The Visual Meaning Behind 24 of the World's Most Iconic Flags
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24 Iconic World Flags, and What They Mean

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From the skull and bones at the top of a pirate ship to a white flag on a battlefield, a single piece of fabric can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. Depending on where they fly, flags can represent freedom or control, danger or safety.

In the context of modern times, flags are best known as national symbols — and they’re used to air a country’s past, present, and future vision all rolled into one.

The Meaning of Flags

Today’s infographic from Just the Flight looks at some the world’s most iconic flags, and the intricate stories and ideals that can be found in their designs.

Flags of the World

The Americas

Since 1777, the star-spangled banner of the United States has gone through several facelifts. The current version has been in use since Hawaii gained statehood in 1960. Puerto Rico has been voting to become the 51st state in recent years — and if the U.S. government proved to accept such a resolution, the flag would be amended once more.

The largest country in South America, Brazil adopted its flag design in 1889. The primarily green background represents its lush Amazonian forest while the yellow diamond signifies its wealth in gold. Meanwhile, the Portuguese slogan on the flag, Ordem e Progresso, is a nod to democracy.

Europe

Denmark holds the Guinness world record for the oldest continuous use of their national flag, since 1625. The Danish flag is known as the Dannebrog, or Danish Cloth — as legend has it, the Dannebrog ‘miraculously’ fell from the sky in a battle during the Northern Crusades.

The Union Jack of the United Kingdom combines aspects of three older national flags and was adopted in 1801. Displaying the flag upside down is considered lèse-majesté — “to do wrong to majesty”, or an insult to the Crown — and is offensive to some.

Asia and Oceania

India’s tricolor flag was first flown in 1923. However, the colors do not represent religions or hours in the day — saffron symbolizes indifference to material gains, the white band represents light while the navy blue Dharma Chakra (wheel of truth) depicts dynamic change, and green demonstrates the country’s relationship to nature.

New Zealand’s flag features elements from the British Commonwealth. Since 2015, there have been ongoing debates among Kiwis about whether to amend the flag’s design. Frequent confusion with Australia is a significant pro for change, but national identity and financial costs are strong arguments against it.

Nepal is the only country without a rectangular (or square) national flag. The two triangles pay tribute to its geographic location in the Himalayas as well as the Shah and Rana dynasties. The sun and moon symbols on the flag used to have human faces on them, but were removed in 1962.

Africa

South Africa boasts one of the world’s most colorful flags. When it was first adopted after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, it was the first world flag to have six colors but no seal or brocade. Interestingly, while there is no inherent meaning in its colors, the Y shape symbolizes the convergence of diverse elements and societal unity.

Mozambique is the only national flag in the world to feature a modern weapon – specifically, an AK-47 with an attached bayonet. Adopted in 1983, the rifle represents vigilance and defense, while the hoe crossing it represents the country’s agriculture.

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Politics

A Century of Unions in Europe (1920-2022)

This year marks 100 years since the birth of the Soviet Union. How have countries in and near Europe aligned themselves over the last century?

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the ussr and the eu

Timeline: A Century of Unions in Europe (1920-2022)

On February 24th, Russia invaded Ukraine launching one of the biggest wars on European soil since World War II. The invasion reflects a longstanding belief of Russia’s that Ukraine—and much of the Soviet Union’s former republics and satellite states—is still their territory to claim. But what is the “former glory” of Russia?

Of the USSR’s former republics and satellite states, many have moved on to join the European Union, and in Putin’s eyes have become more “Westernized” and further from Russian values. In fact, Ukraine recently had its candidacy status approved with the EU.

It’s now been a full century since the formation of the USSR. Much has changed since then, and this visual timeline breaks down how countries within and near Europe have aligned themselves over those 100 years.

ℹ️ In the above visual, Soviet satellite states are not shown as a part of the USSR, as they were never formal republics. Candidate countries still in process to join the EU are not shown.

The USSR / Soviet Union

The Soviet Union—officially titled the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR)—was formed 100 years ago in 1922 and was dissolved in 1991 almost 70 years later. At its height it was home to 15 republics, over 286 million people, and stretched from the Pacific Ocean to Ukraine, with virtual control and influence in countries as far west as East Germany.

