During a little more than a century, Slovenia and Croatia (sometimes as part of Yugoslavia, sometimes not) lived under an impressive number of different flags. Most of these flags were designed to make political statements and symbolize national self-images or ambitions. Here they are, in more or less chronological order:

1868–1918: The Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary

We seem to have three flags to deal with here.

Official flag of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy

This was the flag designed to reflect the new power-sharing arrangement between Austria and Hungary. If you were to cut it in half vertically and then stretch each half out to the standard width, you’d have the present-day Austrian and Hungarian flags. But I don’t know how often or widely this flag was displayed; I’ve read that, for the most part, the old Austrian flag was still flown in the Austrian part of the monarchy, and that the Hungarians flew a traditional flag of their own that made no reference to Austria. Thus:


Traditional flag of Habsburg Austria


Hungarian national flag, 1867-1918

The Austrian flag, in the yellow-and-black form shown here, had represented the Habsburg empire for several centuries. The Hungarian red-white-green tricolor dates back only to the uprising of 1848–1849. It was outlawed after that, but welcomed back and made legal in the Ausgleich (‘Compromise’) of 1867 that created the Dual Monarchy. The coat of arms is older, and the crown on top, with its crooked cross, is a genuine historical artifact, now in the possession of the Hungarian state. In former times, it was always used to crown the kings of Hungary, but this function has become superfluous. A powerful symbol of the nation, the ‟Holy Crown” or ‟Crown of St. Stephen” is associated with Hungary’s first king, Stephen I, who united the Magyar tribes and spread Christianity among them. His coronation occurred in the neatly rounded year 1000 C.E., but this crown probably didn’t play a part in the ceremony: scholarly opinion suggests that it was made around the time of King Béla III, who ruled from 1172–1196 (though some of the attached ornaments may be older). Popular tradition in Hungary, however, declares that the Pope sent it to King Stephen in 1000. The supporting angels may be a further representation of its sanctity. They vanished from the Hungarian flag at the end of World War I and have never returned.

Had we been traveling through Slovenia and Croatia during the time of the Dual Monarchy, we would have seen the Austrian flag flying only in Slovenia and the Hungarian flag only in Croatia.

Although Austrian flag is devoid of heraldry, a short side-trip to the Dual Monarchy’s coat of arms is worth taking. This elaborate version (there was also a simpler one) was designed in 1915 ‟to replace an older one” (which I couldn’t locate). You’d think the Dual Monarchy would have had more important matters on its agenda that year, but I suppose the skill set of heraldry specialists wouldn’t have been very useful in the front lines.

Arms of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy

This is heraldry with a vengeance. The Hungarian arms on the right still have an angelic supporter, but on the left Austria furnishes a fierce-looking griffon to hold up its end. On the outer Austrian shield (behind the inner shield full of ‟quarterings” that represent all the provinces under Austria’s sway) you can see the two-headed eagle that was such a favorite symbol of imperialists — not only in Vienna, but also Byzantium and the other empires and kingdoms it influenced, including Russia, Serbia, Armenia, and even Albania, which still has one of these dicephalous birds on its flag. The march ‟Under the Double Eagle,” popular with American brass and bluegrass bands, was composed in Vienna in 1902 (‟Unter dem Doppeladler”). The Emperor Franz Joseph had presided over the union of the two kingdoms, but the Latin motto ‟Indivisibly and Inseparably” lost all meaning within two years of his death in 1916.

The arms of Hungary are on a small shield in the middle of a larger one whose sections indicate the various regions (or sometimes parts of regions) that Hungary controlled. The three largest sections together represent Croatia, called the ‟Triune Kingdom” because it united Dalmatia (three crowned leopards’ heads on a blue background), the original Croatia, which was the central province only (a red-and-white chessboard, or šahovnica), and Slavonia, the eastern part that borders Serbia (a marten running on a red field between two wavy white stripes reprenting the Sava and Drava rivers, with a six-pointed star overhead).

The Dalmatian arms also appear in the upper right corner of the inner Austrian shield. This is realistic, because in fact Austria kept control of the Dalmatian province; on the maps I’ve been able to find, it doesn’t look as though Hungary got a bit of it. But, like the rest of Croatia, it had once been ruled by the kings of Hungary, so the coat of arms asserts that country’s claim to the entire ‟crown lands of St. Stephen.”

