7th-century Croats reach the Adriatic
The Croats arrived in the area of modern Croatia about a century later than the Slovenes, during the 7th century C.E., as the power of the Avars began to decline. The picture (a painting by Oton Iveković [1869–1939], a Croat painter who specialized in patriotic subjects) is a highly imaginative representation of their first sight of the Adriatic Sea. Not much is known about how Croat warriors dressed in the 600s, but it’s probably safe to assume that neither winged helmets nor plumed fur busbies were part of their wardrobes, and that their king, if they had one at that date, didn’t wear his crown while traveling (though perhaps a servant fetched it for him at historically charged moments like this one).

However they were dressed, the Croats established two realms, or duchies, one along the Dalmatian coast and the other in the Pannonian Plain, which includes the northern and eastern parts of the modern country. At the end of the 8th century, both duchies, like Carantania, became vassals of the Frankish empire, but a century later they were again independent, their part of the world being outside the reach of Charlemagne’s less effective successors. During the 7th and 8th centuries, the Croats were converted to Christianity in an apparently peaceful manner.

At the beginning of the 10th century, Magyars (i.e., Hungarians) overran the Pannonian duchy, but the ruler of the Dalmatian duchy drove them out, and was crowned as the first King of Croatia, Tomislav I, in 925. The kingdom flourished under his successors, reaching its peak (or at least its greatest territorial expansion) in the reign of Petar Krešimir IV, who ruled from 1054 to 1078. But the end was unexpectedly near. In 1089, King Dmitar Zvonimir died without issue, and the only legitimate heir was Stjepan, a son of Petar Krešimir IV who had spent his life in a monastery and was now old and sick. He took the throne, but died two years later, and the Croatian royal line was extinct.

King Dmitar had been married to Jelena Lijepa (‘Helen the Beautiful’), the sister of Ladislaus I, King of Hungary, who now appeared to be the best candidate for the succession. The two Croatian duchies didn’t agree on this however; the coastal duchy opposed the idea of a Hungarian king, and was only persuaded to change its mind by ten years of warfare. By that time, Ladislaus had died and been succeeded by Kálmán or Coloman I, the Book-lover, whose troops played a part in persuading the Dalmatians.

King Coloman of Hungary (ruled 1095–1116)
So the Croatians negotiated a written agreement with King Coloman — or else they didn’t. Most Croatians believe that a treaty was signed in 1102 declaring that Croatia and Hungary would be ruled as separate kingdoms by one monarch, who would appoint a Ban (‘governor’) for Croatia, and would certify laws passed by the Croatian parliament, called the Sabor. The arrangement was described as a “personal union” and special rights were reserved to certain noble Croatian families. The king had the right to collect taxes and duties, and had supreme command of the Croatian army, who would fight for him at Croatia’s expense on their own side of the river Drava (the main boundary between the two countries), or at Hungary’s expense if they fought on the Hungarian side.

Most Croatian historians believe that a treaty to this effect, called the Pacta Conventa (Latin for “agreed accords”) was written and signed in 1102. The oldest surviving copy is from the 14th century, however, and virtually all Hungarian historians consider it a forgery. Even a few Croatian historians agree, pointing out that the text of the document employs idioms not in use before the 14th century, and that no Hungarian sources ever mention a “personal union.” Others have argued, however, that whether or not the agreement was ever put in writing, it must have existed, for during the centuries of Hungarian sovereignty, Croatia always had its Ban and its Sabor.

After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Turks began an expansion into Europe, and by the early 1500s were threatening Croatia and Hungary. In 1526 a Hungarian army was destroyed in the battle of Mohacs, where their king was killed, and the Turks, over the next few years, took over the whole kingdom of Hungary. Croatia, which had not been overrun, transferred its allegiance to the Habsburgs of Austria, who, over the next two centuries, fashioned it into a bulwark against the Turks, using it as a territorial buffer and also as a draft pool where military service could be required at any time of all males between ages 16 and 60.

