Croatia: People and Culture

Who are the Croats? What are they like? How do they live? What do they do? These are just some of the questions that will be answered in this chapter.

Croatian People

Almost every nation has a legend about its origins, and the Croats are no exception. According to Croat legend, in the distant past several tribes headed by five brothers and two sisters moved into what is today Croatia. The name of one of the brothers was Hrobatos. From his name comes “Hrvat,”which translates to “Croat” in Croatian.

It is difficult for modern historians to trace the Croats' past. Little is known about their origin or other aspects of their early history. It is known that the ancient ancestors of present-day Croats left traces of their presence all over central and eastern Europe. If we exclude the explanation drawn from the legend, the origin and meaning of the name Croat remains unknown.

Search for Croat Origins

Scholars have three main theories about Croat origins. The first has to do with early migrations of Slavic people. During the fifth and sixth centuries A.D., Croats broke away and moved from southern Poland and western Ukraine southward toward the Balkan Peninsula. The second theory suggests that Croats originated in Iran and later migrated northward toward the Russian steppes, where they gradually adopted the Slavic culture and later moved on to the Balkans. A third theory considers the Croats not to have been a tribe or nation of peoples; rather, they may have been an order of ancient knights that served as border guards in the Avarian Empire. This belief is supported by the fact that archaeological evidence of Croat presence in central Europe tends to follow the historical border of that ancient empire.

Even if the Croats were not originally members of the larger Slavic nation, they certainly did become assimilated into the Slavic culture. Present-day Slavs are divided into three major groups: eastern, western, and southern. The eastern group includes ethnic Russians, White Russians (Belarus), and Ukrainians; western Slavs are composed of Poles, Czechs, and Slovakians; finally, the southern Slavs include the Slovenians, Croats, Serbs,Montenegrins,Macedonians, and Bulgarians.

As will be discussed later in this chapter, Croatia's ethnic numbers correspond closely to those of the country's religious affiliation. The reason for this seemingly strange relationship is that for more than a century, religion has been used as a primary criterion for ethnic identification. That is, if an individual were Roman Catholic, more than likely he or she—regardless of actual ethnic heritage—would have been identified as being an ethnic Croat. If, on the other hand, the individual were Eastern Orthodox, then he or she probably would have been classified as being an ethnic Serb. The major ethnic group in Croatia is of course Croats, who make up 78 percent of the total population. Today, Serbs are the second largest ethnic group in the country, accounting for 5 to 6 percent of the population. A variety of other minority groups, including Slovenians, Hungarians, and Muslims, represent small numbers.


The population of Croatia is believed to be about 4.5 million. Estimates range from 4.4 to 4.7 million, but the precise number is unknown. This figure has changed little during the past decade. During the latter part of the 20th century, Croatia's population growth rate was one of the lowest in the world. During the 1990s, however, war took a heavy toll on the country's population and its structure. Between 1991 and 1995, tens of thousands of people were killed. Men, in particular, were lost from the population. Additionally, hundreds of thousands more were displaced from their homes, and many of these people took refuge in other countries.

Life expectancy for Croatians is about 70 years for males and about 78 years for females. Lifestyle, including heavy drinking and smoking, and great stress brought on by the economic uncertainty of recent years, contributes to the much lower figure for males. Even so, these numbers place Croatia on the list of countries with long life expectancy. An aging population can create several problems. As the population grows older, for example, a smaller percentage of a country's people will be in the age group most apt to have children. This, in turn, leads to a declining rate of natural population increase—in the case of Croatia, actually a negative rate. The country's population is declining by approximately 0.2 percent per year. Demographers (scientists who study human populations) believe that by 2050, the country's population may drop to about 3.5 million. There can be many problems when a population stagnates.

These problems include increased health care needs, care for the elderly, and finding enough workers to fill jobs. Today, the population problem is an issue for which the Croatian government is actively searching for a solution.

Way of Life in Croatia

The culture practiced by Croatian people is similar in many respects to that of peoples throughout the region. Language and religion (Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and Muslims, for example, each differ in some respects) are two major aspects of culture that vary from country to country in southeastern Europe. This section provides details about the way Croatian people live.


Croats are south Slavs and speak a language quite similar to other Slavs. During the early existence of the former Yugoslavia, the Croatian language was officially called Serbo-Croatian, because of the close similarity between the two languages. Since the 1960s, however, Croatian political and linguistic influences have changed the name to Croatian. After the country became independent, great emphasis was given to further development of a pure Croatian language without the influence of the Serbian tongue. National minorities living in Croatia are also allowed to use their own language in most activities, including education and government. The official script is Latin, although use of Cyrillic writing is common among ethnic Serbs living in Croatia.

