Clear the mentions, this one’s going to get a lot of letters.
Flags are a fascinating piece of design lore — at once attempting to be ancient pieces of heraldry and to signify the quintessentially modern notion of the sovereign nation state.
I drew up some fairly arbitrary rules for inclusion, but settled on a set which made the list manageable while also giving me enough examples of some of the weirder, more interesting bits of history to dive into.
- It must have been in existence in the period from 1900 onwards.
This is the most arbitrary rule, but I feel it gives a reasonable approximation of a recognisable nation state, and a decent chance of the political entity having existed during living memory.
- The flag cannot be a currently existing flag (other than by coincidence)
I don’t think it really counts as a defunct flag if it’s still in use, even if the entity using it took a break (the Russian Federation using the flag of the Russian Empire, or modern Japan using the same flag as the Japanese Empire) or changed its name/structure (several of the post-communist states of Eastern Europe). That said, if for unrelated reasons a modern state has an identical flag to one of these, that’s okay.
- It has to have meaningfully existed
Another definition likely to annoy, but one I needed in order to filter down the numbers. I’ve basically ruled on this has “the polity was around for more than a year and wasn’t a micronation or similar questionably sovereign entity”.
A quick earnest note is worth including here: many of these flags existed as the symbols of evil, authoritarian, corrupt, or failed states, and plenty of combinations of the above. It would be easy to say you can separate the art from the artist, but in the case of flags that’s very difficult, since they’re very overtly a representation of a country’s values and identity.
Other flags are for comparatively blameless entities which were themselves crushed or absorbed by one of the above. That obviously engenders its own ill feeling, and many of these political wounds are still sore.
Short of stripping them out of the list — which I feel would miss some important design discussion (not to mention significantly shorten the article) — I’ve just had to contextualise and take into account these factors when making the rankings.
Due to the added importance of historical and political context in how well the design of these flags works, I’ve moved back to ranking these flags manually using my subjective judgment, rather than employing the systematic round robin tool I created for previous lists. Doubtless in some of these descriptions haste and limited resources have meant I’ve misrepresented some aspect of history, but it might be best for you to just assume someone has already told me. I get a quieter life that way.
But with all those caveats out of the way, it’s time to run this list up the flagpole and see who salutes.
91. Free Lebanon State (1979–1984)
The Lebanese Civil War is a terrifying complex and tragic conflict whose causes, events and outcome would be worth a PhD thesis more than my smug commentary in a silly Medium list, but it does have the honour of having produced the worst flag on this list.
The puppet state existed for five years with no real international recognition save for that of Israel, and ruled over a small worm of land in Southern Lebanon containing around 150,000 people. Evidently, none of them worked as professional graphic designers, because this child’s drawing of the iconic Lebanese cedar tree is a masterclass in how to phone it in five minutes before the deadline.
That this abomination of a flag lasted longer and ruled over more people than some of the better examples further up this list is a good testament to how, as graphic designers, we don’t exactly bloody matter when it comes to international diplomacy.
90. Bukharan People’s Soviet Republic (1920–1924)
One of the principles of these lists that I should have hammered into your skull like twelve-inch nails by this point is that good design exudes confidence, and bad design lets you know that the designer lost faith in the idea early on.
In the case of this short-lived proto-Soviet state, which found itself merged mostly into Uzbekistan and Turkmenia following the establishment of the USSR, they seem to have wanted to marry the imagery of Islam with that of Communism (not a bad idea to win hearts and minds in the early days of the Revolution) but done it in a ham-fisted way. The colours clash, the hammer and sickle is shoehorned in awkwardly, and they commited the cardinal flag sin of adding superfluous lettering.
89. Tuvan People’s Republic (1921–1944)
A strip of land on the Russian side of the Mongolian border, covering a considerable area but home to only around 90,000 people for most of its 23 years of independence, the Tuvan People’s Republic spent most of its independence squarely under the thumb of Joseph Stalin, before he rubbed it out altogether by a merger into the Russian republic of the USSR in 1944 (when nobody was in much of a state to argue with the Red Army). It remains a part of Russia to this day. Its national anthem, quite delightfully, was called The Forest Is Full of Pine Nuts.
For the early years of its existence it had a much more fun (if busy) flag seen here, but as this was the one in effect for the last year of its existence, it’s where we’re placing our judgment.
Designers will be familiar with the concept of kerning, but to the uninitiated, this refers to the art of positioning letters relative to one another within a word or acronym so the eye glides seamlessly between them — and when it’s done well, you shouldn’t notice it. The yawning gap between the A and R in this flag is enough to hide an oppressed minor Soviet republic in.
88. Persian Soviet Socialist Republic (1920–1921)
Red and black don’t reproduce well together unless you’re Dennis the Menace, and the Persian SSR is no exception. A tiny unrecognised statelet in Northern Iran which held it together between 1920 and 1921, you won’t find many history books on it, but suffice to say it was abandoned by the Bolshevik government in Russia (who had rather a lot on) and swiftly collapsed thereafter.
Other than its derivative nature, there isn’t much to say about this — the red flag of revolution may have worked for the Bolsheviks, but for this tiny sliver of communist utopia, it had to serve merely as inspiration for a quite cute postage stamp.
87. Tripolitanian Republic (1918–1922)
Winner of the first annual Robin Wilde “aww, they tried!” award for failed execution.
During the breakup of colonial empires which began to gather momentum in the aftermath of World War 1, the province of Tripolitania (roughly the northwestern quarter of modern Libya) declared its independence from its colonial overlords in Italy.
