Toomas Hendrik Ilves: The blue, black and white flag, then and now

President Toomas Hendrik Ilves delivering a speech on Flag Day in Kõpu, Viljandi County in 2011.
President Toomas Hendrik Ilves delivering a speech on Flag Day in Kõpu, Viljandi County in 2011. Source: Elmo Riig/Sakala/Scanpix

Today, on June 4, the Estonian flag turns 135 years old. This is a speech that I gave 15 years ago, at a conference held at the EÜS House in Tartu dedicated to the 120th anniversary of the Estonian flag, and unfortunately it is more relevant now than it was then, writes former President Toomas Hendrik Ilves.

The Estonian flag was born on the initiative of university students of the time, who were encouraged by their German peers' fight for liberal democracy. The liberal German university students' battle flag of 1848, the black, red and gold tricolor, became the state flag of Germany in 1919, and, following the surrender of Nazi-Germany, the flag of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Our own blue, black and white flag came into being as a symbol of Estonians' aspirations for achieving equal rights in their own land. We cannot forget the patriotic origins of our flag, or allow them to be hijacked by those who do not understand the story behind its birth or what it represents.

As I wrote in 2004: "That is why [the Estonian Students' Society] has to refrain from fetishizing its own flag, and instead must understand the ideals that led to its birth. And teach our descendants this as well. We must defend the blue, black and white flag from additional ascribed meanings and party-political optics. We need to stand to ensure that intolerance is not preached under the banner of the blue, black and white flag, and that pretenses and false patriotism do not flourish in its shadow."

Semiotics of the flag1

Flags, pennants and banners have been part of human culture, part of humankind's system of signs, since at least Roman times, but likely since much older prehistoric times.

A pennant, flag or banner symbolized us — a tribe, a clan, cave-dwellers, nomads. At least when human development had reached the phase in which we no longer lived like animals in constant fear of being discovered; when we reached the point of security in our own existence, sustainability, and defense capability. Then it was logical to show, especially to others — we are here; here we are.

If we take current "primitive" tribes as some sort of indicator, then in all likelihood, these symbols were totems, animals whose characteristics reflected what a tribe thought of itself: a lion or serpent, eagle or tiger. Leather and, later, textile demonstrated that — and, after gaining enough fame, who — we are. We show ourselves off because we are not afraid of doing so; we don't hide, but rather declare ourselves. That's why that symbol is not simply a badge, bracelet or stripes on one's face. A visual sign symbolizing a community hung from a pole or mast is a herald. A herald of belonging.

Logically, it follows that others, i.e. not-us, use this symbol, pennant, flag as a target for their attacks. Capturing your enemy's symbol means the defeat of your enemy. If that which symbolized belonging belongs to someone else, the community as a whole likewise belongs to someone else.

This is what Roman legionnaires did as they returned from conquering Germanic tribes and marched under the triumphal arches, bringing the pennants of the defeated tribes to their emperor. The same thing took place 2000 years later in Moscow's Red Square, when the Red Army brought the flags of the descendants of those same Germanic peoples to Stalin's feet.

But we have seen this with the blue, black and white flag as well. When one of the earliest members of the Estonian Students' Society (EÜS) dared go out in public with a fraternity cap in the color combination of blue, black and white, he was hauled off his cart, and his cap was taken to the house of a German fraternity, where it was trampled underfoot and apparently destroyed. What could be more a primitive and Stone Aged reaction to a symbol than stealing it from its owner, taking it to their cave and defiling it?

A fur, textile, pennant, banner or flag flown from a pole, mast or stake is a metonym: an attribute that stands for a whole; colors, images that stand for genders, tribes, military units, religions, peoples, and later also countries. Pars pro totosynekdoche — one a Latin, the other a Greek term representing a specific situation in which part of something bigger represents a greater whole (a pro-Muscovite is attacking; Uncle Sam is Coming, Svensson bought Hansapank). It is likely one of the oldest forms of abstract thought. 

This same exact cognitive process, or way of thinking, led to the much more abstract human activity of writing, where symbols were used to represent not just oneself, but also the wider world as well as concepts. In Western culture (but not in China or Japan, for example), it got to the point where symbols began representing phonemes, or human sounds, which when strung together represented various concepts.

