Disclaimer: just to be clear, don’t worry if you’re having a hard time figuring out Croatian – or even worse: BALKAN – history. This war, that war, one Yugoslavia, two Yugoslavias (What? There was one more?)… Balkans rocky history is so messed up sometimes even we don’t know what hit us, let alone someone coming from outside. So, let’s do the impossible – make it simple.
Before Croatians came to this land, people already lived here, long ago. Those were:
- prehistoric man
- ancient Greeks & Romans
- local tribes
Until Croatian people came in the 7th century, thanked them for the roads and sewage system, and showed them the door. So it starts:
1) KINGDOM OF CROATIA
7th century: Croatian history started in the 7th century when Croatians – part of Slavic tribes – came to this area. Like all refined people, they headed straight for the beautiful Croatian coast.
Unlike today, 7th century Croatians didn’t believe in God. At least not only one god. Just like other Slavic people, they were polytheists. Christianity just started to spread slowly. But, slow and steady wins the race, so – 300 years later, Croatians finally converted to Christianity.
10th century: At the time Croatians lived in dukedoms, until year 925 when we got our very own first king. Ok, this part of history is still somewhat dubious, but for the sake of fanciness, let’s stick to the official version: our first king was called Tomislav and he was crowned in 925.
• TomiSLAV is a common Croatian/Slavic male name
• Tomislav is also a name of the famous dark and strong Croatian beer – it was actually named after the king as a 20th-century tribute to him
• Tomislav is also in my Gmail address: firstname.lastname@example.org – I’m often asked by Croatians if it’s my boyfriend’s name, so I always have to explain that it’s my high school e-mail (yes, still) of my then favorite beer, d’ooh.
Kingdom period didn’t last for long. Although Tomislav had successors and therefore we had few more Croatian kings, civil wars kept occurring and the country was weakening.
11th century: In the famous church split between Rome and Constantinople of 1054, Croatia found itself in the Latin sphere (Roman catholic, Latin letters), while our Serbian neighbors found themselves under Byzantine empire (Orthodox Christianity, Cyrillic letters).
At the end of the 11th/beginning of the 12th century, the last Croatian King died and Croatia joined in union with Hungary.
2) AUSTRO – HUNGARIAN EMPIRE
12th – 20th century: Union with Hungary, and later part of Austro-Hungarian empire
For the next, almost 800 years (12th – 20th century) Croatia spent in a political marriage with Hungary and later the Austro-Hungarian empire. Like every other marriage, sometimes it was good, sometimes we just wanted out.
When you look at Zagreb and most of continental Croatia today, you can notice how architecture resembles cities of central Europe (Vienna, Prague, Bratislava…). Most of our architects, writers, scientists, and other scholars got their education abroad and were influenced by Austrian/Hungarian culture. This is also why Zagreb was always seen as ”the posh one” in the Balkan region, with its elite historically leaning towards western fashion. You know, the fancy ballrooms filled with burgoise laugh, Germanized vocabulary, hoch coffee places where intellectuals read the newspapers, prudish citizens smirking at the rest of the Balkan peasants…
But, not everything was milk and honey: throughout history, there were many attempts of ”hungarizing” Croatia in terms of language and culture. Austrians were only more subtle in it.
16th century: Ottoman army conquering the Balkans
In the 16th century came a new threat: the Ottoman army coming from the East, conquering the Balkans, and the majority of Croatian territory (we call Croatia from that period ”the leftovers of the leftovers” – losing 2/3 of its territory and half of the people).
By the 18th century, the Ottomans were defeated and driven out. Today you can notice their presence in many of our fortresses and castles built to protect the country, even some cities (the whole city of Karlovac was built just for that), the oldest wee mosque, and interest in Turkish soap operas, of course.
19th century: romantic nationalism & pan-Slavic dream
In the 19th century, Croatians figured it would make more sense to join forces with its Slavic neighbors rather than put up with constant attempts of ”hungarizing” and Germanizing from the Austro-Hungarian side. The aim of Croatian intellectuals and politicians was to integrate South Slavic nations – and this is how the idea of Yugoslavia (”the land of South Slavs”) was born.