The Croats were good soldiers, but couldn’t hold back the Turks single-handed. Turkish armies broke through and besieged Vienna in 1529 and again in 1683. The latter proved to be the last gasp of Ottoman expansion, and they never seriously threatened Central Europe again. But they still put pressure on the frontier. Toward the end of the 17th century, the Habsburgs began inviting Serbs, who were living under Turkish domination, to move into their Croatian domains and take part in the defense of Austria. In return for this service, the Serbs were granted freedom from taxes, land to settle on, and the right to continue worshipping as Orthodox Christians instead of joining the Empire’s established Catholic Church.

Many Serbs, weary of Turkish rule, accepted the Austrian invitation, often under the leadership of their Orthodox Patriarchs. They occupied a long strip that ran along the Empire’s border with the Ottoman territory that is now Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. In some stretches the strip was narrow, but in others it was wide enough to accommodate large numbers of Serb settlers. The Austrians administered this territory separately from the imperial “crown lands” and referred to it as the “military frontier” (Militärgrenze in German and Vojna Krajina, more familiarly just Krajina — ‘Frontier’ — in Serbian and Croatian). In the late 19th century, the frontier status of the Krajina, now out of date, was abandoned, and it was reattached to the crown lands of Croatia.

These islands of Orthodox Serbs in Roman Catholic Croatia had proved helpful to the Austrian empire, but in the late 20th century, well after its passing, their presence caused serious problems and more than one violent conflict. Also, many of the Serbs who moved to Croatia had come from Kosovo, leaving a population vacuum that the Albanian community of that area expanded to fill. This circumstance also contributed to the troubles that have afflicted the former Yugoslavia in recent years.

The Croats remained loyal supporters of the Habsburgs, who gladly used them to fill the ranks of their armies, but otherwise treated them with little affection. The Empress Maria Theresa handed Croatia back to Hungary in the 18th century, this time as “annexed territory” rather than as a kingdom with rights of its own, and from then on the Hungarians ruled with very little regard for the wishes of the Croats.

In 1848 Hungary, aflame with nationalism and provoked by a stupid imperial decision to suppress their national legislature, rebelled against the Austrian Empire. The Croats, in spite of the way Austria had treated them, took the empire’s side in this conflict, for, as Rebecca West wrote in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon:

[...] it oddly happened that inherent in Hungarian nationalism was a contempt and loathing for all nationalist sentiments felt by other people in all conceivable circumstances. This is proved by their extraordinary attitude to the language issue. It infuriated them that they should be forced to speak German and should not be allowed to speak their own language, Magyar; but they were revolted by the idea that any of their neighbours, the Croats, Serbs, or Slovaks, should speak their own language, or indeed anything but Magyar. The famous Hungarian patriot, Lajos Kossuth [the leader of the 1848 rebellion], showed vehemence on this point that was simply not sane, considering he had not one drop of Hungarian blood in his veins and was purely Slovak. When he took charge of the Nationalist Party he announced it as part of his programme to destroy the identity of Croatia. He declared he would suppress the Croatian language by the sword, and introduced an electoral bill which omitted the name of Croatia and described her departments as Hungarian counties.

Ban Josip Jelačić
n the circumstances, it’s not surprising that the Croats felt they’d get a better deal from Vienna than from Budapest. Having persuaded the Emperor to appoint a popular and militarily competent Ban named Josip Jelačić, they marched off to fight the Hungarians. They had some success, but it would be an exaggeration to say (as West did or at least implied) that they single-handedly saved the empire. Kossuth, in fact, did that himself by announcing that he was about to depose the Habsburgs and become the ruler of Hungary. This blasphemy outraged the Tsar of Russia, who felt entitled to defend the dynastic principle wherever it might be endangered, and in response to a plea from the new Emperor, Franz Joseph, he sent in a large army to crush the rebellion.

