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Yugoslavia: The Croats and Their Territories
Country Study > Chapter 1 > Historical Setting > Histories of the Yugoslav People to World War I > The Croats and Their Territories


Most historians believe that the Croats are a purely Slavic people who probably migrated to the Balkans from the present-day Ukraine. A newer theory, however, holds that the original Croats were nomadic Sarmatians who roamed Central Asia, migrated onto the steppes around 200 B.C., and rode into Europe near the end of the fourth century A.D., possibly together with the Huns. The Sarmatian Croats, the theory holds, conquered the Slavs of northern Bohemia and southern Poland and formed a small state called White Croatia near today's Kraków. The Croats then supposedly mingled with their more numerous Slavic subjects and adopted the Slavic language, while the subjects assumed the tribal name "Croat."

A tenth-century Byzantine source reports that in the seventh century Emperor Heraclius enlisted the Croats to expel the Avars from Byzantine lands. The Croats overran the Avars and Slavs in Dalmatia around 630 and then drove the Avars from today's Slovenia and other areas. In the eighth century, the Croats lived under loose Byzantine rule, and Christianity and Latin culture recovered in the coastal cities. The Franks subjugated most of the Croats in the eighth century and sent missionaries to baptize them in the Latin rite, but the Byzantine Empire continued to rule Dalmatia.

Croatia emerged as an independent nation in 924. Tomislav (910-c. 928), a tribal leader, established himself as the first king of Croatia, ruling a domain that stretched eastward to the Danube. Croatia and Venice struggled to dominate Dalmatia as the power of Byzantium faded, and for a time the Dalmatians paid the Croats tribute to assure safe passage for their galleys through the Adriatic. After the Great Schism of 1054 split the Roman and Byzantine churches, Normans (probably with papal support) besieged Byzantine cities in Dalmatia. In 1075 a papal legate crowned Dmitrije Zvonimir (1076-89) king of Croatia.

A faction of nobles contesting the succession after the death of Zvonimir offered the Croatian throne to King László I of Hungary. In 1091 Laszlo accepted, and in 1094 he founded the Zagreb bishopric, which later became the ecclestictical center of Croatia. Another Hungarian king, Kálmán, crushed opposition after the death of Laszlo and won the crown of Dalmatia and Croatia in 1102. The crowning of Kálmán forged a link between the Croatian and Hungarian crowns that lasted until the end of World War I. Croats have maintained for centuries that Croatia remained a sovereign state despite the voluntary union of the two crowns, but Hungarians claim that Hungary annexed Croatia outright in 1102. In either case, Hungarian culture permeated Croatia, the Croatian-Hungarian border shifted often, and at times Hungary treated Croatia as a vassal state. Croatia, however, had its own local governor, or ban; a privileged landowning nobility; and an assembly of nobles, the Sabor.

The joining of the Croatian and Hungarian crowns automatically made Hungary and Venice rivals for domination of Dalmatia. Hungary sought access to the sea, while Venice wished to secure its trade routes to the eastern Mediterranean and to use Dalmatian timber for shipbuilding. Between 1115 and 1420, the two powers waged twenty-one wars for control of the region and Dalmatian cities changed hands repeatedly. Serbia and Bosnia also competed for Dalmatia. Serbia seized the coast south of the Gulf of Kotor on the southern Adriatic coast around 1196 and held it for 150 years; Bosnia dominated central Dalmatia during the late fourteenth century. Dalmatian cities struggled to remain autonomous by playing one power against the others. Most successful in this strategy was Dubrovnik, whose riches and influence at times rivaled those of Venice. In the fourteenth century, Dubrovnik became the first Christian power to establish treaty relations with the Ottoman Empire, which was then advancing across the Balkans. Dubrovnik prospered by mediating between Europe and the new Ottoman provinces in Europe, and by exporting precious metals, raw materials, agricultural goods, and slaves. After centuries as the only free South Slav political entity, the city waned in power following a severe earthquake in 1667.

In 1409 Ladislas of Naples, a claimant to the throne of Hungary, sold Venice his rights to Dalmatia. By 1420 Venice controlled virtually all of Dalmatia except Dubrovnik. The Venetians made Dalmatia their poorest, most backward province: they reduced Dalmatian local autonomy, cut the forests, and stifled industry. Venice also restricted education, so that Zadar, the administrative center of Dalmatia, lacked even a printing press until 1796. Despite centuries of struggle for dominance of the region and exploitation by Venice, Dalmatia produced several first-rate artists and intellectuals, including the sculptor Radovan, Juraj Dalmatinac, an architect and sculptor, writer Ivan Gundulic, and scientist Rudjer Boskovic.

