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Croatia - Introduction

The Serbs and Croats are divided by a common language. The frontier between the Serbian and Croatian settlements was the frontier between the East and West of Europe, between the Greek and the Roman worlds. The deepest and oldest national rivalry in Yugoslavia was the one between the Serbs and Croats, who despite their shared language possessed different social and value systems and political cultures. The three official languages of Yugoslavia were Serbo-Croatian, Slovenian, and Macedonian. Serbo-Croatian has an eastern and a western variant; it is written in the Latin alphabet in Croatia and in the Cyrillic alphabet in Serbia and Montenegro.

Two sayings illustrated these animosities and the essential difference in the inherited political styles of both peoples. The first says: "The very way of life of a Serb and Croat is a deliberate provocation by each to the other." The second, a self-complimentary Serbian stereotype, holds that in a conflict with authority "the Serb reaches for the sword and the Croat for his pen." The Serbian stereotype refers to the tradition of the hajduk, the idealized mountain renegade who responded violently to the oppressive anarchy of the Ottoman Empire during its last two centuries; the Croatian stereotype reflects the cultural influence of responding through the legal system to the Habsburgs' highly bureaucratized infringements on national and individual freedoms in Croatia.

The Croats, a people with long-frustrated national ambitions, saw themselves for decades as cultured West Europeans shackled to the backward Balkans. Yugoslavia's second most numerous ethnic group, the Croats accounted for 75.1 percent of Croatia's population, 18.4 percent of Bosnia and Hercegovina's, 1.4 percent of Montenegro's, 2.9 percent of Slovenia's, 0.6 percent of Serbia's, and 5.4 percent of Vojvodina's, according to the 1981 census. Small enclaves of Croats were as far removed as Kosovo and Romania. As the 1990s began, however, the Republic of Croatia anticipated radical changes in its relations with the rest of Yugoslavia that might result in the first independent Croatian state since medieval times.

The Croats enjoyed their own medieval kingdom for several centuries before a long period of Hungarian rule from 1102 to 1918. Most Croats lived under Hungarian kings until 1526 and under Habsburg monarchs thereafter; the Croats of Bosnia and Hercegovina and Slavonia lived under Ottoman rule for several hundred years; and the Croats of Dalmatia passed from Hungarian to Venetian to Austrian rule. With the help of Roman Catholic clerics, the Croats maintained a strong collective memory of their former statehood despite their centuries of foreign domination. Two pivotal events in the Croats' social development were the birth of modern Croatian national sentiment after a brief period of Napoleonic rule in the early nineteenth century and the emancipation of the serfs in 1848. Writers, scholars, merchants, and wealthy landowners led the Croatian national movement, which was triggered by resistance to Hungary's drive to impose Magyar (the national language of Hungary) as the language of public life in Croatia in the mid-nineteenth century.

Before the 1848 revolution, the Croats' social structure was rigidly stratified. The peasantry consisted of serfs bound to the land, semi-serfs who held land on condition of labor and other dues, and landless peasant-nobles. At the end of the nineteenth century, only a very small proportion of Croatia's total population was employed in industry. The landowner class kept the peasants uneducated to ensure easy exploitation. Among the peasants in Croatia, traditional extended families gradually gave way to individual family farms after the abolition of serfdom in 1848, but rural overpopulation and land fragmentation brought hunger to many areas by the turn of the century. During the late 1800s, many Croats emigrated to the Americas and Australia.

After 1868 Croatian nationalists actively protested Hungary's Magyarization campaigns; later, between the world wars, they spoke against Serbian hegemony and for a loose Yugoslav federation or complete independence for Croatia. During World War II, Hitler established a puppet fascist regime, run by the terrorist Ustase (see Glossary), to rule a greater Croatian state whose population was roughly half Serb. Substantial numbers of Croatian nationalists and clergy took part in this regime. The Ustase were vehemently Roman Catholic, anti-Serb, and anti-Semitic; their avowed policy was to obliterate the Serbs from their territory by conversion, deportation, or execution. The regime closed all Serbian Orthodox primary schools, outlawed the Cyrillic alphabet, and ordered Serbs to wear colored arm bands.







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