It didn’t take — and historians may recognise that this feeling of loss of territory and prestige by Italy, which had after all been an Allied power and suffered heavy losses in the war, contributed directly to the eventual rise of Fascism at around the time the tiny Misrata-based republic petered out — but at least we got to witness the most inspiring flag imagery to ever grace the Maghreb. Forget the hammer and sickle, long live the Clip Art Palm Tree.
86. Emirate of Cyrenaica (1949–1951)
Another product of the breakdown of Italian colonialism in Libya — and there will be a lot of Libyan flags in this list, are you excited?
It’s not that this is necessarily bad on its own terms — the moon and star of Islam are a very common feature of flags the world over, and you couldn’t deny it’s an iconic and recognisable design. It’s just that of all the deployments of it in this list, this is probably the most basic and least inspired. It does gain a small amount of points for being the basis for the eventual flag of unified Libya, at least under Gaddafi got to it (but more fun with Muammar later in this list).
85. Sultanate of Egypt (1914–22)
A semi-independent protectorate that existed from the beginning of the First World War, it was unceremoniously chucked out of the Empire in 1922 when the British, rather unusually for the time, unilaterally declared it independent (although they then proceeded to exert another 30 years of influence over the new state).
If in doubt as to how to differentiate yourself from the Ottoman Empire, why not simply treble the number of Islamic moons and stars? Three times the Islam means three times the importance!
84. Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (1977–2011)
The full name of Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya always makes for a great pub quiz question, if mainly for the spectacle of watching trivia geeks try to pronounce Jamahiriya or remember the order of “Great”, “Socialist”, and “People’s” after four pints.
I’m not saying it’s not simple or recognisable, but I’d also not give it full marks for effort. Meant to symbolise Gaddafi’s commitment to pan-Africanism (which he dutifully attempted to enact by disastrously attempting to invade Chad for most of the 1980s) it could just as easily represent his love of snooker.
83. Allied Occupied Japan (1945–52)
Behold, reverse Czechoslovakia! Japanese iconography can draw on a rich and ancient cultural tradition, so there was ample opportunity to redraw the map after the discrediting of the Rising Sun flag due to the atrocities and horrendous violence of the Pacific War.
In the end, this was only used for a few years before they gave up trying to think of anything else and went back to the Rising Sun flag. It was rather useful of the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy to mostly use the sunburst version most familiar from war films — since it has come to symbolise the bits of Japanese history most would rather forget, even though it was never the overall state flag.
82. Soviet Zone of China (1927–1949)
Used by the Chinese Communist Party’s forces during the very protracted Civil War period, this is an uninspired flag which was used in the early years of the conflict (finding a definitive flag for what was a fluid and highly volatile time period in that bit of the world is… tricky).
The addition of the slogan to the side of the flag (which to my shame I can’t translate, so maybe it’s inspiring but I doubt it) weakens the overall package, in keeping with the general “don’t stick text on flags” rule of vexillology.
81. Setul (1808–1916)
Notable for being that rare thing — a solid red flag that wasn’t anything to do with Communism, and indeed the state it represented didn’t quite survive to see the Russian Revolution. Sadly, it’s quite boring. The name Setul is Malay, and it is now known as Satun province, in southern Thailand. It looks like it has some nice beaches?
80. People’s Republic of Benin (1975–1990)
Wins some points for getting to the solid green thing two years before Gaddafi, but otherwise a fairly unremarkable flag, which gets bumped down a few places because the red/green contrast makes my eyes water.
Fairly hardcore as Marxist-Leninist one-party states went, this one in West Africa was swept aside in 1990 along with most of the rest as the Soviet money tap was abruptly turned off and Communism very much stopped being flavour of the month.
A 1977 coup attempt by the French and Moroccans was codenamed Operation Shrimp, but this was just about the only cute thing about it, since quite a few people died. The tankiest website I’ve ever seen claims North Korea was involved in thwarting it, but I can’t be bothered to find a more reputable source.
79. People’s Republic of the Congo (1969–1992)
For the avoidance of doubt, this is the country that’s now known as the Republic of Congo, which absolutely nobody calls it, so what I actually mean is Congo-Brazzaville, the smaller and slightly more stable of the two Congos.
Its imagery is absolutely boilerplate one-party Communist state, with the hoe replacing the sickle, probably reflecting a different style of local agricultural peasantry. The addition of the laurel wreaths slightly pushes it into the “too busy” part of the Venn diagram, but what do I know — maybe it was what allowed it to narrowly outlast the fall of the USSR.
Congo 1, Gorbachev 0.
78. Islamic State of Afghanistan (1992–1996)
Afghanistan is chiefly up against Libya and Egypt in the contest for which country can have a tragic enough history to reach the most appearances in this list, and this is the entry which has made me realise that going to a bar for a couple of drinks while I write an article in which I have to explain the convoluted history of Afghanistan might be a bad idea.
Essentially, this is the flag of the coalition of some (but not all) Mujahideen forces which took power in Kabul between the fall of the Soviet-backed puppet government which ran the show during the Soviet War in Afghanistan, and the takeover by the Taliban in 1996. To call it unsuccessful would be rather kind, but its placement lowest on this list isn’t a reflection of its four-year record so much as a judgment on its hard-to-distinguish crest, which is both low contrast and overly complex.
Words on a flag are bad at the best of times — doing so in a country where, as of 2001, only 27% of men and 6% of women were literate, is a particular misstep.
77. Iraqi Republic (1958–1968)
Rubbish. I hate that children’s drawing of a sun — it’s like the sort of flag you’d get out of a random generator on the internet, and contrasting a sun with a large area of black is a level of juxtaposition beyond what a flag should attempt. I’m obviously not glad they got overthrown by Saddam, but one can’t help but thinking a better flag might have inspired a little more loyalty.
76. Imperial State of Iran (1925–1979)
The one run by the Shah, if you were wondering.
