Croatia: through writers’ eyes
Croatia: through writers’ eyes
With an historical introduction and epilogue by Peter Frankopan. Croatia, with its unspoiled dramatic coast, is a place of bewitching beauty, one of the hidden jewels of the Mediterranean. Yet most travellers know little more than that it was once part of Yugoslavia. Its ruined Greek cities, Habsburg gardens, border fortresses, Roman palaces and amphitheatres, Byzantine basilicas and walled medieval towns only mock our lack of knowledge with their unexpected diversity. Within these covers the traveller can immerse himself in the glory of Croatia’s past, from Diocletian to independence, seen through the eyes of outsiders and Croats alike.
Including: Evelyn Waugh, Edward Gibbon, Jan Morris, Tzroy Maclean, Misha Glenny, Vladimir Dedijer, Sir John Gardner Wilkinson, Osbert Sitwell, Gabriele d’Annunzio, Mark Thompson.
Croatia: Through Writers’ Eyes
Edited by: Stephen Lavington and Francis Gooding
Format: 256pp demi pb
Extract from Introduction
IF HISTORY REFLECTS the interests (and obsessions) of the historians who write it, then in the case of Croatia, there are two preoccupations which dominate the thoughts of modern commentators. Local historians devote their attentions almost exclusively to the question of where Croats come from – not only geographically, but also ethnically and linguistically. Outsiders, on the other hand, focus principally on the more recent past, on the emergence of a Croatian state from the dying embers of Yugoslavia at the start of the 1990s, and of course, the horrors which followed.
The result is a picture of the country and of its people which is confusing and skewed, one which is no more intelligible to the expert than to the novice. It is as though only two pieces of a much bigger puzzle have been taken at random from the play room, with no obvious connection, and offering no meaningful insight when taken together into the history and culture of the region.
One of the challenges of outlining the history of Croatia is defining exactly what ‘Croatia’ means. Does it refer to the physical boundaries of the modern state, or to a territory, which was larger and smaller at key points in the past; does it refer to Croatians, or to all inhabitants of this area – Illyrians, Greeks, Romans, Goths, Byzantines, Slavs of all kinds – who settled and were assimilated into society in one way or another? Does it refer equally to the three very distinct and very different parts of Croatia – namely the littoral, the mountainous hinterland and the arable plains of Slavonia and Pannonia which lead into modern Hungary?
Perhaps the most practical and indeed productive way to address the question of what Croatia means is to see what this term has meant to visitors in the past. That is, to see what Croatia has been seen as, who the Croatians have been defined as being over the centuries. Croatia, and above all the coast, has a historical pedigree of the very highest order. It is a land which has been continuously settled since the Hellenistic period (Jason and the Argonauts passed by Pitheia, modern Hvar, in search of the Golden Fleece). It has extant Roman monuments, such as the magnificent amphitheatre in Pula, to rival similar sites in Italy and elsewhere. Diocletian’s Palace in Split not only survives, but forms part of the beating heart of the city. The late antique and medieval heritage is no less impressive, with any number of towns along the coast, from Istria in the north, to Dalmatia and finally to Dubrovnik in the south, providing outstanding examples of architecture from the sixth century onwards for more than a thousand years.
The more recent past has not been kind to Croatia. With the extraordinary expansion of the Ottomans, first in Asia Minor and then in south-eastern Europe, Croatia found itself at the front-line of resistance against a Muslim Empire. With consolidation of empires elsewhere in Europe, Croatia’s previous success in jostling for position between, and in playing off Venice and Hungary, eventually saw them overwhelmed by an Austria which was broadly uninterested in what happened in Croatia proper even before the Ottoman threat subsided, and likewise on the Dalmatian coast from the nineteenth century onwards. The formation of Yugoslavia in 1919 at first seemed to presage the space for Croatia and for Croatians to once again take control of their own identity and government, though this too went sour before the Second World War and again with the socialist dreamland which followed it. The decline, paralysis and death of Yugoslavia ultimately laid the basis for Croatia to burst forth into an independent state in the early 1990s, though at a terrible cost in terms of human life and indeed international reputation.
