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Birth of a nation

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Birth of a nation

With the benefit of hindsight Croatia’s history can be read as one long march, albeit one full of often tragic incident, towards the birth of a nation. The process began in the 10C, and led to it finally being recognised as a fully independent state in 1992. Croatia has always been a hub of different civilisations and cultures, bridging the gap between the Eastern and Western Roman Empires, the Frankish and Byzantine, between Orthodox and Western Christianity, and even Islam and Christianity. Add to that the foreign powers (Venice, Vienna, Hungary) which secured rule over all or part of the country and you have the often explosive recipe for the astonishing diversity of this veritable crossroads of history and culture.


During the Bronze Age the area today known as Croatia was mainly inhabited by “Illyrian” tribes grouped into independent kingdoms: the Histri, the Dalmatae, the Liburnians etc.

4C BC – The Greeks establish trading posts on Issa (Vis), Pharos (Hvar), Corcyra Melæna (Korčula) and in Tragurion (Trogir).

239 BC – Roman attack, provoked by Illyrian piracy.

9 AD – End of the Roman conquest, after two centuries of war. Having become provincia romana, Illyria swiftly undergoes a process of romanisation, with the proliferation of towns such as Zara (Zadar), Salona, Mursa (Osijek), Siscia (Sisak), Pula and Parentium (Poreč). The Romans lay roads, develop the cultivation of vines and olive trees and organise the economy. Various architectural remains of this outstanding period are still in existence.

This area populated by hardy warriors who lived true to the fundamental Roman values since neglected in the Roman motherland, was to produce several emperors, who reigned during the latter half of the Roman Empire. Although the first of the Illyrian emperors, a Dalmatian named Claudius Gothicus, left barely a trace in the history books, the same could not be said of his son Aurelian, born in Sirmium and in power from 270 to 275; next came Probus, also a native of Sirmium (277-282), the energetic Diocletian, who was born in Salona and created the Tetrarchy by appointing three compatriots to the ranks of Augustus and Caesar, and finally Constantine the Great, the first Emperor to convert to Christianity (306-337).

395 – Division of the Roman Empire by Theodosius the Great: the border between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Western Roman Empire is established along the Danube and the Drina.

476 – Fall of the Western Roman Empire. Illyria comes under the control of the Eastern Roman Empire.

535-555 – Reconquest of the Western Roman Empire by Justinian: final period of ancient splendour in Illyria.

Beginning of 7C – The Avars, originally from Central Asia, occupy the land surrounding the middle section of the Danube (Pannonia). The Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (610-641) calls upon the Slavic peoples of the north Carpathians to reconquer the region. Among these were the Croats (Horvat), a population most probably of Iranian origin, who in the 6C BC had settled in Central Europe, where little by little they came under Slavonic influence. They establish a settlement between the Drava and the Adriatic.

8C-9C – Having come under Roman influence and converted to Christianity, the Croats begin to organise banats (dukedoms) that are more or less independent but confronted with external pressures, including from Charlemagne, who is laying claim to Dalmatia.

812 – The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle brings the Croat dukedoms and Istria under Frankish rule, while Dalmatia remains dependent upon the Byzantine Empire.

Dukes and kings

Around 845Theoretically a Frankish vassal, Prince Trpimir (745-864) is the first independent ruler of Croatia, de facto if not de jure, and assumes the title of dux Croatorum. His territory centres on the regions of Nin and Salona.

880Establishment of the dukedom of Croatia and Slavonia by duke Branimir (879-892).

925With the blessing of Pope John X, Duke Tomislav (910-928) founds the independent kingdom of Croatia. The northern border is established along the course of the Drava. Having rushed to defend Constantinople against the Bulgarians, Tomislav is given Dalmatia as reward for his efforts. For the first time since the Romans, political unity is achieved from the coastline to the hinterland.

1058-1075The reign of Petar Krešimir IV marks the high point of the Croatian kingdom: the reconquest of Dalmatian towns, the re-establishment of royal authority over present-day Slavonia, the conquest of the Neretva, and the founding of Šibenik.

1075-1089 – Reign of Zvonimir, who secures international recognition for the kingdom of Croatia and Dalmatia.

1089Zvonimir dies leaving no heir. The dynastic struggle that ensues results in a seizure of power by the Hungarians.

