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Lithuania - History of Lithuanian Flags

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Overview

The following material represents a synopsis of the history of Lithuanian flags:
Not much is known about Lithuanian flags prior to the 1200's. The earliest available records talk about "yellow Gediminas towers" on a "red field. This is a clear reference to King Gediminas of Lithuania who ruled from 1316 to 1341. The earliest described Lithuanian flag contains a block shaped outline of the Voruta castle, home of King Gediminas during his reign. Of interest however is that archeological diggings have unearthed Lithuanian bracteate's dating from King Mindaugas'es reign (1234 - 1263) in Gotland and elsewhere showing the same outline on the coins as is attributed to King Mindaugases flags.
The earliest known mention of Lithuanian flags is in the "Chronicon Dubicense"; it cites an "insignia Lithwanorium" in the text but does not go on to describe it. Logic would state that it must have been one of the "towers of Gediminas". Ample documentation exists regarding the Lithuanian flags which participated in the Tannenberg battle of 1410 against the Teutonic Knights. Lithuanian units from the Aukstaitija province flew the red and yellow towers of Gediminas.
Aside from the towers of Gediminas (also called gates of Gediminas), which now are identified with all things Lithuania, there are two other "national" symbols which have adorned Lithuanian flags since the early Middle Ages - the Apostolic cross and the Vytis.
The Apostolic cross was introduced by King Jogiella (1377 - 1398) who made the cross an integral part of the Gediminian royal houses coat-of-arms. The choice of this particular symbol was a masterpiece of diplomacy by King Jogiella. The King knew that a "pagan" Lithuania would be no match against her many enemies. By marrying into the Polish royal family, he also adopted Christianity for Lithuania. This would then prevent any future "crusades" from being undertaken against Lithuania. As the Lithuanian kingdom was located in both "eastern" and "western" Europe and as the Apostolic cross was accepted as a "Christian" cross by both Constantinople and Rome, King Jogiella could not have selected a better symbol for the Lithuanian royal household. The Apostolic cross thus quickly made it on to Lithuanian flags and banners. Any battles the Lithuanian's would from then on conduct in the defense of their realm would be against the people of the enemy nation - not against the Christian beliefs of their enemies.
From the available records of the Tannenberg battle of 1410, four Lithuanian flags are described as carrying the Apostolic cross. They were: King Jogiella's personal banner (1&4 quarter - blue field, white Vytis; 2&3 quarter - red field white cross) King Jogiella's personal household troop banner. (1&4 quarter - red field, white Vytis; 2&3 quarter - blue field yellow cross) The Lithuanian Kremenec infantry battalion. (red field, white cross) The Lithuanian Samogitia infantry battalion. (red field, green hill holding a white cross) .King Jogiella also introduced a second symbol in to Lithuanian history - the Vytis. The Vytis, which means "hero" (in German "Held", in Hungarian "Vitez" and in Slovenian "Vytez"), is a knight mounted on a charging horse. Its intent was to not only honor the Lithuanian nobility (who could easily identify itself with a knighted rider), but also the common Lithuanian soldier who did well in battle. Through King Jogiella's decree, a white "Vytis" placed in to a red field would henceforth become the flag of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Two small distinctions were to be noted. While both the Jogiellian and Kestutian royal households would use the same "Vytis" as their coat-of-arms, on the Jogiellian coat-of-arms, the shield on the "Vytis" contained the Apostolic cross and on the Kestutian coat-of-arms, the shield on the "Vytis" contained the "towers of Gediminas". The "Vytis" flag is also described by various chroniclers of the Tannenberg battle of 1410. They were: Grand Duke Vytautis'es personal flag.
King Jogiella's personal flag (same as described above). King Jogiella's personal Lithuanian body-guards.Lithuanian army troops.Lithuanian garrison troops. Lithuanian-Ruthenian levy formations. Lithuanian-Ukrainian levy formations. Grand Duke Vytautis'es personal royal flag flew in Constanza (present day Switzerland) when Vytautis attended a Church Council there. On a side note, just as the Poles and Lithuanian's had militarily defeated the Teutonic Knights in battle, so they defeated them at the Church Council. At the conclusion of the meeting, the Pope revoked many rights previously granted to the Teutonic Knights. Grand Duke Sigismund Kestutaitis (1432 - 1440) was assassinated in 1440 by Lithuanian nobles from King Jagiello's family. As a result, many members of the Kestutian royal household fled to Moscow. That effectively ended the Kestutian influence in Lithuanian state affairs. From then until 1795 (when the remnants of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were absorbed by Russia), the white "Vytis" in the red field was the official Lithuanian state flag. The "towers of Gediminas" remained in the Lithuanian coat-of-arms. It must be noted that since Lithuania joined Poland to form the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the larger of the two in terms of size. For many years, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was one of Europe's largest kingdoms. The Lithuanian flags flew in Vilnius, Kaunas, Kiev, Smolensk, Odessa and nearly at the gates of Moscow. But being large in size often seems like an open invitation from ones neighbors to make theirs what is yours.