The wider effect, then, has been that Croatia occupies a place in common awareness not at the forefront of the development of Europe from the Middle Ages onwards – as should be the case – but rather as a provincial and tribal backwater on the fringes of Europe, an impression entirely due to the pressures and strains of the immediate political circumstances of this region in the last three centuries or so. This collection of travel writing is a welcome corrective, for in the place of the expected Balkanised state is one of surprising sophistication, cultural significance and indeed political importance.
By the Hellenistic period, many points along the mainland coast of Croatia, and many of the thousand islands dotting the Adriatic Sea, formed communities which developed into trading towns, trading over both short and longer distances. For example, towns on the islands of Hvar and Vis were founded in 385/4BC by Ionian Greeks on the order of Dionysius the Elder, ruler of Sicily, to serve as a base for trade in and out of Syracuse. Other locations too were established around this time, and it was not long before a network of trade can be found criss-crossing the Adriatic.
By the second century BC, Rome was already casting its eye to the Adriatic’s eastern seaboard, drawn by its wealth and by its natural resources in the form of timber, agriculture, cereals and ores. Local tribes such as the Illyrians and the Delmati were subjugated, and a full provincial administration set up, establishing the provinces of Illyria, Istria, Dalmatia and, further inland and in due course, Pannonia too. This region became a wealthy and important one, something which is evident from the monumental architecture which survives along the entire length of the coast, of which Pula and Salona are the two outstanding examples. The large number of shipwrecks and amphorae which have been recovered from this period likewise provide a compelling testimony to the flourishing towns along the coast and on the primary islands, such as Hvar and Vis in the south, and Krk and Cres in the north.
Indeed, so prosperous was the whole region, that when Diocletian took the unusual step of stepping down as Emperor at the start of the fourth century AD, it was to Dalmatia that he retired and built the home where he intended to perfect his skills at growing cabbages. The result, an enormous palace, which was fortified on three sides and apparently open to the sea on the other, was built in Split, just down the coast from the province’s capital in Salona, the ruins of which are a primary archaeological site for the culture of Ancient Rome. The palace has been the subject of intensive study including an important publication by Robert Adam, who visited the palace with his draughtsmen in the 1750s and was evidently profoundly inspired by the classical extravagance and forms of the edifice, borrowing extensively from them in his own work.
The high-water mark in antiquity in Croatia was reached during the first centuries of the first millennium, particularly after the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire. A very large number of churches dating from the fourth and fifth centuries (and later) bear testimony to the widespread practice of Christianity and the rapid proliferation of the religion particularly along the coast, in and around the established towns. Again, the architectural heritage which survives is impressive and serves as an important source of evidence not only for the spread of Christianity in Croatia, but in the Mediterranean as a whole.
However, with the division of the Roman Empire into two halves and the foundation of Constantinople in the fourth century, Rome itself and the western provinces first failed and were then decisively shattered by the Goths and others. While Constantinople had not only survived but even flourished, particularly under the Emperor Justinian (himself of Illyrian origin), successive large-scale movements of aggressive, militarily ambitious peoples around the start of the seventh century – Avars, Slavs, Kutrigurs and not least Arabs – meant that the imperial government was forced onto a defensive which was to last until the reign of Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (919-59). As a result, the eastern coast and the islands of the Adriatic, like the whole of the Mediterranean, experienced a rapid economic contraction, and seemingly a decline in population too, a clear reflection of local instability, the collapse of a regional bureaucratic infrastructure, and also of the reduction of trade networks.