If you’re running a huge, gaudy dictatorship, then a huge, gaudy animal on your flag can be just what the doctor ordered — as we’ll see when we get to Franco’s Spain shortly.
The golden lion is what we in the business call “a bit on the nose” and more to the point, strays too close to the margins of the white stripe for my liking. Shrink it down, simplify it, and stop the massive waste of state funds, and Reza Pahlavi might well not have got revolutioned. Who can say?
75. Yemen Arab Republic (1962–1990)
Wow, an Arab nation using white, black, red and green and a star? Colour me thrilled. A real shining example of an inspiring rallying point for a nation glaring across a Cold War border at its neighbour.
74. People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (1967–1990)
The Communist one. See the above comments, but award it an extra point for forgoing green in favour of blue. Knock off half a point for it clashing horribly with that wonky red star.
73. Neutral Moresnet (1816–1920)
Hands up, I’d never heard of this… thing… before I started writing this list. Since it governed a territory of 3.5 square kilometres with a population of around 3,000, I’d hope this can be forgiven.
Created in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars as a buffer zone between France and Germany, with a capital in the modern-day village of Kelmis, it was joined by Belgium in the 1830s and formed part of a quad point between four territories right up until the end of the First World War. It had a fairly horrifying World War, being right in the path of the German advance, and lost some 5% of its population in the fighting.
Given its size and position, it was only questionably independent, using the French Franc and subject to a heavy restriction on its activities by the Belgian government (which stopped it operating its own stamps) although it successfully opened a casino for gambling-friendly Belgians after their own government banned such institutions. It basically had no centralised government (being tiny) which means you can still find weird anarchists and libertarians tweeting about it to this day.
Anyway, this has taken me down a real rabbit hole — the flag! The colours are allegedly meant to represent a mix of the Prussian and Netherlands flags, but nobody seems really sure. It’s quite a dull tricolour when it’s not being rendered in eyeball-damaging neon like the above, and since such flags are meant to embody the values of the state (think liberté, égalité and fraternité) it’s less than ideal if nobody actually knows what it’s meant to mean.
It’s pronounced “morrenay” by the way, and is now a part of Belgium following the Treaty of Versailles. I have definitely been going around calling it More’s Net all week.
72. Libyan Arab Republic (1969–1977)
The bit after Gaddafi took over, but before he went full Gaddafi. Very easy to accuse of being a rip-off of the Egyptian flag, not without some merit. That’s not fair though — the eagle clearly faces the other way!
71. Congo Free State (1885–1908)
Home to some of colonialism’s worst horrors, the Congo Free State was under Belgian governance — aided by enormous violence — but was technically an independent state which owed its loyalty to the Belgian monarch, rather than to the elected governments of Brussels.
Not inherently terrible — there’s no fundamental rules broken here — but it’s not exactly an inspired design, and in recent decades has come to resemble an accidentally zoomed in EU flag. Maybe it can slot in where the UK used to go.
70. Jiangxi Soviet (1931–1934)
Formally known as the Central Revolutionary Base, this state was the largest portion of Communist territory during the 1930s phase of the Chinese Civil War, a conflict so complex I’m slightly terrified to go into it here for fear of earning lifelong enmity from several different political tendencies at once.
Copying the Soviet Union’s flag and whacking on some additional text is boilerplate for this sort of entity, but it gains a few places relative to where it might be due to the fact I can’t read Chinese, so the characters sort of take on a visual graphic quality that roman characters wouldn’t. That might be the most subjective praise I’ve ever issued.
69. Ba’athist Iraq (1968–2003)
Saddam’s Iraq, with a flag fairly similar to modern-day Iraq but with extra stars. The “Allahu Akbar” text was added in 1991 to inspire religious commitment in the wake of the Gulf War. It, uh, didn’t prove enough to keep Saddam in power.
It’s yet another Middle Eastern flag with red, white, black and green, and if you were asked to design the flag of a decrepit dictatorship, this would be a great model to start on.
68. Kingdom of Greece (1935–1973)
Dropped after the abolition of the Greek Monarchy following a 69–31% result in a 1974 referendum (nice), the old flag was a lot less exciting and Hellenically stripy than the modern flag, which you can see the design potential of every time you buy a pot of Greek yogurt.
67. Kingdom of Montenegro (1910–1918)
That classic Slavic double-headed eagle features in the modern Montenegrin flag too, but against a solid red field with a gold border. One can’t deny it looks extremely metal, and it’s ready to stove your head in with the scepter if its talons don’t do the job. It’s a bit too complex as a central device on a flag though, and is better suited to a coat of arms.
Montenegro did not have a long or happy history as an independent Kingdom — it was essentially at war the whole time, had a dreadful First World War on account of being tiny and wedged between warring powers, and then got rolled up into what became Yugoslavia. By the time of their eventual subsequent independence from Serbia in 2006 they’d got a better flag.
66. Republic of the Sudan (1956–1969)
The first flag of independent Sudan until it became the Democratic Republic of the Sudan in 1969 (which shares its flag with modern-day Sudan and therefore doesn’t appear on this list). As flags go it’s a fairly straightforward representation of sky, sand and fertile land, which also happens to resemble one of those logic puzzles you find in IQ tests, showing that blue + yellow = green.
65. Lemko Republic (1918–1920)
Ctrl + f: Sudan
Ctrl + C
Ctrl + V
For those curious (and who isn’t) this was a miniature statelet carved out of southern Poland during the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was opposed to integration into newly-created Ukraine, rebuffed by the newly created Czechoslovakia, before being swallowed up by Poland again in 1920. Central Europe in the interwar period was… complex.
