Prehistory and Antiquity
The region now known as Croatia was inhabited throughout the prehistoric period. Fossils of Neanderthals from the Middle Palaeolithic have been excavated in northern Croatia, the most famous and best presented site being Krapina. Remains of several Neolithic and Chalcolithic cultures have been found in all parts of the country. Most of the sites are located in the river valleys of northern Croatia. The most important cultures found include the Starčevo, the Vučedol and the Baden cultures. The Iron Age has left traces of the beginning of the Hallstatt culture in Illyria and the La Tène Celtic culture.
Greek and Roman rule
Much later, the region was settled by Liburnians and Illyrians, while the first Greek colonies were founded on the islands of Korčula, Hvar and Vis. In 9 AD, the area of present-day Croatia became part of the Roman Empire. Emperor Diocletian built a large palace in Split when he retired in 305 AD.
In the 5th century, one of the last emperors of the Western Roman Empire, Julius Nepos, ruled his small empire from the palace. The period ended with the invasions of the Avars and Croats in the first half of the 7th century and the destruction of almost all Roman cities. The surviving Romans retreated to more favourable places on the coast, on islands and in the mountains. The city of Dubrovnik was founded by these survivors of Epidavros.
The ethnogenesis of the Croats is uncertain and there are several competing theories, with Slavic and Iranian theories being the most widely held. The most widely accepted, the Slavic theory, proposes the migration of white Croats from the territory of White Croatia during the migration period. The Iranian theory, on the other hand, proposes the Iranian origin, based on the Tanais tablets with the Greek inscription of the first names Χορούαθ [ος], Χοροάθος and Χορόαθος (Khoroúathos, Khoroáthos and Khoróathos) and their interpretation as anthroponyms of the Croatian people.
The Middle Ages
According to the book “De Administrando Imperio” written by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII in the 10th century, the Croats arrived in what is now Croatia at the beginning of the 7th century; however, this claim is disputed and competing hypotheses date the event between the 6th and 9th centuries. Eventually, two duchies were formed – the Duchy of Pannonia and the Duchy of Croatia, ruled by Liudewit and Borna, as attested by Einhard’s Chronicle from 818. This is the first document of the Croatian kingdoms, which were vassal states of Francia at that time.
Frankish rule ended under the reign of Mislav two decades later. According to Constantine VII, the Christianisation of the Croats began in the 7th century, but the claim is disputed and generally Christianisation is associated with the 9th century. The first ethnic Croatian ruler recognised by the Pope was Duke Branimir, who received papal recognition from Pope John VIII on 7 June 879.
Tomislav was the first Croatian ruler to be called king in a letter from Pope John X, which dates the Kingdom of Croatia to 925. Tomislav defeated the Hungarian and Bulgarian invasions and expanded the influence of the Croatian kings. The medieval Croatian kingdom reached its peak in the 11th century under the rule of Petar Krešimir IV (1058-1074) and Dmitar Zvonimir (1075-1089). When Stjepan II died in 1091, ending the Trpimirović dynasty, Ladislaus I of Hungary claimed the Croatian crown on behalf of his sister Helena, the wife of King Dmitar Zvonimir. Opposition to this claim led to war and the personal union of Croatia and Hungary in 1102, during the reign of Coloman.
For the next four centuries, the Kingdom of Croatia was ruled by the Sabor (Parliament) and a Ban (Viceroy) appointed by the King. This period saw the growing threat of Ottoman conquest and the struggle against the Republic of Venice for control of the coastal areas. The Venetians took control of most of Dalmatia in 1428, with the exception of the city-state of Dubrovnik, which became independent. The Ottoman conquests led to the Battle of Krbava Field in 1493 and the Battle of Mohács in 1526, both of which ended in decisive Ottoman victories. King Louis II died in Mohács, and in 1527 the Croatian Diet met in Cetin and elected Ferdinand I of the House of Habsburg as the new ruler of Croatia, on condition that he would protect Croatia from the Ottoman Empire while respecting its political rights. This period saw the emergence of influential noble families such as the Frankopan and Zrinski families, who imposed themselves and were eventually banished by both families.
Habsburg Monarchy and Austria-Hungary (1538-1918)
After the decisive Ottoman victories, Croatia was divided into civil and military areas, the partition was formed in 1538. The military areas became known as the Croatian Military Frontier and were under the direct control of the Empire. Ottoman advances into Croatian territory lasted until the Battle of Sisak in 1593, the first decisive Ottoman defeat, and the stabilisation of the borders.