Ottoman armies overran all of eastern and southern Croatia south of the Sava River in the early sixteenth century, and slaughtered a weak Hungarian force at the Battle of Mohács (Hungary) in 1526. Buda was captured in 1541, then Turkish marauders advanced toward Austria. After Mohács, Hungarian and Croatian nobles elected the Habsburg Ferdinand I of Austria king of Hungary and Croatia. To tighten its grip on Croatia and solidify its defenses, Austria restricted the powers of the Sabor, established a military border across Croatia, and recruited Germans, Hungarians, Serbs, and other Slavs to serve as peasant border guards. This practice was the basis for the ethnic patchwork that survives today in Croatia, Slavonia, and Vojvodina. Austria assumed ownership and direct control of the border lands, and gave local independence and land to families who agreed to settle and guard those lands. Orthodox border families also won freedom of worship, which drew stiff opposition from the Roman Catholic Church.

Turkish inroads in Croatia and Austria also triggered price increases for agricultural goods, and opportunistic landowners began demanding payment in kind, rather than cash, from serfs. Rural discontent exploded in 1573 when Matija Gubec led an organized peasant rebellion that spread quickly before panic- stricken nobles were able to quell it.

Religious ferment in Europe affected Croatian culture in the sixteenth century. Many Croatian and Dalmatian nobles embraced the Protestant Reformation in the mid-sixteenth century, and in 1562 Stipan Konzul and Anton Dalmatin published the first Croatian Bible. The Counterreformation began in Croatia and Dalmatia in the early seventeenth century, and the most powerful Protestant noblemen soon reconverted. In 1609 the Sabor voted to allow only the Catholic faith in Croatia. The Counterreformation enhanced the cultural development of Croatia. Jesuits founded schools and published grammars, a dictionary, and religious books that helped shape the Croatian literary language. Franciscans preached the Counterreformation in Ottoman-held regions.

Western forces routed a Turkish army besieging Vienna in 1683 and then began driving the Turks from Europe. In the 1699 Treaty of Karlowitz, the Turks ceded most of Hungary, Croatia, and Slavonia to Austria, and by 1718 they no longer threatened Dalmatia. During the Western advance, Austria expanded its military border, and thousands of Serbs fleeing Turkish oppression settled as border guards in Slavonia and southern Hungary. As the Turkish threat waned, Croatian nobles demanded reincorporation of the military border into Croatia. Austria, which used the guards as an inexpensive standing military force, rejected these demands, and the guards themselves opposed abrogation of their special privileges.

From 1780 to 1790, Joseph II of Austria introduced reforms that exposed ethnic and linguistic rivalries. Among other things, Joseph brought the empire under strict central control and decreed that German replace Latin as the official language of the empire. This decree enraged the Hungarians, who rejected Germanization and fought to make their language, Magyar, the official language of Hungary. The Croats, fearing both Germanization and Magyarization, defended Latin. In 1790, when Joseph died, Hungary was on the verge of rebellion. Joseph's successor, Leopold II, abandoned centralization and Germanization when he signed laws ensuring Hungary's status as an independent kingdom under an Austrian king. The next Austrian emperor, Francis I, stifled Hungarian political development for almost four decades, during which Magyarization was not an issue.

Venice repulsed Ottoman attacks on Dalmatia for several centuries after the Battle of Mohács, and it helped to push the Turks from the coastal area after 1693. But by the late eighteenth century, trade routes had shifted, Venice had declined, and Dalmatian ships stood idle. Napoleon ended the Venetian Republic and defeated Austria; he then incorporated Dalmatia, Dubrovnik, and western Croatia as the French Illyrian Provinces. France stimulated agriculture and commerce in the provinces, fought piracy, enhanced the status of the Orthodox population, and stirred a Croatian national awakening. In 1814 the military border and Dalmatia returned to Austria when Napoleon was defeated; Hungary regained Croatia and Slavonia. In 1816 Austria transformed most of the Illyrian Provinces into the Kingdom of Illyria, an administrative unit designed to counterbalance radical Hungarian nationalism and coopt nascent movements for union of the South Slavs. Austria kept Dalmatia for itself and reduced the privileges of the Dalmatian nobles.

