The crowning of the Croatian King Tomislav, Oton Iveković (detail, 1904-1905). Tomislav was crowned as the first Croatian king in 925.

Croatia in Europe through the ages

Development of the state

The names Croat and Croatia in its present-day territory have gradually superseded the ethnically wider concept of the Slavs and their first territorial groupings, Sklavonija, Slovinje (Sclaviniae), and the individual names of the ancient Illyrian tribes and their territories (e.g. the Dalmati, Liburni), the Roman coastal populations (Romani, Latini) and other earlier tribes who settled during the Migration Period (the German Goths, the Eurasian Avars, etc.). The religious division of western and eastern Christianity later influenced national identification, particularly in connection with the migration of the Slavenized Vlachs, and in the era of the Ottoman invasions and migrations of refugees from the “Turkish” (Bosnian) side, so that in the 19th century, at the time of the formation of nations, the Catholic population (generally, but not exclusively) declared itself to be Croatian, the Orthodox Serbian, and the Muslim “Turkish”. Older Croatian writers sometimes call their language Slavic, or Slovinic and, during one period, Illyrian, in addition to Croatian. These different names are not necessarily contradictory, but rather emerged from the interwoven strands of the multi-layered historical components of the Croatian people, their culture and state, which have been joined in the modern age by other European migratory currents – German, Italian, Czech, Hungarian, Slovakian, etc.

Baptism of Croats, Bela Čikoš Sesija, 1907.

At the time of the creation of the first European states from the ashes of the Roman Empire, as with other European peoples, it was crucial in Western Europe to be acknowledged by Rome and the papacy, and in Eastern Europe, by Constantinople and the Byzantine Emperor. The Croats found themselves on the dividing line between the two. The best known, most comprehensive Byzantine source text was written by the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus (De administrando Imperio – c. 949–955). According to him, the Croats came from what is today southern Poland (White Croatia), at the invitation of Emperor Heraclius I (610–641), and imposed their rule upon the Avars and their Slav allies at the time. A treaty between the Croats and Pope Agatho (678–681) is suggested to be the first act of diplomacy, according to which Croats who had already been baptised vowed to refrain from incursions into other lands, and in return, the pope promised assistance should another people attempt to occupy their land; according to such sources, the Croats were the first Slavic nation to be baptised. However, the “arrival of the Croats” and the credibility of certain historical sources continue to be subjects of debate in contemporary historiography.

Croatia entered the 9th century, which saw the creation of the first principalities, on the divide between the Franks and the Byzantines. Duke (in Croatian: Knez) Borna (810–821), who was according to Frankish sources dux Dalmatiae atque Liburniae, aligned himself with the dominant Frankish powers, with whose assistance he resolved the conflict with the rival duke of (Slavic) Pannonia, Ljudevit Posavski. Borna attended in person the conclusion of the Aachen Peace Treaty (812) between Charlemagne and the Byzantine Emperor Michael I Rhangabes, according to which Pannonian Croatia (and Istria) came under Frankish, while the Dalmatian coast and towns fell under Byzantine sovereignty.

Effigy of a Croatian ruler on the baptismal font in the baptistery of St. John in Split (11th c.)

The power of the local dukes, however, gradually increased, as the external powers continued to confront each other. Duke Trpimir (845–864) stood out as the first strong ruler, founding the ruling Trpimirović dynasty. Although under Frankish supremacy, he succeeded in waging war independently against Byzantium and Venice, and against Bulgaria, which was a strong power at that time. In documents, he called himself ‘Duke of Croatia by the grace of God’ (Dux Chroatorum iuvatus munere divino), with no reference to imperial rule. When the Saxon theologian Gottschalk, accused of heresy by the Franks, took refuge at Trpimir’s court, where he obviously felt safe, he called him ‘King of the Slavs’ (Rex Sclavorum).