As of the last partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Russia gained control of all of Lithuania (Lithuania Minor excepted). During the Napoleonic wars, both Prussia and Russia raised "Lithuanian" military formations. Many of the raised formation received their own battle flags. For example, the Russians raised the Imperial Lithuanian Guards Regiment - and gave it their own flag. Prussia had already raised a "Lithuanian" Dragoon Regiment back in 1717. It too flew its own flag until 1919.
Lithuania remained under Russian control until 1914/1915 when the German army effectively occupied all of Lithuania; though both the Russians and the Germans continued to use "royal" Lithuanian heraldry unchanged in design.
Lithuania regained its independence in 1918 from a 200 plus year Russian occupation. But in 1918, the new nation needed a flag. Initially, there were calls to resurrect the old "imperial" banners; a prime advocate for this was Dr. Jonas Basanavicius. His recommendation called for the new Lithuanian state flag to be a white Vytis in a red field. Regretfully, political circumstances were against the good doctor. A red field was too closely associated with Lenin's brand of communism. Thus, the old imperial flag would not do, though it was accepted as the Lithuanian coat-of-arms. The colors of green, red and yellow had historically been the ones most frequently used in Lithuanian flags. These colors too are to this day very popular in Lithuanian folk art. Thus, in late 1918, Lithuania adopted its current "national" flag - horizontally striped yellow (top), green (middle) and red (bottom). Yellow was interpreted to mean the energy and warmth of the radiating sun. Green stood for the bountiful green acreage's of Lithuania. Red represented the blood flowing in both animal life and man alike. Philosophically, one could say that the Lithuanian state flag is a
celebration of life. Since its creation in November of 1918, the Lithuanian Air Force used a unique national recognition symbol for its military aircraft. It was a trapezoid formed from yellow-green-red stripes. In the center of the inner red stripe, there was a white Vytis. This symbol was placed on all six positions as well as the rudder. As this was very cumbersome to draw, within a few months, Lithuania changed its national recognition symbol to the ever familiar Apostolic cross. This has been in use ever since.
During the interwar period, Lithuania flew numerous types of official flags. Nearly every one included the yellow-green-red stripes in its designs.
Lithuania's independence ceased to exist in 1940. As with Estonia and Latvia, introduced Soviet rules and regulations banned all references and uses of republican Lithuanian symbols.
The Soviets even went so far as to ban the yellow-green-red combination from being produced in textiles for fear of re-igniting counter-revolutionary aspirations in Lithuanians. Moscow introduced "politically correct" Lithuanian state symbols and flags. Although the German military did inform select Lithuanian partisan groups of "Barbarossa", this was not the norm. However, enough advance notice was given so that even by the end of the first day of the German invasion, Lithuanian partisan forces had managed to "free" areas of Lithuania from Soviet control prior to the arrival of German forces. Much to their surprise, the Germans could not help to notice that the pre-war Lithuanian flag was flying wherever possible. As in Estonia and Latvia, the Germans were not very tolerant of Lithuanian political aspirations - Lithuania wanted its independence restored, Germany wanted to create its "Ostland". Never-the-less, the Germans really had no major objections to using the inter-war Lithuanian flag to help their own political agendas. Lithuanian troops, conscripted by the Germans, frequently carried small yellow-green-red shields on their sleeves. Though not officially sanctioned, a few Lithuanian soldiers also placed a yellow-green-red shield on to their German helmets. With the return of the Soviet forces in late 1944 and 1945, all uses of the inter-war Lithuanian flag were once more banned.
Throughout the 51 year Soviet occupation of Lithuania, many enterprising Lithuanians often were able to display the inter-war Lithuanian flag just long enough to get their message across - the Soviets were not welcome in Lithuania. By the late 1980's, Soviet control over the Baltics had eroded to the point where .Lithuania was able to re-assert its independence. Since then, all inter-war flags of the republic of Lithuania were restored to full force.
Two small additions merit discussion - Lithuania minor and the Central Lithuanian Republic. In geographical terms, Lithuania "major" is usually used when discussing the traditional Lithuanian homelands. However, East Prussia was also home to a large Lithuanian community since antiquity. This region is normally referred to as Lithuania "minor". In 1660, Lithuanian's in Prussia (the ancient Prussians were cousins of the Lithuanians) created their own "national" flag, This was a red-white-green flag, horizontally striped. This flag was adopted by the Lithuanian fraternity "Lituania" as representing their student organization in 1829. The Lithuanian sorority "Birute", Königsberg University, also adopted these colors as their own in 1885. Photographic evidence also indicates that this flag flew atop a Lithuanian field hospital in Romania on 18 February 1918.
The Central Lithuanian Republic was created by Poland in 1918. It lasted until 1921 when it was absorbed by Poland. As its state flag, it combined the Polish eagle with the Lithuanian Vytis on a red field.
As to sources, my art work is based in part on the following:
A.) Ian Heath; Armies of the Middle Ages; Wargame Research Group Publishers, 1982
B.) O. Urbonas; Lietuvos Senosios Karines Veliavos Svedijoje; Karys Magazine; March 1956 Nr. 3 (1319)
C.) Aleksandras Radzius; History of Lithuanian Flags; private publication
D.) Vladas Vijeikis; Lietuvos Istorijos Vaizdai; Teviskele Publications; Chicago, IL, 1979

