Coming to a foreign country, I always feel obligated to learn at least a bit about its history. Regardless of whether I’m staying for two days or two months, it is impossible to fully understand and appreciate the place and its people without knowing about their past.
With Croatia, though, I went all in because I was genuinely interested. As there is no separate class on the history of Balkan countries at Temple, I had to do a great deal of independent research on the matter. Wikipedia, tons of websites, library books, journal articles, novels – I read everything I could find, a year before going into my study abroad. Here, I will try to summarize the main points in 500 words, and answer questions, such as why people in this region are always fighting, and whether it is dangerous to travel around the former Yugoslav republics (“But there was war!,” so many people would say to me).
Originally, the lands of modern day Croatia were occupied by the Roman Empire, until “barbarians” from the north – Slavic people – came in the 7th century AD and settled down in the continental part, as well as along the coast. Other modern-day nations were formed by descendants of Slavic tribes who went into other directions, and today are known as Russians, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Ukrainians, Slovene, Bulgarians, Macedonians, and the ethnically closest to Croats – Serbians and Bosnians.
After Croats came and settled on this land, they were dependent on the Romans, and later became independent. This independence lasted for a couple centuries, until Croats formed a union with the Kingdom of Hungary, later Austro-Hungarian Empire, and so on and so forth. Their brother nations – Serbia and Bosnia – were taken over and ruled by the Turks. In the present time, it is easy to see how different but at the same time similar the nations are – different, because some were influenced by Austria-Hungary, and the others by the Ottoman Empire. Similar, because all are brother Slavic nations, no matter how hard modern nationalists try to deny the fact.
This way, Croatia hasn’t been independent for almost its entire time of existence, except for a short period of time in the Second World War. Then, the Independent State of Croatia was formed, cooperating with and endorsed by the Nazi Germany. These were dark, terrifying times for the country as a whole, and for neighboring Serbia – Serbs were massively arrested and murdered, along with Jewish people and gypsies.
Many of you might have heard about Yugoslavia and its tragic destiny. Not a lot of people know, however, that there has been two Yugoslavias – one before the WW2 (Kingdom of Yugoslavia), and the second one after (the socialist state). The Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia was formed right after the war – 1945, and was compared of 6 republics: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia. With Josip Broz Tito, the country’s leader, republics were cooperating and aiding each other with production, agriculture, education, etc. Yugoslavia has only been in close relationship with its big communist brother, the Soviet Union, for several years after the war. Joseph Stalin was a bit too radical, and their ideologies and views were colliding with Tito’s. Therefore, Yugoslavia took a winning position between the West and the East, both geographically and politically. This was especially beneficial, for both the country’s leaders and the citizens, who were allowed to freely travel and move in and out of the country.
Tito was the only common ground, the only ‘national hero’, who united the republics. After his death in 1980, things started to go downhill, until the 1990s – when republics, one after another, declared independence from at that moment the ruling one – Serbia. This declaration of independence resulted in a horrifying conflict, known as the second bloodiest European war in the 20th century, after WW2. Brother went after brother, neighbors in formerly good relationships would not talk to each other, because one was a Serb and another a Slovene. The pain and losses the countries had to suffer in this incident can still be felt, even in Zagreb – I pass by buildings with marks from bullets on them. Bosnia suffered most of all though, as a country in between the two main rivals – Serbia and Croatia.
It has been 20 years since the war ended. Not too long ago, not too little either. Croatia has joined NATO and the EU, together with Slovenia. It is due to enter Schengen zone this year. Other republics have not joined the European Union, each due to different reasons. Traveling wise though, one is perfectly safe doing a Balkan journey, at any time of the year. The dangerous times are long gone – and I wouldn’t say I have ever felt unsafe anywhere around here. Not a tiny millimeter less safe than in, say, Poland nowadays.
Because the Balkan countries have so much common history – I am not even talking about origins – I think it is absolutely necessary to study all, in order to understand one. That is why my main goal while here is not only to explore Croatia, but to visit all 6 former Yugoslav republics.