In the period which followed, Constantinople periodically tried to maintain a degree of influence and even control over the larger towns along the coast. Essentially, however, the focus of the Byzantine Emperors was fixed closer to home, above all, set on consolidating their position in Asia Minor and in the eastern Mediterranean, and not in the Adriatic. The result was that by the time that conditions favourable to trade and prosperity returned – particularly following Basil I’s strike against Arab pirates in southern Italy and his reimposition of imperial authority there in the later ninth century – Croatia had begun to form a sense of statehood and coherence. By the 880s, we start to find inscriptions referring to Branimir, Duke of the Croatians. A few decades later, more substantial evidence shows the trappings of what we would expect from an emerging, distinct state, with monumental complexes of churches and tombs being constructed in what might best be described as a royal capital, on the site of the old provincial Dalmatian capital, Salona.
The first kings of Croatia, in the sense of a royal title actually being used, appear in this period too, with this being confirmed formally to King Zvonimir by Pope Gregory VII in the 1070s, evidently as part of the Pope’s efforts to extend his influence throughout the Christian world. By this time, the use of a script, known as Glagolitic, had become widespread both in the church and as an official script. It is widely held that the script was originally exported by the missions of Cyril and Methodius throughout the Balkans in the ninth century, as they sought to Christianise the Slavs well inland from the coast. Whether this is accurate or not, Glagolitic was to become specific to Croatia and served to establish and accentuate a distinct identity for the early Croatian kingdom. In due course, the Frankopan family sought to promote use of Glagolitic in the liturgy and in secular documents, above all on the island of Krk, precisely as a symbol which connected Croatia with its medieval past. It was only towards the end of the nineteenth century that the script and liturgy finally fell out of common usage with the ecclesiastical elite among whom it had survived for so long in the north of the country.
The centuries following the establishment of a Croatian kingdom marked the apogee of the wealth, influence and prominence of the littoral. Towns like Split, Trogir and Zadar experienced a prolonged period of sustained economic growth. Real wealth began to flow into these towns as a result of their position on the trade routes both from the Balkan interior out to the sea, but above all on the journey to and from Constantinople and eventually the Holy Land.
It is easy to look at Venice as the southernmost outpost of Europe, an exit route for people and goods heading south. In fact, it was quite the opposite: a staging post on the journey north. Indeed maps from the early medieval period, such as the famous Mappa Mundi held at Hereford Cathedral, present precisely the world as flowing south to north, rather than the more modern depiction which inverts this view. So while the growth of towns and islands on the Croatian coast was certainly intertwined with that of Venice, they were if anything at least initially greater beneficiaries of the trading boom than Venice itself, which after all had to put out a significant outlay to provide the ships, crews and resources required to make long distance journeys. The towns and islands in the Adriatic could therefore benefit not only from trade from afar, but also stood to benefit from supplying Venice and Venetian ships directly on their routes up and down the coast.
It is not a surprise, then, that Venice took every opportunity to extend its influence in this region: in a series of negotiations with Constantinople, which were spread over many decades, Venice succeeded in extracting nominal and titular authority over Croatia and Dalmatia. Indeed, at each turn, the Doge incorporated these areas into his official titles, leaving little doubt as to his intentions – even if in practice the towns on the coast stood outside his direct control, at least to start with. Such was Venice’s keenness to assert itself over individual towns and indeed over the region as a whole, that the knights of the Fourth Crusade were persuaded to sack the town of Zadar in 1202 on their ill-fated and doomed attempt to reach the Holy Land. That an entire Crusade expedition was needed to breach the town walls, described by the Crusader and eye-witness Villehardouin as being of enormous size and quality, says a great deal about the prominence, affluence and success of the town at this time.
It was not just Venice which manoeuvred itself to try to close in on the ripe prizes on offer. Hungary to the north under King Coloman had turned its attention to expanding its influence on the coast from the start of the twelfth century, and like Venice, sought to achieve some degree of dominance over key areas. The principal theme of the history of Croatia and the coast in the middle ages then was that of the towns playing off Venice against Hungary, and trying to maximise breathing space to prevent interest and influence turning into direct political control.
