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Croatia: A Nation Forged in War

Croatia: A Nation Forged in War

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by Marcus Tanner

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From the ashes of former Yugoslavia an independent Croatian state has arisen, the fulfilment, in the words of President Franjo Tudjman, of the Croats' "1000 old dream of independence". Yet few countries in Europe have been born amid such bitter controversy and bloodshed: the savage war between pro-independence forces and the Yugoslav army left about one-third of the


From the ashes of former Yugoslavia an independent Croatian state has arisen, the fulfilment, in the words of President Franjo Tudjman, of the Croats' "1000 old dream of independence". Yet few countries in Europe have been born amid such bitter controversy and bloodshed: the savage war between pro-independence forces and the Yugoslav army left about one-third of the country in ruins and resulted in the flight of a quarter of a million of the country's Serbian minority. In this book a journalist who witnessed much of the war from Sarajevo and Zagreb traces the rise, fall and rebirth of Croatia from its medieval origins to today's tentative peace. Marcus Tanner describes the creation of the first Croatian kingdom; its absorption into feudal Hungary in the middle age; Croatia's reduction to a tiny sliver of territory after the Ottoman invasion; the absorption of this fragment into Habsburg Austria; the evolution of modern Croatian nationalism after the French Revolution; and the circumstances that propelled Croatia into the arms of Nazi Germany and the brutal, home-grown "Ustashe" movement in the World War II. Finally, drawing on interviews with many of the leading figures in today's affairs, Tanner explains the failure of Tito's communists to "kill home rule by kindness" by turning Yugoslavia into a federal state, and Yugoslavia's violent implosion after his death.

Editorial Reviews

David Rieff
[This] brave and compelling book will remain valid for many years to come.
Toronto Globe and Mail
Aleska Djilas
A much-needed introduction to this southern Slavic country, whose past and present defy simple categorization. —New York Times Book Review
A good historical survey and an account of the war’s causes.
Melanie McDonagh
Lucid and accessible. —Evening Standard
Times Higher Education Supplement
Readable and stimulating. . . . Long-overdue corrective to the one-sidedly negative view long entertained about Croatia by the educated British public.
Publishers Weekly - Cahners\\Publishers_Weekly
Rather than just focusing on the years since the break up of Yugoslavia, or the death of Tito, Tanner, correspondent for London's Independent, has reached further back in history. In 1519, Pope Leo X described Croatia as the Antemurale Christianitatis, the 'Ramparts of Christendom' and a little later, it was saddled by the Hapsburgs with a physical manifestation of that position, the Krajina, a border of castles manned primarily by Serbs. This swathe of militant Serbs would define much of the country's history, this, and its long experience of foreign domination. There was constant tension with Hungary which claimed suzerainty over Croatia, and Tanner describes in great detail the unsuccessful attempts to Hungarianize Croatia. The South Slav movement of the late 19th century finally resulted in 1918 when Croatia became part of the South Slav Federation; however, by the mid-30s, old animosities between Serbs and Croats resurfaced. A few days after Germany declared war on Yugoslavia, the fascist Croatian nationalists, the Ustashe, began their brutal rule under the Nezavisna Drzava Hrvatska (Independent State of Croatia or NDH). During the NDH, the Serbs suffered huge losses -- though exactly how many died, is indeterminable with claims ranging from 50,000 - 600,000. Still, when Tito (himself half-Slovene, half-Croatian) and his Partisans prevailed at the end of the war, they retaliated, killing at least 30,000 NDH soldiers. The final impression of this very accessible and consistently engrossing history is not optimistic. The brief period of Yugoslavian unity would seem to be an authoritarian anomaly, but for now, at least, division seems mandated by centuries of hatred.
The Economist
[Tanner] brings to bear wide knowledge of Yugoslavia and. . .experience of Europe's worst war since 1945. He gives a good historical survey and an account of the wars causes.
Kirkus Reviews
This survey of Croatian history fills in some gaps but falls short where readers most need guidance—in understanding the nature of President Franjo Tudjman's government and the Croatian Serbs' early fear of it. Tanner (Ticket to Latvia) served as Balkan correspondent for London's Independent during the heady years from 1988 to 1993. Reflecting the book's subtitle, he emphasizes the sacrifices Croatia has made to win independence, ranging from medieval times to the present, thereby implicitly portraying Croatia as a victim in a war with no recognized innocents: 'Apart from Bosnia,' he asserts, 'no other state in Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union suffered such material destruction and loss of life on the road to statehood.' Tanner's prose is generally fluid; his narrative, drawing on most of the standard secondary sources, suffers from a surprising lack of inside information or anecdotes. Even the chapters on recent events rely primarily on published sources. The most important error of judgment on Tanner's part is his reluctance until the book's final pages to write unambiguously about the less pleasant aspects of Croatian history. Until his description of recent Croatian atrocities in the Bosnian war, Tanner adopts a glib and evasive approach to important aspects of Croatia's past and present: Tudjman's anti-Semitism and his fascist-sounding remarks are presented as attempts to make 'concessions to the extreme right of a symbolic nature.' He devotes a mere paragraph to the Jasenovac concentration camp, the central symbol of post-war Croatian Serb fears. Gruesome details about the camp, widely available, are reduced to the observation that during therecent war 'the executions were frequently messy affairs.' While correctly noting that the Serb question will long haunt Croatia, Tanner never explores the ways in which Croatia might have allayed Serb fears and gained a peaceful path to independence. A superficial study lacking rigor and clarity.

