Croatia has been a country since 1992. The region, however, has played a significant role in culture, conflicts and trade since Roman times. Although it was not called Croatia, the history of this traditionally prosperous but often war-torn area goes back to before the common era. What follows is a very brief overview.
Croatian history intersects with the rest of Europe near Split, in the town of Solin, where Roman forces established a colony in 229 BCE. Intent on conquering the native Illyrians, the Romans expanded their empire through the Dalmatian coast and east into Bosnia under the command of Emperor Augustus.
Emperor Diocletian retired to Split in 285 AD and Croatia remained under Roman rule for 110 years, until the empire split. Serbia, Macedonia and Kosovo went to the Byzantine Empire while Slovenia, Bosnia and Croatia became part of the Western Roman Empire.
Slavic tribes from Poland migrated south in 625 and settled in Serbia and Croatia and over the next few hundred years the tribes became Christianized. The Dalmatian duke Tomislav eventually brought both groups together to form a single kingdom that lasted for two hundred years, but fell when an empty throne left a vacuum of power and competition for power weakened the nation as a whole.
By the 12th century, Croatia had to unite with Hungary in order to protect itself from the Orthodox Byzantine Empire.
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Years of fighting, beginning with the Tatar invasion in 1242, decimated Hungary and Croatia. Turkish forces claimed territory in the Balkans in 1389 and Hungary in 1526 and Croatia again turned north for protection.
This time uniting with Austria, Croatia and Serbia formed a zone along the Bosnian border to hold off Turkish invasions. Although Serbia entered this military action voluntarily, Croatia remained part of the Austrian Empire until 1918.
Intermittent Venetian control of the Dalmatian coast began in the 12th century and became permanent in the 15th century after hundreds of years of changing hands during battles and invasions. Dubrovnik is famous as being the only city in Croatia to have maintained its independence during this period, but in 1808, after Dalmatia and the surrounding areas had been conquered by Napoleon and renamed the “Illyrian Provinces,” the Republic of Ragusa (Dubrovnik), was abolished.
After having been conquered and reconquered so many times in its history, Croatian culture began to establish itself in the mid 1800’s. Control of the region was transferred to Hungary from Austria and the area took on some autonomy.
Austria’s defeat in WWI granted control of Croatia to newly formed Yugoslavia with its capital in Belgrade. Croatians resisted this transfer of power, but their efforts to stop it proved fruitless. During this time, Italy controlled much of the northern territory and the Istria peninsula.
Germany controlled the southern portion of Croatia and much of Yugoslavia through a puppet government set up after the invasion in 1941 and extermination of Serbs similar to the Nazi’s campaign against Jews in Europe began. While the government pushed Serbs out of Serbia and killed those that remained, a portion of Croatians led by Marshal Tito joined the communist forces and fought against the fascist government.
Tito became the Prime Minister of the Yugoslav Federation after WWII and economic tensions alienated different ethnic groups and regions of the country. A decline in economic prospects led to calls for an autonomous Croatia and after Slobodan Milosevic brought Serbian nationalism to a new high, the communist government of Croatia was defeated in an election.
With the Croatian Democratic Union in power, the Croatian constitution was rewritten not to guarantee Serbian rights as a national minority and tensions between the two groups escalated yet again. Croatia’s declaration of independence in 1991 prompted a declaration of Serbian independence and fighting broke out and lasted for six months.
In 1992, the European Community recognized Croatia as a country and the country was accepted into the United Nations. The arrival of 1993 saw another offensive by Croatia into the Serbian Krajina territory and later that year, the Krajina Serbs became part of greater Bosnia. Between 1993 and 1995, Croats living in Krajina suffered continued ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Serbs and in May 1995 the fighting resumed. Croatia recaptured several points near Zagreb and later attacked the Serbian capital of Knin. With the Serbian army retreating, Croatia was granted the territory it has today and solidified its borders. As part of the peace treaty, Croatia agreed to allow refugees to return and although confidence in the promised lack of retribution was slow, Serbian refugees have slowly started to return.