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History of Croatia

This is the history of Croatia. See also history of Europe, and history of present-day nations and states.

The area known as Croatia today was first inhabited in the early Neolithic period. In recorded history, it was colonized first by the Celts and later by the Illyrians. Illyria was a sovereign state until the Romans conquered it in 168 BC. Forebears of Croatia's current Slav population settled there in the 7th century.

The inscription of duke Branimir, ca. 880

Table of contents
1 Medieval Croatian state
2 Union with Hungary
3 Habsburg Empire
4 First Yugoslavia
5 Independent State of Croatia
6 Second Yugoslavia
7 Modern Croatia
8 Related articles
9 External links

Medieval Croatian state

The Croats arrived from the north around the year 600 -- the exact date is not known. They were Christianized in the 9th century under Duke Porin, although they were never obliged to use Latin -- rather, they had masses in their own language and used the Glagolitic alphabet (only later did the Latin alphabet prevail). The first written mention of Croats was in a statute by Duke Trpimir from 852. The country was recognized by Pope John VIII as an independent dukedom under Branimir in 879.

The first King of Croatia, Tomislav of the Trpimir dynasty, was crowned in the Duvno field in 925 (note that sources vary from 923 to 928). Tomislav united the Pannonian and Dalmatian duchys and created a sizeable state, including most of today's Central Croatia, Slavonia, Dalmatia, and most of Bosnia. The central town of the Duvno field is nowadays named Tomislavgrad (Tomislavtown) in his honor.

Croatia during king Tomislav's reign

History also recalls the name of king Dmitar Zvonimir (1075-1089) through the Baška Tablet where his kinghood is carved in stone. The stone was preserved until today and is kept in the archaeological museum in Zagreb. Zvonimir's reign is remembered as a peaceful and prosperous time, during which the connection of Croats with the Pope was further affirmed, so much that Catholicism would remain among Croats until the present day.

After the death of Zvonimir, Ladislaus I of Hungary was the strongest candidate for the throne, but the Croatian lords struggled for independence from Hungary. Following the death of the last Croat king Petar Svačić in the defeat at the Gvozd hill in 1097 to Coloman of Hungary, they eventually recognized him as the common king for Croatia and Hungary in a treaty called "Pacta Conventa" of 1102, thus making a personal union with Hungary. The two crowns would remain connected until the end of World War I.

Union with Hungary

The change of ruling dynasty had several important consequences. Among them was the fact that the Hungarian king introduced a variant of the feudal system, and granted large feuds to individuals who would defend them against outside incursions, thereby organizing a defence of the whole state. However, by enabling the nobility to seize more and more economic and military power, the kingdom itself lost influence to the Frankopan, Šubić, Nelipčić, Kačić, Kurjaković, Drašković, Babonić and other families. The later kings sought to restore their influence by giving certain privileges to the towns, making them Royal Borroughs or Free Royal Towns, which they defended from the feudal lords in return for their support.

The princes of Bribir from the Šubić family became particularly influential during the time of Pavao Šubić (1272-1312) who asserted control over large parts of Dalmatia, Slavonia and Bosnia during an internal conflict between the Arpad and Anjou ruling dynasties. Later, however, the Anjouvines intervened and scattered the Šubić family across the country (an important offspring being the Zrinski family), and later even selling the whole of Dalmatia to Venice in 1409.

Ban Petar Berislavić, "defendor Croatiae"

As the Turkish incursion into Europe started, Croatia was once again a border area between two major forces in this part of the world. While Croats under fra Ivan Kapistran contributed to the Christian victory over the Ottomans at Belgrade in 1456, they suffered a major defeat in the battle of Krbava field (in Lika, Croatia) in 1493 and gradually lost increasing amounts of territory to the Ottoman Empire.

Pope Leo X called Croatia the forefront of Christianity in 1519, given that several Croatian soldiers made significant contributions to the struggle against the Turks. Among them there were ban Petar Berislavić who won a victory at Dubica on the Una river in 1513, the captain of Senj Petar Kružić who defended the Klis fortress for 15 years, captain Nikola Jurišić who deterred by a magnitude larger Turkish force on their way to Vienna in 1532, or ban Nikola Šubić Zrinski who helped save Pest from occupation in 1542.