1102The conquest of Dalmatian towns by Coloman engenders the allegiance of the Croatian nobility and the signing of the Pacta Conventa. The Hungarian monarch is recognised as legitimate ruler of Croatia and Dalmatia; the Croatian state, which remains independent in principle, is governed by a viceroy appointed by the ruler, the ban, and a diet, the Sabor. From this point on, and until 1918, Croatia’s history is bound up with that of Hungary.

1137Bosnia (Rama) becomes part of the kingdom of Hungary-Croatia.

1202Venice lays siege to Zadar.

An established military and naval power, the Republic of Venice would not tolerate the competition of Istrian and Dalmatian ports. By 1205 the Venitians had already conquered parts of Istria and Zadar. Although the defeat of 1358 put a halt to its expansion, this proved to be temporary: in the 15C Venice took advantage of weakening Hungarian rule, badly undermined by the Ottoman advance, and established control over the islands and coastline, with the notable exception of Ragusa (Dubrovnik). This dominion prevailed until 1797.

1242 – King Bela IV gives Zagreb the status of “free and royal city”.

1308 – Charles Robert of Anjou becomes King of Hungary-Croatia.

1358 – Victory of Louis the Great over the Venetians: as a result of the Treaty of Zadar, Dalmatia rejoins the Croatian kingdom, whose suzerainty the Republic of Ragusa recognises.

1377 – Bosnia becomes an independent kingdom that includes part of Dalmatia.

1397 – Bloody Sabor of Križevci. In 1396, the King of Hungary and Croatia, Sigismund of Luzemburg, suffers a heavy defeat at the hands of the Turks in the Battle of Nicopolis. He is believed dead. Croatian nobles, led by Stjepan Lacković, elect Ladislaus of Naples. But Sigismund suddenly reappears while the Sabor is convening a session in Križevci. In the midst of the proceedings, ill-disciplined soldiers kill Lacković and his followers. Sigismund reigns until 1437.

The «rampart of Christianity»

1463-1482The Ottomans seize Bosnia, then Herzegovina.

1493A thunderbolt for Christian Europe: the Hungarian-Croatian army is trounced by the Ottomans at Krbava. The Croatian nobility is decimated and part of Croatian territory is occupied (present-day Slavonia).

1526Suleiman the Magnificent crushes the Hungarians at Mohács: King Louis II Jagiellon is killed in the battle. The Sabor appoints the Emperor of Austria, Ferdinand of Habsburg, King of Hungary-Croatia. The Ottomans take Klis, on the doorstep of Split. The majority of Hungary and the rest of the Balkans are occupied by the Ottomans. Croatia constitutes the “rampart of Christianity”.

1566 – Nikola Šubić Zrinski halts the Turks at Szigetv ár; the death of Suleiman during the battle saves Vienna from the Ottoman advance.

1573 – Revolt led by Matija Gubec against the brutality of the feudal regime that is starving the population. After spreading like wildfire, it is suppressed with unprecedented violence.

In order to protect their territory the Habsburgs introduce a system of fortifications at which they station mercenaries (the Uskoks) in an attempt to contain the Ottoman advance. A military frontier (Vojna Krajina) thereby emerges, from Zadar to Lake Balaton. Until 1699, this frontier represents the easternmost border of Christianity.

1593 – Victory against the Turks secured at Sisak by a Croatian army led by Tamás Erdődy.

1615-1617 – War of the Uskoks between Austria and Venice. These irregular soldiers who had originally been fighting the Turks had instead taken to robbing Venetian ships.

1630“Military frontiers” and the “remains of the remains”. In order to lead the fight against the Turks, Vienna takes over a piece of Croatian territory that has been abandoned by its inhabitants and builds fortresses upon it. These come to be surrounded by little towns inhabited by immigrants, often of Serbian origin, who are attracted by the tax exemptions. As for the Croatian kingdom, still theoretically autonomous and governed by a viceroy, it is limited to the region situated to the west of a line that runs from ­Karlobag to Karlovac to Virovitica: these are the reliquiae reliquiarum or the “remains of the remains”.

1671The Croatian nobility revolts against Vienna: Petar Zrinski and Fran Krsto Frankopan, leaders of the revolt, are lured to Austria and executed.

1687Defeat of the Turks at Harkány. Slavonia is liberated. In 1699 the Austrians and Turks fix their borders by signing the Treaty of Karlowitz.

1718The Treaty of Passarowitz defines the border between Croatia and Bosnia more or less as it is today.