One of the most striking features of the towns on the coast and on the primary islands was that they had largely retained their own identities from the Hellenistic period onwards. As in the Italian peninsula, each city-state was fiercely independent of the others, and notwithstanding occasional efforts by one to dominate a rival, each effectively functioned as a city-state, ruled by a council of nobles.
In this way, then, providing Venice and Hungary did not over- exert themselves, the towns themselves were generally happy to take a course of little resistance, accepting nominal over-lordship in return for being left to their own devices. Occasionally, the communities had to show their teeth in order to protect their own interests, and it is a mark of their genuine strength and power that they were able to do so efficiently and quickly. In 1222, for example, Andrew II of Hungary was forced to issue a Golden Bull agreeing to limits to his authority on the coast; likewise, twenty years later, his successor, Bela IV, was not only forced to concede significant guarantees to the municipal freedoms of these towns, but also to codify these legally to protect the concessions which had been extracted.
The heyday of the Croatian coast inevitably saw a programme of great cultural development. From the twelfth century onwards, the urban built environment began to reflect the affluence of the inhabitants, with grandiose secular architecture springing up. Municipal buildings, such as customs houses, administrative centres, and in Dubrovnik, the first quarantine in Europe, were also built. Fabulous Cathedrals were erected and consecrated, with those of the central Dalmatian coast, St Anastasia in Zadar and St Lawrence in Trogir, being particularly fine examples. The construction, masonry and artistry on these cathedrals – and on those in Sibenik and Split – represent craftsmanship of the very highest order and provide an unequivocal manifestation of the wealth, ambition and importance of these towns and of the coast as a whole.
Intellectually too, Croatia enjoyed a tremendous period of creativity in the period leading up to the renaissance. One scholar, Herman of Dalmatia, translated the works of Euclid and Ptolemy, and of the Arabic astronomers, as early as the twelfth century, putting these into circulation for the first time in much of Europe. Croatian scholars also played a prominent role in the Humanist movement of the Renaissance. Marco Marulic in particular became widely known for his texts on Christian morality which were published both in Latin and in translation, with the same author producing the first secular poetry in the Croatian language (rather than in Latin) in the early fifteenth century.
The best mark of the importance and profile of Croatia in a context wider than the Adriatic and even the Mediterranean, comes from the fact that as late as the seventeenth century, Illyric, or Croatian, was designated as a set language to be studied at all church universities in Europe. At the universities of Bologna, Padua, Cologne, Paris and Salamanca, Croatian was studied alongside Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and Chaldaean (Aramaic) for a minimum of two years, following formal prescription by Pope Urban VIII in 1623.
Part of the reason for this was that by the end of the fifteenth century, Croatian merchants were dealing far from home. Shakespeare for example makes numerous references to Ragusan sailors, that is from Dubrovnik, in his plays, indeed using the adjective Argosy (or Ragusan) as a generic name for a competent merchant or military fleet. While the playwright was obviously not familiar with this region personally, he may have been familiar with inhabitants from this part of Europe, at least to judge from his depictions in Twelfth Night (which is set in Illyria). In this play, Shakespeare refers to the coast, to its strong maritime tradition and to the height of the Illyrian people – and also to the robustness of its wines, all elements which have a resonance to this day.
We know that there was a guild of Croatian seamen in Venice by 1451, when the School of the Dalmatians, which is also known as the School of the Slavs, was established. A similar guild was founded in England forty years later, as testified by an inscription found in Southampton dating from 1491. Croatian sailors can be found further afield still, with individuals from the islands of Rab and Hvar, and also from Dubrovnik, accompanying the Cabots’ expeditions to the New World. Indeed, the earliest maps from the sixteenth century record a Capo de Arause (Ragusa) between New York and Cape Cod. Just as Croatian sailors manned the earliest crossings to America, so they also played a significant role in manning the galleys of the Spanish Armada which came to grief in 1588 off the coast of England.
