More Countries (and Places) That Changed Their Flags and Why

New Zealand flag

This flag’s days might be numbered, if New Zealand Prime Minister John Key has his way.

New Zealand is currently preparing to hold a referendum on changing their national flag. A bill passed by the country’s Parliament calls for citizens to submit ideas for a new flag by July 16, with a panel selecting four finalists. Then, voters will pick a flag from among those four as the “preferred alternative” to the current one in November or December, and then a final vote will be held in March of next year where voters will decide between keeping their current flag and adopting the “preferred alternative”.

This plan is the brainchild of New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, who is outspoken in his desire to change the national flag. Like many flag-change advocates in New Zealand, he believes that having the British Union Jack on New Zealand’s flag makes the country look more like a colony than a sovereign nation, and that the current flag is too similar to the Australian flag:

I can see where the two might be confused.

I can see where the two flags might be confused.

However, Key is finding that convincing his people to change their national flag will be a tough sell. The first public town hall meeting to discuss the issue had low attendance, many of the public submissions are intentional jokes, and polls indicate that most people in New Zealand are opposed to a flag change.

Of course, as we’ve already seen here on Cat Flag, many countries have changed their flags over the years for a variety of reasons. Since that seems to be one of my most popular posts, and since flag changes are in the news, I figured it might be time to look at some more countries that changed their flags and the stories behind why they did so.


Flag of Germany from Wikipedia

The current national flag of Germany has its origins in the Revolutions of 1848, a period of political upheaval across Europe as liberal forces inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution rose up against the feudal, conservative social order imposed upon Europe after the defeat of Napoleon 33 years prior. In Germany, the revolutionaries were not merely trying to overthrow their feudal lords, but also create a unified, democratic German nation out of the divided patchwork of German kingdoms. Revolutionary leaders declared their symbol to be a flag of “black-red-gold”, though historians are not sure what the reasoning behind the color choice was. In any case, after conservative forces crushed the 1848 revolutionaries, the flag was banned.

Then, in the 1860s, Prussia united Germany through military expansion under the leadership of Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck. Unlike the bottom-up, liberal, revolutionary unification movement of 1848, Bismarck’s unification project was a top-down, conservative, nationalist movement. Thus, when the time came to select a national flag for Bismarck’s new Germany, the “black-red-gold” banner simply would not do. No, Bismarck chose a new flag, one that combined the black-and-white banner of his native Prussia with the red-and-white banner of the Hanseatic League that had dominated German trade since the Middle Ages.

Flag of the German Empire from Wikipedia

This new national flag was used until the German defeat in World War I. This defeat coincided with (and was partially the result of) a left-wing revolution that I’ve previously covered. The government that took over after the revolution, known as the Weimar Republic, decided to honor its liberal heritage by switching back to the black-red-gold flag.

This decision to switch flags was an incredibly controversial decision, and one that changed the way Germans saw their national flags. Conservatives in Germany refused to use the black-red-gold flag and continued to use the black-white-red flag. The so-called “old flag” (which was actually the younger of the two, but oh, well) became a rallying symbol of German conservatism. Meanwhile, the liberal political parties started an organization to protect Germany’s young and fragile democracy that literally named itself “Reich’s Banner Black-Red-Gold”. During the Weimar years, one could tell what a German’s political persuasion was by the flag he or she used.

Then, as you already know, the Nazis happened.

After all of that was over, Germany wound up being divided into democratic West Germany and Communist East Germany. Interestingly, both Germanies decided to adopt the liberal black-red-gold banner as their national flag, and it remained the national flag after the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification of Germany. Almost nobody wanted the conservative black-white-red flag to come back. The banner had simply been too tainted, both by the fact that conservatives were blamed for “letting” the Nazis take power, and by the fact that it is now mainly used by neo-Nazi groups to get around the German national ban on swastikas.



Major political changes and upheavals are one of the most common reasons for countries to change their flags. Just look at the example of China, a country that once went through six national flags in 60 years!

China didn’t really have the concept of a “national flag” until it was forced to adopt one in its diplomatic dealings with Western powers in the 19th century.