Following the hegemony of Byzantium in the era of Duke Zdeslav and the conflict between Rome and Patriarch Photius of Constantinople, Prince Branimir (dux, comes, princeps) came to power in Croatia (879–892), aided by Pope John VIII. Branimir aligned Croatia permanently with Rome and western civilisation, succeeded in imposing a peace tribute (tributum pacis) on the Dalmatian towns and the Venetians, who had been defeated at sea (887), and began to implement policies independently from the Franks. In letters dated 879, the pope acknowledged his rule over his entire “earthly principality” and in 880 legalised church services in Church Slavonic. The disciples of St. Methodius, who had been exiled by the Franks, came to Croatia from Great Moravia, spreading Slavonic worship and literacy in a special Slavic (Glagolitic) script.

The first regal title in Croatia, according to traditional historiography, was accepted in 925 by Tomislav, granted by Pope John X, who dubbed him rex Croatorum. King Tomislav is credited with uniting the Croatian lands “from the Adriatic to the Drava”, suppressing Hungarian incursions, and achieving a solid victory over the army of the Bulgarian Emperor Simeon (927). Many streets and squares in Croatia today bear Tomislav’s name. Regal titles acknowledged by the Holy See were also taken by the later so-called native rulers, of whom the most important was Petar Krešimir IV (1058–74). In a founding document of the Benedictine monastery on Rab (1059), Croatia is called a kingdom (Croatiae Dalmatieque regnum), and the Adriatic described as ‘in our Dalmatian sea’ (in nostro dalmatico mari).

The last powerful Croatian king from the native dynasty was Dmitar Zvonimir (1075–89), who fought against the Franks (Germans) in Istria and was crowned by Pope Gregory VII, who sent him a crown through the legate Gebizon. His strong link with the Holy See was confirmed by a papal declaration that any hostile act against Croatia would be considered an attack on the Apostolic See of St. Peter, while Croatia (with Dalmatia) was affirmed as a kingdom (regnum Dalmatiae et Chroatiae). Zvonimir also ruled over Slavonia, and his wife Jelena was the sister of the Hungarian king Ladislaus, of the Arpad dynasty. After his death, the status of Croatia as an independent factor in European political relations changed. The Hungarian Arpad dynasty claimed the right to the Croatian throne, partly through the line of Queen Jelena, and seized it at a moment of dynastic disintegration, during the war for the throne.

Kiss of peace of Croatian nobles to king Coloman, Oton Iveković  (1906)

Relations between Croatia and Hungary have often been the topic of political and historical controversy. A document known as Pacta conventa (Agreed Accords, 1102), in which the Hungarian King Coloman was acknowledged as King of Croatia and the rights of the Croatian nobility regulated, has survived only in the form of a 14th century copy. The Pacta was not contested for a long time. It was only in the period of rising nationalism in the mid 19th century that the Hungarian side challenged them, while the Croatian side built the self-identity of the state upon them. However, it is a fact that, according to these Accords, or others of the time, the Hungarian king was crowned king of Croatia separately, while the institutions of the Croatian Sabor (Parliament) and Croatian Ban (Governor) were confirmed, and that the Croatian-Hungarian union was originally established as a personal union.

The state independence of Croatia within the union reached full expression at the crucial moment of the struggle for survival of the Croatian-Hungarian Kingdom, after its army suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Ottomans at the Battle of Mohács, when the Croatian, Hungarian (and Czech) King Louis II of the Jagiellon dynasty was killed. At an independent session of the Croatian Sabor held in Cetin (1527), the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Habsburg (1503–64) was elected King of Croatia. Meanwhile, the Hungarian parliament decided for John Zápolya, who was in fact under the patronage of the Ottoman ruler Suleiman I. At that time, Ferdinand guaranteed that all the former freedoms, rights, laws and customs of Croatia would continue to be respected, and this was recorded in a charter bearing the seal of the Kingdom of Croatia. Through Ferdinand, Croatia became part of the long-lasting Habsburg Monarchy. Although the unification of the countries was carried out as the union of separate kingdoms, the Habsburgs began to centralise the monarchy, so that Vienna increasingly became the centre of political decision-making.