Jelačić in his current orientation
The Habsburgs rewarded the Croats for their loyalty by erecting a heroic statue of Jelačić in the center of Zagreb (now called Jelačić Square), sitting on his horse and waving his sword defiantly in the direction of Hungary. The statue was removed during most of the 20th century, because both prewar royal Yugoslavia and postwar Communist Yugoslavia regarded it (with good reason) as a dangerous rallying point for Croat nationalism. Since Croatia’s recent achievement of independence, however, the statue has been put back in place — but with one change: it is rotated 180 degrees, so that the Ban now waves his sword in the direction of Serbia.

Apart from the statue, the Croats got nothing for their efforts: Austria suppressed regional political institutions throughout Hungary and Croatia, which it continued to treat as part of Hungary, and began a policy of Germanization designed to weaken the vernacular language and culture. Jelačić, who had begun his career as Ban with bold assertions of Croatian independence, remained loyal to the Austrian Empire, prosecuting newspapers that expressed anti-imperial views. He didn’t even protest Germanization, and was no longer a popular figure by the time he died in 1859, though he is now regarded as a hero who showed that Croatia could be a force to be reckoned with on the Central European stage.

A few years after Jelačić’s death, in 1867, Austria resolved its Hungarian problem by declaring the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. Although the Emperor of Austria ruled both lands, Hungary got self-government and equal participation in the monarchy’s politics. The two countries divided the empire between them, and Austria willingly handed Croatia — nominally, at least, because it retained control of Dalmatia — over to the Hungarians.

“I do not know of any nastier act than this in history,” West wrote of this betrayal. It’s worth noting that she made this observation before World War II, which was to provide several nastier examples, and that she may have been excessively sensitive to the good qualities of Slavs and the bad qualities of Germans — but it was certainly an unjust return to the Croats for a degree of loyalty that at times seems to have gone beyond reason.

From the viewpoint of monarchic and dynastic politics, however, giving Croatia to Hungary may have seemed inevitable. The Hungarian share of the empire’s territory was designated the “crown lands of St. Stephen” (the first king of Hungary), and it’s true that Croatia had, centuries before, accepted the rule of the Hungarian monarchy, however this may have been qualified. In any event, Hungarian officials took over two thirds of Croatia, and the process of Magyarization began. (This whole business increases one’s respect for Woodrow Wilson, who stoutly championed the political rights of Europe’s smaller nationalities after World War I. He has often been derided as a naive idealist — but if this is realism, who needs it?)

Ante Starčević (1823–1896)
Not surprisingly, a Croatian nationalist movement began to grow in the decades between 1867 and 1914. Ante Starčević, the man in the picture, co-founded the militantly nationalistic “Croatian Party of Right.” The last word refers to Croatia’s right to be a kingdom, not to the party’s political alignment, but its position could hardly be described as liberal. Starčević agreed with Aristotle’s judgement that inferior peoples are natural slaves, and was careless about assigning this label to other groups, including both Jews and Serbs. The Dual Monarchy was governed by only two of its several nationalities, the speakers of German and Magyar, and they were aware that both together were outnumbered within the Empire by the millions of Slavs (not only Croats and Slovenes, but Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, and Ukrainians) from whom all political power was withheld. Both Austrians and Hungarians were determined to retain full control, so cries for a “triple kingdom” — German, Magyar, and Slav — which might have satisfied the majority of Croats, were resolutely ignored.

Nevertheless, when the Great War broke out, Croatian regiments — and some Serbs from the Krajina districts, even though Serbia was on the opposite side — took their places in the Austrian ranks. The dismal experience of the war, however, and the collapse of the Empire at the end of it, finally separated Croats from the wish to tie their destiny to Austria’s. They sent representatives to the conference that produced the short-lived “State of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs” and the one that soon afterwards replaced it with the “Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.” The Croats, given their historical experience, were jealously protective of their sovereignty, but like the Slovenes, they didn’t see how they could go it alone. They accepted some of the conditions of Serbian leadership, but when the agreements were signed in 1918, other issues remained that had been expressed vaguely, or glossed over, rather than definitively settled. The Croats, being the second-largest nationality group in the new nation, were eager to defend their rights as they saw them, and tension between Croats and Serbs began almost immediately. During the 70 years that followed, these tensions were sometimes suppressed, but they never dispersed.