64. Rhodesia (1965–1980)
The Latin motto on this coat of arms translates to “May she be worthy of the name”, which is a curious choice for a state founded to prevent Britain ending white minority rule. Much of the coat of arms survives in the modern Zimbabwean coat of arms, except with the kudus redrawn, a red star behind the Great Zimbabwe Bird, and a different motto (“Unity, Freedom, Work” in case you wondered).
Rhodesian imagery has become weirdly popular among online right-wing weirdos in recent years, as they’ve latched onto the secessionist state as a lost cause and come to idolise their army’s role in the Rhodesian Bush War. It’s a curious choice because not only did Rhodesia not even last two decades, it badly lost that war, so it doesn’t even work if what you want is an example of white supremacy. And just to be clear, that isn’t a thing you should want.
Anyway, the flag — dark green is a fairly rare choice, and it’s got a certain regal solemnity to it I suppose. Coats of arms remain a no-no, and one can’t separate it from the awful regime it represented.
63. Kingdom of Kurdistan (1922–1924)
One chapter in the long and tragic story of attempts to found a Kurdish state, this particular example was the one founded by Mahmud Barzanji in rebellion against the newly formed polity of Iraq following Britain’s takeover of the region following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. As with all such endeavours, the borders of the new state were brilliantly concocted and as such would never cause anybody any trouble again.
The red, green and Islamic moon are a classic combo, but the high contrast makes my eyes vibrate like an Iraqi oil pump.
62. German Democratic Republic (1949–1990)
Ah, East Germany, the Eastern Bloc’s showcase and home of incredibly efficient and creepy life-invading security services (if you haven’t, I highly recommend watching The Lives of Others). A classic of the Communist Bloc genre, whacking an overly complicated crest on top of an existing tricolour — in this case the old Weimar flag which also served as the West German and later unified German flag.
The hammer is a communist standard to represent the industrial working class, but the compass takes the place of the sickle (with the peasantry and farmers represented by the wheat sheafs encircling the crest). This represents the intellectuals and scientists, and is intended to signify East Germany’s status as a scientific powerhouse (and indeed much of the Soviet Bloc’s computer and video game industry, such as it was, was sited in the GDR).
61. Rif Republic (1921–1926)
A state created out of what was then Spanish Morocco by a fairly successful revolt, which was then crushed by France and Spain using chemical weapons in one of the bloodier wars I’d never previously heard of (over 30,000 soldiers killed).
The use of the diamond backing for the now-standard Islamic star device is fairly unique and elevates it above some of the other examples of what is ultimately a fairly dull design.
60. Republic of Egypt (1953–1958)
The Egypt that existed after the takeover by Gamal Abdel Nasser (the Suez Crisis bloke) until the creation of the United Arab Republic (a failed merger with Syria, other than giving the latter its modern-day flag) in 1958.
Look at that proud eagle. That’s a bearing you could set your watch to. Falls foul of my coat of arms rule, but as it’s more simple than some of the others, it flaps its way up the rankings.
59. Alash Autonomy (1917–1920)
Basically modern-day Kazakhstan, carved out of the Russian Empire during the post-revolutionary chaos by Kazakh elites in an attempt to set up a sovereign state. Alash refers to the political party in charge, who made the tactically questionable decision to back the Whites during the Russian Civil War, which is why there isn’t an Alash Autonomy anymore.
It’s a bit too busy colour-wise for my taste, although it’s interesting to see a green-yellow-red combination outside of an African or Rastafarian context.
58. Azerbaijan People’s Government (1945–1946)
A Soviet-backed satellite state in northern Iran which lasted just over a year in the aftermath of World War 2, before a treaty with Iran brought it back under Iranian control. That crest is a little bit too twee and colourful for my liking, while the tricolour is ripped wholesale from that of Iran.
57. Khanate of Khiva (1511–1920)
Hands up who heard of this one before now? Nah, me Khiva. Fields of black tend to be avoided in flag design, one imagines for practical reasons (they’re hard to see at night) and sentimental reasons (they remind one of pirates).
The Khanate was a sliver of land in what is now mostly Uzbekistan, centred in the mid-sized city of Khiva. After the Russian Revolution, local anti-monarchists joined forces with Bolsheviks to overthrow the Khan, and after a short civil war (during which this flag was used by loyalists) the territory became the Khorezm People’s Soviet Republic (more of which later).
56. Kingdom of Afghanistan (1926–1973)
A curious decision not to show the palace flying its own flag! I think this is the first Afghan flag to incorporate black, red and green as its colour scheme, which would go on to adorn most subsequent Afghan flags other than those of the 1990s and the post-2021 Taliban regime. Impressive staying power considering that at least one of those was a Marxist-Leninist republic, which may have wished to distance itself from the monarchy.
55. Kingdom of Iraq (1932–1958)
You can see the basic elements of many of the classic Arabic flags here — the stars, the colour scheme, and the triangular wedge, although this time truncated into a trapezium. One of Iraq’s longer-lasting regimes, it must be said, although eventually overthrown by the Iraqi Republic (which itself lasted ten years before the Ba’athist takeover).
54. Federation of South Arabia (1962–1967)
Too complex, in my view. Could lose the yellow stripes and significantly improve. Founded in 1962 out of former British colonies, it would ultimately go on to become South Yemen.
53. Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1918–1941)
The tricolour is a strong start, but this post-WW1 creation loses points for its maddeningly complex coat of arts (although I guess points for representing its tricky ethno-linguistic composition). The drapes are possibly the most regally fancy thing you’ll find on this list, which is kind of funny when you consider it was ultimately replaced by a fairly drab communist republic.
