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Why do many people see Spain’s flag as a fascist symbol?

Spain is a country with strong regional identities reflected in its flags, but for some the Spanish national flag is associated with fascism and Spain’s dictatorial past. Is it with good reason?

Why do many people see Spain's flag as a fascist symbol?
A man with a Spanish flag hanging from his balcony directs the fascist salute at a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters in Madrid, with one demonstrator giving him the finger in return. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP)

The distinct identities of Spain’s regions are often reflected in their language and customs, but also in their flags.

Catalonia has La Senyera (the official regional flag) and La Estelada (the independence flag with the star), the Basque Country has la La Ikurriña, and even less separatist-minded parts of Spain such as Andalusia and the Canary Islands take pride in their flags.

However, the symbolism of the Spanish national flag – the traditional red and yellow band known as La Rojigualda – is often associated with right-leaning politics, at the least, and fascism at worst.

Much like in England, if you see someone going to the trouble to display the St. George’s flag, or in the United States, with the Confederate flag, you likely have a good idea of what their political idealogies are.

In recent years in Spain, the rise of far-right party Vox has rekindled the debate about the Spanish flag, dug up painful historical memories and divides, and led many to view it as a symbol of Spain’s fascist history.

But why is that?


So, what’s the history of the Spanish flag? Well, what is now considered (by some) to be a symbol of fascism initially began as a naval flag.

In 1785, King Carlos III asked his Navy Minister Antonio Valdés to design a new national flag for the Navy because the flag they had at the time was often confused at sea for other nations.

Valdés came up with 12 sketches, all of which are now on display in Madrid, and Carlos III not only changed the flag to something more recognisable to us today – the striking red and yellow colours were thought to be more identifiable at sea – but removed the Bourbon coat of arms.

Then, in 1843, Isabel II declared by Royal Decree that the national flag established should be the same colours as the naval flag and it was flown for the first time in non-naval buildings the following year.

spain flag history

The 12 flags suggested by Antonio Valdés, on display at Madrid’s Naval Museum. Image: Museo Naval de Madrid

The politicisation of the Spanish flag

After the Second Spanish Republic was proclaimed in 1931, the flag’s second red band was replaced with a purple band to honour the Comuneros of Castile, a group which revolted against King Charles I in 1520. This modified version was used as the Republican flag during the Civil War, while Franco’s army used the traditional yellow and red flag.

After winning the war, Franco added the Eagle of Saint John to the flag, and it underwent some very minor changes during the dictatorship (which lasted between 193 and 1975), but largely remained the same until Spain’s transition to democracy began.

The eagle added to Spain’s flag by Franco was also a symbol adopted by the Nazis in Germany. Image: Wikipedia

Some historians have suggested that the republican decision not to embrace the Spanish flag and stick by their own creation laid the foundations for the political divides over the flag’s symbolism that would come in later years.

What’s clear is that the Spanish right (and far right) have appropriated the national flag as a symbol of their vision of Spanish history and identity, whilst the Spanish left have missed an opportunity to claim it as their own.

In countries that also had fascist dictatorships, such as Iberian neighbours Portugal, both the right and left take pride in and make use of the flag.


The Spanish flag that we know today was established in Article 4.1 of the Spanish Constitution of 1978, when the national coat of arms was incorporated, and the more Francoist elements removed.

But the Spanish left hasn’t always viewed the flag as a symbol of fascism. In the years after Spain’s democratic transition the left accepted the rojigualda and both PSOE and the Spanish Communist Party used it in electoral and promotional material.

Former US President George Bush (L) and Spain’s former Socialist Prime Minister Felipe González in 1991, with the Spanish flag in the background. (Photo by David AKE / AFP)

After more political instability and a failed coup in 1981, for many on the left, embracing the flag signified reconciliation after decades of dictatorship and polarisation.

But by the turn of the 21st century, the Republican tricolour flag began to make a bit of a political comeback as a broader anti-authoritarian, anti-imperial, left-wing symbol.

As war in Iraq began it took on anti-NATO connotations, and as separatist sentiment grew in the Basque Country and Catalonia the traditional flag began being associated with fascism and Francoism again.

A man holds a Republican flag during an anti-monarchy demonstration in Madrid. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

With the more radical elements of the Spanish left completely turning their back on the national flag, in recent years far-right party Vox has used the flag as a rallying call against separatist regions and re-established the flag as a symbol of what they perceive to be traditional Spanish identity.

The emphasis on a one-flag country is not only an allusion to Vox’s pro-centralisation, anti-separatist politics, but also harks back to the dictatorship when regional identities, flags and languages were restricted.

