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The Swiss flag

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© Sonderegger

It may be hard to believe but the famous white cross on a red background has only been the national flag of Switzerland since the 19th century. The origins of the flag, though, date back to 1339 and the historic Battle of Laupen, when Confederate soldiers began using the white cross as their field sign. Over time the cantons also added a small white cross to their standards. Eventually, the cross became the military ensign of the Old Swiss Confederacy and could be seen flying above their newly occupied territories. The choice of red as the background colour was probably inspired by the old Bernese flag.

During the Helvetic Period (1798-1803) Napoleon Bonaparte banned the Swiss from wearing the white cross, as it was also a symbol of the Ancien Régime. Instead he made them carry a tricolour of green, red and yellow. This was the first national Swiss flag. However, it did not last long. When the Helvetic republic was dissolved, the tricolour went with it.

In 1815 a military regulation stipulated that Confederate troops had to wear a red armband with a white cross. While certain battalions adopted the Swiss colours, most troops remained loyal to their cantonal colours. Clearly, the tide had yet to turn in favour of centralism.
The unofficial federal flag went to war for the first and only time during the Sonderbund civil war. It is said that the idea came from General Henri-Guillaume Dufour to make the white cross on a red background the official flag of the Swiss army and later the national flag. With the victory of the modernisers, who advocated the creation of a more centralised state, the white cross on the red background became the national symbol of Switzerland. It was enshrined in the first Swiss Constitution of 1848.

A perfect square
Throughout its history, the Swiss flag has always had one feature that distinguishes it from all other national flags: it is square not rectangular. The Vatican is the only other sovereign state to have a square flag.
The shape of the Swiss flag is not laid down by law, while the precise shade of red has only been legally enshrined since January 1, 2007. It corresponds to Pantone 485, and is a mixture of magenta and yellow. The exact shape of the cross, on the other hand, has been enshrined in law since 1889: its arms are of equal length, and are one sixth longer than they are broad.

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