During the Great Turkish War (1683-1698), Slavonia was reconquered, but Western Bosnia, which had been part of Croatia before the Ottoman conquest, remained outside Croatian control. Today’s border between the two countries is a remnant of this outcome. Dalmatia, the southern part of the border, was defined in the same way by the fifth and seventh Ottoman-Venetian wars.
The Ottoman wars brought great demographic changes. Croats immigrated to Austria and today’s Croats in Burgenland are the direct descendants of these settlers. To replace the fleeing population, the Habsburgs required the Christian population of Bosnia and Serbia to perform their military service at the Croatian military border. Serbian migration in this region reached its peak during the great Serbian migrations of 1690 and 1737-39.
The Croatian Parliament supported the Pragmatic Sanction of Emperor Charles and signed its own Pragmatic Sanction in 1712. Subsequently, the Emperor undertook to respect all the privileges and political rights of the Kingdom of Croatia and Empress Maria Theresa made an important contribution to Croatian affairs.
Between 1797 and 1809, the First French Empire gradually occupied the entire eastern Adriatic coast and a significant part of the hinterland, ending the republics of Venice and Ragusa and creating the Illyrian provinces. In response, the Royal Navy began blockading the Adriatic, which led to the Battle of Vis in 1811. The Illyrian provinces were conquered by the Austrians in 1813 and incorporated into the Austrian Empire after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. This led to the formation of the Kingdom of Dalmatia and the restoration of the Croatian coastline to the Kingdom of Croatia, both now under the same crown. In the 1830s and 1840s, Romantic nationalism inspired the Croatian National Revival, a political and cultural campaign that advocated the unity of all Southern Slavs in the Empire. Its main goal was the establishment of a standard language as a counterweight to Hungarian, as well as the promotion of Croatian literature and culture. During the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, Croatia sided with the Austrians, with Ban Josip Jelačić helping to defeat the Hungarian troops in 1849 and ushering in a period of Germanisation policy.
In the 1860s, the failure of this policy became obvious and led to the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 and the creation of a personal union between the crowns of the Empire of Austria and the Kingdom of Hungary. The treaty left the question of the status of Croatia to Hungary, and the status was resolved by the Croatian-Hungarian settlement of 1868, when the kingdoms of Croatia and Slavonia were united. The Kingdom of Dalmatia remained under de facto Austrian control, while Rijeka retained the status of corpus separatum established in 1779.
After the occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Austria-Hungary following the Treaty of Berlin in 1878, the Croatian military border was abolished and the territory was returned to Croatia in 1881 in accordance with the provisions of the Croatian-Hungarian settlement. Renewed efforts to reform Austria-Hungary, which envisaged federalisation with Croatia as a federal entity, were interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War.
On 29 October 1918, the Croatian Parliament (Sabor) declared its independence and decided to join the new state of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs, which in turn merged with the Kingdom of Serbia on 4 December 1918 to form the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. The Croatian parliament never ratified the decision to unite with Serbia and Montenegro. The 1921 constitution, which defined the country as a unitary state, and the abolition of the Croatian parliament and the historical administrative division effectively ended Croatian autonomy. The most supported national political party, the Croatian Peasant Party (HSS), led by Stjepan Radić, rejected the new constitution.
The political situation deteriorated further when Radić was assassinated in the National Assembly in 1928, leading to the dictatorship of King Alexander in January 1929. The dictatorship officially ended in 1931, when the king introduced a more unified constitution and changed the country’s name to Yugoslavia. The HSS, now led by Vladko Maček, continued to work for the federalisation of Yugoslavia, which led to the Cvetković-Maček Agreement of August 1939 and the Autonomous Banovina of Croatia. The Yugoslav government retained control over defence, internal security, foreign affairs, trade and transport, while other matters were left to the Croatian Sabor and a Crown-appointed Banovina.
In April 1941, Yugoslavia was occupied by Germany and Italy. After the invasion, the territory, parts of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Syrmia region were incorporated into the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), a Nazi-backed puppet state. Parts of Dalmatia were annexed by Italy and the Croatian regions of northern Baranja and Međimurje were annexed by Hungary. The NDH regime was led by Ante Pavelić and the ultra-nationalist Ustaše. The regime introduced anti-Semitic laws and carried out a campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide against the Serb and Roma inhabitants of the NDH, as witnessed by the concentration camps of Jasenovac and Stara Gradiška.
It is estimated that of the 39,000 Jews in the country, only 9,000 survived; the rest were either killed or deported to Germany, both by the local authorities and by the German army itself. Croatian and Serbian sources disagree on the exact numbers.
