Croatia is an ancient nation, still a very young nation state. Because of its geographic position, Croatia represents a blend of four different cultural spheres – small, but highly varied country with many historical influences. For over the ages, it has been a crossroad of influences of the western culture and the east— Central European, Danube, Mediterranean and Balkan.When, Croatia joined the European Union, in 2013, we began discovering a peculiar region of our continent, which historically played an essential role in the development of the European culture.
Before arriving of Croatians, The Romans completely infiltrated Croatia, and there are few places along the country’s coast, on its islands, or even inland that are without something the Romans brought or built there. Pula, which was a Roman outpost called Pietas Julias, is home to one of the largest Roman amphitheaters still standing. The 1st-century beauty was built to hold more than 20,000 spectators, and though now reduced in size, it’s in terrific shape thanks to restoration. The remains of Diocletian’s Palace in Split, numerous Roman summer homes (villa rusticate) on the islands and along the coast, and the remains of Salona, the former Roman seat of power outside Split, are just a few examples of the mark the Romans left on Croatia. And of course, smaller, more portable Roman leavings, such as amphorae, funerary art, and statues, have been found all over Croatia. They are on display in most of the country’s museums.
Croatia in the Middle Ages
Around the early part of the 7th century AD, Croatian tribes settled across various parts of the area that is present-day Croatia in both the northern and southern regions. The Croats accepted Christianity around 800 AD, and soon established their own state ruled by princes or dukes.
The first prominent ruler in Croatia was Branimir, who was a duke of Dalmatia from 872 to 879. It was King Tomislav, however, who united the Croats in Dalmatia and Pannonia (northern Croatia) into one Kingdom in 925. The Croatia of this time was a reasonably strong country within Europe. Tomislav was succeeded by the Kings Kresimir and Zvonimir.
In 1091, as Croatia’s lineage of Kings had come to an end, King Ladislaus of Hungary became ruler of Croatia. It was in 1102, however, that an official union with Hungary was established, whereby Croatia retained its existence as a separate Kingdom and could be governed by its own Ban (governor) who would be appointed by the Hungarian King. This union with Hungary, under various guises and rulers, would last until World War I.
Hungary versus Venice
Along the coast, a different history was progressing. Of probably the greatest importance, Dubrovnik was established in the 7th century. It then became part of the Byzantine Empire until 1205, after which it was taken over by Venice. In 1358, Dubrovnik gained independence and the Republic of Ragusa, as it was known, prospered for a number of centuries due to shipping and trade.
Both the inland and coastal regions – the latter after the fall of Venice – were swallowed up by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the early part of the 19th century.
Habsburg support for the restoration of the French monarchy led to Napoleon’s invasion of Austria’s Italian states in 1796. After conquering Venice in 1797 he agreed to transfer Dalmatia to Austria in the Treaty of Campo Formio in exchange for other concessions. Croatian hopes that Dalmatia would be united with Slavonia were soon dashed as the Habsburgs made it clear that the two territories would retain separate administrations.
Austrian control of Dalmatia only lasted until Napoleon’s 1805 victory over Austrian and Prussian forces at Austerlitz forced Austria to cede the Dalmatian coast to France. Ragusa (Dubrovnik) quickly surrendered to French forces. Napoleon renamed his conquest the ‘Illyrian provinces’ and moved with characteristic swiftness to reform the crumbling territory. A tree-planting programme was established to reforest the barren hills. Since almost the entire population was illiterate, the new government set up primary schools, high schools and a college at Zadar. Roads and hospitals were built and new crops introduced. A programme was instituted to drain the marshes that were breeding malarial mosquitoes. Yet the French regime remained unpopular, partly because the anticlerical French were staunchly opposed by the clergy and partly because the population was heavily taxed to pay for the reforms.
The fall of the Napoleonic empire after Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign led to the 1815 Congress of Vienna, which recognised Austria’s claims to Dalmatia and placed the rest of Croatia under the jurisdiction of Austria’s Hungarian province. For the Dalmatians, the new regime meant a return to the status quo since the Austrians restored the former Italian elite to power. For the northern Croats the agreement meant submission to Hungary’s insistent desire to impose the Hungarian language and culture on the population.