Boston Globe
"Two fine and well-written works....The authors, British journalists who covered the Yugoslav wars, are well worth reading. Their respective accounts give insights into the historical baggage the Yugoslav ethnic groups brought to their latest convulsions."—Dusko Doder, Boston Globe

— Dusko Doder

Boston Globe - Dusko Doder
"Two fine and well-written works....The authors, British journalists who covered the Yugoslav wars, are well worth reading. Their respective accounts give insights into the historical baggage the Yugoslav ethnic groups brought to their latest convulsions."—Dusko Doder, Boston Globe

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A Nation Forged in War
By Marcus Tanner

Yale University Press

Copyright © 1998 Marcus Tanner
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0300076681

Chapter One

'The Unfaithful Croats'

He cursed the unfaithful Croats and their descendants before God and all the saints for his violent death, saying the Croats should never again have a ruler of their own tongue but should always be under foreign rule.

In the village of Nin, where the dry rocky Karst of the Dalmatian hinterland meets the Adriatic Sea, stands a small, cruciform church. Squat and of simple dimensions it looks ancient and indeed is so, dating from the ninth century at the earliest and the eleventh century at the latest. It is said that the Church of the Holy Cross of Nin was built in such a way that the rays of the setting sun would fall on the baptismal font on the feast day of St Ambrose, the patron saint of the Benedictines of Nin. The font, known as Viseslav's font after the ninth-century Croatian ruler who was baptised in it, and inscribed in Latin 'Here the weak man is brought to light', has been removed to a museum. But the dedicatory inscription to a local ruler or zupan by the name of Godesav, or Godecav, remains by the entrance.

If a nation can be said to have a centre, then the Church of the Holy Cross of Nin has a good claim to fulfil that function for the Croats. In this region the Croats settled in the seventh century. Here its first rulers built their homes and fashioned houses of worship. Here the Croat leaders accepted the Christian religion from Rome that has been a continuous thread running through the vicissitudes of their history. The Holy Cross of Nin, the much larger church of St Donat in Zadar, the Church of St Nicholas on the island of Brac and perhaps a hundred chapels or funeral monuments are practically all that remain to bear witness to the life and vitality of the old kingdom of Croatia which came to an end at the close of the eleventh century and whose architectural legacy was largely destroyed in the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century. Those early dukes and kings we glimpse through a glass darkly, in fragments of sculpture on church walls, on fonts and on tombs. They are shadowy figures moving in and out of focus, occasionally falling under the spotlight at a moment of brilliant clarity, only to recede back into the darkness of which we know nothing. They have left few traces of their turbulent reigns. To our eye they would appear colourful indeed. This we know from opened funeral caskets of early Croatian womenfolk, Byzantine-looking in heavy gold earrings and jewellery. Among their relics are the grave of Queen Jelena in the Church of Our Lady of the Islands near Split and the font of Duke Viseslav. In the Church of St Michael of Ston is a rare surviving portrait of one of these early Croatian rulers -- a depiction of the church's royal patron with his donation in the palm of his hand. But Croatian history did not begin with the baptism of Viseslav in about 800. By that time Croats had been settled in the Balkan peninsula and on the shores of the Adriatic for almost a century and a half.