Notable leaders characterized both the rise and fall of the USSR, starting with its establishment under Vladimir Lenin until the union’s dissolution under Mikhail Gorbachev. Latvia and Lithuania were among the first republics to make the move for sovereignty, beginning the demise of the Soviet Union.

Here’s a look at which modern day countries were a part of the USSR.

Modern Day CountryName Under USSRDate JoinedDate Gained Independence
🇬🇪 GeorgiaGeorgian Soviet Socialist Republic19221991
🇺🇦 UkraineUkrainian Soviet Socialist Republic19221991
🇦🇲 ArmeniaArmenian Soviet Socialist Republic19221991
🇦🇿 AzerbaijanAzerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic19221991
🇧🇾 BelarusByelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic19221991
🇷🇺 RussiaRussian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic19221991
🇺🇿 UzbekistanUzbek Soviet Socialist Republic19241991
🇹🇲 TurkmenistanTurkmen Soviet Socialist Republic19241991
🇹🇯 TajikistanTajik Soviet Socialist Republic19291991
🇰🇬 KyrgyzstanKirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic19361991
🇰🇿 KazakhstanKazakh Soviet Socialist Republic19361991
🇱🇹 Lithuania Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic19401990
🇪🇪 EstoniaEstonian Soviet Socialist Republic19401991
🇱🇻 LatviaLatvian Soviet Socialist Republic19401990
🇲🇩 MoldovaMoldavian Soviet Socialist Republic19401991

Additionally, there were multiple satellite states, which were not formally joined with the USSR, but operated under intense Soviet influence.

Modern Day Country Country Name at the Time
🇦🇱 AlbaniaPeople's Republic of Albania
🇵🇱 PolandPolish People's Republic
🇧🇬 BulgariaPeople's Republic of Bulgaria
🇷🇴 RomaniaRomanian People's Republic
🇨🇿 CzechiaCzechoslovak Socialist Republic
🇸🇰 SlovakiaCzechoslovak Socialist Republic
🇩🇪 Germany East Germany (German Democratic Republic)
🇭🇺 HungaryHungarian People's Republic
🇸🇮 SloveniaFederal People's Republic of Yugoslavia
🇭🇷 CroatiaFederal People's Republic of Yugoslavia
🇷🇸 SerbiaFederal People's Republic of Yugoslavia
🇧🇦 Bosnia & HerzegovinaFederal People's Republic of Yugoslavia
🇲🇪 MontenegroFederal People's Republic of Yugoslavia
🇲🇰 North MacedoniaFederal People's Republic of Yugoslavia
🇲🇳 MongoliaMongolian People's Republic

Today, there are still some countries that align themselves with Putin and Russia over the EU.

Belarus, sometimes called Europe’s “last dictatorship”, shares a border with both Ukraine and Russia and facilitated the entry of Russian soldiers into Ukraine. Furthermore, according to the Pentagon, Russian missiles have been launched from Belarus.

The European Union

The European Union was officially formed in 1993 and has 27 member states. Some former USSR republics are now a part of the union including Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The most recent member to join was Croatia in 2013.

The EU has its roots in the European Coal & Steel Community which was formed in 1952 with Italy, France, West Germany and a few other countries comprising its first members. There are currently six candidate countries on track to join the EU — all but one were either former Soviet satellite states or formal republics:

  • 🇦🇱 Albania
  • 🇲🇪 Montenegro
  • 🇲🇰 North Macedonia
  • 🇷🇸 Serbia
  • 🇹🇷 Turkey
  • 🇺🇦 Ukraine
  • 🇲🇩 Moldova

There are many reasons countries opt to join the EU: a common currency, easier movement of goods and people between national borders, and, of course, military protection.

However, in 2020 the UK formally left the union, making it the first country in history to do so. Here’s a look at every EU member state.

