Modern Croatia only became independent in 1991, but although it may be one of Europe’s youngest states, it has existed in some capacity since the 10th century. The medieval Kingdom of Croatia only lasted roughly 200 years (925-1102), but ever since then, Croatia, under foreign kings and emperors and part of multinational states, has persevered. As a people, the Croats never disappeared, like so many other peoples that came and went throughout history.
The Croats first entered what is today Croatia sometime between the 6th and 9th centuries, coming from the northeast like many migratory European groups at that time. During this time they were originally decentralized before being ruled by dukes starting in the early 9th century. The first duke we know of was Borna (r. c. 810-821), who is listed in the Royal Frankish Annals as the Duke of Dalmatia. The Croats were nominally under Byzantine or Frankish control during the 8th and 9th centuries, with the Byzantine Empire still controlling the Adriatic coast and Charlemagne having entered the area to destroy the Avars in modern day Hungary.
According to the Byzantine text De Administrando Imperio, the Croats began to convert to Christianity during this early period as well. This Christianization benefited Duke Branimir (r. 879-892), who broke with Byzantium (and the Byzantine church) and had Croatia recognized by Pope John VIII in 879. The Pope’s recognition had significant power in the Middle Ages, and this made Croatia independent for the first time. In 925, the Pope raised the status of Croatia, giving its then duke, Tomislav I (r. 910-928), the title of king.
The Kingdom of Croatia
The House of Trpimirović, Tomislav’s dynasty, continued to rule the Kingdom of Croatia for the next 163 years after his death. Tomislav united the two separate Croat groups in Pannonia and Dalmatia and made a military alliance with the Byzantine Empire, which countered some of the expansionist endeavors of the powerful Bulgarian ruler Simeon I. Croat culture started to solidify over this period, with one of the earliest examples of Croatian text, the Baška tablet, being carved during the reign of Demetrius Zvonimir (r. 1075-1089).
But disaster struck in 1091. Stephen II (r. 1089-1091) came to the throne as an old man and died two years later without any heirs. The House of Trpimirović died with him. Helen, the widow of Demetrius Zvonimir and the sister of the Hungarian king Ladislaus I, tried to maintain power, and the Croatian nobles that supported her called in Ladislaus to assist them. Two years later, in 1093, other Croatian lords elected Petar Svačić as their king. Laudislaus died in 1095, and his successor, Coloman, fought Petar at the Battle of Gvozd Mountain. Petar was killed in battle. It took a further five years to win over the rest of the Croat nobles, but in 1102 Ladislaus was crowned King of Hungary, Dalmatia, and Croatia.
A Millennium of Foreign Rule
Croatia remained a distinct crown, but its independence was lost. It was ruled by Hungarian kings until 1526, when Lajos II, the last independent king of Hungary, was killed at the Battle of Mohács by Ottoman forces. Hungary quickly fell to the Ottomans. Croatia, still in personal union with the Hungarian crown, opted for rule by the Habsburg Dynasty of Austria, which also claimed the Hungarian throne. Austria would later conquer Hungary from the Ottomans and Croatia remained in personal union with the Hungarian crown.
Following the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), nationalist thought began to seep into Croatia, which promoted a unique Croatian culture and identity. Despite this new sense of identity, the Croats decided to side with the Austrian Habsburg authorities during the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. Josip Jelačić, the Ban of Croatia, or the head of government in Croatia, led Croatian forces against the Hungarian rebels.
At the end of World War I, the Croatian parliament declared its independence but it joined the new Kingdom of the Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs, soon to be known as Yugoslavia. Tensions between the Serbs and Croats were high throughout this period. When the Axis powers took over Yugoslavia in 1941 during World War II, they set up Croatia as an independent state, although in reality it was a Nazi puppet state, complete with its own king, Tomislav II, who was the son of the King of Italy.
In 1944 and 1945, the Yugoslav partisans took over the country and after much bloodshed Croatia was reintegrated into Yugoslavia. Tito (r. 1945-1980) kept ethnic tensions in Yugoslavia at bay, but after his death the situation deteriorated rapidly. In 1991, Croatia declared its independence and after another bout of intense bloodshed, was recognized as independent by Yugoslavia in 1995.
Although the Croats were dormant for nearly a millennium, they never disappeared. They were always a recognized entity, whether as the Hungarian controlled Kingdom of Croatia, the Nazi-puppet Independent State of Croatia, or as a constituent people inside Yugoslavia. As a now independent country, Croatia’s medieval predecessor serves as an important source of national memory. Tokens of recognition to the Croatian rulers of the Middle Ages are found throughout the country. The example of Croatia shows the power of culture and that even when dormant, it can rise to power once again.