The Croatian-Hungarian language conflict reemerged in the 1830s, as Hungarian reformers grew more critical of Austrian domination. French-educated Croatian leaders, fearing Hungarian linguistic and political domination, began promoting the Croatian language and formation of a Slavic kingdom within the Austrian Empire. In 1832, for the first time in centuries, a Croatian noble addressed the Sabor in Croatian. With tacit Austrian approval, Ljudevit Gaj, a journalist and linguist, promoted a South Slavic literary language, devised a Latin-based script, and in 1836 founded an anti-Hungarian journal that called for Illyrian cultural and political unity. Hungary feared the Illyrian movement and banned even public utterance of the word "Illyria." In 1843 the Hungarian assembly voted to make Magyar the official language of Hungary and Slavonia, and eventually to make it the official language of Hungarian-Croatian relations. Croats called the law an infringement on their autonomy, saturated Vienna with petitions for separation from Hungary, and returned to Budapest all documents sent them in Hungarian.

Hungary rose against Austria during the revolution that swept Europe in 1848. The Croats, rightly fearing Hungarian chauvinism and expecting union of Croatia, Slavonia, and Dalmatia, sided with Austria. Ban Josip Jelacic led an army that attacked the Hungarian revolutionary forces. His units soon withdrew, but Russian troops invaded Hungary to crush the revolution. Despite their loyalty to Austria, the Croats received only the abolition of serfdom. Rather than uniting the Slavic regions as promised, the emperor suspended the constitution and introduced absolutist rule and Germanization.

Austria ended absolutist rule in 1860, and a military defeat in 1866 brought the empire to the brink of collapse. In 1867 Emperor Franz Joseph entered the Dual Monarchy with Hungary, uniting the two states under a single crown. Conflicting interests kept Austria-Hungary from uniting the South Slavs: Croatia and Slavonia fell under Hungarian control, while Austria retained Dalmatia. In 1868 a Sabor dominated by pro-Hungarian deputies adopted the Nagodba, or compromise, which affirmed that Hungary and Croatia comprised distinct political units within the empire. Croatia obtained autonomy in internal matters, but finance and other Croatian-Hungarian or Austro-Hungarian concerns required approval from Budapest and Vienna. Hungarian leaders considered that the Nagodba provided ample home rule for Croatia, but Croatia opposed it strongly. A subsequent election law guaranteed pro-Hungarian landowners and officials a majority in the Sabor and increased Croatian hatred for Hungarian domination. Croatian members of the Hungarian assembly then resorted to obstructionism to enhance their meager influence.

After 1868 the Croatian leadership was divided between advocates of a South Slav union and nationalists favoring a Greater Croatia; a bitter rivalry developed between the Croats and Serbs. Bishop Josip Strossmayer dominated the Croatian South Slav movement and supported liturgical concessions to help reduce the religious differences dividing Croats and Serbs. In pursuit of a South Slav cultural union, he founded the Yugoslav Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1867 and the University of Zagreb in 1874. Ante Starcevic opposed Strossmayer, pressed for a Greater Croatia, and founded an extreme nationalist party. In 1881 Austria-Hungary reincorporated the military border into Croatia, increasing the number of ethnic Serbs in Croatia to about 25 percent of its 2.6 million population. The change raised ethnic tensions. The Croats' ill will toward Hungary and ethnic Serbs deepened under Ban Karoly Khuen-Héderváry (1883-1903), who ignored the Nagodba and exploited the Croatian-Serbian rivalry to promote Magyarization. In 1903 Hungary rejected Croatian demands for financial independence, quelled demonstrations, and suppressed the Croatian press. After 1903 moderate Croats and ethnic Serbs found common ground, and by 1908 a Croatian-Serbian coalition won a Sabor majority and condemned Austria's annexation of Bosnia-Hercegovina. A new ban, hoping to split the coalition, brought bogus treason charges against ethnic Serbian leaders in Croatia; the subsequent trials scandalized Europe and strengthened the tenuous Croatian-Serbian coalition.

Data as of December 1990

Last Updated: December 1990

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Yugoslavia was first published in 1990. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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