To say that Croatia has a complex history is an understatement. Over the centuries, it has experienced multiple conflicts, alliances, changes in name, and changes in power.
Evidence of Croatia's earliest inhabitants was discovered in 1899 by professor Dragutin Gorjanovic-Kramberger, who excavated a cave filled with over 900 fossilized human bones dating to the Paleolithic age - some 125,000 years ago. The site, now part of the Neanderthal Museum in Krapina, is considered the largest collection of Neanderthal artifacts found at a single location.
The Illyrians settled modern-day Istria and Dalmatia, along with Pannonia (which roughly corresponds to modern-day Slavonia) by at least the 4th century BC. They remained in control of the area until just after the Illyrian Wars, from 229 BC to 168 BC, when the Romans conquered the region. Roman rule is evidenced by grand structures such as Diocletian's Palace, built in Split in 305 AD as the emperor's retirement palace, and the Arena, a well-preserved Roman amphitheater in Pula.
Croats likely invaded the area between the 6th and 7th centuries, after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, though scholars disagree on the exact date of their arrival. During the early 9th century, two duchies were established: the Duchy of Pannonia and the Duchy of Dalmatia, which was under Byzantine control. At around the same time, Christianity was introduced among the Croats as a result of the arrival of Charlemagne's army in 800 AD.
Pannonia and Dalmatia were united in 925 under Tomislav, who was crowned king and recognized by the pope, establishing the medieval Kingdom of Croatia. It remained more or less independent over the next century or so, though Venice and Hungary made attempts to gain Dalmatia. In 1102, Croatia joined Hungary under King Koloman, though whether this arrangement was forced or not remains a point of contention.
After Koloman's death in 1116, Venice once again moved in on Dalmatia and Istria, and despite Hungary's attempts to regain the coast, it would remain in Venice's power for the next 700 years. This is why, in many coastal towns, a lion (the symbol of the Republic of Venice) stands over doorways and city gates. Venice ruled harshly, stripping the region of natural resources and pushing the local population close to starvation.
During this time, Croatia was also subjected to increasing Ottoman attacks. In 1527, Ferdinand I of the Hapsburgs became the ruler of Croatia on the condition that he would protect the country and respect their historic rights, but by the end of the 16th century, only a small region including Zagreb, Karlovac, and Varaždin remained in the hands of the Hapsburgs. The ruins of several military fortifications in this area attest to Croatia's role as a buffer between Austria and the Ottoman Empire.
Regaining the conquered land was slow going, and it was not until the end of the 17th century that the Ottoman Empire relinquished control of Hungary and much of Croatia with the Treaty of Sremski Karlovci. Croatia subsequently experienced relative stability under Empress Maria Theresa, though part of it was under Austria' jurisdiction while Slavonia was placed in Hungary' control.
Napolean conquered Venice in 1797, and he initially handed Dalmatia over to Austria, only to take it over once more in 1805. He called the region "Illyria," hinting at its ancient inhabitants, and quickly established reforms to revive the impoverished area.
In 1815, after Napoleon's empire fell, Austria once more claimed Dalmatia. Meanwhile, in Slavonia, stirring nationalist sentiments would eventually give rise to the so-called Illyrian Movement in the 1830s.
Spearheaded by some of Croatia' most significant intellectuals - among them, Ljudevit Gaj, Ivan Mažuranic, and Petar Preradovic - the Illyrian Movement celebrated Croatian culture and heritage and promoted South Slavic unification in the face of increasing Magyarization.
In 1848, the Austrian Empire errupted in revolutions, including an attempt by Hungary to gain independence. Hoping to regain some freedom from the heavy-handed rule of Hungary, Croatia sided with Austria. Eventually Austria regained control of the empire and failed to heed Croatia' requests for increased autonomy.
In 1867, the Austro-Hungarian empire was created and Croatia and Slavonia were both placed under Hungary' jurisdiction, while Dalmatia remained controled by Austria.
With the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire near the end World War I, Croatia declared its independence. After Italy seized several Dalmatian towns, including Pula and Zadar, however, Croatia quickly joined Serbia and Slovenia in the establishment the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, recognizing that it was in danger of once more being controled by larger powers.
A new consitution in 1921 called for centralized power in Belgrade, increasing unrest among the Croatian Peasant Party, lead by Stjepan Radic, who advocated for a federal democracy. Radic was mortally wounded by an assassination attempt in 1928.
In 1929, King Alexander I declared himself dictator of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. In response, Ante Pavelic established the Ustaše Croatian Liberation Movement and founded training camps in Italy, where his party plotted the violent reinstatement of an independent state.
