Part One: Before the Nation

While communicating with a Ukrainian friend through e-mail, she wanted to know more about Croatia and Croats, being from a country currently going through something similar to what Croatia went through twenty years ago. Keeping in mind that I’m completely the wrong person to give a neutral account of a topic like that (being overly critical, unpleasantly sarcastic and generally negative and, most importantly, not a historian or anything related) I decided, what the hell, if I’m writing something like that, why not make it available to others, too?

So here it is: my version of Croatia’s past and present – and my argument as to why there is no future. Use at your own risk, do not quote as a source, Wikipedia is much more reliable. Seriously. This is just a personalised composition that may serve as a starting point for someone interested in researching further.

Plants have roots, things have causes, nations have origins, or at least they’d like to think that way, so an account of Croatia’s present must start in the past, and start at the beginning. So, let’s start “from the 7th century”, which, in some circles, is a popular metaphor for something having a long and unnecessary introduction, derived from the habit of needing to emphasize the Long and Glorious history of Croats, every speaker retelling it from scratch to ensure full effect, something very much like this sentence.

This first part will be used to get the pre-political part of the national history out of the way. Some concepts here will turn out to be vital for the understanding of the Croatian view on Life, Universe and Everything, so pay attention and don’t play with your mobile devices while reading.

Allegedly, starting with the aforementioned 7th century, Croats tagged along with other South-Slavic tribes during the last stage of the Great Migration Period that hastened the end of the Roman Empire. They came from the area “behind the Carpathians” – today’s Southern Poland and Western Ukraine, where an area is still called “White Croatia” – and settled the land between the Adriatic Sea and the Drava River. The legend has it that the Croat tribes were lead by seven brothers and sisters, one of them called “Hrvat” which gave the original name for the nation and, consequently, the land.

It would have been an interesting twist if the nation was named after one of the sisters, Tuga – literally meaning “sorrow” – but let’s not dig into that.

Up until 10th century Croats lived divided into a number of duchies, the largest ones covering what is today referred to as “Pannonian” and “Dalmatian Croatia”. These were united by King Tomislav, said to have been crowned in 925AD.  This is today a considered a part of official history, although there is no evidence whatsoever of him being crowned at all.

The newly formed Kingdom of Croatia had its ups and downs. At its largest it contained the area of what are today both Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, including additional tidbits of other neighbouring areas. And then, in 1102AD, the reigning King died, followed by a struggle of succession,the throne ending up in the hands of the dynasty already ruling Hungary, creating a Hungarian-Croatian “personal union”.

Though perhaps obvious, it is useful to reiterate that at this time there was no notion of “nations” in the modern sense; people’s allegiance was that of their lord; serfs belonging to their landlord, landlord swearing personal allegiance to his baron and so on. As the Croatian poet said: “A serf does not care where to drop dead; here or there or in the cathedral in Zagreb, no tomb or headstone for the slave, just some dogshit on his grave.”

What followed was four centuries of regular history under various Hungarian dynasties or, if there was turmoil, Croatian lands and nobles sharing the fate of their northern partners. The Croatian nobility retained some independence and most of the time the “union” was official, with separate coronations for the same King in both Hungary and Croatia. Change arrived in the slow-moving invasion of Ottoman Turks, who first stepped onto the European soil in the 14th century. They started taking the Southern Balkans, conquered Constantinople, and by the late 15th century were performing raids inside Croatian territory. Major battles resulted in Ottoman victories, forever advancing west. At the beginning of 16th century, they had conquered all of the Balkans, including what is today Serbia and Bosnia, and also started taking large chunks of Hungary.

In 1526 the Hungarian King died without an heir, leaving the throne of the “personal union” empty. Croatian nobles assembled and agreed to elect Ferdinand Habsburg, Archduke of Austria, as their King in return for protection against Turkish invasion. The majority of Hungarian nobles elected their own king, but there was no clear cut decision so a civil war ensued with Hungarians and Croats fighting for both sides. It ended a decade later with the victory of the pro-Habsburgs forces thus ending the four-century Hungarian rule over Croatia and starting a four-century Habsburg one.

The Turkish expansion continued, reaching its peak by the end of 16th century when it reduced Croatia to what was later called reliquiae reliquiarum – remnants of the remnants – including most of Hungary and everything to the south-east. A series of Christian victories on Croatian lands turned the tide earning it the nickname Antemurale Christianitatis- the bulwark of Christianity – a title which would be used heavily for chest-pounding purposes in the centuries to come. Thanks to Habsburg armies, as well as forces from other parts of Europe, the 17th century saw the Turkish tide stagnate.  After an extremely successful offensive campaign, a peace was brokered in 1699 stabilizing the Christian side of the border and assuring Habsburg sovereignty over the area that lasted for the next 200 years.

What marked Croatia’s pre-political era – especially its last part, closest to the period of forming of nations – was living on the frontier between Christian Europe and Turkish Muslim East, making Croats a militarised nation. Also, depopulation caused by the war against Turks and the time that passed until the area was repopulated again after their suppression added to the backwardness of the realm, causing a delay in civilizational development compared to Western and Central Europe. The twists and turns of the 19th century also wouldn’t help to create a clear and forward thinking national identity.

Next: The Nation Emerges and Is Not Happy

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