Croatia Through Time

Croatia, as is true of all countries in Eastern Europe, has a long and complex history. This chapter discusses the past and the people, cultures, and events that have shaped present-day Croatia.

In the Beginning

Archaeological evidence suggests that humans inhabited the area of what today is Croatia as early as 100,000 years ago. More than a century ago, a Croatian archaeologist—Dragutin Gorjanovic-Kramberger —successfully excavated a site near the town of Krapina (located about 30 miles north of Zagreb, near the border with Slovenia). Here, he found remains of early humans dating back into the Paleolithic era, or Old Stone Age. It soon became evident that Kramberger had discovered the world's richest Neanderthal site. The Neanderthal belonged to a branch of humans believed to have been parallel  o Homo sapiens (all people today). They became extinct sometime during the period of the last Ice Age. Neanderthal people lived in groups, were skilled hunters, and many used caves as shelters and homes. In the decades that followed, Kramberger discovered many other sites around the country, which was further confirmation of Croatia having been a major homeland of prehistoric people.

Evidence proves that humans have continuously occupied Croatia from the Stone Age until now. Under consideration here are some of the most important early peoples and their culture, or way of life. One important group was the Starcevo culture. These Neolithic, or New Stone Age, people were widespread over almost all of east central Europe—they spanned an area extending from Ukraine on the east, to Bulgaria on the south, and Croatia on the west. In eastern Croatia, around the city of Vukovar, archaeologists found household objects dating from the fifth millennium B.C.E., which was the period of the Starcevo's culture zenith (highest development). During the next 2,000 years, Vukovar would become the center of the Bronze Age's Vucedol culture (the name being given from the site near Vukovar, where most of the associated artifacts were found), which spread throughout central Europe. Among the more important finds from this culture is the Vucedolska golubica (Vucedol's dove), a beautiful piece of pottery now more than 4,500 years old.

Early Historical Era Imprints

Archaeologists and historians differ primarily on the basis of the evidence they use to interpret the past: archaeologists, such as Kramberger, use bones and artifacts to interpret history. Historians, on the other hand, favor the use of historical—or written—documents. The historical era, then, begins for Croatia shortly before the beginning of the first millennium B.C.E. The first mass movement of yet another culture over Croatian territory can be traced into the Iron Age (1200–700 B.C.E.). This migration, which is mentioned in the Bible, was an invasion of a group simply called the Sea People. The movement of Greek and Illyrian tribes from central to south Europe also brought new inhabitants to Croatia. Around 1100 B.C.E., different Illyrian tribes (Illyrians are the ancestors of modern Albanians) colonized parts of Croatia. Most evidence of their existence in Croatia survived in the form of geographical place names.

Dalmatia, for example, owes its name to the Illyrian tribe of Dalmats that once lived in the area.

In the first millennium B.C.E., the center of population and culture shifted from the interior region of Croatia to the Adriatic coast. The first Greek colonies appeared on Croatian islands such as Hvar as early as the fifth to fourth centuries B.C.E.. These colonizers brought Greek culture and established towns and trade routes. Soon after the Greeks arrived, Roman influence began expanding toward the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea. The powerful Romans were able to quickly conquer Croatia and the rest of the Balkan Peninsula. They defeated the last of the Illyrian, Macedonian, Greek, Celtic, and other kingdoms and tribes, thereby establishing Roman domination over Croatia for the next 500 years. Roman rule and culture would bring progress in many forms; it also connected (with the famous Roman road network) these once isolated parts of southeast Europe with other areas of the continent.

The lasting imprint of Roman presence is still evident on the Croatian landscape, especially in the country's architecture. Later chapters will cover Roman cultural influence; however, one important archaeological treasure will be mentioned here—Diocletian's Palace. Emperor Diocletian, who was born in Croatia and ruled over the empire from the late third to early fourth century A.D., built this magnificent structure. The palace is located in what is now downtown Split and is one of the most significant cultural landmarks on the entire Dalmatian coast.

Another major movement of peoples occurred toward the end of the Roman Empire. It was to bring important changes in the ethnic structure of southeastern Europe, including what is now Croatia. Gothic tribes from the east spilled over the borders of the empire, crossing the Danube River in the early fifth century. Asiatic Avars and Indo-European Slavs followed them in the sixth and seventh centuries. Croats were a tribe that belonged to the southern branch of Slavs. They began moving toward the Adriatic coast during the early seventh century.