In 1934, the Ustaše succeeded in assassinating Alexander I with the help of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, setting the stage for the German invasion of Yugoslavia in April 1941. Germany immediately established the Independent State of Croatia, a Nazi puppet state, and put the Ustaše into power. Under Pavelic, the Ustaše established extermination camps where large numbers of Jews, Serbs, Roma, and political prisoners were systematically killed.
The Ustaše regime was unpopular in many regions of Croatia, and many Croats increasingly turned to the emerging leadership of Josip Broz Tito, who fought the fascist regime with his Partisan army. Tito eventually gained the support of the Allied powers and, on October 20, 1944, entered Belgrade with his army and was named prime minister.
The Ustaše fled upon Germany's surrender in 1945. In a series of events known as the Bleiburg repatriations, thousands of NDH soldiers and civilians hoping to flee Yugoslavia were instead turned back and subsequently killed. The specifics surrounding these events and the number of victims is contested, but most estimates range from 20,000 to 60,000, including the civilians who retreated either voluntarily or by force.
Tito regained control of Dalmatia and Istria (which compelled much of their Italian population to emigrate), and Croatia formed Yugoslavia together with Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Under communism, Tito was successful in keeping the peace among these different ethnic groups, but to do so, he went to great lengths to eliminate any opposition. Many people, however, remember this time as one of stability and ease of living.
Eventually, though, Croatia became dissatisfied with some of Tito's policies, and intellectual leaders, along with student groups, soon began calling for economic reforms and greater autonomy during a movement called the "Croatian Spring." Tito responded by jailing his opponents, while many others went into exile.
In 1974, a new constitution was introduced that gave increased autonomy to the individual republics of Yugoslavia, but nationalistic tensions remained. In 1980, Tito died and left the country in an economic depression. Nationalistic stirrings began to resurface, with rising tensions and occasional violence erupting between Serbia and Croatia in early 1991.
On June 25, 1991, Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia. For the next four years, Croatia would fight for its autonomy in the Croatian War for Independence. The United Nations recognized Croatia as an independent nation in January 1992, but it would be almost four more years until the war officially ended. Over the course of the war, many of Croatia's cities were destroyed, notably Vukovar and Dubrovnik. The latter has since been almost entirely rebuilt. The total number of deaths on both sides is estimated to be 20,000.
Croatia has struggled to regain lost economic ground since the war. However, next to Slovenia, Croatia has the strongest economy of the former Yugoslav republics. Its tourist industry is once again thriving, and the number of annual visitors has recently surpassed pre-war figures.
Croatia applied for European Union membership in 2003. In a 2012 referendum, 66% of participants voted in favor of its EU accession, and Croatia became member on July 1, 2013.
Historic Zagreb was in fact not one city, but two, situated on neighboring hills. Kaptol was a clerical settlement first mentioned in 1094 when a diocese was established there. A nearby town called Gradec only began to grow after the Mongol invasion of 1242, when tax breaks established to rejuvenate the area attracted merchants and artisans.
The two towns constantly quarreled, and disagreements often ended in violence that easily crossed the small stream (now Tkalciceva Street) that ran between them. To this day in Zagreb, a side street between the modern neighborhoods of Gradec and Kaptol reminds us of these two medieval settlements. It's called Krvavi most, or "Bloody Bridge."
Eventually, the two towns put aside their differences, realizing that they would be stronger and more resistant to threats such as the advancing Ottoman army if they weren't at war themselves. As one of the few cities still standing in the face of the Ottoman onslaught, Zagreb became the capital of Croatia, though the government to move to Varazdin from 1756 to 1776.
During the 18th century, Zagreb began to develop as an economic center, and the main square, now Trg bana Jelacica, became a bustling site of commerce. The city experienced continued growth during the 19th century with the development of industry and the building of a railroad linking it with Vienna and Budapest, and the establishment of various cultural and educational institutions.
Zagreb saw another period of significant industrial growth in the 20th century between the World Wars. During World War II, Zagreb served as the capital of the Independent State of Croatia headed by Ante Pavelic, however the majority of the city supported Tito and the Partisan army.
With the establishment of Yugoslavia, Zagreb became the capital of the Socialist Republic of Croatia. During this time, the area of the city south of the Sava River, known as Novi Zagreb, rapidly expanded with the building of socialist housing.
In 1991, Croatia declared its independence with Zagreb as its capital. The city suffered several attacks during the Croatian War for Independence, but was left relatively unscathed.
Today, Zagreb is a hotbed of social and cultural activity, hosting numerous festivals, events, and exhibitions, and known for its lively café culture.
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