Between the mouth of the Neretka river and Dubrovnik, in front of the Pelješac peninsula, travellers on the coastal road come across a customs point: it marks the entry into Neum, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s only access point to the sea. Now an extremely commercial spot, the territory was given over to the Ottoman Empire in 1718 by the Ragusans, who still preferred to have the Turks as neighbours rather than the Venetians.

1809-1813A French interlude. The fall of Venice (1797) leads to French rule in Istria and parts of inland Croatia. Dalmatia is added to the French haul without armed conflict, with the signing of the Treaty of Pressburg (1805) and the Treaty of Vienna (1809). Croatian territories south of the Sava are united under the name of Illyrian Provinces and governed by General Marmont, future duke of Ragusa. Beyond the construction of roads and bridges, the organisation of government and the introduction of laws and social reforms, historians credit the French presence with the emergence of Croatian national sentiment. The Treaty of Vienna (1815) brings the Illyrian Provinces under Austro-Hungarian control.

Croatian national revival

Croatian national sentiment emerged in the 19C within the European context of the awakening of nationalities. Intellectuals were the first to proclaim the uniqueness of their culture. The mantle was quickly taken up by the political parties that formed with a view to securing the country’s autonomy.

1830-1848Croatian opposition to Hungarian rule becomes radicalised. The Hungarians look to impose usage of their language. This provides intellectuals with the opportunity to demonstrate their desire for independence. Ljudevit Gaj (1809-1872) starts the Illyrian Movement, which fights for national renewal, and he codifies the language. Count Janko Drašković publishes his Dissertation (1832) in the Stokavian dialect and in it calls for the adoption of Croatian as the official language. Lyrical and literary works exalting the Croatian nation arouse enthusiasm.

25 March 1848: the Zagreb Sabor promulgates the “Demands of the People”, which express its separatist aspirations. The Sabor demands autonomy from Budapest and that Dalmatia be rejoined to Croatia and proposes General Josip Jelačić (1801-1859), known for his patriotic convictions, for the post of ban.

The ban abolishes serfdom, puts an end to administrative relations with Hungary and brings in numerous reforms. Among these is the replacement of Latin with Croatian as the official language of the Sabor. But the Hungarian Revolution precipitates events. The Hungarians revolt against Vienna in order to obtain an independent king and diet. They promulgate the “March Laws”, in which they assert (among other points) their desire to incorporate Croatia into their kingdom. The Emperor calls on J elačić to bring the rebels to heel, and he, in turn, at the head of an army of 40 000 Croatians, participates in the taking of Budapest and the capitulation of the Hungarians in Világos, on 13 August 1849.

1851-1860 – Bach’s absolutism. If the ban had hoped his actions would serve the national cause, he was to be greatly disappointed: Emperor Franz Joseph appoints Chancellor Bach, who institutes absolutist rule. In Croatia the viceroy is replaced by an imperial government and privileges are abolished, as are the age-old provinces.

1867 – The “compromise” signed by Hungary and Austria places the Croatians under Hungarian rule once again. The Nagodba, signed the following year by Croatia and Hungary, reestablishes Croatia’s special status.

At the same time, the fight continues. The different powerful groups in the country organise themselves into political parties. Josip Juraj Strossmayer (1815-1905) founds the Academy of Science and Art in 1866 and advocates the unification of the South Slavs (Jugo), thereby developing the concept of “Yugoslavia”. Nationalists like Eugen Kvaternik (1825-1871) and Ante Starcević (1823-1896) fight for the liberation of all the Croatian territories. In 1871, Kvaternik even attempts an uprising. It is only in 1881 brings the abolition of the military borders that Croatia is reunified.

October 1905 – Croatian members of parliament draw up the Fiume Resolution in an effort to revise the Nagodba with a view to bringing Dalmatia back under Croatian jurisdiction. The rallying of the Serbian contingent of Croatia’s parliament to the cause ensures the victory of the Croatian-Serbian coalition (HSK) in the 1906 election.

From one Yugoslavia to another

The First World War changed the configuration of the Balkans drastically. The notion of a common Yugoslav state began to catch on and a rapprochement developed between nationalist Serbs and Croats.

1914-1918In 1915 several Serbian, Croatian and Slovenian members of parliament, including Frano Supilo and Ante Trumbić, form the Yugoslav Committee with a view to creating a “three-unit kingdom” after the end of the war. The “Corfu Declaration” of 1917 lays the foundations for a future Serbo-Croat state. The end of the war brings about the break-up of Austria-Hungary.