October 29–December 1, 1918: The State of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs

This political entity, which aimed to unite the South Slavs living within the now-defunct Austrian empire, lasted barely a month: with Italian troops moving into its western territory and many of its potential Serb citizens opting to unite with Serbia, it had no real option other than to climb on the same bandwagon.

The Wikipedia article on the short-lived state includes a picture of a tricolor with horizontal red, white, and blue stripes, just like that of the Netherlands. This is also, however, the basic design of Croatian flags, as established by Josip Jelačić when he led his troops against Hungary in 1848 under a tricolor banner bearing the arms of the Triune Kingdom. (All Croatian flags thus far have included additional symbolic content, with the tricolor stripes serving as a background.)

But Slovenia also had a tricolor tradition going back to that era; theirs was white-blue-red — allegedly based on colors in the medieval version of the Duchy of Carniola’s coat of arms, though it just happened to match the flag of Russia. (Slovakian nationalists adopted an identical tricolor at the same time.) Although the Slovenes in 1848 did nothing much more revolutionary than mutter, the Austrian Empire for a time banned both the Croatian and Slovene tricolors as politically provocative. (In Slovenia, they hedged their bet slightly by allowing Carniola to fly the white-blue-red flag as ‟provincial colors.”)

Serbs, in the meantime, had the Kingdom of Serbia to look to, and Serbia’s tricolor was red-blue-white. (According to legend, some Serbs visiting Russia in the early 19th century were invited to march in a patriotic pan-Slavic parade, and, not yet having a national flag, improvised one by borrowing and inverting a Russian flag.)

The creator of the flag picture in the Wikipedia article on the State of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs says ‟I drew this flag in photoshop, on the base of another on the internet.” I can’t find any other, however, and it seems unlikely to me that this beleaguered body ever got around to adopting a flag, especially one so strongly identified with just one of its three national components.

1918–1929: The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes — 1929–1941: Kingdom of Yugoslavia

The original name of the new South Slavic nation was a little unwieldy, and it was being called Yugoslavia well before King Alexander (trying to dampen the fires of internal nationalism) changed the name officially in 1929.

Wisely, the new nation chose a combination of blue, white, and red stripes that had not previously been used to represent any of its national groups:

National flag of the first Yugoslavia

This unadorned tricolor was the national flag, although some Wikipedia contributors have argued that there was also a ‟state flag” (displayed, presumably, on especially solemn occasions) that included the new country’s coat of arms:

State flag (or naval ensign) of the first Yugoslavia

This flag is identified in Wikipedia as Yugoslavia’s naval ensign, and direct evidence of its being the official ‟state flag” is hard to find. However, it’s worth noting that the present-day Republic of Serbia has both a plain tricolor national flag and also a state flag with the country’s coat of arms added, so there may be an old Yugoslav precedent. Hungary, too, although the national flag described in its constitution is a plain red, white, and green tricolor, also has a state version showing the Hungarian arms (with the Holy Crown of St. Stephen, but without the angels). According to one contributor to the Flags of the World website, Hungary leaves the choice of which flag to fly on holidays to its citizens: liberals, he says, tend to prefer the plain version, while most conservatives favor the one with the coat of arms.

The new Serb-Croat-Slovene coat of arms was a reworking of the Serbian arms (the source of the crown and double eagle) to represent all three of the designated peoples: in the small shield on the eagle’s breast, the Serbian cross is at the upper left, the Croatian šahovnica at the upper right, and below both is a coat of arms designed for the occasion to represent Slovenia: on a blue field, three six-pointed stars above a crescent. The stars were taken from the arms of the Dukes and Counts of Celje, whose seat was in Slovene territory (never mind that until the line died out in the 15th century they were generally allied with Hungary). The upward-facing crescent probably refers to the arms of the Duchy of Carniola, in which a crescent of the same shape (but checkered in red and yellow) adorns the breast of a fiercely Germanic eagle.

1941–1945: The Independent State of Croatia

As the Yugoslav coat of arms illustrated, Croatia was no longer being thought of as a union of three distinct nations — the one in the center, already named Croatia (Hrvatska) had become synonymous with the whole country, and its red-and-white šahovnica was felt to represent all parts of it. The fascist government that took over under German and Italian auspices was, from a traditionally nationalist point of view, only doing the obvious thing when they made it the centerpiece of their flag.