The breakpoint for Croatia came with the rapid expansion of Ottoman power into Europe. Although the Turks had expanded deep into south-eastern Europe before finally taking Constantinople in 1453, it was only after this date that their ambitions and success began to impact on the coast. The effects, at least initially, were not immediate. But by the start of the sixteenth century, Croatia – both the hinterland and the coastal region – began to come under sustained pressure. The northern part of Croatia looked to Austria, in 1527 fatefully inviting Ferdinand to become King. The coast, on the other hand, was by now under the control of Venice and did what it could to minimise the impact of Ottoman pressure.
Dubrovnik, for example, was quick to deal with the Ottomans in a typically practical way, gaining concessions from them and making the most of the fact that it was both the first point of entry from Muslim to Christian Europe – at least in the Adriatic – and also the last point of exit for the reverse. As such, there was little negative to be had from the emergence of the Turks; if anything the town boomed even more. As early as the twelfth century, the Arab geographer al-Idrisi commented on the industriousness of the inhabitants of Dubrovnik. And this town, of all those along the coast, continued to flourish well into the early modern period, until a catastrophic earthquake in 1667 destroyed a substantial part of the town and killed a very large proportion of the population.
Elsewhere, things became bleak following Ferdinand’s assumption of the throne. His accession led to a massive decline in the fortunes, literal and otherwise, of the Croatian hinterland, and the effect soon began to be felt on the coast too. Little money was spent on defence or on construction, let alone on maintaining an effective military border – something which was left instead to local aristocratic families. In the circumstances, large scale loss of land to the Ottomans was inevitable, and it was not long before Croatia began to call itself ‘the remains of the remains of the formerly glorious kingdom.’ There were occasional heroic defences against the Turks, such as that of Nikola Subic Zrinski at Sziget in 1566, where a small garrison held out for long enough to hold up a force of one hundred thousand men under the personal command of Sultan Sulayman the Magnificent, and thwart what had threatened to be a massive strike deep into central Europe. But these were small and rare successes which ultimately did little to stem the tide – even if Subic Zrinski’s heroism became fabled throughout Europe and earned him a place in folklore, epic poetry and opera.
Venice too began to suffer, partly as a result of the Ottoman gains and the obvious effects this had on stability and trade, but also because of the emergence of new markets and new resources in the Americas which the Venetians were poorly placed and ill- equipped to exploit. This provided an opportunity for free- booters, known as Uskoks, to take easy pickings from merchant shipping in the Adriatic, particularly in the north around the town of Senj, which served as a pirate nest for the best part of half a century.
To an extent, therefore, Croatia – hinterland and coast – paid the price for the arrival of the Ottomans, the weakening of Venice, the Reformation and the subsequent consolidation of empires in Europe, for this region began to be used as a bargaining chip by the neighbouring powers, each of whom was prepared to trade position, land and responsibilities in search of wider settlements. In the 1660s, Petar Zrinski, the Ban or effective viceroy of Croatia proper, took matters into his own hands, delivering a series of stunning victories against the Turks, and penetrating deep into Ottoman territory – feats for which Louis XIV made him a French peer. His gains were shamefully given away by the Austrians in 1664 at the treaty of Vasvar, where a return to the status quo prior to Zrinski’s successes was agreed.
By the late 1660s, disaffection with Austria reached a peak. Petar Zrinksi and his cousin, Fran Krsto Frankopan, members of two of the most powerful families in Croatia whose ancestors had governed as Ban, were implicated in a plot against Leopold of Austria. Rather than wait for discontent to break out openly, a deliberate and concerted smear campaign was made against both men, who were then brought to Wiener Neustadt having been given assurances and guarantees for their safety by the Emperor. These were not kept, and after being tortured and abused, both men were executed, their lands and possessions looted and confiscated.