Earliest evidence of a Slavic presence in the area came from information discovered on tombs dated to this period. Slavs penetrated into the Avar Kingdom, which covered a huge area extending from the Dalmatian coast to the steppe grasslands of Eastern Europe. There is little historical evidence of early Slavic existence in Croatia, because there is not much information about the period between the seventh to ninth centuries in Croatia. The single most important bit of historical evidence is found in text written by Byzantium's emperor, Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, who ruled in the 10th century. Called De Administrando Imperio (how to rule an empire), this text basically was written as instructions to his son regarding how the empire should be ruled. Constantine listed the various nations and tribes that lived on the border of the Byzantine Empire. Among those listed are Croatian tribes and their territorial organizations, for which he gave descriptions. It is evident from this document that Slavic peoples already had established numerous settlements on the eastern side of the Adriatic.

Steps Toward Croatian Identity

The first documented existence of Croatian political leaders, historians agree, is dated at the beginning of the 10th century. This written record is traced to an armed conflict between several warlords who called themselves the “dukes.” Two of them, Ljudevit, who controlled central parts of Croatia in the area of the Sava River, and Borna, who ruled over coastal areas, went to war against each other. Ljudevit ultimately achieved victory in the conflict.

During the early European Middle Ages (6th–12th century), most areas controlled by Croatian dukes were located in the coastal area (Dalmatia). Until the 12th century, when Croatia and Hungary created a joint kingdom under the Hungarian ruling house of Arpad, very little evidence existed about Croats' political units in eastern Croatia, the area located between the Sava and Drava Rivers (Slavonia). That is why Croatians today consider their nation's cradle to be the region between the Dinara Alps and the Dalmatian Adriatic Islands.

During the ninth century, a number of dukes—including Vladislav (821–835), Mislav (835–845), Trpimir (845–864), Domagoj (864–876), Zdeslav (876 –879), and Branimir (879–892)—ruled semi-independently over their dukedoms. Because of their relatively remote location, they were able to survive the ongoing geopolitical conflict between Byzantium to the east and Charlemagne's Empire of Franks to the west.

At that time, another important player appeared on Croatia's shore. Venice, the city-state located on the western, or Italian, coast of the Adriatic Sea, developed into an important trade and military power during the early Middle Ages. The rise of Venice helped to weaken the regional influence of Croatia and its leaders. Antagonism between Croatia and Venice, and among Croatian leaders themselves, continued for several centuries as Venice gained absolute control of the Adriatic Sea.

In the first part of the 10th century Croatian leaders began to establish independent states. This was the time when the most famous Croatian ruler, Tomislav (910–928), expanded his dominance well beyond his own ethnic border. Tomislav, who belonged to the Trpimirovic dynasty (named after the duke Trpimir, 845–864, and his descendants), is an individual who remains controversial in the eyes of historians. Some historians consider Tomislav to have been the first Croatian king, whereas others do not.To modern Croatians, identifying who was the first Croatian king represents one of the most important historical challenges. Tomislav is an important historical person in Croatia because of his possibly having been the country's first king. He also was an excellent military strategist who successfully defended the country from Hungarians and Bulgarians who were trying to spread their control over the west Balkans.

Tomislav's control spread from the coast eastward to the Sava and Drava Rivers on the north and Drina on the east. Under his rule, Croatia achieved its greatest geographical size and military power. For the first time ever, one Croatian ruler had successfully united Dalmatia and Slavonia into one territorial unit.

As often happens, after a strong king dies there is a fight for leadership among his descendants. Following Tomislav's death, there were civil wars that brought much destruction and hardship to Croatia and its people. Some territories were lost. But once the situation was stabilized under a series of new kings the country was able to continue its existence on through the 10th and 11th centuries. By the end of the 11th century, the Croatian kingdom had weakened and external forces were able to make their influence felt in the country's domestic affairs. To make the situation even worse, King Dimitar Zvonimir (1074–1089) did not leave any successors to occupy the Croatian throne. His widow, Jelena, who was related to the Hungarian ruling house of Arpad, decided to support the so-called Pacta Conventa with Hungarian King Ladislaus. Some nobles supported Pacta Conventa, but many did not and armed conflict broke out once again. Ultimately, in 1102, after defeat of the opposition, another Hungarian king (Koloman) was successful in gaining control of Croatia, Slavonia, and Dalmatia. This event marked the beginning of the joint Hungary-Croatia state that existed for centuries under different rulers from several dynasties.

Era of Hungarian Control

The heaviest challenge to the Hungary-Croatia state came in 1242 when Mongol forces, under the lead of Batukan, stormed eastern European kingdoms from Asia. Even King Bela IV had to flee Budim, his capital city. He sought help and cover in Croatia—where the Mongols were finally stopped only after news arrived of the death of the supreme Mongolian ruler. Because the people of Zagreb had offered its help to King Bela, he granted the city the status of Free Royal City. This status offered the city a greater degree of autonomy, or independence, in its affairs.

