This month Latvia celebrates the 95 years of the state of Latvia. Because of this special attention will be given to national symbols of the Latvian state. And our red – white – red flag is one of the most visible Latvian symbols. Although similar to flag of Austria, its one of the oldest flags used in our days. The first records of the use of red- white – red flag was recorded on 13th century. This article will the story of the flag of Latvia, how it became the unifying symbol of the Latvian nation and how important is for our society.
The use of this flag was first mentioned in Livonian Rhymed Chronicle by Ditleb von Alnpeke. According to chronicle on 1280 when the Namejs the leader of Ancient Latvian Semigallian tribe lead the attack against the Teutonic Crusader controlled Riga, Latgalian soldiers from Cēsis came to support the crusaders. The Latgalians came with red-white-red flag that chronicler called the “flag of the letts”. Flag was red with white line in center. For those times the letts were mostly seen as Latgalian tribes, however later the word “lett” was associated with whole Latvian nation. Its bit ironical that Latgalians were using this flag to assist the foreign invaders the Livonian Order, however they were subjected to it for many years and did not saw Namejs forces as their common people. There was no common Latvian nation in 13th century.
There is also legend about a mortally wounded chief of a Latvian tribe who was wrapped in a white sheet. The part of the sheet on which he was lying remained white, but the two edges were stained in his blood. During the next battle the bloodstained sheet was used as a flag. According to the legend this time the Latvian warriors were successful and drove the enemy away. Ever since then Latvian tribes have used these colours.
On 19th century when the new generation of Latvian intellectuals and students started to form new Latvian national identity. A common symbol was needed for this. The professor at University of Dorpat (Tartu) Jēkabs Lautebahs – Jūsmiņš was researching the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle and found the citation about the flag and it became popular among Latvian students. On 1873 during the First Latvian Song and Dance festival the Dorpat University students who were enforcing the security wore a red-white-red flag ribbons. The very first flag of the Song and Dance festival was also made in red-white-red tones.
Before the 1917 the Latvian national colours were defined by Dr.Oskar Voits and Linards Laicēns. It was proposed that red colour should be deep red carmine. However, there were arguments that the Latvian translation of the Rymed Chronicle was incorrect and Latgalians actually used more than one white line. However, within the society the deep red flag with one line became popular.
Even complicated was the discussions about the proportions of the flag. Artists Ansis Cīrulis and Olģerts Grosvalds proposed colour proportions of 1:1:1, while Olģerts Grosvalds and Voldemārs Tone 2:1:2 proportional flag. On may 1917 the Latvian Art popularization society chose the variants of Cīrulis and Tone. However, they were not deep red as Laicēns and Voits had proposed earlier. The end of discussion was only reached when Latvia was under threat of Bolsheviks and white Germans. The variant by Ansis Cīruis popularized by Jānis Riekts made postcards became widely accepted. The proportions were changed to 2:1:2.
The 1917 after the fall of the Tsarist government the territory of Latvia was in power chaos. While one part worked for national sovereign country, others railed under Bolshevik red flag the third part dreamed about Baltic German Duchy. Latvian National Provisional Council picked the red-white-red flag as their symbol. On January 1918 Latvians in Petrograd used the flag to in demonstration support the deposed Constituent Assembly and were chased away by the red guards. The flag was popularized in various parts of former Russian Empire from Ukraine to Far East. Meanwhile, the Latvian territory was under German control that was tried to limit Latvian national movement.
On November 18 1918 the Republic of Latvia was proclaimed in present day Latvian Theater building. As seen in only picture of this event by taken Vilis Rīdzenieks the Flag of Latvia was used as decoration and was still far from present day proportions. The cloth used for the flag was probably bought from some Jewish tailor shop as most tailors in those times were Jews.
Flag then became immediately used in demonstrations supporting the independence. Because of the lack of proper materials and unified standards the first red-white-flags were in made in many variants. As the War for Freedom begun the flag was used by Latvian national forces. Also in Siberia the Latvian rifleman who fought on the white side, used to Latvian flag. The oldest surviving version of the Latvian flag was made Jānis Lapiņš on 1916 and now is displayed at the Cēsis history and arts museum. This flag version featured Sun in upper left side.
After the victory, the law of the Republic of Latvia was made in June 15 1921. Law made provisions for colour proportions, but said nothing about color tones. The Latvian Constitution made on 1922 made no new provisions on the flag appearance. The variations of the flag was used for Presidential and naval flags. On 1923 law regarding the flag use of various sea vessels made more clearer provisions about the color tones and described it as deep red carmine and made height and width attitude to 3:2.
During the 20 first years of independence the flag of Latvia became a widely popular symbol and was used in every official state celebrations. Along with other national symbols like the Order of Lāčplēsis and Latvian National Anthem it became a sacred canonical value. After Latvia was occupied by the Soviets on 1940, the flag was banned and its usage was a crime. The red-white-red flag returned briefly on June-July 1941 when Nazi Germany invaded sparking national movement against the Soviet power. National partisans supporting the Germans used red-white-red ribbons to identify themselves. On July 1 1941 when Riga was taken by Germans, Latvian flag was taken to the streets along with Nazi Germany flag. However, after few days Nazi German occupiers banned any use of the national symbols. However, as Germany was losing the battle, Germans allowed limited use of the Latvian flag. For instance the Latvian Waffen SS Legion arm badge had red -white -red colors with name “Latvia”. Germans till the last-minute of the war refrained from giving full independence to Latvians, but toyed with this idea to keep Latvians on their side till the end.
Soviet power for 50 years banned the Latvian flag. Instead the flag of Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic was introduced that had red and blue waves along with hammer and sickle. Latvian flag was kept hidden in attics. Being caught using the national flag could result imprisonment. Meanwhile the Latvian exiles used the national flag in rallies and gatherings.
National flag made comeback on 1987 when the wave of liberation sparked calls for revival of the national symbolism. The Human rights group Helsinki-86 started to show the national flag in demonstrations. On 1988 the Helsinki – 86 activist Konstantīns Pupurs marked the deportations of June 14 1941, by marching with the national flag from the Monument of Freedom to the Brothers Cemetery. The usage of red-white-red banner became so extended that the communist government could no longer control it and on September 29 1988 allowed the public use of national symbols. On November 11 1988 a Latvian rifleman and artist Ēvalds Valters along with writer Alberts Bels raised the red-white-flag on the St, Spirit tower of the Castle of Riga. On February 15 1990 the red -white-red flag, along with national coat of arms and the anthem was made again as the official symbols of Latvia. The restoration of independence was not yet declared as the national flag was flowing above the Latvian Supreme Soviet building.
Until August 1991 Latvia was technically living under two flags, as there was institutions who were still loyal to Soviet power. As Latvia regained full independence the flag of LSSR as well the Red banner of USSR was gone from the public space completely. Latvian national flag once again rose to prominence. Used in all official celebrations, being placed on city streets the flag in recent years have become popular in society. Used as ribbon in recent years the red-white-red colors are visible on peoples clothes to mark their patriotism. Most Latvian sports teams use red -white-red colors also their supporters sometimes take large size national flags to sports competitions. On July 20 as the castle of Riga was engulfed in flames many were horrified by the fate of the Latvian flag that flew over the main castle tower. The flag was rescued from the flames and taken down and next days taken back, by the Latvian soldiers. This shows how much respect Latvians have for their national flag. The red-white-red flag is also a symbol of this website and held dear by the author. Lets hope that this flag will be around forever no matter what the future brings us.