1 December 1918Creation of the independent Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. The King of Serbia, Peter, is placed at the head of this new state. Being among the victors of the Great War, the Serbs’ ambition to create a “Great Serbia” is strengthened; as for the Croats, they look to obtain a degree of autonomy within the kingdom.

1921 – The centralising constitution reinforces Serb leadership of the Yugoslavian government. AlexanderI accedes to the throne.

1922 – The founder of the Croatian Peasant Party, Stjepan Radić, addresses a memorandum to the League of Nations in order to obtain support for his project of an independent Croatia.

1928 – Assassination of Stjepan Radić in the parliament in Belgrade.

6 January 1929 – The king introduces a dictatorship and gives the country the name Yugoslavia. The government looks after Serb interests above all others. Victimisation of the Croats is common.

1934 – The king is assassinated in Marseille by a Macedonian nationalist. The ultranationalists, whose campaign is run from Italy by a Zagreb member of parliament, Ante Pavelić , receive the support of Mussolini and form a terrorist movement that calls itself Ustaša (“insurgent”). The influence of Ustaša grows as the Axis powers gain a greater hold on Europe.

1941-1944 – The Ustaša regime. The German-Italian offensive in the Balkans of 6April 1941 signals the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the establishment of collaborationist regimes, in Serbia as well as in Croatia, which falls into the clutches of Ante Pavelić’s Ustaša. The regime will leave a trail of blood in history: genocide is instigated against the Serbs, the Jews, the Roma and Croatian opponents. The Chetniks (Serbian royalists), in turn, sow terror amongst the Croatian and Bosnian populations. The violence of the Ustaša is opposed by the majority of Croatians, who join the resistance movement.

1944-1945 – Led by Tito, the anti-fascist movement liberates the country. A total of one million people perished in the war, including close to 100 000 Serbs, Jews, Roma and Croats who died in Jasenovac concentration camp alone.

1947 – Istria and part of the Kvarner Gulf, up to Rijeka (Fiume) are returned to Yugoslavia.

These territories were not part of the first Yugoslavia. They had been claimed by Italy at the end of the First World War and immediately occupied before being officially brought under Italian jurisdiction in 1920. They shared Italy’s fate until the Second World War. After the fall of Mussolini, the territories were invaded by the Nazis and finally liberated by English and American Allied forces, who returned them to the second Yugoslavia.

Tito’s synthesis

After the end of the war, a new Yugoslav state was rebuilt upon the principle of a socialist federation made up of six republics: Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Slovenia, Macedonia and Montenegro. The guarantors of unity were the Comminist party and, in particular, Marshal Tito. The choice of a compromise language, “Serbo-Croat”, as the official state language was an attempt to reinforce this unity.

November 1945 – Proclamation of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and adoption of a constitution. Communists who were born of the anti-fascist movement progressively take over power and apply Soviet methods: the creation of a secret police, conflict with the Catholic church, nationalisation of manufacturing enterprises, planned economy, personality cult and purges.

1945-1947 – Jasenovac camp is used by the regime to eliminate opponents.

1948 – Tito rejects Stalin’s diktat: “Titoism”, accused of revisionism and nationalism by Communist orthodoxy, is born. In comparison with the other “popular democracies”, the Titoist system, based on a kind of self-management, turns out to be relatively liberal, particularly in terms of art, with artists escaping the shackles of “Socialist Realism”.

19 July 1956 – Signing in Brijuni of the Pact of the Non-Aligned Countries by Tito, Nasser and Nehru. However, Tito never manages to establish real equality between the constituant republics of Yugoslavia. Tensions intensify between Croatia and the central government, which is dominated by the Serbs. Croatians demand the use of their language, as well as a better distribution of the country’s wealth, which had been carried off by Belgrade, to reflect the financial benefits of the tourism thriving in Dalmatia.

1971 – The “Croatian Spring”. Civil society rises up against centralism. Students demonstrate on the streets while representatives of the Croatian Literary Society (Matica Hrvatska) make demands in the local press for recognition of Croatian unique features. Tito puts a stop to the revolt. Croatian leaders are obliged to step down, the students are dispersed, the Croatian Communist party is purged, dissidents are assassinated etc. The memory of the “Croatian Spring” will loom large in 1991.

4 May 1980 – Death of Tito. The ideal of a unified Yugoslavia disappears with him. A collegial presidency made up of one representative from each republic and a president appointed for one year succeeds the late marshal. The distribution of posts is decided on grounds of ethnicity, which contributes to the disintegration of the federal state.