The Croats are a Slav people in spite of their name, which points to a separate Iranian or Ostrogothic source. At the beginning of the fourth century, when the Roman Empire was falling into decay, the Croats lived alongside other Slavic tribes in the marshy, flat lands north of the Carpathian mountains, between the Dnieper, the Dniester, the Pripet and the Vistula, an area covered today approximately by the Ukraine, Poland and Belarus. In this swampy domain, later called White Croatia, they had little contact with Roman civilisation, for they were several hundred miles north of the nearest Roman provinces of Dacia, Moesia, Scythia and Pannonia. As far as is known the Slavs of that region were a settled, pastoral people who hoed fields with ploughs, raised livestock, kept bees and lived in clans -- plemena. Some may have lived communally in extended families, for the southern Slavs for centuries clung to the system of extended families and property held in common, known as the zadruga. The Slavs appear to have had their own princely rulers and to have respected the principle of primogeniture, as the notion of hereditary succession was established among the Croats by the time they settled in Pannonia and Dalmatia. The Croats also divided their new country rapidly into zupe (counties), which suggests they brought these administrative divisions with them from White Croatia.

Little is known about their religion, as the pre-Christian Croats did not write and therefore left no written evidence. Nor did they leave behind religious monuments. Speculation about early Slav belief systems is based on fragmentary evidence from Byzantine and Arab sources. But this relates to Bulgars or Russians, and there is no certainty that pagan Russians and Bulgars held the same beliefs, or practiced the same rites, as did the Croats. No one is even sure which was the chief deity in their pantheon. Perhaps it was not much more than an affair of rituals carried out in groves and on hilltops with the odd sacrifice.

The Croats may have lived under the lordship of nomadic Hunnic, Germanic or Asiatic rulers in their old homeland, from whom they got their name, for the word Horvat or Hrvat is not of Slavic origin -- a source of frequent scholastic controversy. Some Croat scholars have opted for the Iranian theory, pointing to Greek accounts of the Horvatos, or Horoatos, a community of Iranians who lived at the mouth of the Don around 200 BC. Partisans of this theory refer also to a region of Iran that the ancient Persians called Harahvatis. Others believe the Croats are an amalgam of Slavs and Ostrogoths, as the Ostrogoths certainly were present in Dalmatia before the Slavs arrived. All agree, more or less, that the Croats were a Slavic, or mostly Slavic, tribe by the time they left their old homeland, moved south across the Danube and the Sava in the seventh century and settled in the Balkan peninsula.

The Croats migrated into the Roman province of Illyricum, which was later divided into the provinces of Dalmatia and Pannonia, during the decay of the Roman Empire, when Avars and other barbarian tribes were laying waste the cities of the empire. By 396 St Jerome, whose home in Stridon may have been the town of Zrenj, in Istria, was complaining of Goths rampaging in the vicinity, saying, 'bishops have been captured, priests killed, horses tied to Christ's altars and martyrs' relics cast around. Everywhere there is sorrow, horror and the image of death.'