Some of Croatia's important archaeological evidence, as well as a large segment of Croatia's national heritage, was written in the little-known Glagolitic script. Two monks, Constantine and Method, created this unique script in the ninth century. The monks had been sent by the emperor of Byzantium to  Moravia (a region of the Czech Republic) to bring literacy to the local people. Gradually, the script spread to other Slavic groups. The Baska Stone Tablet, dating from the late 11th century, is Croatia's most important Glagolitic object. The tablet was written during the reign of King Zvonimir, who had given some land to the clergy on the island of Krk. Another important work written in Glagolitic is the 13th-century Vinodol Code. It is one of the oldest Slavic legal documents. The code established two legal rights that are accepted throughout most of the world today: the introduction of witnesses into the legal system and protection against the torture of suspects.


Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion in Croatia. It is practiced by about three out of every four people in the country. Ethnic Serbs and some other minority groups, amounting to some 11 percent of the population, belong to the Eastern Orthodox Church. About 1 percent of Croatians are Muslims, followers of Islam.As is true in a number of countries formerly under Communist rule, a significant number of people consider themselves to be atheists or agnostics.

The Arts and Sciences

During the Middle Ages, the arts flourished throughout the Dalmatian coastal region, particularly in the then independent republic of Dubrovnik (today's city of Dubrovnik and the surrounding area). With its crossroads location between Asia and Europe, Dubrovnik's culture was influenced from both continents. Travelers brought with them products and knowledge never seen before in the West. And Dubrovnik served as a checkpoint on that road. One famous traveler to pass through Dubrovnik was Marco Polo. The Polo family was originally from the Croatian town of Korcula (on the island with the same name), located just north of Dubrovnik. (The name Polo comes from Paulovic?, which is a variation of Pavlovic?.) Eventually, the family moved to Venice, Italy. It was from this trading center that Marco, with his father and uncle, made their famous trip to China during the 13th century.

After spending many years with Kublai Khan, the Mongolian emperor, the Polos traveled back to Europe. They had been gone so long that many people had forgotten them.

During the 15th to 17th centuries, literature and science flourished in Dalmatia. Perhaps the most influential writer of the era was Ivan Gundulic. His famous epic, Osman, describes the longstanding conflict between the Turks and the Slavic peoples. Another well-known early writer was Marin Drzic. During the mid-16th century, he wrote many popular comedies and works of drama. His best-known work is the comedy, Dundo Maroje.Hanibal Lucic and Marko Marulic were authors who produced some of the classic 16th-century Croatian literature.

Marulic's epic story Judita was about Croats' resistance against the Turks. Today, nearly 500 years after it was written, the book is still widely read by Croatians. During the 16th century, there were also major contributions to science. Marin Getaldic conducted important research in the field of physics and optics. Inventor Faust Vrancic, among other things, contributed to the invention of the parachute.

Croatia's most famous scientist of all time was Dubrovnik resident Rudjer Boskovic, born in 1711. Boskovic spent his career as a professor lecturing at many different universities across the continent. He was highly respected and was honored with memberships in a number of leading European scientific academies. He was an expert in civil engineering and specialized in the construction of astronomical observatories.

Boskovic spent nine years in Paris, where he served as the director of naval optics for the French navy. In the 19th and 20th century, Croatian literature and poetry flourished, with many outstanding works appearing during that time. The Illyrian Movement (a Romantic period) marked the beginning of a sequence of authors that wrote about ordinary people, including the lower social and economic classes. Among the most important writers are August Senoa, Petar Preradovic, Ante Kovacic, and Silvije Strahimir Kranjcevic.

During the first two decades of the 20th century, Antun Gustav Matos was the leading representative of Croatian literature.Matos also served as the editor of The Young Croatian Lyric, an anthology (a collection of works) published in 1914. During the period between World War I and World War II (1918 and 1940), a series of authors established avant-garde poetry in Croatia. The best known are Tin Ujevic, Dobrisa Cesaric, Dragutin Tadijanovic, and Antun Branko Simic.

Miroslav Krleza—perhaps the leading Croatian writer ever—began his work during this period. His “Return of Phillip Latinovic” and “The Glembays” represent some of the best works written during a long, productive, and highly successful career. During World War II, poets Vladimir Nazor and Ivan Goran Kovacic joined the resistance movement during which Kovacic lost his life. After the war, most young writers concentrated their attention on contemporary life in Croatia.

It is important to mention that Ivo Andric, who was an ethnic Croat although born at the end of 19th century in Travnik, Bosnia and Herzegovina, received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1961 for his novel The Bridge on Drina.