Item "B" above is really a magazine article focusing on the Lithuanian flags of the Swedish wars, but it makes some references to earlier Lithuanian battle flags. If you are interested, I have some additional art work for Lithuanian and Polish battle flags flown at Tannenberg, 1410.
In addition to art work on just flags, I also have art work on Baltic military uniforms (1200 - 1945), Baltic military aricraft (1915 - 1945), Baltic navy ships (1200 - 1945) and Baltic armor and Baltic medals/orders and one or two other smaller categories. In each group, "flags" play a very important role.
For example, in terms of Baltic military flags, I also collect data on the flags, or, I believe, more properly phrased, cavalry lance pennants. I have art work for the lance pennants used by the 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st Lithuanian Lancer Regiments of the French Army, 1812. The Latvian army of 1918 - 1940, maintained a cavalry force. I have a complete listing for their lance pennants, by squadron, as well. I am still researching Estonian and Lithuanian cavalry lance pennants on the squadron level, For parade purposes, both the Estonian and Lithuanian cavalry lance pennants were relatively simply adorned - the national flag either in a triangular format or with short swallow-tails. Their uniforms, however, have a longer history. The 1936 Estonian Cavarly uniform traces its colors back to the early Napoleonic period - the 1812 Narva Regiment battle flag was light blue
Arvo Vercamer, 1 Febuary 1999


Ancient Lituanian Flag


from http://public.kubsu.ru/~usr02898/sl7r.htm

See http://public.kubsu.ru/~usr02898/sl7r.htm for the picture of misterious "ancient lituanian flag".
Victor Lomantsov, 11 November 2001

Though it is quite evident in that page, there is an English version here http://public.kubsu.ru/~usr02898/sl7.htm which says:
The ancient Lithuanian flag (Narbutt 1835) looks like it represents here....The text on the left reads b-e-r-e-g r-e-d-a-n. The first word is Slavonic bereg 'bank; the end of a land; guard'. The word redan is comparable with Latin Redones 'the name of a tribe lived in Gallia'. Interestingly, this term compares with Russian Radonezh 'the name of the ancient Russian town', Greek Ouardanes 'a branch of the river Kuban' (3), Russian radost' 'gladness', Latin ratio 'to shine', German Rat 'counsel', south Russian rada 'counsel'. The three letters written down at the top of the flag read rmi, otherwise r(o)mi 'Romans', cf. Latin Roma 'Rome'. I suppose that this flag is a copy of the flag of the ancient Slavs, which as the other barbarians could serve in the Roman army. The three characters are in my opinion the Slavonic pagan gods Stribog,Rarog Ani (Svarog) and Dazh'bog.
Santiago Dotor, 13 November 2001

The deity in the centre with the widened "eh" rune over his head is Perkúnas, the Baltic (Lithuanian) thunder god. The characters with the reversed "tyr" rune and reversed "wynn" rune over their head are most likely lesser or possibly local divinities. The websites mentioned in Santiago Dotor's message mention them as Slavic Stribog, Rarog Ani and Dazhbog. The Baltic gods were shared by the Pagan Slavs under different names. In the book "A History of Pagan Europe" by Prudence Jones & Nigel Pennick, the image of Perkúnas is identical in presentation to that on the flag (thunderbolt halo, stone/orb raised in left hand, right hand clutching thunderbolts to chest). Also the runic script is used in several old woodblock prints of Baltic and Norse deities well into the 17th century. This seems to be because of the proximity to Viking Sweden.
Brian Ellis, 20 August 2002

This is not Ancient Lithuanian Flag but old-Prussian flag. German chronicler Simon Grunau gave a lot of information about the old-Prussians, their language and traditions in his Preussische Chronik (Prussian Chronicles, written 1510-1530). Grunau described king's Vaidevutis flag and coat of arms and presented their pictures. White cloth, with incomprehensible (!) writing edging on two sides. The centre is charged with three main gods (from left to right) - Pykuolis (the god of the underworld and dead), Perkunas (the god of thunder and all storms), and Patrimpas (the god of spring and fertility). The dimensions of the flag are 3 spans width and 5 spans length. Grunau's picture of Vaidevutis flag placed here <www.lithuanian.net>. Also you can get more information about the old Prussians and the Balts from this site. German historians L. David (1503-1583) and K. Henenberger (1529-1600) published incomprehensible writing repeatedly later. Lithuanian linguist Jonas Basanavicius published 10 (ten) variants of writing of Vaidevutis flag in 1926. It is possible there was made a mistake when this writing was recopied many times. Now it is trouble to deciphering. It is presented some deciphered version of writing but no one can be quite acceptable. So, all these "decipherings" are fiddlestick. Your picture of the flag is just one of many variants.
Audrius, 27 December 2002