After the division of the empire into two halves in 395, the province of Dalmatia (which extended north beyond the modern borders of Dalmatia to the River Sava and eastwards to the Drina) was assigned first to the western portion of the empire. But from 480 it belonged to the eastern Byzantine Empire. Byzantine lordship over Dalmatia did little to protect the coastal cities of Dalmatia from attacks by nomadic Avars, who had made their base in the Pannonian plain. It was during the time of these Avar invasions that the Slavs, Croats among them, made their first tentative moves south of the Danube into the Balkans. At first they came for the purpose of raiding. Later they came in greater numbers with a view to permanent settlement. Sometimes the Croats and other Slav tribes joined the Avars in their destructive rampages. On other occasions Byzantium's hard-pressed rulers persuaded the Slavs to attack the Avars. There is no agreement over the date and pace of the Croats' 1,000-mile migration to the south. The uncovering of convincing evidence for the existence of White Croatia has discredited the ninteenth-century theory that this great migration never occurred at all but there are still disagreements over whether it took place after the fall of Salona, between 614 and 630, or around 795, at the time of the war between the Franks and the Avars.

It was probably a very long-drawn-out movement of peoples. Huw Evans' exhaustive study of the archaeological remains of the early Croats notes that:

the Slavic migration, or invasion, has the quality of seeping treacle, a slow, steady and unordered advance, a movement that had no specific objective, but nonetheless continuously moved forward .... The rate of arrival of the Slavs may have been such that the first-comers, although facing a largely collapsed civilisation, were strongly affected by the contact [with it, whereas] groups of Slavs who arrived later would have been less subject to the influence of late antique culture....

The Croats migrated into a deteriorating landscape. Until then, the Roman cities on the Dalmatian coast had been largely bypassed by barbarian raiders, thanks to the high mountains of the Dalmatian interior. In the long period of peace that followed Rome's piecemeal subjugation of the Illyrian inhabitants of Dalmatia, between 240 BC and the failed Illyrian revolt in the first decade AD, some of these cities grew large. Chief among them was Salona, near Split, which the Byzantine Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus (905-59) described as being half the size of Constantinople.

By the time the Croats moved into the Balkans, Salona had evolved into the principal Christian bishopric in the region, becoming an archbishopric in about 527. Jadera, or Diadora (Zadar), certainly had become a bishopric by the fourth century, when Felix represented the see at the Council of Milan. The other towns, Epidaurum, near Dubrovnik, Trogir, Aeona (Nin) and Julia Parentium (Porec), were also towns of substance, enriched with amphitheatres, forums, basilicas and triumphal arches. The countryside around these towns was not Romanised, however. The inhabitants of the interior were either Illyrians or members of other tribes who were settled in the region by the Roman government.

The attacks of the Avars and the Slavs dealt a severe blow to these besieged outposts of a dying civilisation. In 600 Pope Gregory wrote an anguished letter to Maximus, the Bishop of Salona, near Split, expressing his sorrow and impotence over the continual raids, and saying that he 'shared his grief about the Slavs'. But the Pope's commiserations availed Salona nothing. Between 614 and 630 the Avars descended on the city and sacked it before moving down the Adriatic coast to destroy Epidaurum, Narona (Metkovic) and other towns.

The Latin inhabitants of these ruined cities fled for sanctuary to the Adriatic islands off the coast. As a peace of sorts returned, many of them made their way back to the mainland, where they laid the foundations of two new cities. In central Dalmatia, the refugees from Salona moved into the vast, ruined palace of the Emperor Diocletian, located a few miles away from Salona at Spalato.

In this giant hulk with its vast walls, sixteen towers, huge mausoleum, reception halls, libraries, cavernous underground cellars and hundreds of other rooms, the survivors of the barbarian onslaught created the city of Split. They converted the mausoleum of this notorious persecutor of Christians into a cathedral and dedicated it to St Duje, after Bishop Domnius of Salona, one of the victims of Diocletian's purges. The watchtower over the main entrance was converted into small churches, two of which, St Martin's and Our Lady of the Belfry, survive. The refugees from Epidaurum moved a short distance down the coast and founded another new city, which was to become known as Ragusa, or Dubrovnik.

