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Both the origin and the name of the Croats are steeped in legend, myth and hypothesis, but short on reliable proof.  What is known for sure is that in the course of the 7th century, they settled the area between the Drava and Danube rivers in the North and the Adriatic Sea with Franken (later also Venice) as their powerful western and the Byzantine Empire as their eastern neighbour. The line of dukes, tough and capable warriors and rulers, now supplied the Croats, who were tired of foreign and saints’ names, with attractive, fashionable names for boys: Borna, Ljudevit, Domagoj, Branimir, Trpimir...

Old CroatFinally, after defeating the Hungarian and Bulgarian tribes, a duke named Tomislav took control of the entire territory between the Drava river in the north, the Adriatic Sea in the south, the peninsula of Istria in the west and Boka Kotorska bay in the east, and was declared king. The year inscribed on monuments erected in many towns to mark the millennium of that event (925-1925) may not be quite correct but has the advantage of being easy to remember.

It took the Hungarians about one and a half centuries to at least partially settle that score by using the famous Pacta Conventa peace treaty to impose a personal union with Hungary. From now on, the joint ruler would be crowned twice: first as king of Hungary and then as king of Croatia.

Dynastic succession games brought to that throne the Anjou descendants, one of whom saw fit to fill his permanently empty kitty by selling the region of Dalmatia to Venice! On one occasion, they even cunningly used crusaders to invade for them (and thoroughly loot for themselves) the prosperous Dalmatian city of Zadar, conveniently overlooking the fact that its citizens had already been converted to Christianity several centuries before.

The successive tidal waves of the formidable Ottoman armada, one of the best organized military machines in the history of mankind, easily winning one battle after the other, eventually forced both the Hungarians and Croats to join the Hapsburg Empire.

Battle of Mohács: Croats vs Ottomans

The battle at Mohač, in Hungary in 1526, was crucial. The king himself lost his life: he drowned while trying to flee, his offer of “my kingdom for a horse” going unheeded.

The net result was that in the 16th century, northern Croatia became part of the Hapsburg (later Austro-Hungarian) Empire, with its own parliament, albeit with varying levels of genuine autonomy. For example, the Croatian vote in support of the ‘Pragmatic sanction’ tipped the scales in the joint Hungaro-Croatian parliamentary session, in favour of Maria Theresa succeeding her father Charles (Karl) VI, whose only son had died. The southern part (Istria, Dalmatia) would be more or less effectively ruled by Venice, Dubrovnik remaining the only free enclave.

For several centuries, the Republic of Dubrovnik was Venice’s less powerful but almost equally successful rival, thriving on its favourable strategic location and on the outstanding skills of its merchants and diplomats. Eventually, the long autonomous life of the Croatian Athens ended in the same way as that of Venice – at the hands of Napoleon’s Army at the beginning of the 19th century.

Interestingly, in Dubrovnik, the names of individual holders of public offices, including that of the Duke, were deliberately avoided in the otherwise very detailed records of the City Council’s decisions. Also, most likely it was due to the presence and importance of Dubrovnik’s merchants and diplomats that Croatian was one of the official languages at the Ottoman court in Istanbul. Not surprisingly, Turkish is possibly the only non-Slavic language in which the word for Croat is the same as used by Croats themselves (Hrvat); Croatia is Hrvatistan.

The Croats take pride in the fact that their country was the very first on European soil and the only one among the South Slavs (the Slovenes had never had a state of their own!) that the Ottoman Empire, invading from the South, failed to put under its control. Also, it was Croatians, at the battle of Sisak, who dealt the Ottoman armada its very first heavy defeat on European soil, and this as early as the end of the 16th century, nearly 100 years before the second Turkish siege of Vienna.

The heroic martyrdom of a tiny platoon of soldiers led by Nikola Šubić Zrinski, defending the fortress of Siget (a sort of Croatian Masada or Alamo, now part of Hungary!) a few decades earlier, has been inspiring composers, poets and - certainly - warriors, ever since.