52. Spanish State (1939–1975)
Franco’s Spain after his victory in the Civil War. Could this scream authoritarian right-winger any louder? It’s got the fash-y eagle, the arrows of the Falange, classical pillars AND a crown. Hope it inspired people who liked three decades of economic stagnation and beating people up for holding hands in the street.
51. Newfoundland (1907–1949)
The last province to join Canada, Newfoundland’s old flag is classic British Empire — the Union Jack, the red field, and some sort of overcomplicated coat of arms. Mind you, the new one isn’t much better.
50. Kingdom of Egypt (1922–1953)
Another mid-table Islamic moon entry with a smattering of stars, this was the post-Independence-but-very-much-under-the-British-thumb Kingdom overthrown by Nasser in 1953.
49. State of the Comoros (1975–1978)
The Comoros has had loads of flags over the years and has a surprisingly turbulent and varied history for a small island nation of under a million people which regularly scores a zero on Pointless.
This variant is okay — the two-tone field gives it some variety and that’s an audacious number of stars to include.
48. People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (1987–1991)
Becoming a People’s Democratic Republic in 1987 must have felt like arriving at a house party just as most of the guests are leaving and the host is passed out on the couch. Still, as Soviet satellite states go, it’s got most of the basics — sun rays, a giant gear, a star — and it’s just a shame that awesome lion didn’t feature more prominently.
47. Union of South Africa (1910–1961)
The bit between getting Dominion status and becoming a Republic, after which it kept the same basic flag but fell out with Britain over its desire to keep its non-white citizens in subjugation.
The tricolour works okay, but the three flags (representing the states which came to form the Union in 1910, I think) are very awkwardly wedged in — the design would have been much more effective without it.
46. Zimbabwe Rhodesia (1979–1980)
A sort of placeholder while the country was under shared rule before becoming modern Zimbabwe in 1980, this significantly improves on both the flags before and, in my view, afterwards. The Great Zimbabwe Bird sits more easily separated from the coat of arms, and the Hungarian tricolour, while blatantly nicked, incorporates the nice Rhodesian dark green.
45. Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (1978–1992)
Explaining how Afghanistan went from its previous Socialist republic to this one takes some doing, but it effectively comes down to splits in the ruling Communist party leading to Soviet intervention (read: murder) against the Afghan leader. The DRA was the result, a more classic Soviet satellite state which effectively served as cover for the Soviet Army to conduct its fairly disastrous war through the 1980s. Collapsed fairly swiftly after they withdrew in 1989, taking with it the overly large coat of arms which, to be fair, didn’t wedge in too much text or overcomplicate itself like certain others we could mention.
44. First Syrian Republic (1946–1950)
This flag may be more familiar to readers as that of the Syrian Democratic Forces formed in opposition to the regime of Bashar Al-Assad during the Syrian wars of the 2010s, but it’s actually drawn from the first sovereign Syrian state liberated from French mandate in the aftermath of World War 2. The red being limited to the three stars helps balance the colour palette a bit better than other red-green-black-white flags, and its extra-wide aspect ratio is fairly unique.
43. Republic of Afghanistan (1973–1978)
The sort of pro-Soviet government established after General Daoud deposed his cousin, King Mohammad. Embarked on fairly rapid modernisation efforts for five years until itself deposed in a coup, leading to the Soviet intervention mentioned above.
Interesting use of the double-wide green field, and a nicely compact crest which avoids the overcomplication of many similar designs.
42. Qajar Persia (1789–1925)
Officially the Sublime State of Iran, which feels like a boast. The faded red on the lower stripe makes it look a bit like it’s been left out in the sun too long, but I quite like the peeking sunburst behind the lion device. Overthrown by Reza Khan (father of the last Shah) in the Twenties.
41. German Empire (1871–1918)
Ah, the Kaiserreich. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “third Reich” and wondered what happened to the second, well, here’s your answer. A potent enough colour combination that its legacy survived into the Nazi flag, the black-white-red scheme has since been adopted by modern German nationalists banned from flying the Swastika. Overthrown by a revolution in the dying days of World War 1 after causing several million deaths and setting in train a very large percentage of 20th century European history. Consequential, at any rate.
40. Kingdom of Italy (1861–1946)
The shield device used here is simple enough to escape my ire, but the crown device is much too complex. The modern Italian tricolour, adopted following the referendum abolishing the monarchy following World War 2, is a significant improvement.
That’s not the Danish flag in the middle, by the way — it’s the coat of arms of the House of Savoy, from which the Italian royal family was drawn. The actual Danish flag is, interestingly for this list, the oldest continuously used national flag in the world. It’s not relevant, but it is worth an impressed “huh”.
39. People’s Republic of Bulgaria (1946–1990)
The various Eastern European People’s Democracies of the Cold War era were known for jamming their communist iconography bang in the middle of their old tricolours, so credit to the Bulgarians for tucking theirs neatly into a corner. Laid out against a white background though, it does somewhat look as though it’s floating just out of reach.
38. Biafra (1967–1970)
A secessionist state carved out of southeastern Nigeria in the late sixties, which led to a very bloody civil war whose wounds still linger in the discourse today. Happily for my inbox we’re here to discuss flags and not Nigerian politics, and so I’ll merely say that the sunburst device is strong and simple enough to clear my bar for not being a wedged-in coat of arms.
37. Mengjiang United Autonomous Government (1939–1945)
A nominally sovereign Inner Mongolian state created by the Japanese Empire after its invasion of China in the late Thirties, and ruled by Mongol nobleman Demchugdongrub, this was in fact just another puppet state along the lines of Manchukuo.
The choice of colours is bold and bright and the use of white stripes to separate the red from the blue helps avoid excessive contrast, much as it doesn’t help stave off ignominious military defeat.
36. Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1945–1992-ish-it’s-complicated)
I mean, it’s not exactly subtle. Replacing the royal coat of arms with a communist star was a basic bitch sort of decision by Tito’s partisans, but it lasted 45 years so who are we to judge. A strange communist state that existed in a weird limbo between east and west after pissing off Stalin in the late forties, until it crumbled into a vicious series of genocidal wars in the 1990s.
35. Federal and Islamic Republic of the Comoros (1978–1989)
I think after researching this list I might be the Pacific Northwest’s foremost expert on the various Comoros flags, which is at least something to add to the CV. There’s been absolutely loads, though most conform to the basic format of green field, Islamic moon at some sort of angle, and a distribution of stars.
This particular one was for the constitution of 1978–1989, during which the country joined the Arab League and, according to Wikipedia, had “no parliamentary or popular participation” which doesn’t sound ideal. It was replaced after the assassination of its leader Ahmed Abdallah, a former French Senator, in 1989.
34. Manchukuo (1932–1945)
Japanese puppet state in China ruled by Puyi, the final Qing emperor whose life is described in epic fashion by the 1987 film The Last Emperor. Once again completely under the thumb of the Japanese, the five colours on this flag were allegedly to celebrate five races residing in its jurisdiction, and drew on the Republic of China’s flag established in 1912, which had the coloured bars drawn all the way across and down the design, rather than confined to the top quarter. It’s quite recognisable and easily drawn — shame about all the atrocities.
33. State of Cambodia (1989–1993)
A transitional state which existed while a peace treaty between the Vietnamese-backed government and various opposition groups, including the Khmer Rouge, was concluded and multi-party elections established. Strangely reminiscent of the flag of Liechtenstein, and I very much dig the geometric Angkor Wat.
32. Free City of Danzig (1920–1939)
The cause of, shall we say, some dispute during its brief existence in the interwar period, this free city (one of a few established through the Twentieth Century) was basically a compromise giving Poland sea access, but in so doing cut off Germany from much of its Eastern territory, which provided some of the pretext for the invasion of 1939. That’s obviously a very oversimplified and probably largely wrong account, but if you’re here for history go read a book instead. We’re here for flags.
Considering it was run by an elected Senate or by a League of Nations Commissioner, it’s curious that the flag features a crown, but I rather like the crosses, a unique device which nonetheless isn’t too complex. Maybe they were early enthusiasts for programming in C++.
31. Federal State of Austria (1934–1938)
A right-wing dictatorship established in 1934 in an attempt to establish control over the country after a coup attempt by the even-more-right-wing dictatorship next door. Ruled by a suspiciously fascist-looking party called the Fatherland Front, it tends to avoid the judgement of history because of its fairly sincere efforts to not get absorbed into Nazi Germany, and a fat lot of good that did them. The eagle’s pretty striking (literally) but I’m confused why it’s wearing hula hoops around its heads.
30. Democratic Republic of Georgia (1918–1921)
One of the big “what-ifs” of post-Russian Revolution history is the various independent states which emerged following the collapse of the Russian Empire. In the case of the DRG it was ruled by a reasonably democratic and pluralist socialist government, and as these things tend to go, anti-communist people on the left tend to lionise it as a result, since it was invaded and swiftly turned into part of the nascent USSR in 1921. It maintained a government in exile for a few years before it was quietly dropped once the Soviet Union became an established fact the following decade.
I wish the red was a little lighter, as it does have the unfortunate air of dried blood, although I like the black and white square (none of which features in the modern Georgian flag).
29. Second Spanish Republic (1931–1939)
Another one for “What might have been” fans, since the Republic, governed initially by sort of broad liberal-left alliances although increasingly in hock to the USSR in its final years out of military necessity and Stalinist scheming, was in existence for less than a decade, for about half of which it was fighting the Spanish Civil War.
The purple stripe is somewhat inspired and the red, yellow and purple combination has continued to have some purchase in political design as symbolising a broad front of liberals, democratic socialists and the far-left. Obviously Franco chucked out the purple as soon as he could.
28. Khorezm People’s Soviet Republic (1920–1924)
Successor state to the above-mentioned Khanate of Khiva, before being rolled up into the USSR as so many others were.
I rather like this creative interpretation of the sickle and hoe, which makes a change from the boilerplate communist iconography, and it seems to have been a minor propaganda effort to incorporate the Islamic moon before attempting to purge all religion.
27. Ethiopian Empire (1270–1974)
In service for quite a while, this one is pretty iconic and it’s hard to deny its lasting design influence, most notably in Rastafarianism which uses both the Lion of Judah and the colour scheme (since its tenets involve the crowning of Emperor Haile Selassie, under whose reign the flag was used).
26. Tibet (1912–1951)
Briefly independent following the breakup of the Chinese Empire, Tibet didn’t stand much chance once the People’s Republic of China invaded at the turn of the 1950s, and the flag has therefore existed as a symbol of its exiled independence movement, notably in the person of the Dalai Lama.
The dragons are cool as hell, let’s be honest, and I think the high contrast sunburst is used to frame them nicely.
25. Tanganyika (1961–1964)
The sovereign state that existed after the abolition of the British colony of the same name, but before the change of name to Tanzania. The flag is similar in design to the present-day Tanzanian flag, which uses a diagonal stripe and incorporates blue instead of a second green field. Self-confident and bold, if a little simple.
24. Kingdom of Kongo (1390–1914)
The flag of my girlfriend’s reaction when I make terrible puns. Since she copy-edited this list I let her give it bonus points for having nice soft corners on the cross. I think it’s the second longest-lasting polity on this list, lasting over five centuries until the Kingdom was abolished by Portugal and its territory wrapped up into various European colonies in the early twentieth century.