Habsburg Empire

The 1526 Battle of Mohacs was a crucial event in which the rule of the Jagiellon dynasty was shattered by the death of king Louis II and the overall inability of the Christian feudal military to counter the Ottoman forces which would remain a major threat over the next few centuries. Following the battle, in 1527 some of the Croatian (and Hungarian) nobles supported Ivan Zapolja, while some preferred suzerainty to the Austrian king Ferdinand I Habsburg. The latter option prevailed by 1540, when Zapolja died.

The change of leadership was far from a solution to the war with the Turks, in fact, the Ottoman Empire gradually expanded in the 16th century to include most of Slavonia, western Bosnia and Lika. After the Bihać fort finally fell to the army of the Bosnian vizier Hasan-pasha Predojević in 1529, only small parts of Croatia remained unconquered. The remaining 16,800 km² were referred to as the remnants of the remnants of the once great Croatian kingdom.

The siege of Siget 1566

Taking advantage of the growing conflict between Maximilian and Sigismund, Suleyman started his sixth raid of Hungary in 1565 with 150,000 troops. They successfully progressed northwards until 1566 when they took a small detour to capture the outpost of Siget (Szigetvár) which they failed to capture back in 1556. The small fort was defended by count Nikola Zrinski with some 2500 men. They were able to hold their ground for a month, killed Suleiman himself and decimated the Ottoman army before being wiped out themselves, which allowed for the Austrian troops to regroup before the Turks could reach Vienna.

By orders of the king in 1553 and 1578, large areas of Croatia and Slavonia adjacent to the Ottoman Empire were carved out into the Military Frontier (Vojna Krajina) and ruled directly from Vienna's military headquarters. Due to the dangerous vicinity of the Ottoman armies, the area became rather deserted, so Austria encouraged the settlement of Serbs, Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks and Ruthenes/Ukrainians and other Slavs in the Military Frontier, creating an ethnic patchwork.

The negative effects of feudalism escalated in 1573 when the peasants in northern Croatia and Slovenia rebelled against their feudal lords over various injustices such as unreasonable taxation or abuse of women. Ambroz Matija Gubec and other leaders of the mutiny raised peasants to arms in over sixty fiefs throughout the country in January 1573, but their uprising was crushed by early February. Matija Gubec and thousands of others were publically executed shortly thereafter, in a rather brutal manner in order to set an example for others.

After the Battle of Sisak in 1593, when the Ottoman army was successfully repelled for the first time on the territory of Croatia, the lost territory was mostly restored, except for large parts of today's Bosnia and Herzegovina. By the 1700s, the Ottoman Empire was driven out of Hungary and Croatia, and Austria brought the empire under central control.

After a victory of the Austrian royal army of the Turks in 1664, emperor Leopold failed to capitalize on it and signed the peace of Vasvar in which Hungary and Croatia were prevented from regain their territory previously lost to the Ottoman Empire. This caused unrest among the Hungarian and Croatian novelty which plotted against the emperor, but they weren't powerful enough to actually do something about it, even though they negotiated with both the French and the Turks. The imperial spies uncovered the conspiracy and on April 30, 1671 executed four esteemed Croatian and Hungarian noblemen involved in it, Petar Zrinski, F. K. Frankopan, F. Nadasdy and E. Tatenbach, in Wiener Neustadt.

Croatia was one of the crownlands that supported emperor Karl's pragmatic sanction of 1713 and supported the empress Maria Theresia in the War of Austrian Succession of 1741-1748. Subsequently, the empress made significant contributions to the Croatian matters, by making several changes in the administrative control of the Military Frontier, the feudal and tax system. She also gave the independent port of Rijeka to Croatia in 1776. However, she also ignored and eventually disbanded the Croatian Parliament and in 1779, Croatia was relegated to just one seat in the governing council of Hungary, held by the ban of Croatia.

The governments of Austria and Hungary each tried to colonize Croatia over a period of several centuries: they imposed their languages on the Croatian people and immigrated many of their own colonists to Croatia. Croatian romantic nationalism emerged to counteract the non-violent but apparent Germanization and Magyarization. The Croatian national revival began in the 1830s with the Illyrian Movement. The movement was misnamed (some wrongly thought that they descended from the ancient Illyrians rather than the Slav settlers), but it still attracted a number of influential figures and produced some important advances in the Croatian language and culture.

By the 1840s, the movement had moved from cultural goals to resisting Hungarian political demands. In 1868, Croatia was given domestic autonomy, but the governor was appointed by Hungary, 55% percent of all tax money went to Budapest and Hungary had authority over the biggest sea port of Rijeka. Struggle towards more independence within the Austro-Hungarian monarchy was interrupted by the World War I.