In the complex, multinational architecture of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Croatian position was none too favourable. Two events are of particular importance. The first, the beheading of two eminent noblemen from the Frankopan and Zrinski families, accused of plotting against the king at the end of XVIIth century, left a deep scar on the national conscience. The second event was when the Croatian banus (term used to denote a Croatian ruler) Josip Jelačić took advantage of the turbulence between Austrians and the Hungarians in 1848. After defeating the Hungarian army, he reunified the northern and southern halves of Croatia and introduced many reforms, including putting an end to the feudal system, earning himself a monument on Zagreb’s main square.

A monument to a Croatian hero from the 19th century was too much for the communist radicals: after WWII, it was almost secretly removed, to be put back only after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the return of democracy.

Forming of Yugoslavia

As soon as the revolutionary storms wereover, pressures of Germanization and Hungarization returned. Small wonder that the idea of joining the other Slavic brethren, who were gradually breaking away from the weakened Ottoman Empire, was born and enthusiastically promoted among the leading Croatian intellectuals.

In that spirit, the newly founded science academy in Zagreb was named the Yugoslav (not Croatian) Academy of Science and Art.

The whole idea met with a rather cool reception by the other side, heavily influenced by Russia and the Orthodox Church, and the idea was shelved until the end of WWI, when, after the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy, the “old Yugoslavia” was established.

Like many a couple, initially fond and supportive of each other, only to discover incompatibility shortly after marriage, the union turned out to be a failure. Only a few days after the union was created, the first blood was shed on the streets of Zagreb. Although the demonstrations had been peaceful, they were something totally new and unacceptable to the Serb-controlled police.

The steady deterioration of relations between Zagreb and Belgrade culminated with the murder of several members of parliament, including the mortal wounding, during a parliamentary debate in Belgrade in 1928 (and apparently on the orders of the Serbian king), of the most prominent Croatian leader, S. Radić, a very moderate politician and declared pacifist.

As a result, most Croats lost any trust they might still have had in the future of a joint state with their eastern cousins.

The more radical nationalists, working hand in hand with their allies from the region, retaliated a few years later by assassinating the Serbian king, Alexander, during his visit to France.

Nonetheless, let me give you a tip here: avoid the mistake so often made by foreign diplomats and journalists, who conveniently refer to the deep-rooted hatred generated by centuries of bloodshed in this region. Although this is quite true in the case of the Serbs and Albanians, who fought over the same territory, before the joint state of Yugoslavia was created (and apart from some irrelevant and forgotten medieval skirmishes), there was never any war between Croats and Serbs: on the contrary, if they were persecuted in their own country, they would traditionally find a safe refuge on their neighbour’s soil.

For hair-splitters: in the battle of Nikpolje (Nicopolis) at the end of the 14th century, the Croats were part of the broad Christian coalition while the Serbs, fulfilling their feudal obligations, fought at the side of the triumphant sultan Bajazid. Also, at the beginning of Great War, following the assassination of Prince Ferdinand in Sarajevo by Serbian extremists as part of plans for a ‘Great Serbia’, initial Serbian successes against the Austrian army were greatly assisted by the unwillingness of Croatian soldiers (including Josip Broz Tito) to fight their Slavic brethren.

A country torn by internal conflicts was easily taken over by Hitler’s military machine, helped by local quislings: Pavelić and his puppet regime brought in by Mussolini in Croatia, and Nedić and Ljotić in Serbia. However, the antifascists didn’t take long to organize a strong resistance movement, making life difficult for the occupying troops.

Tito's Yugoslavia

Josip Broz Tito, a master maverick of the communist school, gained western support, only to subsequently outmanoeuvre all his rivals from the antifascist coalition, and shortly after the end of WWII, turned Yugoslavia into a rigidly communist country, skilfully eliminating any actual or potential party rival. Also, it was very convenient to label any opposition to communism as a lack of enthusiasm for antifascism, as reactionary – a handy weapon even in today’s politics.