A painful birth

6-7 May 1990 – The Croatian general election, the first free election in Yugoslavia, sees a stunning victory for Franjo Tuđman in the presidential election and for his HDZ (Hrvatska Demokratska Zajenica) party in the parliamentary election.

December 1990 – The “Krajina” (the region along the border with Bosnia) revolts against Zagreb. Far from intervening, the majority Serb federal army helps the separatists. On 22 December the Sabor adopts a new constitution that ratifies a “united and indivisible” Croatian state. Croatian forces attempt to take back the occupied territory, which, at the beginning of 1991, names itself the “Independent Republic of Serbian Krajina”.

March 1991 – West Slavonia ignites in turn.

15 May 1991 – The presidency of the federation comes around to Croatia again. Milošević’s opposition results in the position becoming vacant: the Yugoslav federation de facto no longer exists. On 25 June the Sabor proclaims Croatia’s independence.

August 1991 – The federal army, now entirely Serb and deployed in east Slavonia, comes to a halt at Vukovar, which is to become the symbol of Croatian resistance.

7 October 1991 – Bombardment of the presidential palace in Zagreb. The conflict stretches over more than 1 000km of front. Dubrovnik is bombarded in November; Vukovar falls on 18 October.

3 January 1992 – A sixteenth ceasefire attempt is accepted by the parties present. The twelve European states recognise Croatia’s independence on 15 January. The UN deploys 14 000 peacekeeping troops to the occupied zones. The war has killed 13 000 Croats, a quarter of the country is occupied and the policy of “ethnic cleansing” has brought about the expulsion of 500 000 Croats from the occupied territories.

22 May 1992 – Croatia becomes a member of the UN.

1992The Bosnian War. Although the ceasefire is more or less complied with in Croatia, there is no end to the hostilities in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the Serbian minority is demanding that the country be joined to Serbia. Croats and Bosniaks unite in the face of invasion by Milošević’s troops. The siege of Sarajevo makes the ethnic origin of the conflict obvious. Files of refugees, massacres and concentration camps alert international opinion to the purge targeting Croats and Bosniaks.

1993-1994 – Croat-Bosniak conflict . The coalition of Croats and Bosniaks breaks up at the beginning of 1993. War breaks out between the former allies after the arrival in central Bosnia of huge numbers of refugees and disagreement over the future of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The two parties sign a peace agreement on 18 March 1994 in Washington, and unite their troops under a single command.

May-August 1995 – Operation “Flash”, which ends in the reconquest of west Slavonia, is followed by Operation “Storm”. Croatia reclaims all of the territory it lost in 1991. 90 000 Serb civilians are exiled.

November 1995 – International pressure and developments in the military situation force all parties to meet in Dayton and sign a peace agreement in the presence of the Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian presidents, Alija Izetbegović , Franjo Tuđman and Slobodan Milošević . The Dayton-Paris Peace Accords of 21 November put a definitive end to the war. Several Croat and Serb officers are charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal.

Independent Croatia

13 April 1997 – The HDZ wins the parliamentary election and Tuđman is re-elected president on 15June.

1998 – Eastern Slavonia is definitively reintegrated into Croatia.

10 December 1999 – Death of Franjo Tuđman.

January-February 2000 – Victory of the opposition coalition (centre left) in the parliamentary election on 3January. On 7February Stipe Mesić is elected President of the Republic.

21 February 2001 – Constitutional reform: Croatia is a parliamentary republic with a semi-presidential system of government. The president is elected by direct universal suffrage for a five-year period and appoints a Prime Minister from the political majority in the Sabor, which is elected every four years.

14 May 2001 – Croatia signs a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the European Union (EU).

21 February 2003 – Application for EU membership.

September 2003 – A meeting between the presidents of Croatia and Serbia in Belgrade demonstrates a willingness to move beyond past conflicts.

9 December 2003 – Ivo Sanader becomes Prime Minister following the victory of the HDZ party in the parliamentary election.

18 June 2004 – Croatia receives official candidate status for entry into the European Union.

16 January 2005 – Stipe Mesić is reelected President of the Republic.

3 October 2005 – Official beginning of negotiations for Croatia’s entry into the European Union.

7 December 2005 – General Gotovina is arrested in the Canary Islands and transferred to the International Tribunal at The Hague.

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