The dealings with Zrinski and Frankopan were truly shocking and provoked uproar in Croatia and beyond. Moreover, the vicious propaganda disseminated by Austrian agents both at the time and indeed later, was a mark of the way in which Croatia was perceived and dealt with by Vienna. Not surprisingly, the manner in which this had been carried out, and the fact that instead of the independence for Croatia and the crown he had sought for himself, Zrinski was rewarded with a sword dripping in blood, meant that this signal event became a powerful touchstone and was remembered right up until independence in the 1990s. The two men were held up as the last attempt made by Croatia to govern itself, and the treachery with which they were dealt as an indicator of the frustrations which the country felt right up until its secession from Yugoslavia. The remains of Frankopan and Zrinski are buried in the Cathedral in Zagreb, and their memory is still revered and their cult deliberately maintained.
The centuries which followed represented a substantial if gradual decline from the glories of the previous seven centuries. Certain individuals, of course, made their mark internationally in their respective fields. Roger Boskovic, an outstanding scientist, developed atomic theory and the theory of forces and enjoyed high positions in Paris, London and St Petersburg in the eighteenth century, communing with Samuel Johnson, Edward Burke and Benjamin Franklin. He was an exception rather than the norm, as Croatia receded into the outer extremities of political and cultural significance.
By the start of the nineteenth century, the flurry of Napoleonic conquest through Europe saw a renewed focus on the region again. Following Bonaparte’s occupation of Venice and of the eastern seaboard of the Adriatic, all the Croatian lands along the coast including Istria, Dalmatia, and Dubrovnik came under French rule briefly before passing to Austria. This period of flux had been closely monitored by the British navy. Indeed, a detachment of British ships were garrisoned on the island of Vis during the Napoleonic wars in order to keep an eye on naval traffic in the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, eventually taking on and defeating a much larger French fleet off the island in 1811. A fort dedicated to St George was constructed by the British forces, and it seems, the game of cricket introduced to bemused locals. In any event, cricket has taken off with the formation of a thriving club which has provided several players for the a national team which plays regularly and with some success against other cricket playing nations in Europe. The club team on Vis took the name of Sir William Hoste, the commander of the British warships from the early nineteenth century, as a nod to the first importers of the game to Croatia.
The second half of the nineteenth century saw Croatia continue to struggle to assert its own identity, albeit in a different way and considerably less successfully than in the Middle Ages. Croatian intellectuals became convinced that the way to detach from Austria, and from the increasingly clumsy and heavy- handed interference of Hungary, was to express solidarity with other specifically Slavic peoples, countries and agendas. This had much more to do with political circumstance, and with the reality of the situation in which Croatia and Croatians had an all but inaudible voice, than it did with any deep-rooted conviction about the unity of the South Slavs, about Illyria as a geographic or ethnic concept, or about Yugoslavism. It was thought, rightly or wrongly, that full independence for Croatia was too difficult or improbable a goal to aim for. Individuals such as Kvaternik who did articulate a vision of Croatian independence were unable to translate this into significant support, and as a result, a pan-Slavic political philosophy emerged with an increasingly strident momentum, provoked of course by the envious glances which were cast towards Belgrade and the Serbs, who had gained self-determination and burgeoning ambition following the end of Ottoman rule.
The desire to escape from Austria-Hungary continued until the end of the First World War. While this period saw a degree of economic improvement as well as investment in some parts of the country and a series of important building projects, it also saw harsh oppression of anyone or anything deemed to be specifically Croatian, from political activists to the use of the language in official documentation. Publications such as those of Matica Hrvatksa, a Zagreb publishing house, were banned; protestors against rule from Budapest were mercilessly put down, incarcerated and if they were lucky, beaten; civic order was maintained through force as much as through law. Visitors to the region, such as Arthur Evans, the celebrated archaeologist of Crete, found himself hugely sympathetic to the conditions under which the local population were living, and as he travelled, his support for the nationalist south Slav cause grew, identifying this – as increasing numbers of locals did – as the means of escaping from imperialist tyranny.