Between the Mongolian invasion in the 13th century and the confrontation with another Asiatic nation in the 16th century, Croatia was relatively calm. Peace was only broken by occasional internal problems and, of course, the seemingly permanent troubles with the powerful Venetians. But the period of relative calm ended when the Ottoman Empire began to expand—including throughout the Balkan Peninsula. Neighboring Bosnia, whose kings were of Croatian origin, was the first to come under attack. It finally surrendered to the Turks in 1463. Belgrade, east of Croatia in what is now Yugoslavia, fell to the Ottoman's in 1521. It was the last obstacle before reaching the plains of eastern Croatia's Pannonian lowlands.

The Turks attacked the then combined Hungary-Croatia in 1526. The battle took place on the field next to the Hungarian city of Mohac, with the Turks being victorious. A year later, nobles decided to invite the Habsburgs, the royal family of Austria, to take over rule of Croatia and Hungary. The nobles hoped that by joining the Habsburg Empire, their land would be saved from the Turks. This decision marked the beginning of Croatia's destiny for the next 400 years (until 1918), as part of a joint Austria-Hungary state.

Era of Austria-Hungary Control

To help defend Croatia (and Western Europe), a Military Border region was established in the 16th century in the zone of contact between Europe and the Ottoman Empire. It was organized on the principle of having military garrisons ready for intervention in case of necessity. Land on which to build houses and farms was given to people who were willing to accept military duty. At that time, many of the Serbs living in Turkish controlled areas accepted the invitation and resettled in the Military Border. Until the 18th century, when the power of the Ottoman Empire finally started declining (after the Austrian-Turkish War of 1683–1699), the Military Border would serve as the primary defense. Finally, in 1881, the Military Border was disbanded, and the land was returned to Croatian control. Conflict with the Turks left a lasting imprint on Croatia, one that is evident when looking at the country's borders. It is often said that the country is shaped like a boomerang. Following this description, the inner side (or the alligator's yawning mouth, as described in Chapter 2) follows the old Military Border.

Even though Croatia survived repeated Turkish advances between the 16th and 18th centuries, it was not yet free of outside influences. The country also suffered under the absolute rule of Austrian czars Mary Theresa and Joseph II, as well as a short-lived occupation by forces of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. During the age of absolutism, Austrians tried to officially minimize Croatian independence in its internal affairs. This was a policy they had pursued with other Slavic nations within the Habsburg Empire. One method employed was the Austrian's insistence on the exclusive usage of the German language. This weakened the influence of Slavic-speaking Croatians.

During the 19th century, a wave of nationalistic feelings swept across Europe. In Croatia, growing nationalism contributed to a number of positive changes. For example, in 1847 the Croatian language began to be used exclusively in news publishing, the printing of official documents, and in all aspects of daily life. Earlier, during the 1830s, many intellectuals led by Ljudevit Gaj established the Illyrian Movement. The purpose of the movement was to organize the South Slavs (who, at the time, were incorrectly thought to be descendants of the ancient Illyrians) into one intellectual, cultural, and political body. In the second part of the 19th century, two main factions existed in Croatian political life. People inspired by their identity as South Slavs led the first; they hoped to break free from Habsburgs and form their own Slavic-dominated political unit.

People whose political goal was to gain political independence for Croatia formed the second faction. They were not interested in forming a union of Slavic nations. Many Croatians today consider Ante Starcevic, the leader of the second faction, to be the “Father of the Homeland.”His was one of the first political voices urging absolute independence.

After the Austrian defeat in their war with Prussia in 1866, some political changes affected Croatia as well. Austria had to reconstruct the Habsburg monarchy and give equal status to Hungary. Two years later, in 1868, a door of opportunity opened for Croatia. It was able to gain limited control over its own internal affairs by signing a similar agreement with Hungary. Even though still within the Habsburg monarchy, for the next several decades, Croatia worked steadily to establish its own national identity in the hope of ultimately establishing its independence.

World War I started in 1914, after the assassination of Francis Ferdinand, the Austrian archduke and successor to the throne, in Sarajevo, Bosnia. Croatia entered the war as a part of the Habsburg monarchy. Four years later the geopolitical (countries and boundaries) picture of Europe was completely different than when the war began. Three major European empires had been destroyed—Russian, German, and Habsburg. With these political changes, Croatia finally got the chance to decide its destiny.