It was during this time of upheavals that the Croats settled in Pannonia and Dalmatia. It seems certain they had settled in Dalmatia by the middle of the seventh century, as Pope John IV despatched an abbot named Martin to Dalmatia with money to ransom the Latin Christian refugees and instructions to engage the region's new Slav settlers in dialogue. Martin returned to Rome after visiting several areas of Dalmatia, which suggests that the region was already safe enough to travel around in. Abbot Martin's journey tallies with the tenth-century account of the Emperor Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperio, which was intended as a briefing on the empire for the attention of his son and heir. Porphyrogenitus said that the Croats had not come as invaders, but had been invited, indeed ordered, into the Balkans by his predecessor, the Emperor Heraclius, following the sacking of Salona, and with the purpose of relieving the empire of the murderous assaults of the Avars.

The Emperor claimed that the Croats had been led by seven siblings. He also said the Croats had been heretics or Arians until their reception into mainstream Christianity later in the seventh century. Porphyrogenitus' claim that the Croats were invited into Dalmatia is contradicted by the fact that the Byzantine-controlled cities of the coast were forced to pay tribute to them. The story of the 'invitation' was most probably an attempt to rationalise an invasion that the empire had been unable to prevent.

The Croats fanned out over a wide area when they crossed the Danube. Some remained on the Pannonian plain and mingled with other, earlier Slav settlers, from which the terms Slovinska Zemlja (Slovenia) and Slavonija (Slavonia) eventually developed. The majority, grouped in seven or eight clans, journeyed south towards the Adriatic, into Dalmatia and Istria. There, on the coast, they encountered the wrecked remains of Salona and Epidaurum and the newer Latin communities which were rising out of the marshes at Ragusa and the old imperial palace at Spalato, or Split. The other Dalmatian towns, Jadera (Zadar), Aeona (Nin) and Tragurium (Trogir), appear not to have been destroyed by barbarian invaders. In the anarchic conditions of the seventh century these towns had been left to fend for themselves. They would still have appeared highly civilised to the Slav immigrants settling outside their walls.

The new Slav settlers were not simple barbarians in the way the Avars appear to have been. They did not attack these enfeebled outposts of imperial civilisations, even though they probably could have done. Instead, they imitated and tried to absorb them. They took up the Roman names for towns and modified them. Thus Senia became Senj, and Salona -- what was left of it -- Solin. In the interior of Dalmatia the Slavs would have come across the remnants of the Illyrians and the tribes who had been settled there by the Romans. These natives were pushed out of the coastal areas and forced into the hills. They may have been the ancestors of the Vlachs, nomadic pastoral communities which reappeared in the Middle Ages and were not related to the Croats.

As the Byzantine Empire recovered its strength from the sixth century under Justinian, its influence revived over the Dalmatian cities of Dubrovnik, Split, Zadar and the Adriatic islands, which formed a Byzantine unit of administration known as the archonate. The growing influence of Byzantium was also felt among the Croatian clans which had settled in the interior of Dalmatia, for they accepted the lordship of the Emperor Constantine II Pogonatus in 678.

The seven or eight Croat clans in Dalmatia each occupied a certain region, which they subdivided into zupe (counties) ruled by a zupan (ruler or sheriff). The overall ruler of several zupe was the knez (prince). The southernmost area of Croat settlement, which became known as Red Croatia, comprised three such dukedoms or principalities. One of these, Dioclea, evolved into Montenegro, while a second, Zahumlya, or just Hum, was later called Herzegovina. According to the great Croat historian, Vjekoslav Klaic, it was the clan that occupied the heartland of Dalmatia, between the River Cetina in the north, the Velebit mountains in the west and the plain of Duvno in the south, which carried the clan name Hrvat (Croat), on account of which the region was known as White Croatia -- Bijela Hrvatska. The names of the other Slav clans were lost. Not every local prince was known as a knez. Klaic maintained that the ruler of the region surrounding Bihac appears to have held the title of ban and that, after the victory of the Croat knez over the ban, the term was absorbed into Croat political culture, the ban henceforth occupying a position second only to the prince. 'When in subsequent centuries the Croat princes and kings spread their authority into other regions, throughout the conquered regions they introduced bans as their deputies,' he wrote.