In its simplicity and primality, visually labeling oneself was nonetheless one of the earliest symbolic acts. This way of thinking is deeply shamanic in nature. As the part — pars — represents the whole — toto — and symbolizes toto, then this part actually is the whole, we ourselves. Th flag stands for us; it is part of us. 

Herein also lies the reason why it is flags and coats of arms in particular spark such strong emotions in people.

And as history has shown us, these symbols spur peoples and countries to crazy heroic feats to save or defend our symbol, or hoist our flag in celebration of victory. Two of the most popular images of World War II depict the raising of flags: one, the raising of the Soviet flag over the Reichstag in Berlin, and the other, the raising of the U.S. flag on the island of Iwo Jima.

In the case of the latter, where against all common sense a group of U.S. Marines climbed up Mount Suribachi during a desperate battle involving hundreds of thousands of men to raise a U.S. flag there, this event has achieved a special iconographic status — this photo was turned into a monument.

Interestingly enough, it has turned out that both iconic photos were actually posed after the fact, which only serves to confirm the importance of raising one's "own" flag as a sign of victory.

The photos also prove the value of a flag — insofar as men are prepared to risk their lives to raise it, and sacrifice themselves for a symbol.

II: 'We are too'

In addition to all the other developments to take place in the Western world in the 19th century, the rise of civil society deserves special mention. Before that, there was the church and the state. Civic organizations as such did not and to this day have still not developed east of the line drawn by Samuel Huntington.

But in Europe, including Estonia, all kinds of organizations, societies and associations began springing up alongside the church and state. This was the result of Enlightenment thinking, particularly the idea that man is more important than the state or church. The church was superstition, and the state, as John Locke explained, is a voluntary community based on an agreement concluded with the people.

Each of these associations brought together voluntary members, who joined in the name of some idea, principle or joint activity. Membership was based not on birthright affiliation with the same religion or country, but rather a connecting principle.

A remarkable example of the development of civil society within at least the German cultural sphere was the existence of student organizations, or fraternities. If we recall German history, then we'll know that "Germany" referred to a shared linguistic sphere, not a state. This included nearly 300 principalities, some of which had a university which attracted students from throughout German-speaking territories. People were no longer united by their place of origin, or principality, but by language.

What, then, set apart Germans who had come to study at Heidelberg University, University of Göttingen or University of Tübingen? That could only be principles, ideals and values. Anthropologically speaking, it was entirely logical for this new format of community to spring up alongside the state and church to start branding themselves using colors, coats of arms and flags, which symbolized their voluntary affiliation. (As an aside, fights between student organizations are likewise entirely logical, anthropologically speaking, as is the highest form of rivalry — the stealing of another fraternity's flag.)

With this, flags went from being metonyms to metaphors — symbols representing ideas and values. Colors no longer simply represented a tribe or state or military unit. The color combination of black, red and gold was allegedly adopted as a flag by culturally connected and liberal (i.e. pro-republic) Germans from the volunteer anti-Napoleonic Lützov Freikorps.

This later went on to become the flag of nationalist liberal students. First and foremost, it symbolized an idea. Just like the French tricolor represented Liberté, Égalité et Fraternité and the U.S. stars and stripes Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

A good example of the same from the start has been the metaphoric side of the blue, black and white flag: blue is the sky, black is soil (or history or the ceiling in our room), and white is our conscience. Although I'm not certain about this mythology — I'm not sure what came before and what somebody made up after the fact, and maybe this color combination was just pleasant and inspired people to invent explanations for it. But that probably isn't even important.

The meaning of the blue, black and white flag, the message incorporated into it, has changed significantly over time, and its role has changed in the opposite direction: the metaphor for ideals, equality and later the pursuit of freedom has become a metonym, a part symbolizing a bigger community, state and people. What the blue, black and white flag represents unfortunately remains a point of dispute.

The flag created in 1884 held a different meaning than it does today. The spirit that led to the birth of the blue, black and white flag was progressive, liberal, national romantic and inclusive. EÜS adopted a flag to demonstrate that Estonian university students were also Europeans and worthy of equal treatment.

The flag was a manifestation of ideals. It represented the fact that young Estonian men also had the right to belong to fraternities as university students, that a young man who speaks the local language is equal to a German as an Estonian, not just as a wannabe adopting a new nationality. This last bit is essential, as over the course of 700 years, Estonians had only risen to equal status with Germans by becoming German, but never as Estonians. Thus, the flag embodied liberalism in the 19th century sense. Using a flag embodying liberalism was a brave step, as the world in which ethnic Estonian University of Tartu students lived was anything but liberal.