Flag of the Ustaše's Independent State of Croatia

Of course, having been raised in Mussolini’s nursery, the Ustaše also wanted to make it clear that Party and State were synonymous. So they added a U in the corner to make clear just whose Independent State it was.

Unfortunately for posterity, the deeds of the Ustaše tainted not only the name of Croatia but also its primary heraldic symbol. When Tudjman’s pro-independence government adopted a flag similar to this one (minus the U, of course), it bought up very unpleasant memories in the minds of Croatia’s many Serb citizens. Ultimately, both communities suffered as a result.

1943–1945: Slovenian Home Guard

During World War II, when Slovenes looked above their official buildings, the flags they saw were German, Italian, or Hungarian, but both the Partisan resistance and the collaborationist militias flew flags based on the traditional Slovene tricolor. The Partisans’ flag usually had a red star in the middle, like that of the postwar Socialist Republic of Slovenia (see the next item). The Home Guard (Domobranstvo) that the German occupiers organized in 1943 carried a flag with the arms of Carniola instead of a star:

Flag of the collaborationist Slovenian Home Guard

The Wikipedia source says that this flag had been in use by various Slovene supporters of the Axis since 1941.

1943–1991: The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia

The establishment of Tito’s socialist Yugoslav state is dated from a Partisan conference held in Jajce, Bosnia, late in 1943. This government negotiated with the royalist government in exile in London, and at the end of the war the two parties formed Democratic Federal Yugoslavia. The royalists, who had little support within the country, were soon pushed out, and the name of the state was changed, first to the Federative People’s Republic of Yugoslavia, then to the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. This name lasted until the nation broke up in the early 1990s.

I don’t know at what date Tito’s version of the Yugoslav flag was adopted, but its clear intent was to proclaim the socialist foundation on which the state was built. The flag’s height-to-width ratio was changed to 1:2, a standard which has been continued in the flags of Yugoslavia’s successor states. Earlier flags had a ratio of 2:3. (The Slovenian Home Guard flag shown above may be an exception, or the illustration I found in Wikipedia may be anachronistic.)

Flag of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia

This is the flag under which the Yugoslav National Army (Jugoslovenska Narodna Armija or JNA) fought Croats and Slovenes (mostly on behalf of Serbia, although many of its high command were trying to preserve the Socialist Federal Republic even at the end of 1991).

From 1945 on, each of Yugoslavia’s constituent socialist republics also had its own flag. Those of Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia comprised the traditional tricolor of each country, with the Yugoslav red star in the middle. (Montenegro adopted a flag identical to Serbia’s.)



1991–Present: Republic of Slovenia

Within two days of its declaration of independence in June, 1991, Slovenia adopted its new flag, a tricolor bearing in its upper left quarter the country’s new coat of arms, designed by the Slovene artist Marko Pogačnik:

Flag of the Republic of Slovenia

The centerpiece of the coat of arms is the three-peaked mountain, Triglav. The wavy lines beneath it represent, according to the artist, the Adriatic shore, and the space below that the Pannonian plain to the east. He also points out that the balance of mountain peaks and water corresponds to a spiritual balance between masculine and feminine qualities. The three stars overhead are also a reference to spirit, but their six-pointed shape commemorates the Dukes of Celje, who once ruled a considerable portion of what is now Slovenia (and therefore represent what might be construed, with some stretching, as a native tradition of civil administration).

1990–Present: Republic of Croatia

Croatia adopted its new flag in December, 1990, about six months before its official declaration of independence and eight months after electing Franjo Tudjman’s separatist government.

Flag of the Republic of Croatia

The checkered šahovnica, once the symbol of the old kingdom of Croatia (which was only the central part of the modern country) now represents the nation as a whole. It is surmounted by a crownlike set of five shields or panels, each displaying the arms of one part of the country. The three oldest and largest parts, Croatia, Dalmatia, and Slavonia, are in the first, third, and fifth positions, each with a light blue background; in between are the red and blue stripes of Dubrovnik (not originally part of Dalmatia, but until Napoleon’s time the independent Republic of Ragusa) and the golden goat of Istria, the triangular peninsula at Croatia’s northeast corner that was originally shared with Italy, but after World War II belonged to Yugoslavia. The backgrounds have been altered, apparently for reasons of design: Dalmatia’s stripes were originally red and white, and the field behind the Istrian goat is much closer to the blue of the fields on either side of it.