23. Khmer Republic (1970–1975)
Angkor Wat features heavily in Cambodian flag designs, and with good reason, but it’s interesting to note that it’s drawn slightly differently at different stages — this pro-US state established following a coup against King Sihanouk uses a fairly simple geometric design, not dissimilar to the later State of Cambodia. It’s nice, although I wish they’d done a little more with the blue field and the spacing of the stars.
22. Nazi Germany (1933–1945)
Well, this was always going to be a tricky one to include. It’s hard to view the flag remotely objectively given that it is rightly associated with acts of the most heinous evil, and is considered so beyond the pale as a symbol that its display is banned in several countries.
It would be hard, however, to deny that that demonstrates its power as a symbol. At once quite unique and incorporating traditional Imperial colours, it was a useful logo behind which to rally the Nazi Party’s base of support — a combination of conservative nationalists, and somewhat radical group of enthusiastic racists and fanatics who could be pulled into support for a programme of genocidal expansionism behind its colours.
It did what it set out to do. We can only be grateful it wasn’t more successful.
21. Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (1991–2000)
Established during the dissolution of the USSR, Chechnya’s status within the Russian Federation has been contested virtually the whole three decades since, including in two devastating wars and an ongoing and rather creepy repression under Vladimir Putin’s sleazeball crony, Ramzan Kadyrov.
The bold stand of this small nation comes through clearly with the high contrast red line (which probably stands for something else but I’ve nearly finished this list and I’m tired) and it’s avoided the trap of unnecessary ornamentation that so many other Central Asian countries fall into.
20. Socialist Republic of Romania (1947–1989)
Kitschy cartoon crests can earn one exception to my general rule, and this one gets it. The sunrays and optimistic wheat sheafs may not have been much in evidence in Nicolae Ceausescu's drab, hellish nightmare state, but it made for good imagery when it was chopped out of flags held by demonstrators during the dictator’s dramatic fall.
19. Free Territory of Trieste (1947–1954)
Once considered a possible flashpoint for a Third World War due to tensions over its status between Italy and Yugoslavia, the existence of this independent state was up for negotation virtually throughout its existence, eventually being settled by the incorporation of the city proper into Italy and its outskirts into Slovenia.
The spear against the red background — the Alabarda — has been the best-known symbol of Trieste for some time, and its use here remains a good example of simplifying heritage into an instantly recognisable banner.
18. Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (1922–1991)
The Hammer and Sickle predates the establishment of the USSR, but it was its status as the symbol of the anti-capitalist world through much of the Twentieth Century which gave it its enduring legacy among edgy teenagers on Twitter.
The crimes of the USSR’s various governments rival those of some of the worst dictatorships on this list (and it would hardly be very dignified to duke it out over who was worst) but its replacement in the national flags of its successor states have not become nearly as iconic, and as an element of propaganda, it was undeniably highly effective.
17. Emirate of Afghanistan (1919–26)
Probably the best of the various Afghan flags of the last century, and also the most simple, which probably isn’t a coincidence. The palace motif recurs again and again, but the easy representation here isn’t replicated. It’s hard, admittedly, to shake the feeling that it’s a badge from a Herat policeman’s helmet.
16. Bogd Khanate (1911–1924, on and off)
The banner of the final Khanate to rule over Mongolia before the establishment of the Communist state which lasted most of the rest of the century before the transition to democracy. The through line between it and the others is the Soyombo symbol of Mongolian identity, though here it’s subordinated behind the fascinating complexity and fun standard design rather than the typical square or rectangle (which these days is only continued by the flag of Nepal).
Hard to place in this list since it’s effectively not really a flag and more of a dynastic banner, but I’m an admirer of the vibrancy even if it’s too busy.
15. Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma (1962–1988)
Avoids the usual hammer and sickle motif in favour of the communist world’s third-favourite bit of industrial imagery, the gear. I like its symmetry and the enthusiastic and for once non-American use of stars.
Almost overthrown by a pro-democracy movement in 1988, which would have made it an early contender for kicking off the democratic revolutions of 1989, but that was stamped on by a military dictatorship a month later.
14. Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867–1918)
I once had a vivid dream that I was watching the 1969 Moon Landing broadcast, but the astronaut had raised the Austro-Hungarian flag. I woke up and began making notes on how history would have had to go for that to have happened, thinking it might make a good comic book, but then I realised I can’t draw and gave up on the idea.
Anyway — if you’ve got to represent two thrones united under one emperor, this isn’t the worst way to go — the crowns balance nicely and I appreciate the simplified coats of arms. Maybe if they hadn’t so ill-advisedly kicked off at one teensy weensy assassination they’d still be around.
13. Democratic Kampuchea (1975–1982)
The One With Pol Pot, as a very tasteless Friends episode might have been called. The simplest and I think the most effective of the representations of Angkor Wat, and it’s unfortunate that it became stained with both a horrific mass-murder effort which wiped out several million people, and with a devastating war against Vietnam.
12. Republic of South Vietnam (1955–1975)
Still on display in several places round the world where South Vietnamese exiles made their home after the end of the Vietnam War, including a couple of miles from where I live in Seattle’s Little Saigon.
Very bold and recognisable from a distance, the design was created in 1948 and is now occasionally recognised as the “Vietnamese Heritage and Freedom Flag”.
11. Tagalog Republic (1902–1906)
Awesome. Look at that. You have awakened a biblical angel with fewer eyes! Be not afraid!
Okay so it didn’t last, but may the looming sunburst face live on forever more in our nightmares, staring redly and angrily like the Sun Baby from Teletubbies once she’s down to her final hit point.
10. China (Qing Dynasty) (1889–1912)
Look at that badass dragon. Fails the “keeping national unity going” test and the “can a schoolchild draw it” test, but easily passes the “Yep that’s a Chinese imperial flag alright” snap judgement test.