First Yugoslavia

Shortly before the end of the Great War, on October 29, 1918, the Croatian Parliament severed relations with Austria and Hungary as the Allied armies defeated Austria-Hungary's. Shortly thereafter, they created the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs, with the intent of pursuing a joint state of all south Slavs previously in Austria-Hungary.

This state wasn't barely organized and rather weak compared to its neighbours. Italy retained the Istrian peninsula, the city of Zadar and the island of Lastovo after the war, and had pretentions on the whole Adriatic coast, if not more. The Kingdoms of Serbia and Montenegro which were part of the winning alliance were also interested in Austria-Hungary's old territory.

The People's Council (Narodno vijeće) of the State, guided by what was by that time a half a century long tradition of pan-Slavism, chose cooperation with the eastern Slav neighbours and joined Serbia and Montenegro in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes on December 1, 1918. The new country was ruled by the Serbian dynasty of Karađorđević and had a Parliament (Skupština) with representatives from all regions.

The Croats expected better treatment from their Slav brothers than they would expect from a possible Italian rule, but they were soon stripped of political power in royal Yugoslavia. Croat parties were but a significant parliamentary minority and were limited to leading the opposition, whereas the Serbian parties formed majority governments with the help of several Muslim and Catholic parties (Yugoslav Muslim JMO, Albanian/Turkish Cemiyet, Slovene-Bunjevatz clericals).

On Vidovdan 1921, a crucial change in the constitution was passed which made the country centralized (and the center was in Belgrade, Serbia) and intentionally completely rewrote the internal region borders which resulted in Serbs being the majority in most of the regions. The vote was boycotted by representatives from almost all of the parties from Croatia: the Croatian Republican Peasants' Party (HRSS), the Republican Party and the Socialdemocrat Party.

Stjepan Radić

The HRSS and its leader Stjepan Radić opposed the new state from the very beginning, and were later persecuted by the new government. Radić was detained in 1925 and released only after the party officially declared it supports the new country, and renamed itself to lose the Republican from the name. Their dissent was seemingly entirely eliminated when Radić joined the government of Nikola Pašić in 1925, but this lasted only until 1927. Radić's HSS then formed a coalition with the Independent Democratic Party led by Svetozar Pribičević, a party of Serbs from the western parts of the country, thereby getting a chance to lead the country. In 1928 the coalition received a mandate to create a new government, but failed to form it.

The turning point was June 20th, 1928, when Stjepan Radić was mortally wounded by a Serb deputy, Puniša Račić in the middle of a Parliament session. Radić died on August 8 and an estimated 300,000 people gathered on his funeral in Zagreb on August 12.

The royal establishment used the newly created turmoil to continue with its centralization of power. On January 6th, 1929, King Aleksandar proclaimed a dictatorship and suspended the Parliament. Several political parties were banned, including the Croatian Peasants' Party. The right-most party Croatian Party of Rights was also banned and went underground to organize the radical-right Ustaše movement.

Yugoslavia continued on its path towards a completely militarist society, arming for possible war with its neighbours Italy and Bulgaria. On October 3rd, 1929, the king divided the country into nine provinces (banovina) and renamed it to Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The king imposed a new constitution in 1931 and held new elections for the parliament, but with a single allowed candidate list.

In 1934, Macedonian radicals in exile assassinated king Aleksandar in Marseille, reportedly with the support of the Croat extremists as well. The country continued to be ruled by Karađorđević king, young Petar, but under the aegis of a royal committee. The country remained centralized, and even though the dissenting parties appeared in the elections, the electoral law and procedure was very undemocratic.

Independent State of Croatia

Croatia received some autonomy in 1939 when the provinces were shuffled so that there was one called the Croatian banovina comprised of Croatia, Dalmatia, and parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, this didn't last for long because lacking the leadership of a strong king, the militarist regime in Belgrade crumbled in 1941 and the Axis powers quickly occupied Yugoslavia.

The Croat populace supported the abolishment of Yugoslavia, but didn't realize what kind of a replacement was in store for them. Hitler and Mussolini installed the Croatian Ustaše into power, forming the so-called "Independent State of Croatia". The puppet regime in Croatia enacted racial laws, formed eight concentration camps and started a campaign to exterminate Serbs, Jews and Gypsies.

Josip Broz Tito

The anti-fascist movement emerged early in 1941, under the command of Communists like Josip Broz Tito, as in other parts of Yugoslavia. The partizan guerillas gradually received support from an increasing amount of population and by the end of the world war, with the help of the Soviet Union's Red Army, Tito's partisans expelled the quislings (Nazi collaborators).