The Conquest of Zadar (detail), Tintoretto (1584)

The millennial relations between Croatia and Venice, a maritime power, were extremely complex, ranging from periods of fierce naval and land conflicts to periods of cooperation and combined defence strategies. In Venetian dialect, almost up to the modern period, the Croats were known as Slavs (Schiavi, Schiavoni), while the later Vlach population of the Dalmatian hinterland were called Morlacchi. Domagoj, Croatian Duke from 864, and according to the chronicler Johannes Diaconus ‘the worst duke of the Slavs’ (pessimus Sclavorum dux), plundered the Venetian navy. Duke Branimir, in an alliance with the Duchy of Neretva, following a naval victory in a battle off Makarska in 887, in which the Venetian Doge Petar I Candiano was killed, imposed a tribute on Venice in return for unhindered sailing, which the Venetians continued to pay for over a hundred years. Nonetheless, the ‘Queen of the Sea’ gradually resumed strength. The Venetian Doge Petar II Orseolo took control of most of the Dalmatian coast from 1000 onwards, and proclaimed himself dux Dalmatiae. However, a century later, the Dalmatian towns came mostly under the rule of the Croatian-Hungarian kings, until 1409. Conflict continued to flare between Croatia and Venice, with varying success. Thus in 1202, Venice conquered Zadar, with the aid of a Crusader army, by promising them transport to Constantinople. The Istrian and Dalmatian towns under Venetian rule often rebelled, attempting to maintain their privileges. Ladislaus of Naples, the defeated pretender to the Croatian-Hungarian throne, granted Venice the “right” to govern Dalmatia for the price of 100,000 ducats in 1409. With this kind of background in international law, and with the emergence of Ottoman threats in the Dalmatian hinterland, Venice took on a genuine defensive role for the Christian population of Dalmatia. There was fierce fighting on land and at sea, often leading to the relocation of the ethnically close, if not identical, Muslim and Christian inhabitants. The Požarevac Peace Treaty of 1718 established the border of Venetian Dalmatia and “Turkey”, which today forms the border between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Dubrovnik Republic has special significance in the history of Croatian statehood. In the 12th century, the Arabian geographer Muhammed al-Idrisi mentioned Dubrovnik as the most southerly town of “Croatia and Dalmatia”. The city state was founded on the strict obligations of the patricians, as the bearers of power: their maxim was inscribed on the Prince’s Palace and declares, ‘Forget your private affairs, care for public matters’ (Obliti privatorum publica curate). Dubrovnik also came under the sovereignty of various neighbouring powers of that time, yet it always succeeded in maintaining complete internal autonomy, often with special privileges, particularly trading privileges. Freeing itself formally from Venetian supervision in 1358, it paid a tribute of 500 ducats per year to the Croatian-Hungarian king, which later became a tribute of 12,500 ducats paid to the Ottoman sultan. Dubrovnik was in every way an independent state, with its own diplomatic representatives spread throughout Europe and with strong merchant emporiums in Southeast Europe and the Middle East. It had close links with Florence and the Florentine popes during their “golden age”. Dubrovnik grew into a respectable rival to Venice in the Mediterranean, while its diplomacy affected the relationships between European states and the Sublime Porte, so that from time to time the French used Dubrovnik as a mediator (for example with Serafin Gučetić at the conclusion of the Franco-Turkish treaty of 1536). The city’s wealth, out of proportion to its size, enabled exceptional communal achievements, such as the first modern sewage system, the first quarantine facilities for ships, organised health care, including the oldest pharmacy in Europe that is still active today, the first known law on maritime insurance and many more, including the law prohibiting slavery, which was adopted in 1416 (compared to 1542 in Spain and 1569 in England). Under the flag of its patron saint, St. Blaise, and with the motto of the city, Libertas, when Napoleon abolished the Republic in 1808, some of the Dubrovnik nobility vowed not to marry rather than produce offspring “in slavery”.