First flag of China from Wikipedia

In 1890, China decided to formally adopt a proper national flag, based on the Emperor’s banner but consistent with Western standards of what a flag’s shape and dimensions should be.

Flag of the Wuchang Uprising image from Wikipedia

Then, in 1911, revolutionaries rose up against the Emperor in southern China, using a banner that they called the “Iron Blood” flag as the symbol of their resistance.

First flag of the ROC image from Wikipedia

It wasn’t long, though, before the new “Republic of China” that the revolutionaries set up wanted a more inclusive, less violent flag for public relations reasons. Within a matter of months, they adopted the “Five Races Under One Union” flag that symbolized multiculturalism. The red stripe represented the Han ethnic group, the yellow represented the Manchus, the blue represented Mongols, the white represented Chinese Muslims, and the black represented Tibetans.

Flag of the 1916 Empire of China from Wikipedia

By 1916, the president of the Republic of China, Yuan Shikai, had become a dictator and tried to have himself declared Emperor. He symbolized his new imperial regime by changing the flag while keeping the same colors. His imperial ambitions didn’t last long, though; when Yuan’s own generals refused to support him, he had to cancel his coronation.

Flag of the ROC from Wikipedia

After Yuan’s death, China fell into a period of chaos as rival generals carved China up between themselves and fought for power. Eventually, China was partially reunited by Chiang Kai-Shek, leader of the Kuomintang political party. Under his rule, the flag of his party pulled double-duty as the flag of China, with the party’s symbol, a white sun on a blue field, doubling as the Chinese national symbol. Of course, Chiang wasn’t able to defeat all of his enemies, as Communists led by Mao Zedong continued to lead a campaign of resistance that eventually succeeded in taking over mainland China.

In 1949, Chiang’s regime was forced to flee to Taiwan. To this day, Taiwan’s government calls itself “The Republic of China” and uses the same Kuomintang banner, even though it is now a thriving democracy.

Flag of China from Wikipedia

Meanwhile, Mao’s Communist regime needed a flag of its own, and this was the design they settled on. The red color is the symbol of Communism. The giant yellow star represents the leadership of the Communist party, while the smaller stars symbolize the four social classes in 1940’s China: the peasants, workers, “petite bourgeoisie” (small business owners), and “national bourgeoisie” (big business owners).


Flag of Ireland image from Wikipedia

Irish history from the Middle Ages onward is a history of English domination and rule and local Irish resistance to that domination and rule. Thus, it is appropriate that the first “national flag” of Ireland was the flag of a rebellion against the English in the 17th century:

Green Harp Flag from Wikipedia

Naturally, the rebellion was defeated, but the flag continued to be used for centuries as a symbol of Irish nationalism.

St Patrick's Saltire image from Wikipedia

Then, in the 1780s, the British Order of St. Patrick was formed so the British monarchy could honor prominent Irish figures. The order used a red diagonal cross (known as a “saltire”) on a white banner to represent St. Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint. When Ireland was joined to the United Kingdom in 1801, the red saltire was added to the Union Jack, creating the British flag we know today.

Of course, Ireland did eventually win its independence after a prolonged struggle. The green-white-orange flag often called the “Irish tricolor” was adopted by the rebels of the Easter Rising in 1916, and has been the symbol of independent Ireland ever since. The flag was inspired by the French tricolor, in honor of France’s frequent support of Irish independence throughout Ireland’s history.

The flag’s symbolism is an idealistic vision of the country. The green stripe, of course, symbolizes Irish independence. The orange stripe represents Irish Protestants, who have a long history of supporting British rule and opposing Irish independence. The white stripe represents peace between these two groups.

Obviously, that’s not what happened. What happened instead was predominantly-Protestant Northern Ireland was retained by the British while the rest of the Island gained its independence, a sore spot between the two countries (and between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland) to this day. For decades, Northern Ireland used the “Ulster Banner” as its flag:

Ulster Banner image from Wikipedia

The Ulster Banner takes the English flag, adds the “red hand” that has long symbolized Ulster (the Irish province from which Northern Ireland was formed), and a crown representing loyalty to the British monarchy.