Later in the war Ustaše opened up a large complex of five concentration camps near Jasenovac in which up to a hundred thousand people were murdered (some estimate that this camp was the third largest camp of WWII). Overall Ustaša death count is estimated at over 400,000 people, but all written records were destroyed to cover it up. Serbian royalist guerilla Četnici were ostensibly formed in some parts of this puppet state by Serb villagers to protect themselves from the Ustaša, but in turn committed atrocities against Croats in retaliation.

At the end of the war, a large group of anti-communists, Ustashi followers and civilians was on a retreat from the partizan forces, heading west (Italy, Austria). After the British forces on the Austrian-Slovenian border refused to accept passage for them, partizans are said to have executed up to 150,000 people, some of them in a field near the village of Bleiburg near that border, a lot of them on a "death march" back into Yugoslavia.

Second Yugoslavia

Croatia became part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1945, which was run by Tito's Communist Party. Tito adopted a carefully contrived policy to manage the conflicting national ambitions of the Croats and Serbs. Croats were again in a minority but the constitution of 1963 didn't allow Serbs to have all the political power in the country. They did dominate the secret services and the military, however, as most of the generals in the Yugoslav national army were either Serbian or Montenegrin.

Trends after 1965 led to the Croatian spring of 1970-71, when students in Zagreb organized demonstrations for greater civil liberties and greater Croatian autonomy. The regime stifled the public protest and incarcerated the leaders, but many key Croatian representatives in the Party silently supported this cause, so a new Constitution was ratified in 1974 that gave more rights to the individual republics.

In 1980, after Tito's death, political and economic difficulties started to mount and the federal government began to crumble. The economy was actually in a very good shape until the fall of communism, and Croatia was the second richest of the six republics, surpassed only by Slovenia. However, probably due to the imminent end of the Cold War and all the subtle benefits for Yugoslavia which it entailed, the inflation soared. The last federal prime minister Ante Marković, who was from Croatia, spent two years implementing various economic and political reforms. His government's efforts were superficially successful, but ultimately they failed.

The ethnic tensions were on the increase, and they were to be the real cause of the demise of Yugoslavia. The emergence of Slobodan Milošević in Serbia, the nationalist memorandum of Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences, the growing crisis in Kosovo and everything else that entailed provoked a very negative reaction in Croatia. The fifty year old rift was starting to resurface, and the Croats increasingly began to show their own national feelings and express opposition towards the Belgrade regime.

In 1990, the first free elections were held. A nationalist movement called the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) won, led by Franjo Tuđman and financially supported by the Croat diaspora, in part descendants of the Ustaša from WWII that managed to escape. HDZ's intentions were to secure more independence for Croatia, not excluding the option of secession from Yugoslavia.

Ethnic Serbs which constituted 12% of the population of Croatia rejected the notion of separation from Yugoslavia. Serb politicians feared the loss of influence they previously had through their membership of the League of Communists in Croatia (that the Croats claimed was disproportionate). The memories from WWII were manipulated and abused by the increasingly militant Belgrade regime of Slobodan Milošević.

As Milošević and his clique were riding the wave of Serbian nationalism across Yugoslavia, talking about battles to be fought for Serbdom, Tuđman reciprocated with talking about making Croatia a nation state. The availability of mass media allowed for propaganda to be spread fast and spark jingoism and fear, creating a war climate.

In the summer of 1990, Serbs from the mountainous areas near the Bosnian border (counties of low population density with Serbs a majority) rebelled and formed an Autonomous Region of the Serb Krajina. The Croatian government sent special police forces to intervene, but helicopters carrying them were forced to land by the planes of the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA). Whatever the role of the JNA was, in the end they only helped widen the rift. Croats believed that the government of Serbia supported the rebels in Croatia with funds and personnel, while Serbs believed that the government of Croatia oppressed the local Serb population. The conflict culminated with the so-called "log revolution", when Krajina Serbs blocked the roads to the tourist destinations in Dalmatia.

Extremists from both sides started an elaborate campaign of harassment and even abductions and murders of people simply because they weren't of the same nationality. Ethnic hatred grew and various incidents fueled the propaganda machines that in turn caused even more hatred. The wider conflict soon escalated into armed incidents in the Krajina areas.