EU Member StatesYear JoinedFormer USSR Republic?Former USSR Satellite State?
🇦🇹 Austria1995NoNo
🇧🇪 Belgium1952NoNo
🇧🇬 Bulgaria2007NoYes
🇭🇷 Croatia2013NoYes
🇨🇾 Cyprus2004NoNo
🇨🇿 Czechia2004NoYes
🇩🇰 Denmark1973NoNo
🇪🇪 Estonia2004Yes--
🇫🇮 Finland1995NoNo
🇫🇷 France1952NoNo
🇩🇪 Germany1952NoYes (East Germany)
🇬🇷 Greece1981NoNo
🇭🇺 Hungary2004NoYes
🇮🇪 Ireland1973NoNo
🇮🇹 Italy1952NoNo
🇱🇻 Latvia2004Yes--
🇱🇹 Lithuania2004Yes--
🇱🇺 Luxembourg1952NoNo
🇲🇹 Malta2004NoNo
🇳🇱 Netherlands1952NoNo
🇵🇱 Poland2004NoYes
🇵🇹 Portugal1986NoNo
🇷🇴 Romania2007NoYes
🇸🇰 Slovakia2004NoYes
🇸🇮 Slovenia2004NoYes
🇪🇸 Spain1986NoNo
🇸🇪 Sweden1995NoNo

Ukraine’s Outlook

The iron curtain that was draped across Europe, which used to divide the continent politically and ideologically, has since been drawn back. But the war in Ukraine is a threat to many in Europe, and countries such as Poland have voiced fears about the spillover of conflict.

In late June, the European Council approved Ukraine’s bid for expedited candidacy to the EU, but the process will still likely be lengthy—for example, it took Croatia 10 years to formally join at the normal pace.

Beyond other needs such as military support, joining the union would allow refugees from Ukraine the freedom to migrate and work in other EU countries with ease.

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Misc

Missing Migrants: Visualizing Lost Lives Along the Mediterranean Sea

Each year, thousands of migrants take the journey along the Eastern Mediterranean to get to the EU. Some never make it to their destination.

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Map of Missing Migrants along the Eastern Mediterranean

Missing Migrants: Lost Lives Along the Mediterranean Sea

Each year, thousands of migrants flee war-torn countries in search of asylum.

Even before the migrant crisis caused by the Russo-Ukrainian War, Europe has been the focal point in the past decade. Many refugees from conflicts in Africa and Asia, including those from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and have traveled to Europe along the Eastern Mediterranean migration route—a dangerous passage across the Aegean Sea that weaves along the coastlines of Greece and Turkey.

The journey to reach Europe is risky, and some of the migrants who attempt the crossing never make it. Using data from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), this map by Elbie Bentley visualizes the reported deaths and disappearances along the Eastern Mediterranean from 2014 to 2021.

Inspired by Levi Westerveld’s Those Who Did Not Cross, each lost life is captured with its own dot, in an effort to humanize the data.

The 2015 European Crisis

1,863 deaths and disappearances were reported along the Eastern Mediterranean between the years of 2014 and 2021.

Almost half of those recordings came from 2015 during the European migrant crisis, when a record-breaking one million people sought asylum in the EU.

About 800,000 of the one million migrants traveled to Greece through Turkey, with many of the refugees escaping Syria’s civil war.

European Migrant Crisis by YearReported deaths and disappearances
2014101
2015804
2016434
201762
2018174
201971
2020106
2021111

In an attempt to control the situation, the EU and Turkey signed a migration deal in March 2016 that agreed to send back migrants who did not receive official permission to enter the EU.

Though the agreement drastically reduced the number of people traveling through Turkey to Greece, thousands still make the dangerous journey across the Aegean Sea each year. In 2021, 111 people were reported dead or missing along the Eastern Mediterranean.

The Dangerous Journey

According to the International Organization for Migration, the most common cause of death along the Eastern Mediterranean is drowning.

While the journey is only 5.4 nautical miles or less, transportation conditions to Greece are not always safe. Boats are sometimes forced into tumultuous waters, according to migrants who’ve experienced the journey firsthand.

And these boats are often severely underequipped and overcrowded—rubber dinghies designed to carry a dozen people are sometimes loaded with up to 60 passengers.

Safer means of transportation are available, but the costs are steep. According to Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, it could cost a family an average of €10,000 to travel by yacht.

Rescue Efforts for Migrants is Needed

Further complicating the dangerous journey is a lack of rescue resources.

According to a 2021 report by IOM, the EU does not currently have a dedicated search and rescue team. Instead, the onus is on individual states to patrol their own waters.

Until the crisis is better addressed or local conflicts begin to resolve, there will be an urgent need for increased rescue operations and a standardized migration protocol to help mitigate the number of migrant deaths and disappearances each year.

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