The dawn of the 20th century produced some of the greatest names in Croatian science. Nikola Tesla was born in a poor rural family near the small mountain town of Gospic. He was to become the world's leading engineer. At one point in his career, Tesla worked with American inventor Thomas Edison. His engineering ideas were far in advance of his time. Although he patented hundreds of ideas with the U.S. Patent Office, more than a half-century after his death, scientists still cannot explain some of his patented ideas.When Tesla died, it is most unfortunate that many of his great ideas were lost with him. Some science historians believe that it was Tesla, not Marconi, who invented the radio. Among his other widely recognized contributions are the design of the world's first power machinery—the equipment installed at Niagara Falls.

His other major contributions included many inventions relating to the use of electricity, particularly in lighting and telecommunications. Some of his ideas seemed to be rather unrealistic, a fact that brought criticism from some scientists. For example, he believed that communication was possible with other planets; that Earth could be split like an apple; and that he had invented a “death ray” that could destroy planes at a distance of several hundred miles. Nonetheless, today he is regarded as having been one of history's greatest intellects and inventors.

People throughout the world know at least part of the name of a Croatian inventor whose name otherwise is all but unknown—Eduard Slavoljub Penkala. Penkala invented the mechanical pen that carries his name. Andrija Mohorovicic, a professor of geophysics at the University of Zagreb, discovered a layer deep beneath Earth's surface that is a key to the study of seismology (earthquakes). In his honor, it is called the Moho layer.

Art also has a long tradition in Croatia. From the Middle Ages, paintings and religious architecture were particularly important. Early churches in the coastal cities of Zadar and Nin stand today as marvels of early (pre-Romanesque, 9th to 10th century) architecture. Also from the same period, archaeologists have found baptismal and other objects with elaborate artistic designs. During the Gothic period (13th to 14th century), beautiful portals were built in cathedrals at Sibenik and Trogir. During the Renaissance (15th–16th century) period and later centuries, Croatian artists continued with productive work in the arts. Julie Klovic and Andrija Medulic produced excellent paintings at that time. In the 19th century, German-born architect Herman Bolle designed many of Croatia's architectural landmarks. Two of the most influential sculptors in the 20th century were Ivan Mestrovic and Antun Augustincic. Both of these sculptors left their mark in the United States as well. Augustincic's statue of a horsewoman can be seen in front of the United Nations building in New York City. Mestrovic's sculptures appear in many American cities, including the widely acclaimed statue of Native Americans in Chicago, Illinois.

Native art is popular in Croatia. Perhaps the best-known school is the one founded by Krsto Hegedusic in the small village of Hlebine. The village produced many important painters, including Ivan Generalic and Ivan Rabuzin, whose works have achieved international acclaim. Croatian films have also achieved widespread recognition. Zagreb's School of Animated Movies is an internationally respected institution with an outstanding reputation. Every year, the International Animated Movies Festival is held in Zagreb. The best-known Croatian animated movie is Dusan Makotic's The Substitute. It was the first non-American movie ever to receive a coveted Academy Award.

Spread of Croatians and Their Culture

Croatia is one of the leading European countries—along with Italy and Ireland—in terms of the percentage of its people who have emigrated (left the country). Difficult living conditions pushed many people from their homes toward new countries and a better life.Massive emigration started in the 1880s when phylloxera, plant lice, devastated European vineyards. This destroyed the wine-making industry, leaving tens of thousands of people without employment. The population drain continued through the first quarter of the 20th century. Major destinations included the United States, Canada, Australia, Chile, Argentina, and South Africa.

Later in the 20th century—during the 1960s and 1970s—thousands of other Croatians, mainly seeking better jobs, migrated to Germany and other countries of Western Europe. Scholars believe that today there are probably more people with Croatian roots living outside of Croatia than residing in the country itself. Known for their hard work, a majority of emigrants became successful. In the United States, for example, Anthony Maglica (owner of the Maglite Corporation, a manufacturer of flashlights), John Kasich (former Republican Congressman from Ohio), Rudy Tomjanovic (coach of the Huston Rockets professional basketball team), and Dan Marino(vic) (one of the most successful quarterbacks of all time, now retired from the Miami Dolphins) all share Croatia as their ancestral homeland. What's the Story Behind the Neckties?

Mechanical pens and neckties have one thing in common: both are products that originated in Croatia. Hundreds of millions of people around the world wear ties. Yet few people know why they are wearing a piece of cloth, tightly tied around their neck—other, perhaps, than wanting to “look good.” According to history, during the Thirty Years' War in the 17th century, Croatian soldiers used some sort of scarf around their necks. The French soon discovered that scarves not only could be used on the battlefield, but that they also could make a fashion statement. In France, ties replaced traditional collars (which usually were white and therefore easily became dirty). The idea quickly spread throughout France and later to much of the rest of Europe. The French gave the name Cravate, which means Croat, to honor the country from which it came. Throughout the centuries, the cravat evolved into various designs. Yet in any form, and now worldwide, the necktie has become the required attire of professional businesspeople.