In 800 the Frankish armies of Charlemagne added Dalmatia to their domains. Byzantium recognised this change of lordship in the Treaty of Aachen in 812, retaining the cities of Zadar, Trogir and Split and the islands of Krk, Rab and Osor, which were governed as a theme (province) by a Byzantine representative in Zadar. In Dalmatia the principal result of Frankish rule was the evangelisation of the Croat rulers; some may have become Christian before the ninth century, but if they did so they left no trace in the form of stone churches, although it is possible they built wooden structures which have completely perished. Some Croats must have been Christian already, for the worlds of the Croats and the Latin cities were not hermetically sealed off from each other. But the rulers were either not Christian or of no fixed religion until the mass baptisms of the Frankish era, which are commemorated in Viseslav's baptismal font.

The Croat princes did not resist Charlemagne's rule. But when he died in 814, and was succeeded by his son, Louis the Pious, northern, Pannonian Croatia revolted unsuccessfully between 819 and 822 under the local ruler, Ljudevit. The Dalmatian ruler, Borna, opposed the rebellion, which suggests that the local Croat rulers were politically divided at the time. And it was Dalmatia, with its adjacent seaboard network of civilised Latin towns, which led the way towards the creation of a more modern state. One sign of the development of Croat society in Dalmatia was the adoption of more sophisticated titles. Vladislav, who ruled from 821 to 830, styled himself Duke of the Croatians and Dalmatians, and it was during his rule that we hear for the first time of a new bishopric being founded at Nin.

The Nin bishopric was a crucial development for the Croats. Later, it took centre-stage in a struggle between champions of an autonomous Croat national Church and those who favoured subordination in all matters to Rome. In the early days, Nin was a small, Latin town and the first bishop, Theodosius, was from Syria. But it developed quickly into a centre of Slav resistance to the centralising tendencies of Rome. The remarkable Bishop Grgur, or Gregory, promoted Nin as an ecclesiastical capital for the embryonic Croatian state, contesting the claims of the Latin bishoprics on the coast, and especially those of the archbishopric of Split.

Under Vladislav's successors, Mislav (830-45) and Trpimir (845-63), the Dalmatian-Croatian dukedom expanded, although it remained under the ultimate sovereignty of the Franks. A Bulgarian army was defeated at Zvornik, in eastern Bosnia, which secured the wildernesses and forests of the interior of Dalmatia (what we would now call central Bosnia), for the Croat state. Another sign of the developing civilisation of the Croat rulers, and of their desire to strengthen ties with the West, was the decision by Trpimir to invite the Benedictine order into his domains. A Saxon Benedictine, Gottschalk, spent two years at Trpimir's court between about 846 and 848 before being summoned to Mainz on charges of heresy, and it was probably thanks to Gottschalk's influence that in 850-2 the first Benedictine monastery in the Croat lands was built at Rizinica, near Klis.

The Croats in Dalmatia were building their own churches by this stage and the few structures that survived the Mongol invasion of the fourteenth century, such as St Donat in Zadar, illustrate the vigour of the new culture. These were not only crude imitations of the structures they saw in the Latin cities but displayed considerable originality of design. A characteristic feature of early Croat art was the decorative use of winding and interwoven patterns carved on to stone, above doorways, on fonts and on other precious objects. This art form, which is known as plaitwork, bears a strong resemblance to early Celtic art. The Croats may have brought it with them from White Croatia, or learned it from the old Illyrian inhabitants of Dalmatia.

Little is known of life at the courts of the Croatian dukes, though the charters they handed to various bishops and monasteries cast light on Croatia's progress towards a feudal society.