The three colors run up the flagpole marked an intellectual leap; it was a statement that we are your equals even when we speak our own language. Some hundred years earlier, the same sort of Herderesque spirit had spoiled the Germans' own self-awareness as they declared they were not lesser than the French. This was Johann Gottfried von Herder, whose experiences in Livonia helped him reach the conclusion that it is language that is the spirit of a people, and which he began preaching in an effort to combat Germans' inferiority complex.

The spirit of liberty, equality and fraternity supported Estonian university students' message as well. By freedom, they meant moreso the German student anthem "Our Thoughts are Free" than anything yearning for independence. What was most important at the time was being equal to the Germans.

In the interest of accuracy, it must be noted that the actual intellectual leap was of course not the creation of a flag, but rather the establishment of the organization — Vironia, known later as the Estonian Students' Society. The flag was a natural form of assertion for an academic student organization.

The power of the metonym was confirmed by the fact that the Germans weren't bothered by some country bumpkins being allowed to study at the university or even that they formed a fraternity, but that they had the audacity to adopt colors for themselves, wear a fraternity cap in their colors, and wave their flag. The beating of [EÜS alumnus and then-president] Aleksander Mõttus for wearing a blue, black and white cap wasn't punishment enough. The cap had to be taken to [the German fraternity's] house and trampled to bits. And so they tried to destroy the metonym, and with it, the metaphorical values represented by the colors blue, black and white.

It is worth emphasizing at this point that the blue, black and white flag was yet far off from the status of national flag and representative of the (additional) values that come with that. Regardless of the fact that some may have already been dreaming of that at that point. At the time, the flag was affirming and inclusive; it declared membership in the European cultural space.

This was the connotation of the blue, black and white flag. Estonianhood in the 19th century was nonexistent and in some respects even deniable, insofar as success was dependent on the denial of one's Estonianhood. Germanhood, meanwhile, relied on the knowledge that they were surrounded by people that fit the bill of "Undeutsch."

Such active denial is reminiscent of a noble moral described by Nietzsche in his book "Beyond Good and Evil": "I am good because I am me, and the rest are simply wretched or bad." Affirmation was absent from Nietzsche's "slave mentality," however: the slave hates the upper class and declares the nobility evil which must be denied and scorned. The Estonians to create the flag communicated an affirming message: "We are too."

The existence of the flag and the replication in format of Germans' symbols and customs denoted something else entirely than the riot of slaves to revolt against colonial powers. This was moreso a case of syncretism, an adaptation and conflation of metonyms into our own culture.

Which is where the flag as a metaphor for inclusion came from. The flag declares that we belong to the same culture as our rulers; the flag included all ethnic Estonian people. This spirit provided blue, black and white with an additional connotation by the beginning of the 20th century: this was a national color combination. Blue, black and white took on meaning as a symbol of Estonians' equality, and more specifically equivalence, as well as affiliation with European culture.

Curiously, it also lost something. As it slowly became a national flag and thus a symbol of birthright affiliation, it also lost its symbolism of ideals and values to some extent. In other words, someone who considered the blue, black and white flag to be their flag would not necessarily be enthusiastic about 18th century democratic romanticism, although in just 1884 this would have been impossible.

Blue, black and white no longer represented only the European desire of a liberal student organization or belonging to Europe; it became the symbol of belonging to a specific nationality. The War of Independence secured the blue, black and white flag's classical definition as a flag; it also became a military symbol and symbol of power, under which people fought, attacked and fell. At the same time, not everyone wanted the blue, black and white flag to become the national flag. Due in part to the flag's history and the values it embodied, some political powers were in favor of different flag variations altogether.

Nonetheless, the colors of blue, black and white had become too cemented by the time Estonia gained independence to start replacing them with some other, strange combination. Estonians had fought and died under these colors. Still, the ultimate process of recognizing the blue, black and white flag as the national flag only began in 1934, 50 years after its birth, as the flag was actively promoted as a symbol of the state and its people. As a result of these efforts, blue, black and white symbolized a united country not only formally, but also spiritually. It was complete.

The story would have ended here as well, were it not for the occupation to follow.

III: Symbol of that which doesn't exist

Foreign occupations led to peak metonymy for the color combination of blue, black and white: the flag represented and defended things that no longer existed. Nothing demonstrates the primal power of flags and other symbols quite like the fact that expressions of a fairly ordinary and naturally occurring color combination began to be punished.