The Croatian nobility, which emerged from ancient lineages (tribes), independently of the statehood position of Croatia, from time to time assumed considerable powers, even beyond those of the king. So Pavao I Bribirski (1273–1312), in a dynastic conflict about the Croatian-Hungarian line to the throne, installed the House of Anjou (Charles I Robert – 1301–42), while he himself, with the title “Ban of the Croats and Lord of Bosnia”, ruled as “the uncrowned Croatian king” from the Sava to the Adriatic, including Bosnia. This aristocratic line, particularly in the later Zrinski branch, along with huge possessions in Croatia and Hungary, gave rise to famous warriors (Nikola Šubić Zrinski, the defender of Siget) and also dangerous opponents to the absolutism of the Austrian Emperor Leopold I. In 1671, Petar Zrinski and Fran Krsto Frankapan, a scion of the second most powerful Croatian aristocratic family, were sentenced to death for conspiracy, and both were executed in Wiener Neustadt. With the confiscation of all their property, the two most powerful Croatian aristocratic families were destroyed.

Chest of privileges of the Kingdom of Croatia and Slavonia of 1643

The statehood status of Croatia as a separate kingdom within the Habsburg Monarchy became a particularly burning issue in relation to the potential inheritance of the Habsburg throne through the female line. Since Charles VI had no son, the Croatian Sabor published the Pragmatic Sanction in 1712, acknowledging his daughter, Maria Theresa, as Queen of Croatia, along with her right to inherit the throne, although this was at first opposed by the Hungarian parliament. During Maria Theresa’s reign, Croatia was a kingdom on the south-eastern edges of a monarchy which extended all the way to Belgium. While it could hardly be claimed that Croatia and Belgium entered into a particularly significant relationship at that time (apart from the heraldic aspect), Croatian MPs in the modern European Parliament in Brussels should remind themselves that they are not the first to find themselves part of the same community as Belgium (and many other countries).

The ambivalent relationship between the Croatian Sabor and Hungarian parliament, as the bodies of state power in two kingdoms, and their joint relationship with Vienna as the actual centre of state power, gradually shifted towards the increasing role of a joint parliament, in which the Hungarians held the majority of seats. Nonetheless, it was possible for Croatian representatives at the joint parliament to veto decisions made regarding Croatia, while their proposals in connection with Croatian affairs could be rejected only by the king himself. As early as 1790, at a joint session of the two parliaments in Buda, the Croatian delegation rejected a proposal for a law introducing the Hungarian language in Croatia, with the famous statement Regnum regno non praescribit leges (One kingdom does not prescribe laws for the other).

Napoleon’s construction of Europe took into account the specificity of the “Illyrian” southeast, from Trieste to the Bay of Kotor. The Illyrian Provinces (1809–13), with their seat in Ljubljana, besides Slovenia covered most of the Croatian lands (south of the River Sava to the Adriatic coast), while the majority of the population was Croatian. As a product of French administration, under the special authority of Marshal Marmont, the province did not have the status of a state, but neither was it an integral part of the French Empire. Although it did not last long, Napoleon’s Illyria spawned the modernisation of the Croatian lands, from road infrastructure to education in Croatian (“Illyrian”), and the appearance of the first newspapers in Croatian (Kraljski Dalmatin, in Zadar, 1806–19). The influence of French modernisation soon came to full expression in the Illyrian Movement, better known as the Croatian National Revival.