Modern Croatia

The Croatian government declared independence from Yugoslavia on June 25th, 1991, but the European Commission urged them to place a three-month moratorium on the decision. The JNA tried to forcefully maintain the status quo, however, and the new nation started building a real army to counter it. One month after the declaration of independence, Serbian forces held about one third of the country, as they were actually already equipped for war. Given their prevalence in weaponry, their military strategy mostly consisted of extensive bombardment, including civilian targets.

As the war progressed, the cities of Dubrovnik, Šibenik, Zadar, Karlovac, Sisak, Slavonski Brod, Osijek, Vinkovci and Vukovar all came under the attack of the Serbian forces. Croatian Parliament cut all remaining ties with Yugoslavia on October 8, 1991 after a JNA air raid on the government headquarters in Zagreb (October 8 is now Independence day in Croatia).

A destroyed Yugoslav Army tank in Vukovar, 1991

In August 1991, the siege started on the border city of Vukovar. The Serbian troops eventually completely surrounded the city but the defenders, the 204th Vukovar Brigade, entrenched within Vukovar and held their ground fearing what would happen to the many civilians who took shelter in the city.

According to the commanding officers of the 204th brigade, they destroyed or damaged 350-400 armored vehicles, destroyed 50 airplanes, killed 14,000 enemy soldiers and wounded another 30,000. The figures from Serbian sources are smaller by about 10-15 percent. In one hundred days of the battle for Vukovar, the Croatian forces inflicted over 50% of the total casualties and weaponry destruction to the JNA in the whole war.

By November, the city was almost completely destroyed and overwhelmed by Serbian forces and Croats finally surrendered on November 18th, 1991. Allegedly this was done in an attempt to prevent further devastation of Dubrovnik and other cities.

In the aftermath of the occupation, the Serbian forces committed atrocities for which their commanders and Serb collaborators in the city were and are on the trial at the ICTY.

The civilian population massively fled the areas of armed conflict: generally speaking, Croats moved away from the Bosnian and Serbian border, while the Serbs moved towards it. An estimated 220,000 Croats and 300,000 Serbs were internally displaced during the war in Croatia. In many places, masses of civilians were forced out by the military, in what became known as ethnic cleansing.

In December 1991, during the heavy fighting, Germany recognized Croatia's (and Slovenia's) independence, the first EU country to do so. Some, including successive US Secretaries of State Lawrence Eagleburger and Warren Christopher, have strongly criticized this action, which they say escalated the war. Some would say that by doing nothing and imposing an arms embargo on the seceding republics, Western nations silently encouraged the Serbian rampage across Yugoslavia. The EU was persuaded to recognize the independence of the two breakaway republics in January 1992.

January 1992 also brought a UN-sponsored cease-fire, and the warring parties mostly entrenched. The Yugoslav People's Army soon retreated from Croatia into Bosnia and Herzegovina where war was just about to start. During 1992 and 1993, an estimated 225,000 Croats from Bosnia and also from Serbia took refuge in Croatia. A large number of Bosniaks also fled to Croatia.

Croatia became a member of the United Nations on May 22, 1992.

Armed conflict in Croatia remained intermittent and mostly on a small scale until 1995. In early August, Croatia started Operation Storm and quickly took Krajina, except for a small strip near the Serbian border. In just four days, about 140,000 Serbs fled to Bosnia and Serbia.

President Tudjman in liberated Knin, 1995

The Croatian army proceeded to fight Serbs in Bosnia alongside the Bosniaks, but further advances were prevented by a US diplomatic intervention. Had the Croat army occupied the second largest Bosnian town of Banja Luka, the refugee crisis would have become unbearable since tens of thousands of people would run further east through the narrow Posavina corridor towards eastern Bosnia and Serbia.

A few months later, the war ended upon the negotiation of the Dayton Agreement (in Dayton, Ohio) which would later be signed in Paris in December 1995.

Croatia became a member of the Council of Europe on November 6, 1996.

The remaining part of Krajina, areas adjacent to Yugoslavia, became a protectorate of the UN Transitional Administration for Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium. It was formally peacefully re-integrated into Croatia on January 15th, 1998.

Tuđman died in 1999 and the nationalist HDZ government was replaced by a center-left coalition in early 2000. Refugees are returning to their homes, rebuilt by the government; most Croats already returned (except for some in Vukovar), whereas only a third of the Serbs returned, impeded by unfavourable property laws, ethnic problems and economic issues.

Croatia became World Trade Organization (WTO) member on November 30, 2000. The country applied for accession to the European Union in 2003.

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