By the time of the First World War, tensions were simmering, not least since the annexation of Bosnia by the Austro- Hungarians led to renewed interest in the surrounding area and a reason to meddle further still in Croatia’s affairs. After war broke out, it did not take long for discussions to turn to the future shape of the region. To start with, Italy was promised a large part of the eastern Adriatic in return for their support against the Axis powers under the terms of the Treaty of London in 1915. After the war, though, the concept of a country of Southern Slavs, taking the name of the Kingdom of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs, began to find favour internationally and also locally. In spite of a brief attempt by the Italian Gabriele d’Annunzio to annex Rijeka and Istria, Croatia finally slipped the shackles of Austrian rule to cast its lot with its neighbours to the south.
It did not take long for the experiment to sour. Over-valuation of the currency, economic instability and agrarian reform did not help. Nor did immediate animosity between the peoples of the new state. Repression and brute force became widespread and common, with physical violence and police brutality standard. Again, expressions of Croatian-ness were clamped down on in the attempt to forcibly fuse a national identity which sought to obviate regional differences but which in practice simply replaced the interests of one of the constituent peoples of Yugoslavia (the Croats) with those of another (the Serbs).
Matters reached a head with the assassination of the prominent Croatian politician, Stjepan Radić, in parliament while in session in 1928, and the failure of the authorities to arrest the assassin, whose identity was well-known. Radić had been vocal in his demands for recognition of the Croatian identity and had complained stringently about an overwhelming imbalance within the new state which left Croatia and Croatians at a severe disadvantage. In the wake of his murder, King Alexander abolished the constitution, a move which only served to inflame passions, while singularly failing to take any measure which might address the roots of the problems.
By 1930, even British scholars like Robert Seton-Watson, an expert on the region who had played an important role in the congresses which followed the war, concluded that the balance within the new state was not working and what he called the Croatian problem – that is to say its persistent demotion within the new state – did not look likely to be solved. Through the 1930s, the situation deteriorated further still. International outcry followed the murder of the scientist Milan Sufflay in broad daylight in Zagreb, and the resultant failure of the authorities to condemn the actions of the killer, let alone to bring him to justice. So great was the sense of oppression by the authorities in Belgrade that Albert Einstein and Heinrich Mann wrote to the New York Times pleading for the international community to act to protect human rights in Croatia specifically, and condemning the behaviour of the national government.
The effects of the disillusionment were not hard to predict, and extremist causes grew rapidly to counter what was perceived as outright oppression in Croatia. Croatian nationalists assassinated King Alexander I in Marseilles in 1934; a political movement known as the Ustasha, whose hour would come in 1941, began to win increasing levels of popular support; so too did the communist parties, whose time was destined for shortly after that of its right- wing extremist peers. Support for both of these groups was conditioned in the first instance by profound disappointment at what Yugoslavia (as it had by now been renamed) stood for, by the frustration of ambitions and by the failure of the dream of self- determination.
Yugoslavia declared its neutrality at the outset of the Second World War. When the Germans and Italians invaded in 1941, the former in particular were quick to exploit the discontent within Croatia by establishing an independent state under Ante Pavelić. Like many countries in continental Europe, this period was a shameful one, for it saw the persecution, internment and mass murder of Serbs as well as of other minority groups, and it has tarnished Croatia’s reputation ever since.
The aftermath of the war saw the creation of a different Yugoslvia to the one which had preceded it. Like in many countries which fell behind the iron curtain, the victors – in this case the partisans, who had been supported strongly by the British in the closing stages of the war – devoted much energy in peace time to blackening the reputation of their enemies within the state, in this case carefully crafting an image which allied Croatia with fascism, a tag which has proved hard to remove. The purpose of this was of course to weaken the sense of national identities in Tito’s Yugoslavia in the aim and hope of strengthening that of the federal state which naturally needed its own mythology in order to survive and breathe.