Moreover, a significant number of Serbs were killed by the Ustaše on the territory of the NDH during the war. According to Midlarsky, the number of Serbs killed by the regime was at least half a million, but this figure is refuted by Bogoljub Kočović and Vladimir Žerjavić. Kočović estimated the total number of Serbs killed in various circumstances throughout Yugoslavia at 487,000, while Žerjavić estimated the number at 530,000. Žerjavić states that 320,000 Serbs were killed in the NDH, of which 82,000 were among the Yugoslav partisans, 23,000 as Axis collaborators, 25,000 victims of the typhus epidemic, 45,000 by Germans and 15,000 by Italians. The all-Yugoslav losses of Kočović and Žerjavić are consistent with the estimates of Mayers and Campbell of the US Census Bureau. The number of Croats killed in the NDH is estimated at around 200,000, either by the Croatian fascist regime, as members of the armed resistance or as collaborators with the Axis powers. Several thousand of them were killed by the Chetniks; most Croatian historians estimate the number of Croats killed by the Chetniks on the territory of present-day Croatia at between 3,000 and 3,500. Croatian estimates of the number of Croats killed by the Chetniks throughout Yugoslavia vary between 18,000 and 32,000 (combatants and civilians).
A resistance movement was quickly formed. On 22 June 1941, the 1st Partisan Command was formed near Sisak, as the first military unit formed by a resistance movement in occupied Europe. This was the beginning of the Yugoslav partisan movement, a multi-ethnic, anti-fascist communist resistance group led by Josip Broz Tito. The movement grew rapidly and at the Teheran Conference in December 1943, the partisans were recognised by the Allies.
With Allied support in terms of logistics, equipment, training and air power, and with the help of Soviet troops participating in the 1944 Belgrade offensive, the partisans took control of Yugoslavia and the border regions of Italy and Austria in May 1945, with thousands of Ustaše members as well as Croatian refugees killed by the Yugoslav partisans.
The political aspirations of the partisan movement were reflected in the Anti-Fascist State Council for the National Liberation of Croatia, which emerged in 1943 as the vehicle for Croatian state status and was later transformed into the Parliament of Croatia in 1945, as well as in the AVNOJ – its counterpart at the Yugoslav level.
After the Second World War, Croatia became a socialist federal unit of the SFR Yugoslavia, led by the communists but with some autonomy within the federation. In 1967, Croatian authors and linguists issued a declaration on the status and name of the standard Croatian language, calling for greater autonomy for the Croatian language. This declaration contributed to a national movement for the strengthening of civil rights and the decentralisation of the Yugoslav economy, which culminated in the suppression of the Croatian language by the Yugoslav leadership in the spring of 1971. Nevertheless, the Yugoslav Constitution of 1974 granted greater autonomy to the federated entities, fulfilling an objective of the Croatian Spring and providing a legal basis for the independence of the federated components.
After the death of Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito in 1980, the political situation in Yugoslavia deteriorated, with national tensions fuelled by the Serbian SANU memorandum of 1986 and the coups in Vojvodina, Kosovo and Montenegro in 1989. In January 1990, the Communist Party split along national lines, with the Croat faction calling for a more flexible federation. The first multi-party elections in Croatia took place in the same year, with Franjo Tuđman’s victory further increasing nationalist tensions. A part of the Serbs in Croatia left Sabor and declared the autonomy of the regions that would soon become the unrecognised Serbian Republic of Krajina, with the intention of achieving independence from Croatia.
As tensions increased, Croatia declared independence on 25 June 1991; however, the full implementation of this declaration did not come into effect until 8 October 1991. In the meantime, tensions escalated into open warfare as the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and various Serb paramilitary groups attacked Croatia. By the end of 1991, Croatia controlled only about two-thirds of its territory in a high-intensity conflict across the board. The various Serb paramilitary groups then began a campaign of murder, terror and expulsion against the non-Serb population in the rebel areas, killing hundreds of Croat civilians and driving 170,000 more from their homes.
On 15 January 1992, Croatia received diplomatic recognition by the members of the European Economic Community and subsequently by the United Nations. The war effectively ended in August 1995 with a decisive victory for Croatia. This victory was accompanied by the exodus of some 200,000 Serbs from the rebel areas, whose land was later settled by Croat refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina. The remaining occupied territories were returned to Croatia in accordance with the Erdut Agreement of November 1995; this process was completed in January 1998. Croatia became a member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) on 30 November 2000. In October 2001, the country signed a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with the European Union. Croatia became a member of NATO on 1 April 2009 and joined the European Union on 1 July 2013.