Croatia within complex state communities, as other European countries in similar situations, independently could not play a role in international relations, in more or less centralised states of which it was a part, from the Croatian-Hungarian Kingdom, the Habsburg Monarchy, Austria-Hungary, to the two Yugoslavias (the unitary kingdom and the socialist federation). Nonetheless, Croatia in principle entered all these communities “voluntarily”, by decision of the Croatian Sabor (the aristocracy, upper classes or representatives of the people), and pursuant to the acknowledgement of Croatian state rights, except in the case of the formation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, i.e. the later Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

“Croatian Right to Statehood” was a phrase of particular meaning in the political consciousness of Croatia. Although Croatia, from the time of the native rulers, which ended in 1102, remained for over 900 years within the framework of multinational state communities, with the exception of the Dubrovnik Republic, whether as a kingdom, a ban’s province or a republic, its right to statehood was always accepted as the basic right of the Croatian people to self-determination, i.e. to their own statehood, which did not actually mean it could be established, but it could not be contested.

After the collapse of Austria-Hungary and the formation of the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs in the former southern Slavic region of the monarchy (again by a decision of the Sabor, in 1918), the formation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (from 1929 known as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia) was carried out by the Serbian government in contravention of the Corfu Declaration (1917), that is, the agreement reached by the Serbian government with leading politicians from the former Austro-Hungarian lands (the Yugoslav Committee). The Constitutional Assembly declared, with the simple (unqualified) majority of representatives present, the unitary Vidovdan Constitution in 1921. The Croatian representatives abstained, as did the representatives of the leftist faction. From then on, along with other unresolved issues, the particularly crucial “Croatian Question” continued to raise its head in Yugoslavia.

The assassination of Croatian representatives at the National Assembly in Belgrade in 1928.

The assassination of Croatian representatives at the National Assembly (1928), which resulted in the death of Stjepan Radić, leader of the Croatian Peasants’ Party (HSS), particularly strained national relations. For the first time on the international scene, a Croatian militant national emigration policy emerged (Ustasha), which aimed at the destruction of Yugoslavia, and included the use of terrorist methods (participation in the assassination of King Alexander I Karađorđević in Marseilles in 1934). On the other hand, the illegal Communist opposition, bolstered by international connections, became more and more active, particularly in Zagreb and Croatia. Its aim was to topple the Kingdom and set up a “federative republic of equal nations” through revolutionary means, taking Soviet Russia as its example

Monarchist Yugoslavia and democracy could not go hand in hand; that particular version of Yugoslavia never had a democratically adopted constitution. Primarily with the assistance of para-state groups (the Orjuna in Croatia; the Chetniks in Serbia), then by the introduction of a personal dictatorship in 1929, which banned political parties, imposed police terrorist tactics, and had “republicans” murdered, King Alexander proclaimed the Octroyed Constitution in 1931, which was never taken out of effect. In this context, and accompanying a deep state crisis on the eve of the Second World War, the leading Croatian and some Serbian politicians forged the Cvetković–Maček Agreement, by which the Banovina of Croatia was established as an autonomous territorial unit within the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, led by the Ban and the Sabor. Thus, for a short time, by a decree issued by the royal vice-regency, a certain degree of Croatian sovereignty was established, without this being constitutionally defined and without international (foreign-policy), security and defence autonomy.

In opposition to the Ustasha movement in Croatia, the ally of the Axis powers during the Second World War, which formed a quisling Independent State of Croatia (NDH), abandoning large tracts of Croatia to the occupying powers, and approving wide-ranging criminal offences accompanied by a terrorist form of government, which became thoroughly compromised among the people, the Communists, led by the Croat Josip Broz Tito, organised a mass anti-Fascist uprising, which was at the same time a “national revolution”. Taking the initiative during the war, and holding most of Croatia, the Communists (in cooperation with part of the Croatian Peasants’ Party and the representatives of the Serbs), formed the highest representative bodies of “the government of the people”.

The anti-Fascist Movement in Croatia was one of the strongest Partisan movements in occupied Europe. Within it, the ZAVNOH (National Anti-Fascist Council of the People's Liberation of Croatia) was formed, which in June 1943 took over the remit of the Croatian Sabor and at its third session (in Topusko, in May 1944), declared itself the supreme legislative and executive representative body and highest body of state power in Croatia. At this time, the decision to create the Democratic Federative Yugoslavia, with the Federal State of Croatia as one of the future Yugoslav republics, was adopted.