While the Ulster Banner is still used by private groups to represent Northern Ireland, it has not had any official status since 1972, when the British imposed emergency rule in Northern Ireland after a terrorist campaign and civil unrest. To this day, Northern Ireland has no official flag.

Georgia (The U.S. State)

Last time, we talked about Georgia, the country between Russia and Turkey that was once part of the Soviet Union. This time, let’s talk about the Georgia we Americans are more familiar with. No, it’s not a country, but boy, has it had quite a few flags in its day.

Flag of Georgia 1879 from Wikipedia

Georgia’s first state flag was adopted in 1879. It was proposed by Herman H. Perry, a member of the state legislature who had fought in the Civil War for the Confederacy. It’s probably no surprise, then that the state flag looked a little bit like the Confederate national flag:

Flag of the CSA image from Wikipedia

Perry’s flag served the state of Georgia, with some variations, until 1956. That year, Georgia’s lawmakers decided it was time to adopt a new flag:

Flag of Georgia 1956 image from Wikipedia

This flag was proposed by John Sammons Bell, who was an outspoken opponent of the civil rights movement. Indeed, many people saw the new state flag as making a statement that Georgia would fight to maintain racial segregation. By incorporating the Confederate Battle Flag, a more well-known symbol of the Confederacy, Georgia’s new flag was a target for controversy. Some Georgians refused to fly it, instead flying the 1879 flag. Nevertheless, it remained in use until 2001, when Georgia Governor Roy Barnes decided it was finally time to replace it. Unfortunately, he replaced it with this:

Flag of Georgia 2001 image from Wikipedia

To give you an idea of what people thought of that flag, a 2001 survey by a national club of flag enthusiasts ranked it worst of all the fifty state flags. One respondent said the Georgia flag was “a shame to any flag designer. What a mess!” Other respondents said the flag was “desolating”, “simply awful”, “hideous”, and even “a scalawag”. The newsletter announcing the survey results even quipped, “Its complex design violates all the principles of good flag design, incorporating a seal, lettering, and a series of miniature historic flags (in incorrect order).”

Merely one year after the new flag was adopted, Georgians elected a new governor who promised to let the people vote on a new flag. At last, in 2003, with 73.1% of the voters’ approval, Georgia finally got its current flag:

Flag of Georgia 2003 image from Wikipedia

I guess the moral of this story is that flags are, at the end of the day, symbols, and what they represent has an impact on whether people want to keep it or not. That fact is something that should be on the minds of both sides in the New Zealand flag debate.

Why do we celebrate Cinco de Mayo?

Mexican flag image from International Service Learning

Pull out your sombreros, put on some mariachi music, and cook up some enchiladas, it’s Cinco de Mayo, America’s favorite day to celebrate Mexican-American heritage! What better day to break out your favorite Mexican beer than Mexico’s equivalent of the Fourth of July?

Except Cinco de Mayo is NOT Mexico’s Independence Day. No, Mexico celebrates its independence on September 16th. Not only that, but it turns out Cinco de Mayo is not even all that widely celebrated in Mexico; it’s a much bigger holiday in the United States.

Just what the heck is going on here? How did that happen? Why do we celebrate Cinco de Mayo?

The Monroe Doctrine, Mexico’s debt, and an Ambitious Emperor

Benito Juarez image from Wikipedia

First, we need a little background. In the early 19th century, Latin American countries were winning their independence left and right as the Spanish colonial empire was collapsing. Many European powers saw this as an opportunity to build their own empires in the New World, by conquering some of these newly-independent and still quite weak countries. In 1823, U.S. President James Monroe announced that the United States would not tolerate any European power even thinking about attempting such a scheme. After all, the United States was a very young nation at the time, too, and so an attack on any newly-independent country in the Americas could be threatening to each and every one of them. The so-called Monroe Doctrine became a key cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, and for years, it successfully warned away any European powers from trying anything funny.