9. East Hebei Autonomous Government (1935–1938)
Another Japanese puppet state of the Chinese occupation, this time using the old Republic of China flag (although it merits inclusion in this list since it was used by a different state while the original country was still in existence).
Represents the unity of China’s peoples, which is ironic considering it was used in this instance in the Japanese government’s explicit aim of divide and rule. The five stripes come up a few times in this list, and are drawn from the original Chinese Republic flag adopted after the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911.
8. Sultanate of Zanzibar (1856–1964)
Something of a suzerainty of the British Empire, the Sultanate had an impressive run, lasting until Kenyan independence in 1963 and nudging into January 1964 before the deposition of the last Sultan.
The green disc and the yellow cloves actually only lasted a few weeks, being reintroduced at the very end (one wonders why they bothered) but as the prior flag was just a plain red field which would have scored very low, I felt the Sultanate deserved some consolation points.
7. Republic of Zaire (1971–1997)
It’s a shame the kleptocratic rule of Mobutu Sese Seko was such an utter catastrophe for this enormous country and its people, since that’s a pretty rad flag — a great use of the common African flag colours of green, yellow, red and black, with a powerful, recognisable, and recreatable symbol of independence at its centre.
Unfortunately it was replaced in the late 1990s when the Democratic Republic of the Congo was re-established, following the First Congo War, setting off its own wave of devastation whose effects continue to be felt to this day. Sometimes places where flags change a lot aren’t very happy places.
6. Sikkim (1967–1975)
One of the smattering of statelets that remained independent from India following the British departure in 1947, before being slowly absorbed over the remainder of the 20th century, annoying the manufacturers of globes all over the… map.
Wikipedia tells me that the central device is “a Buddhist khorlo prayer wheel with the gankyil as the central element” but essentially it’s a rotationally symmetrical and quite simple icon of which I wholly approve.
5. Kingdom of Champasak (1713–1904)
Forget that this was a fairly long-lasting monarchic kingdom in modern-day Southeastern Laos, let’s just take a moment to recognise that the Winged Wedding Cake Dog is adorable.
4. People’s Socialist Republic of Albania (1946–1992)
Ruled over with a concrete fist by Enver Hoxha for most of its existence, socialist Albania was the communist country even the other communist countries didn’t want to hang out with. First they fell out with Stalin’s USSR, then with Tito’s Yugoslavia, and finally with their dubiously committed allies in Maoist China, eventually leaving them as a totally isolated and paranoid state hemmed in on all sides by perceived enemies, something attested to by the 173,000 concrete bunkers which still litter the landscape.
The classic two-headed eagle is back, and he’s the angriest and most ominous he’s yet been on this list. Forget the token socialist star, it’s the silhouetted nightmare Roc that makes this an iconic banner for a stock villain country in an Eighties action film.
3. Republic of Anguilla (1967–1969)
In a story that design podcast 99% Invisible does far better justice to than I can, the Anguillan flag was designed by Marvin Oberman in sympathy for an independence movement which sought to free the tiny Caribbean island (modern population around 14,000) from the yoke of oppression by the regional superpower of St. Kitts and Nevis.
After a short and fairly confusing revolutionary period culminating in a British intervention fondly referred to as the Bay of Piglets, the island is now a directly administered British territory, which is still democratically dubious but does seem to have basically pleased most people concerned.
Sadly though, that constitutional arrangement has retired this excellent flag, with its optimistic ouroboros of dolphins floating above the pale blue sea like they’re ascending into space in a Douglas Adams book.
2. United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway (1814–1905)
Just sneaking into eligibility with its 20th-century existence but what an entry for it. Technically speaking there were a few variants — one a modern Norwegian flag with a Swedish jack, and one vice versa used in Sweden. The one used here is the joint naval jack.
The union, which had been in place since the Napoleonic Wars, was put to a plebiscite in Norway (among Norwegian men, anyway) in 1905, and received an almost Saddamesque 99.95% support for dissolution — while support for Norwegian independence was doubtless very strong, the fact the wording of the question and the political reality in the Norwegian Parliament made independence a foregone conclusion also probably helped.
Great colour contrast, a slightly trippy design, and lots of fun stripes and angles while remaining easy to remember and draw sets it above most of this list. But it’s just beaten to the top of the flagpole by…
1. Mongolian People’s Republic (1921–1992)
This almost didn’t make the list, being very close to the contemporary flag of post-Communist Mongolia, but the Communist star renders it just distinct enough to have scraped a berth, and it’s immediately shot straight to the top.
A bold tricolour is one thing, but a traditional symbol — the Soyombo — made of recognisable and easily reproduced geometry renders it not just a great flag, but a great bit of design and layout work in general. It integrates the communist star without it taking over the design, a rarity in Soviet sphere flags.
Mongolia’s communist history is an underdiscussed but fairly interesting one — historic antipathy to China and its tiny population led it to hug quite closely to the USSR during the Sino-Soviet split, with implications for Mongolian society that continue to this day, most visibly the Trans-Mongolian Railway, and the building of Soviet-styled and funded apartment blocks — known locally as Ugsarmal bair — chiefly in the capital (and only major city) of Ulaanbaatar.
Other than a short but very brutal period of Stalinist purges in the late 1930s — in which between one in thirty and one in twenty of the Mongolian population were executed — Mongolia had a fairly gentle time of the Cold War, chiefly due to investment in its economy and its status as a prize coveted by regional rivals. Its governing party not only transitioned peacefully out of Communism, but won re-election in 1992, and has since morphed into a boilerplate democratic socialist party with a supermajority in the Parliament.