In the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia (FNRJ, 1945–63), Croatia was one of the republics with defined borders which were extended to include areas with majority Croatian populations (Istria, Rijeka, Zadar and the islands) which had belonged to Italy during monarchist Yugoslavia, or had been annexed under the Fascist occupation. Although the Yugoslav republics were defined in principle as states with the right to self-determination, government was in fact not only centralised, but also rigidly Communist in ideology. In the immediate post-war period, the historical and politically most important Croatian Peasants’ Party was banned, while many of its members, who were also anti-Fascists, were indicted and given severe prison sentences. This led to a new wave of political emigration, in which democratic politicians were also involved, along with the remnants of the nationalist “defeated forces”.

Socialist Yugoslavia, during its 50 years of existence (from 1963–1991 known as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia), significantly changed the political characteristics of power, yet always remained under the strict supervision of the Communist Party and the emphatic personal authority (or cult status) of Marshal Tito. There was relative democratisation during the mid 1960s, but after a mass democratic movement in Croatia which insisted on greater autonomy for Croatia (the Croatian Spring, in 1971), and the resulting settling of accounts with its political bearers (1972), the 1974 Constitution granted wider rights to the republics as states. However, majority vote decision-making was maintained through majority voting in the Federal Council and through the institute of joint decisions in the assembly chambers. A certain degree of freedom was allowed in terms of the republic’s international activities, so that Croatia (and Slovenia), along with certain Italian, Hungarian, Austrian and German regions, became a founding member of the regional Alps-Adriatic Working Community.

The role of the Communist League of Croatia was based on the “unity of the Communist League of Yugoslavia” as a whole. This unity was crucial to maintaining Yugoslavia as a country. Although based primarily on an emphatic pro-Soviet Communist ideology, the later withdrawal of Yugoslavia from the Soviet bloc (1948) and its links with the West from the early 1950s onwards (including the military aid of the USA), along with the complexity of internal national relations, demanded other political solutions, even within the Communist League. Some of these solutions leaned towards democracy (the introduction of “self-management socialism”) and decentralisation (the right of the republics to retain a portion of their revenue from the economy and local communities). However, such solutions always led to conflicts between the “dogmatists” (centralists) and “democrats” (federalists), and were never fully carried through. The culmination of these conflicts was reached during the 14th Congress of the Communist League of Yugoslavia held in Belgrade in January 1990, when first the Slovene, then the Croatian delegation disagreed with the Serbian leadership and walked out. This led to an open breach in the unity of the Communist League and raised the entire question of the disintegration of Yugoslavia as a community of states.

Visit of President Franjo Tuđman to Vukovar on the 8th June 1997 during the process of peaceful reintegration of the Croatian Danube region into the Croatian constitutional and legal system.

The modern Republic of Croatia chieved state independence by means of an imposed war. In contrast to the collapse of other socialist multinational states (Czechoslovakia, and most of the USSR), and in spite of the constitutionally guaranteed right of each republic to “self-determination until secession”, it proved impossible to achieve Croatian state independence by peaceful means, even though this was the declared will of the people according to a referendum held in May 1991 (94.17% in favour). Militant secessionist Serbian groups in Croatia, the political leadership of Serbia and Yugoslavia, along with the JNA (army), assisted by extremist paramilitary (Chetnik) groups from Serbia, began open aggression against Croatia. After successfully defending the country during the Homeland War (1991–95), including the liberation of occupied territories and the peaceful reintegration of other, smaller areas (1998), Croatia at last achieved full state independence, within the same borders it had had as a Yugoslav republic. The first international recognition of the new state came during the Homeland War (first by Iceland, in December 1991), while other European countries followed up to the end of January 1992, and on 22 May 1992, Croatia became a member of the United Nations.