lithuanian flag is a tricolour of yellow, green and red. The national colours stem from the 19th Century. The country’s first declaration of independence was on 16 February 1918, its second was on 11 March 1990 at the end of the Cold War.
Lithuania had been incorporated into the Russian Empire in the 18th Century. The retreat of Russian forces from Lithuania in 1917 and, a year later, the German defeat in the First World War made it possible for Lithuanians to restore sovereignty. Wars with the Soviet Union and Poland ensued. In the Second World War Lithuania was conquered by Germany once and by the Soviet Union twice.
Under Nazi and Communist occupation, it was illegal to use the yellow-green-red flag. In 1988, a couple of years before the fall of the Soviet Union, the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet decided to restore the old national flag.
The Latvian flag is carmine red with a white horizontal stripe. Red-white-red have been known as the colours of the Latvians since the Middle Ages. The flag was adopted on 18 November 1918 when the country declared its independence.
Latvia was part of the Russian Empire from the 18th Century. As in Lithuania, the Russian defeat in the First World War made it possible for Latvians to gain independence. But civil war, with German and Soviet involvement, marred the following years. 1940-1944 Latvia was run over by the Soviet Red Army and the German Wehrmacht. The country only regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The Latvian national flag was restored a year earlier, on 27 February 1990.
The third of the three Baltic countries, Estonia, declared its independence on 24 Februar 1918. The national flag of Estonia, the blue-black-white tricolour, was adopted on 21 November 1918. Near the end of Soviet occupation, the flag was restored as the national flag of Estonia on 7 August 1990.
Estonia’s history is similar to that of Latvia and Lithuania: When Russian and German forces left the Baltic countries in 1917-1918, independence was possible. In the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, signed on 23 August 1939, Hitler and Stalin devided the Baltic countries and Eastern Europe between them. Estonia suffered under occupation and totalitarianism from 1940 until independence was formally restored in 1991.