When the war ended in 1918, Slavic nations that were part of the Habsburg monarchy took advantage of the chance for independence. Croatians followed the Czechs, Slovenians, and others in proclaiming their independence. But the road to independence would prove to have many barriers. One problem that quickly appeared was growing Italian imperialism. Italy initially sided with the United States and its Allies (France, England, Russia, and several other countries) against Germany, Turkey, and the Habsburg Empire because it was promised the eastern, Croatian, coast of the Adriatic Sea as its reward.

To stop Italian infiltration in Croatian territory, in the fall of 1918 the Croatian National Council decided to join the new South Slavic union called the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenians. The kingdom was organized on democratic principles and the Serbian king, Petar Karadjordjevic, was selected to rule. Euphoria about the union was short lived, however, among South Slavs. During the period 1918 –1941, strong antagonisms existed between leading Serbian political parties and the main Croatian political power, the Croatian Peasant Party. The events culminated in 1928 when, during the National Assembly meeting in Belgrade, a member of the Serbian Radical Party assassinated the leaders of the Croatian Peasant Party. One of those killed was the party's leader, Stjepan Radic. After this tragic event, the political situation in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenians deteriorated rapidly. This led King Karadjordjevic to dismiss the Parliament and to proclaim his dictatorship in January 1929. Soon afterward, the country's name was changed to Yugoslavia (which means “country of the South Slavs”). After an agreement between Serbian and Croatian political leaders in 1939, Croatia gained greater autonomy within Yugoslavia. The newly found autonomy lasted for a short time. In April 1941, Germany invaded Yugoslavia and quickly occupied the entire country. Croatian nationalists who were supported by the German Nazi occupation forces assumed control over Croatia and proclaimed it to be an independent state. This Independent State of Croatia lasted until 1945, the end of World War II. In reality, it was a semi-independent state led by a limited number of pro-Fascists from the Ustase movement and supported by a minority of the Croatian population.

A majority of the population sided with a resistance movement led by forces organized by the Yugoslav Communist Party and its strongman Josip Broz, better known as Tito. Tito's supporters (called Partisans) fought against German-led occupation forces. They also fought against Ustase-organized armed groups that were responsible for concentration camps and the mass executions of Jews, Serbs, Gypsies, and many Croats who were against their rule. After the war, Tito became the leader in Yugoslavia. He formed a Communist dictatorship and strictly controlled and suppressed any nationalistic feelings among Yugoslav nations.

During Tito's rule—which was much more liberal than in other Communist dictatorships—considerable economic progress was achieved. What had been an underdeveloped, primarily agricultural country, became a modern industrialized country. At that time, Croatia became the leading industrial force among the six Yugoslav republics. Although strictly controlled by the Tito government, nationalistic feelings and the desire for independence were still strongly held by some Croatians. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, this nationalist desire became an organized political movement. It even became involved in public protests, resulting in clashes with police that culminated in the arrest of many political leaders. One of those arrested was future Croatian president, Franjo Tudjman, who was sentenced to several years in prison.

Croatia continued to be a part of Yugoslavia until 1991. In 1974 a new Yugoslav constitution gave Croatia more autonomy. But when the winds of freedom began to blow across Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, it became obvious that most Croatian citizens wanted to live in an independent state. In the first fully democratic elections in over 50 years, Croatian voters elected former dissident and nationalist leader, Franjo Tudjman, to the presidency. Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) became the leading party in the state's Parliament.

Soon after, a referendum for independence was organized. Most voters supported Croatia's independence from Yugoslavia. The results, however, were sharply divided along ethnic lines. The majority of ethnic Serbs that lived in Croatia wanted to stay in the federation with Serbia and other republics. But the majority of Croatians (who make up almost 80 percent of Croatia's population) decided it was time for independence.

These differing views quickly triggered a heated ethnic conflict. By 1995, Croatian forces had finally recaptured Serb-controlled territories and eliminated their pseudo-state called the Republic of Srbska Krajina. The war took approximately 30,000 lives and forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. In the West, the conflict was known as the “Serbo–Croatian War.” Throughout the rest of this book, it is simply referred to as “the war” or “the conflict.” With the end of hostilities, Croatia entered into a period of rebuilding that continues today.

In 1995, President Tudjman was reelected to a second five-year term. But, in 1999, he lost a long battle with cancer. Several months later, in early 2000, separate presidential and parliamentary elections were held.As a result of these elections, a government was formed by a coalition of opposition parties led by the Social Democrats. One of the opposition leaders from the Croatian People's Party, Stjepan Mesic, became the new president; a Social Democrat, Ivica Racan, became prime minister. Today, Croatia is slowly working its way toward achieving political stability and economic prosperity. However, the country faces many of the same problems that beset other East European formerly socialist nations.