We have seen Dalmatia’s three crowned leopard heads and Slavonia’s marten, rivers, and six-pointed star before, but the arms at the left, a six-pointed star above an upward-facing crescent, is a substitution: now that the arms of Croatia the central region have become the arms of Croatia the whole country, the designers needed to reach back in history for what they describe as ‟the oldest known Croatian coat of arms.” I found several iterations of this claim, but no details, so I don’t know what noble house or political entity they belonged to originally. (The similarity to the “Slovenian arms” on the Yugoslavian monarchy’s state flag is interesting.)

As we’ve had many occasions to notice, the use of the šahovnica as the primary national symbol was probably inevitable; it’s hard to imagine that Tudjman could have satisfied the national yearnings of most of his countrymen by putting any other symbol in the center of the flag. It’s possible, however, that the government might have succeeded, albeit with some difficulty, in persuading the Serbs of Croatia that it was not intended as a threat to them. To do so would have taken both tact and generous political actions. Unfortunately, however, no one seems to have made any effort in that direction.

2004–Present: Republic of Serbia

Although neither Slovenia nor Croatia has lived under a specifically Serbian flag, the present Serbian state flag is worth looking at for historical reasons. (As in prewar Yugoslavia and modern Hungary, there is also a national flag consisting of the tricolor alone, without the coat of arms.)

Flag of the Republic of Serbia

This flag is similar to the one flown by the Kingdom of Serbia from 1882 to 1918. The present-day coat of arms is a simplified version of the original, which had in back of it a drapery formed like an ermine-lined, royal red cloak, and above that a second iteration of the crown. With these elements removed, the two flags would be identical, except that on the modern flag the coat of arms is slightly larger and offset to the left.

Serbia, though a republic, is proud of its royal past, not only the little kingdom of the 19th and 20th centuries, but also the powerful Balkan empire of the 14th century. The coat of arms on the flag goes back to the Obrenović dynasty, which ruled Serbia from 1815–1842 and again from 1858–1903. The outer red shield has a double-headed white eagle, as did that of the Byzantine Emperors: it was adopted by one of the medieval Nemanjić kings after marrying a Byzantine princess. I couldn’t find out when the two fleurs-de-lys were added, or by whom.

On the eagle’s breast is a smaller red shield bearing a silver cross and four symbols that the experts identify as firesteels — i.e. the metal member of the flint-and-steel pair that people used to start fires before matches were invented. This shield has been used to represent the Serbian nation and its church since the Middle Ages.

I have not found any explanation of what firesteels might symbolize. Many Serbs interpret these symbols as letters instead: four iterations (two reversed for symmetry) of the letter C  — not the Latin C, but the Cyrillic letter S. (Remember those old news pictures of Soviet missiles marked ‟CCCP,” which, it was explained, really meant ‟SSSR”?) According to this interpretation the four S’s stand for a time-hallowed patriotic formula: ‟Samo sloga Srbina spasava” (‘Only unity saves the Serbs.’) Insofar as it recommends cooperative solidarity over selfish internecine squabbling, this sentiment is unobjectionable, but when interpreted, as it has sometimes been, to mean that the Serbs’ survival depends on their all being included in a single nation, regardless of what such an arrangement might do to anyone else, it has been responsible for more harm than good.

Another school of thought considers the symbols to be not C’s, but a distorted version of four B’s that some Byzantine rulers had on their flags, standing for Greek words that might mean either ‟The king of kings rules over kings” or ‟King of Kings [i.e., Jesus], preserve the king.”

Axe blades?
Finally, yet another interpretation suggests that the symbols are (or originally were) neither letters nor firesteels, but representations of a semicircular axe blade with two crescents cut out of the straight side to form three points. The writer who offered the suggestion provided this picture, but unfortunately didn’t say whether it came from some ancient and authentic source or was merely drawn to illustrate the theory. (The Latin name of the country inscribed below the shield looks suspiciously inauthentic.)