The history of Switzerland's emblem can be traced back over a number of centuries. The origins of the Swiss Cross date back to a military standard. Over the course of time, the white cross on a red background became the symbol of the modern Confederation and Switzerland’s national emblem.
The time before 1798
Even the old Switzer mercenaries carried a standard into battle. It originally consisted of a red cloth to which a cross was added at a later date. Other regions of the confederation also used the cross symbol, although at the time it did not serve as a sign of confederate union. After all, the cross was also popular in many other European regions as a mark of identification.
Records confirm that the Bernese troops wore two ribbons stitched to their uniforms in the form of a cross as an identity mark during the battle of Laupen in 1339. From then on, the cross was a regular feature of the confederates' military campaigns. It was intended to express unity. The banner of the respective confederate township supplemented the white crosses that adorned uniforms and weapons. And so, over the course of time, the Swiss Cross became the common emblem of the Swiss confederates. It was also used increasingly for civilian purposes.
The time after 1798
In 1814, the Tagsatzung declared the Swiss Cross the official national emblem of the Swiss Confederation. As of 1841, it was used as the common troop flag for all of the cantons at the behest of General Chief of Staff Guillaume-Henri Dufour. But it was not until 12 December 1889 that a federal resolution was passed to declare the Swiss Cross the national emblem and to define its dimensions: "The emblem of the Swiss Confederation is an upright, free-standing white cross with equally dimensioned arms, each one-sixth longer than it is wide".
Ever since that day, the responsibility for protecting the Swiss Cross and controlling its correct use at home and abroad has lain with the Confederation. The Swiss Federal Archives hold various documents that verify these duties. The fonds of the judicial system (1798-1985) contains documents that cover the period up to the start of the 20th century. More recent documents can be found at the Swiss Federal Institute of Intellectual Property and its preceding organisations (1888-1982).
Documents concerned with protecting the national emblem and the Swiss Cross in foreign countries and preventing its misuse are on file at Switzerland's Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA). The period up to the end of the 19th century is covered by the foreign affairs (1518-1971) fonds. More recent documents are held by the current Directorate of Political Affairs and its preceding organisations.
Tips for further research
- Historical Dictionary of Switzerland with an article on the Swiss Cross (ger).
- Federal Act on the Protection of Public Emblems and Other Public Symbols (5 June 1931, ger), Federal Act on the Protection of the Symbol and Name of the Red Cross (25 March 1954, ger): federal acts concerned with the use and protection of the Swiss Cross.
- Swiss Federal Institute of Intellectual Property: information on the legal use of the Swiss Cross and national emblem.
- Umgang mit Fahnen, Standarten und Fanions (Fahnenreglement): publication issued by the Swiss Army in 2008 with a historical overview of the use of the Swiss Cross and a directive on handling military flags, standards and fanions and on handling national and international flags. Also the flags and emblems of individual cantons.
- CRW Flags: American website with an explanation of the symbolism and history of the Swiss emblem in English.
- firmenfahnen.ch: exact dimensional ratios and colour specifications of the Swiss flag in German.
Last modification 04.11.2019