However, in 1861, the United States found itself a bit distracted by the Civil War, providing an opening for any ambitious European ruler. French Emperor Napoleon III was just such a ruler. He seized power in 1848, and had some big shoes to fill; his uncle, the more famous Napoleon I, had conquered or dominated most of Europe at the peak of his power. The younger Napoleon hoped to have some imperial military conquests to his name as well, getting involved in the Crimean War and waging a campaign in Italy. Still not satisfied, he set his sights on the Americas, and specifically had plans in store for Mexico.

Mexico’s first half-century of independence was quite difficult and chaotic, with frequent military coups and civil wars. In 1861, Benito Juárez, Mexico’s first Native American president, was elected after leading his faction to victory in the Reform War a year earlier. The war had bankrupted his country, and he was forced to suspend payments on Mexico’s massive debt just to keep the government afloat. This upset foreign creditors, who conspired to try to force Mexico to pay back what it owed by invading and occupying the key port city of Veracruz.

Naturally, France was one of the countries participating in the invasion of Veracruz. To Napoleon III, this was the opportunity he needed, and soon his armies were marching on Mexico City itself.

The Battle of Puebla

Battle of Puebla image from Wikipedia

It was an act of foolishness, really. French General Charles de Lorencez thought that the people of Puebla were opponents of the Mexican government and would support the French forces. So, on May 5, 1862, he ordered his forces to attack the garrison there. He had every reason to assume he would win, he had 6,500 highly-trained French troops while the Mexican garrison was defended by 4,500 troops who were mainly untrained civilians from the volunteer militia.

So cocky was de Lorencez that he didn’t start the attack until mid-day, giving his opponents plenty of time to prepare. The French were too late, the Mexican forces had entrenched positions and were holding their ground. The French ran out of ammunition, and were forced to retreat. When the battle was over, only 83 of the Mexican defenders had been killed, compared to 462 French soldiers.

To Mexico, the victory at the Battle of Puebla on the fifth of May (Cinco de Mayo in Spanish) was a symbol of Mexican pride, strength, and resistance in the coming war.

Too bad Mexico lost that war.

In one of those odd twists and turns of history, the victory at Puebla merely stalled the French. By 1864, the French were in possession of Mexico City, and Napoleon III had set up a puppet government led by an Austrian prince named Maximilian that crowned himself Emperor of Mexico. It wasn’t until after the Civil War in the United States ended that Uncle Sam could use its muscle to force the French out and restore Juárez and the Mexican government.

Perhaps that’s why Cinco de Mayo isn’t a particularly important holiday in Mexico, because it was only a fleeting victory. Still, every year children in Mexico have the day off of school, and in Puebla a historical reenactment of the battle is held.

So why do we celebrate Cinco de Mayo in the United States?

Kid with Flag image from Woodsmen of the World

When news of the Mexican victory at Puebla reached Mexican-American communities in California, people responded with jubilation, spontaneously setting off fireworks and breaking into song. California was on the Union side in the Civil War, and Mexican-American soldiers in the Union Army saw the battle as a badge of pride, proof that their people could accomplish great things on the battlefield.

For generations, the annual celebration of Cinco de Mayo remained a regional oddity of the Latino communities of California, but that started to change with the rise of the Chicano civil rights movement. The holiday spread to Mexican-American communities across the United States as a convenient day to celebrate their heritage, culture, and history. However, the holiday didn’t really go mainstream until alcohol got involved.

Because of course.

Because of course.

In 1989, a Texas-based importer of Corona, Modelo, and other Mexican beers launched an ad campaign encouraging Americans to celebrate Cinco de Mayo by trying Mexican beers. The campaign worked, and Corona became one of the best-selling beers in America, with peak sales around Cinco de Mayo. It also didn’t hurt that May is when the weather starts to get warm and summer-like in many parts of the country, so an excuse to fire up the grill and down a few brewskis is certainly welcome. Plus, the holiday is great for avocado farmers, who sell 81 million of them on this day as everyone tries out their favorite guacamole recipes.

As for me, you already know how I’m going to celebrate Cinco de Mayo this year.

Oh, yeah!

Oh, yeah!