The Western powers too, after their support for Tito during the war (notably through the missions of Fitzroy MacLean), had a vested interest in promoting the concept of Yugoslavia as a sympathetic, idyllic state where national identities were subsumed by a greater good of Yugoslavism and a special form of socialism. In fact, Tito worked hard to promote the soft face of socialism, a welcome change from the hard-headed, charmless apparatchiks of much of Communist Europe, inviting heads of state on bear hunts and entertaining them in style in the Brijuni islands. As the acceptable face of socialist government in Europe – enshrined in Tito’s creation of the Non-Aligned Movement of states – the projection of Yugoslavia was as a state where identities, language, symbols and the past were meaningless, where only the present and the future were of any significance. This was a vision which was both sympathetic and widely believed inside and outside the country, even if the reality was rather different, for this idyll came at an increasingly expensive price.
Things came to a head twice. First in the early 1970s, when the Croatian Writers’ Union made a seemingly innocuous complaint about the standardisation of Serbo-Croat and the suffocation of the Croatian language, which provoked large-scale protests and mass strikes, before being effectively suppressed through the imprisonment and harassment of leading figures in the movement. And then, more seriously, at the end of the 1980s, when following increasingly vocal opposition to Belgrade from all corners of Yugoslavia, from Kosovo, Slovenia and eventually from Croatia too, one of those figures who had been involved with the Writers Union, Franjo Tuđman, was elected President of the Socialist Republic of Croatia within Yugoslavia.
Long books (and good ones) have been written about the break-up of Yugoslavia. At the time, though, many canards were stressed through the media regarding ethnicity, religion or ancient tribal hatreds. In fact, the Croats and the Serbs had almost never had a military dispute of any kind before the disintegration of Yugoslavia; likewise, to find armed conflict between Orthodox and Catholics, we need to go back a long way, most plausibly to 1204. The more productive way to understand the break-up was that it involved power and specifically the reluctance of the federal government in Belgrade to relinquish this in an appropriate way. I dare say that had the ties within Yugoslavia been loosened sufficiently, there might have been no parting of the ways at all, or at least that the different nations would in due course have parted more slowly and less bloodily than they did – as happened in the Soviet Union and in Czechoslovakia.
As it is, the fact that Croatia did eventually reach independence, albeit through such a tragic and traumatic path, does represent a conclusion of sorts to the problems, aspirations and ambitions which Croatia as a region, and which the Croatians as a people, have held for many centuries. The ability to self- determine certainly marks a new dawn, in that it places the country today as master of its own destiny, at least in so far as international law allows it to be.
Ironically, there have been some positive results of Croatia’s bloody secession from Yugoslavia, for the country has had to examine itself carefully to try to understand why it really is distinct from its neighbours; to assess what the connection is historically and politically between its own constituent regions; to consider how it positions itself in the international arena, whether through the UN, through its close ties with and likely membership of NATO and through the seemingly imminent accession to the European Union. In all these cases, work is very much still in progress, and barely a decade on from the Dayton accords which brought an end to military conflict in Croatia and Bosnia, the concepts of what Croatia is and who the Croatians are remain disconnected – which at least partly explains the almost schizophrenic insecurity where Croatia in turn depicts itself as a small country for a big holiday (for a long time the official motto of the Croatian tourist board), or as a uniquely important state with an outstandingly important and significant historical pedigree, second to none in the medieval Mediterranean.
As readers of this book will be able to see from the accounts of visitors to Croatia in the past, and perhaps will see for themselves during their own travels to this region, the two images of Croatia coexist side by side. Providing the country’s cultural heritage is preserved diligently, it is only a matter of time before the true nature of the mainland and of the peppering of islands which scatter the coast, which caused the Romans to name spotted hunting dogs Dalmatians, emerges. This will finally allow modern visitors a clearer and fresher insight into the history of this region than they have been able to enjoy since it disappeared into the abyss of its more dominant neighbours.