Tito and JovankaToday Croatia is still slightly frustrated that hardly anyone abroad is aware of the fact that the very first territory to be liberated in occupied Europe during WWII was in the heart of Croatia, that it was fully controlled by the resistance movement and consisted of a broad antifascist coalition led by ethnic Croats. Also, the percentage of the population in Croatia who sympathised with or supported the quisling regime was considerably lower than in most European countries.

The story of A. Stepinac is paradigmatic. A catholic priest, a pro-Yugoslav volunteer in WWI, Stepinac was made an archbishop mainly on the strength of support from the Serbian king. Disappointed by the Serbian domination, he originally welcomed the creation of the Croatian state, only to find himself horrified at crimes committed by the ustashe (the Croatian quislings), which he protested in the strongest terms. His subsequent rejection of Tito’s proposal to secede from the Vatican and establish an independent Croatian church resulted in him being sentenced to long-term imprisonment in a mock trial. However, in 1998, he was canonized by Pope John Paul II.

The consequence was that in the Serb-dominated diplomacy, secret services and media abroad, Croats were deliberately and systematically portrayed as former collaborationists and fierce nationalists. Croatian disappointment with the joint state and their desire for a state of their own was conveniently equalled with allegiance to the quisling regime.

Many vocal, uncompromising Croatian extremists abroad were nothing but well-paid agents of the Yugoslav secret police!

Tito was richly rewarded by the West for his disobedience to Stalin, the West choosing to ignore his ruthlessness (according to former inmates of the camp for political dissidents on the island of Goli, sadistic torture there was comparable to the worst anywhere in the world), hoping that leaders of the neighbouring communist countries would follow suit.

CommunismRelying on a privileged army, a powerful secret service and generous western aid, Tito was able to retain a single-party system, attain unlimited personal power, and suppress any sign of discontent, or craving for more democracy or the articulation of stronger national feelings.

Gradual softening of the original rigidity, reasonably open borders and above all, a considerably higher standard of living compared to other communist countries, ultimately made Tito’s regime almost acceptable to the population. However, in three taboo areas there was no flexibility: Tito’s person; the army, with its pampered and privileged military officers; and nationality (ethnic) matters. Many a visitor, seeing a picture of a stable and harmonious society, did not realise that deep fear had been instilled in the population in the early days, reinforced by draconic punishments for the infrequent infringements of those taboos.

The pragmatists in the West felt that the stability Tito lent to the sensitive and strategically important region was more than worth the continuous flow of grants and soft loans, and disregarding his autocratic rule and pharaonic living style. For the armchair leftists, fascinated by the loudly proclaimed concept of self-management Tito was not only a prophet leading the way, but also somebody who exculpated the Leftist world of all its sins.

Croats (re)join UnionThe bill for Tito’s extravagant lifestyle arrived only a few years after his death: bitter quarrels about the distribution of repayment of the huge debt were the main trigger of the conflict between the constituting republics.

Birth of modern Croatia

Small wonder that the world was caught by surprise by the rapid and bloody collapse of the Second Yugoslavia. The fall of the Berlin Wall had opened the floodgates, removed the old fears. Milošević’s attempt to preserve the old communist system was doomed from the start. Playing the nationalist card in order to remain in power in the Great(er) Serbia that was to be created at the expense of its neighbours made the collapse definitely irreversible and, very sadly, turned it into a bloodbath that had not been seen on European soil since WWII.

Croats, with the dream of once again having a state of their own being fulfilled, suppress the feeling somewhere deep inside that the price paid might have been too high. They comfort themselves that the choice was either to resist or to succumb to Milošević and his cohorts and remain oppressed, second rate citizens for many years to come. After all, so many “useful” dictators were not only tolerated but cooperated with and supported by western democracies: the lesson of Tito’s long rule hasn’t been forgotten.

Eventually, Croatia's dream came true in 2013, it (re)joined Europe now under the heading of European Union (EU). And as we know too well, reality and dreams tend to differ a lot.

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How to survive in and even enjoy Croatia - a guide for smart foreigners © Jakov Buljan, 2006
Illustrations: Dubravko Mataković     Language editor: Francesca Brizi