3) ”FIRST” YUGOSLAVIA: THE KINGDOM
When we talk about Yugoslavia today, we always think of socialist, post-WWII Yugoslavia. But, at the beginning of the 20th century, there was one more: the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
It was a failed attempt to create a union between Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Bosnian Muslims, Macedonians, and Albanians (sure, one might say that for second Yugoslavia as well, but they were essentially distinct). The country’s economy and politics were a mess sprinkled with the WWI and ethnic tensions, mostly between Croatians and Serbs. Serbs were at the political top, holding most of the power in their hands. So, that couldn’t last long.
4) WWII & THE ”SECOND”, SOCIALIST FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF YUGOSLAVIA
When WWII began, Nazi Germany tempted Croatian politicians with promises of ”independent state” after the war ends. Of course, that was a lie especially if you consider the fact that according to the Nazi ideology, Slavic people should be slaves of Germans. But, some agreed and unfortunately, the horrors of WWII happened on this ground as well: Holocaust, concentration camps for Jews, Serbs, Roma, political enemies (antifascists and communists)…
At the same time, the anti-fascist people’s army started to fight against the nazi-puppet (Ustaša) government. They were led by Josip Broz Tito who will later become the president of the second, socialist Yugoslavia. The army gathered antifascists and communists from all around Yugoslav republics in the joint fight against the Nazis and their local puppets.
In 1945, the country was liberated by its own people. For the next almost 50 years modern Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Macedonia will live under one roof, led by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia and its president Marshal Tito.
So much was written and told already and I will write about Yugoslavia in more details, but to sum it up for now, some pros and some cons: the ideological emphasis was on the working-class people rather than nationalist identities, Tito somehow managed to keep us all in peace, Yugoslavia was an important and recognized country in the international community, founding member of the Non-alignment movement, free from Soviet boot. On the other side, it was a one-party system that left some angry about losing their wealth in the national redistribution, or angry about not being able to express their national pride or criticize the government.
Tourists always ask me what is my opinion although I was born after Yugoslavia fell apart, but what the hell: my grandma will always tell how life was safer, nobody judged you on whether you were a Croatian or a Serb, if you were an honest and hard worker you could afford to buy an apartment, provide for your family, own a car, enjoy the seaside in the summer… And of course, a popular saying you’ll hear from her generation even today: ”it was so safe – you could sleep in a park on a bench”.
My parents remember the freedoms they had in a socialist country as youngsters – freedoms that their peers in the Eastern block never had: buying trousers abroad, traveling, listening to the latest music (mom was falling for Sting, dad was the rock’n’roll child), going out to the clubs… Not everything was perfect, you had to be careful of what you say if you interfere with politics and the economy started to go downhill in the ’80s. Still, they never could imagine what was about to happen.
Tito died in 1980 and the disintegration began. Politicians from each federative republic wanted to grab a bit of power for themselves and they started turning people against each other. After 10 years of ”fake news” and pointing fingers, combined with the inflation and economy decline – the volcano of nationalism erupted in 1990.
5) THE HOMELAND WAR & INDEPENDENCE
When Croatia and Slovenia decided to leave Yugoslavia and made their first steps toward independence in 1990, they were attacked by the Serbian military forces. Slovenia managed to get away, but Croatia and Bosnia found themselves in the middle of a bloodbath.
Not only was Croatia attacked from the outside, but from the inside as well: areas with significant Serbian population came under Serbian control, supported with weaponry. Eventually, Serbia (self) proclaimed those to be Serbian territory in Croatia. The situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina was even worse due to the fact it consisted of both the Serbian and Croatian plus Muslim populations.
The war went on until 1995 and ended in Croatian victory, but also thousands of dead, thousands of displaced refugees, damaged infrastructure, and tensions that are alive even today.
It’s been 25 years and today, Croatia is an independent parliament democracy, member of the EU, and NATO. Until recently, not many people were aware Croatia is absolutely safe to visit today. Tourists started returning little by little, drawn by the beauty of the Adriatic coast, Plitvice national park, friendly people, and interest in what happened with this former Yugoslav republic. Also, Game of Thrones and Football world cup in Russia 2018 brought even more attention to Croatia.
But we’ll go into details later.
What do you think? Is there something you’d like to add/know more about, or something that still feels blurry? If so, comment below or contact me – I will answer or write an article about it.