Pretend for a moment that you were a martian to land on the territory of the Estonian SSR. While you are surrounded by all kinds of incredible things, warranting special attention are the fear and horror that a color combination symbolizing something that doesn't exist inspire in the authorities.

At the same time, this was all quite logical. The combination had become a signifier of an independent country. The state had been destroyed, but now each little pars represented a nonexistent toto. Fear of the blue, black and white grew to the point that blue and white were even banned from being displayed next to one another. Because, as an acquaintance once told me, what would happen if someone in a black suit happened to stand in front of a blue and white background?

This frantic paranoia could only be understood if you interpreted the sight of these colors as a statement about an independent country and its occupation. That is why it was feared right alongside NATO, the U.S. and imperialism.

Stalin, for example, understood the primal power of a flag very well. In his letter to Lenin in 1922, he noted that the USSR could never incorporate countries that have had their own flag and their own embassies abroad. These could become "socialist" countries, but not republics of the USSR.

This letter was later removed from Lenin's collected correspondence. But that explains why schoolboys who had raised the blue, black and white flag were sent to prison camps, and why the editor-in-chief of Looming was removed after his "carelessness" allowed for a poem to be published, the first letters of each line of which, read from top to bottom, spelled out S-I-N-I-M-U-S-T-V-A-LG-E ("B-L-U-E-B-L-A-C-K-W-H-I-T-E").

IV: Regular flag

With the regaining of independence, or, rather, three years before then already, they got over this fear. In retrospect, we should even be outright thankful that the occupying forces' fear persisted for so long and so tenaciously. Imagine how hard it would have been to demand national continuity if the communists had been smarter and allowed Estonians to fly the blue, black and white flag in the 1960s already! Collaborators who had been plagued for decades by the flag were simply not up to mastering the blue, black and white flag in just three years.

From 1988-1991, blue, black and white began to increasingly fulfill its metonymic role. This represented a nationality and the idea of statehood. Blue, black and white lost its prohibited status, and became a commonplace symbol with few connotations. The blue, black and white flag became just one country's flag. Which was at least partly false, as until August 1991, Estonia was not a de facto country. Rather, during this period, blue black and white was garbled signifier of a cryptostate. The state didn't exist, but a symbol of the nonexistent state was fully sanctioned.

One can assume that by legalizing the blue, black and white flag again, the communist top brass hoped to wipe out the idea of the once state. This idea, which probably only seemed clever to the occupiers themselves, failed. Because what could be more absurd than the image of the Secretary of Ideology of the Communist Party of Estonia giving a speech in front of a blue, black and white flag?

With the restoration of Estonia's independence, the meaning of the flag changed again, returning to its prewar meaning. The blue, black and white flag became a regular national flag, which doesn't have nearly the degree of national connotations as it did during the occupation years. It also lacks the connotations of equality and liberal nationalism it had when it was first the flag of EÜS. It has become a classic denoter, with the blue black and white flag representing the Republic of Estonia, flown as an equal, but not imperceptibly, among the EU's other 24 and NATO's 25 flags in front of the two organizations' headquarters.

At the same time, and in conclusion, we are seeing threats that we have observed in other countries as well, and in the direction of which Estonia is unfortunately moving as well. Whether it's a significant shifting of the connotative meaning of the blue, black and white flag in the "No to Europe!" campaign a couple of years ago, or the use of blue, black and white in political parties' election campaigns, this indicates a desire to monopolize blue, black and white in order to achieve political objectives and, on this basis, contrast themselves with others.

Estonia is no exception, though. This has been particularly apparent in the U.S. during the past 25 years, where a flag that once declared Enlightenment-era freedom has often become the symbol of some intolerant faction. But this is dangerous.

That is why EÜS has to refrain from fetishizing its own flag, and instead must understand the ideals that led to its birth. And teach our descendants this as well. We must defend the blue, black and white flag from additional ascribed meanings and party-political optics. We need to stand to ensure that intolerance is not preached under the banner of the blue, black and white flag, and that pretenses and false patriotism do not flourish in its shadow.


1This article is based on a speech given at the EÜS House on June 5, 2004, at a conference dedicated to the 120th anniversary of the Estonian flag, and published in the volume "Eesti jõudmine" (Varrak, 2006).

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