Supporters of Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco perform the fascist salute and hold Spanish flags as they attend the anniversary of the dictator’s death in Madrid. (Photo by GERARD JULIEN / AFP)

Vox party leader Santiago Abascal makes heavy use of the flag in his public appearances, social media posts, and Vox memorabilia.

The rise of other regional flags, he believes, is in direct confrontation with the Spanish flag. “It’s either our stained, trampled, and spit-at flag,” he said in a speech in 2019, “or our flag waving with pride”.

As Spanish politics has become more and more polarised in recent years, flags have re-emerged as divisive political symbols.

Unfortunately, for many people the Spanish flag continues to be an image of Franco’s fascist dictatorship and reignites the historical divisions from the Civil War, rather than being an emblem of different people and regions that are united as one nation (flag-wielding support for the national football team La Roja and other national sport teams are an exception to this, however).

For other parts of the Spanish population, the national flag represents their politics and view of Spanish history and identity. They drape Spanish flags from their balconies or wear red-and-yellow bracelets and belts to showcase their patriotism. 

In modern-day Spain, La Rojigualda is still without a doubt a very loaded symbol.

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PROFILE: Spain’s Pedro Sánchez -a risk-taker with a flair for political gambles

Spain's Pedro Sánchez, who announced snap elections Monday May 29th after his ruling Socialists were routed in local polls, is a consummate risk-taker who's shown a flair for daring gambles during his rollercoaster political career.

PROFILE: Spain's Pedro Sánchez -a risk-taker with a flair for political gambles

Weakened by five turbulent years in power that covered the Covid pandemic and the economic crisis linked to the Ukraine war, Spain’s 51-year-old prime minister caught everyone off guard by announcing an early general election in late July.

The vote had been widely expected at the year’s end, but after his Socialists and their allies suffered a major blow in Sunday’s local polls, Sánchez took a risky gamble – in what observers said has been a hallmark of his career.

“The alternative was six months of governmental bloodletting,” said Oriol Bartomeus, a political scientist at Barcelona’s Autonomous University. “He’s decided to gamble it all. It’s typical Pedro Sánchez, it’s just what he does,” he told AFP.

It was, agrees Paloma Román, a political scientist at Madrid’s Complutense University, a “strategic calculation” to hang on for the next two months and improve what he already has. “For the Socialists, it’s the lesser of two evils… If they’d held out (until the year’s end) it would have been so much worse,” she said.

A Madrid-born economist and former basketball player, Sánchez went from being an unknown MP who emerged from obscurity in 2014 to seizing the reins of Spain’s oldest political party.

And he has enjoyed a rollercoaster political career.

Written off, bounces back

A leap-year baby who was born in Madrid on February 29th, 1972, Sánchez grew up in a well-off family, the son of an entrepreneur father and a mother who worked as a civil servant.

He studied economics before getting a Master’s degree in political economy at the Free University of Brussels and a doctorate from a private Spanish university.

Elected to the party leadership in 2014, Sánchez was written off politically after leading the Socialists to their worst-ever electoral defeats in 2015 and 2016.

Pedro Sánchez announced a snap election for July 23rd. Photo: Pau BARRENA / AFP

Ejected from the leadership, Sánchez unexpectedly won his job back in a primary in May 2017 after a cross-country campaign in his 2005 Peugeot to rally support.

Within barely a year, he took over as premier in June 2018 after an ambitious gamble that saw him topple conservative Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy in a no-confidence vote.

“He is a politician who often makes these kinds of decisions,” said Bartomeus. “So far it’s mostly worked for him… although things are more complicated now,” he said, noting Sánchez had been weakened by his time in office.

Stubborn and tenacious

Always immaculately suited and booted, this telegenic politician – who likes to go running and looms over his rivals at 1.9 metres (6 foot 2 inches) tall – has made a name for himself as stubborn and tenacious.

Over the past five years, he has had to play a delicate balancing act to stay in power.

In February 2019, the fragile alliance of left-wing factions and pro-independence Basque and Catalan parties that had catapulted him to the premiership cracked, prompting him to call early elections.

Although his Socialists won, they fell short of an absolute majority, and Sánchez was unable to secure support to stay in power so he called a repeat election later that year.

Forced into a marriage of convenience with the hard-left Podemos, despite much gnashing of teeth inside his own party, Sánchez has managed to stay in power despite his coalition holding only a minority in parliament.

He has managed to push through a wide range of reforms clearly rooted in the left and overseen a government with the highest-ever number of women.

The first Spanish premier to speak English fluently since the country returned to democracy in the 1970s, Sánchez is married with two teenage daughters.

In February 2019, he detailed his triumphs in an autobiography called “Resistance Manual”, the first to be published in Spain by a sitting premier.