Contemporary Lifestyle

In many respects, living in Croatia today is much like living in any other European country, sharing similar levels of education, income, and political reality.

Sports and Recreation

Leisure time activities are an important part of Croatia's everyday life. Football (soccer, rather than the American game) and basketball are the most popular and widely enjoyed sports. Other popular sports include handball, tennis, water polo, rowing, and sailing. Croatians have always enjoyed hiking and mountaineering. Many Croatians, including Stipe Bozic, have climbed the world's highest peaks. Some, like alpine skier Janica Kostelic, have won gold medals at the Olympic games.

Tennis player Goran Ivanisevic has won the Wimbledon championship. And basketball player Tony Kukoc won several National Basketball Association championships as a member of the Chicago Bulls team. The proudest moment for Croatians since gaining their independence occurred in 1998 when the national soccer team finished third in its first appearance ever in soccer's World Cup competition.


For most Croatians, life revolves around the family. Family members visit each other often and always bring gifts, especially for children. It is considered impolite to visit somebody's house and not bring gifts. A bottle of spirits or wine for males, coffee or candy for women, and candy for children are the most common types of gifts. Hosts always serve drinks (strong Turkish coffee is always present) and snacks. It is considered impolite to reject this hospitality.When people visit friends or family in other cities, they never stay in hotels; their hosts provide them with a room. In restaurants, a check is never split among friends; one person always pays the bill. The next time, among friends or family, someone else in the group will pay the bill. Kissing on cheeks is common among close friends and relatives when greeting one another. For holidays such as Christmas, people usually travel to see their relatives or join friends for dinner. During their paid vacation, which in Croatia is usually 3 to 4 weeks per year, many people travel to the coast to enjoy the clear waters of the Adriatic, the national parks, and many other attractions of the region. Many Croatians own a second home or apartment on the coast, where they spend their vacation time. People in Zagreb may also own a holiday home within an easy drive from the city.

There, they spend weekends in relaxation, working on hobbies such as gardening or tending their vineyard. Wine is an important part of Croatian culture.

Cuisine and Diet

Croatian cuisine is basically a reflection of its geography. Away from the coast, Croatian food is similar to that found elsewhere in central Europe. Along the coast, Dalmatian and Istrian cuisine share many similarities with that of Italy. But regardless of where they live, Croatians greatly enjoy food and both respect and appreciate its rich traditions. Breakfast and dinner (evening meal) are lighter than lunch, which normally is the main meal of the day. Black (Turkish) coffee usually is an integral part of the meal; it is served with the main meal, often as an accompaniment to dessert.

The most important factor in the Croatian diet is freshness of ingredients. People in rural areas normally grow their own fruit, vegetables, chickens, and livestock. City residents must use alternative means of obtaining fresh produce and meat. Large urban neighborhoods, particularly in Zagreb, often have an open market called a Trznica, where fresh vegetables can be purchased. During winter months, when locally grown fresh vegetables are not available, most people rely on pickled food.

Cucumbers, many varieties of peppers, cabbage, cauliflower, mushrooms, and other vegetables are prepared by pickling in the fall and stored in cellars or basements for the winter. Inland from the coast, the Croatian diet is mostly based on meat, vegetables, and fruits. Pork, beef, and chicken are the major meats consumed; seafood from the Adriatic, or fish caught in local rivers, is served on fewer occasions. Generally, food in the interior is heavier and has more fat content than is common on the coast. Coastal cuisine is typical Mediterranean, most closely related to Italian. Pasta, seafood prepared in various ways, and vegetables are the primary staples. Because of the minimal consumption of red meat and fats, and because olive oil is used in much of the cooking, coastal people rarely experience problems with obesity.

Winemaking dates back to ancient times. It is a process greatly appreciated throughout the county, where both the making and consumption of wine share deep roots in the Croatian culture. In northern Croatia, people traditionally celebrate St. Martin's Day on November 11. This event marks the change of unfermented grape juice into fine wine ready to drink. Currently more than 50 types of grapes are used in wine production. Of domestic wines, the most popular is Dingac. It is made from grapes grown on the Peljesac Peninsula, and it is Croatia's first geographically protected wine (it can indicate the place of origin on the bottle). Dingac is made of Plavac Mali, a grape that is a close cousin to California's popular Zinfandel grape. Oenologists (wine scientists) once believed that the Zinfandel grape was brought to the New World from Italy or Croatia. But it is now recognized that an almost unknown Croatian grape, the Crljenak, is the direct ancestor of the Zinfandel grape. In 1880, Croatian immigrants introduced it into the United States. Croatians' love for wine is most evident in the town of Primosten, hometown of the famed Babic wine. Here, a traveler can see vineyards on the land literally carved out from the rocks in a limestone-dominated landscape.