19th Century Croatia
One of the effects of Hungarian heavy-handedness was to create the first stirrings of a national identity among the southern Slavic people. The sense of a shared identity first found expression in an ‘Illyrian’ movement in the 1830s that centred on the revival of the Croatian language. Traditionally, upper-class Dalmatians spoke Italian, and northern Croats spoke German or Hungarian. The establishment of the first ‘Illyrian’ newspaper in 1834, written in Zagreb dialect, prompted the Croatian Sabor to call for the teaching of the Slavic language in schools and even for the unification of Dalmatia with Slavonia. Despite Hungarian threats, in 1847 the Sabor voted to make ‘Illyrian’ the national language.
The increasing desire for more autonomy and the eventual unification of Dalmatia and Slavonia led the Croats to intervene on the side of the Habsburgs against a Hungarian revolutionary movement that sought to free the country from Austrian rule. The Croatian Sabor informed Austria that it would send the Croatian commander Josip Jelačić to fight the Hungarian rebels in return for the cancellation of Hungary’s jurisdiction over Croatia, among other demands. Unfortunately, Jelačić’s military campaign was unsuccessful. Russian intervention quelled the Hungarian rebellion and Austria firmly rejected any further demands for autonomy from its Slavic subjects.
Disillusionment spread after 1848, and was amplified by the birth of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy in 1867. The monarchy placed Croatia and Slavonia within the Hungarian administration, while Dalmatia remained within Austria. Whatever limited form of self-government the Croats enjoyed under the Habsburgs disappeared along with 55% of their revenues earmarked for the imperial treasury.
The river of discontent running through late-19th-century Croatia forked into two streams that dominated the political landscape for the next century. The old ‘Illyrian’ movement became the National Party, dominated by the brilliant Bishop Josif Juraf Strossmayer. Strossmayer believed that the differences between Serbs and Croats were magnified by the manipulations of the Habsburgs and the Hungarians, and that only through Jugoslavenstvo (south-Slavic unity) could the aspirations of both peoples be realised. Strossmayer supported the Serbian independence struggle in Serbia but favoured a Yugoslav entity within the Austro-Hungarian Empire rather than complete independence.
By contrast, the Party of Rights, led by the militantly anti-Serb Ante Starčević, envisioned an independent Croatia made up of Slavonia, Dalmatia, the Krajina, Slovenia, Istria, and part of Bosnia and Hercegovina. At the time, the Eastern Orthodox Church was encouraging the Serbs to form a national identity based upon their religion. Until the 19th century, Orthodox inhabitants of Croatia identified themselves as Vlachs, Morlachs, Serbs, Orthodox or even Greeks, but with the help of Starčević’s attacks, the sense of a separate Serbian Orthodox identity within Croatia developed.
Under the theory of ‘divide and rule’, the Hungarian-appointed ban (viceroy or governor) of Croatia blatantly favoured the Serbs and the Orthodox Church, but his strategy backfired. The first organised resistance formed in Dalmatia. Croat representatives in Rijeka and Serb representatives in Zadar joined together in 1905 to demand the unification of Dalmatia and Slavonia with a formal guarantee of Serbian equality as a nation. The spirit of unity mushroomed, and by 1906 Croat-Serb coalitions had taken over local government in Dalmatia and Slavonia, forming a serious threat to the Hungarian power structure.
Yugoslavia as Kingdom
In 1918, after the end of World War I and the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Croatia’s loyalties were once again up in the air. A Croatian delegation decided to align forces with the Serbs, forming the “Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.” This “Kingdom of Yugoslavia” was a quick failure, declining into uprising and civil war, with one rebel Croat group, the Ustase, waging a brutal terrorist campaign to exterminate all Serbs and Jews. An opposition group, the Chetniks, fought back, but they, too, resorted to terrorism and massacred Croats. However, another group, the Partisans, led by Josip Broz, or Tito, gained wide support, and after World War II, Tito became the leader of Yugoslavia.
Under Tito’s leadership, Yugoslavia, which included Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Serbia, adopted a type of planned market socialism, and privately owned factories and estates were nationalized. Tito transformed Yugoslavia from a largely agricultural nation into an industrialized one. After Tito’s death in 1980, however, cracks in the Yugoslav system grew wider. The economy was weak, Slobodan Milosevic was stirring up divisive Serbian nationalism, and the unity of the Yugoslav government was tenuous. Finally, Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia on June 25, 1991, a day that is now celebrated as “Statehood Day.” At that same time, Serbs living in the Croatian territory of Krajina proclaimed their independence from Croatia. Civil war was imminent.
Now, almost 2 decades since the end of the war, Croatia is well established as a safe, independent and tourist-friendly country. With a strong economy and stable government, Croatia joined the European Union in 2013.