Duke Trpimir's presentation of the Church of the Blessed George to the Archbishop of Split refers very precisely to the amount of land that was being presented along with the church, and to gifts of slaves, for example. Other documents, concerning a dispute over the ownership of that church between the Bishop of Nin and the Archbishop of Split, refer to Mutimir's (892-910) retinue of cup-bearers, chamberlains and chaplains. It is clear from these documents that Croat society had already developed a class structure and that the Croats now had a strong sense of land ownership.

Trpimir's son, Zdeslav (878-9), succeeded to the throne with the support of the Byzantine Emperor Basil I. Zdeslav launched the first and last attempt by a Croat ruler to detach the Croat Church from Western Christendom and accept Byzantine jurisdiction. The move was not popular. Although the Croat dukes and the Dalmatian cities acknowledged the political sovereignty of the Byzantine emperors, their ecclesiastical loyalty was to Rome. Zdeslav was murdered within a year. His successor, Branimir (879-92), reversed the decision and returned Croatia to the Roman obedience.

Under Mutimir's successor, Tomislav (910-c. 929), the early Croatian state reached its zenith. Tomislav united Dalmatia with Pannonia and upgraded his title from that of duke to king with the permission of the Pope. As a result he became lord of a substantial state, roughly covered by modern Croatia, Bosnia and the coast of Montenegro. After allying with Byzantium against Bulgaria, Byzantium then ceded Tomislav sovereignty over the theme of Dalmatian cities and islands.

The rise of Croatia under Tomislav excited the admiration of his contemporaries; Porphyrogenitus described Croatia as a great military power, which was capable of fielding more than 100,000 footsoldiers and a fleet little smaller than that of Venice. The reference to 100,000 soldiers must have been a great exaggeration, but it suggests that Croatia was seen as a substantial military power. Considering the scale of his alleged achievements, Tomislav is a curiously opaque figure. It is not known when, where or how he died. And another curious matter is that although Porphyrogenitus lauded the Croats' military strength, De Administrando Imperio does not refer to Tomislav by name. According to legend he was crowned on the Field of Duvno (Tomislavgrad) in 925. But no one knows precisely when, or whether this event really took place. Like many early Croat rulers, Tomislav fades in and out of the picture. He was certainly present at the height of the power struggle between Grgur of Nin and the archbishopric of Split, which was to have such important consequences for the future of the Croatian Church. Yet, in this crucial dispute, Tomislav's role is unknown and no one knows whether he influenced the outcome.

The conflict between the bishops of Nin and Split was no mere turf battle. It involved vital ethnic, cultural and geo-political issues, pitting Slavs against Latins, and the primitive semi-democratic traditions of the Slavs against the rigid feudal system of Western Europe. At the core of the dispute was the use of the Glagolitic script and the Slav tongue in the Mass. According to popular legend, the Glagolitic script was invented by St Jerome. It is more probable that Glagolitic, like its more successful rival, Cyrillic, originated in the south-east Balkans, most probably from the region of Thessaloniki. The route by which the script reached Croatia was tortuous and is a subject of scholastic controversy. One theory is that it was introduced to Western Europe by the Byzantine missionaries, Constantine (St Cyril) and Methodius, who arrived in Moravia in 863 at the invitation of the local ruler, Rastislav, bringing with them liturgical books written in the Glagolitic script. Three years later they escorted the first batch of prospective clergy from Moravia to Rome for ordination. Their activities aroused furious opposition from the Latin party, supported by the Germans, who resented any support being given to Slav culture and insisted that the only languages permissible for divine service were Latin, Greek or Hebrew. Nevertheless, Pope Hadrian received them cordially and ordained the Slav clergy. Cyril remained in Rome, where he died in 869. As the German clergy gained the upper hand in Moravia it became impossible for Methodius to return to Moravia, but the Pope appointed him to the revived Roman see of Sirmium (Srijem). Methodius' troubles at the hands of the Germans were no concern of the Croats. Yet it appears that his script somehow reached Croatia and gained a foothold in Dalmatia, especially in the Slav bishopric of Nin.

In Dalmatia the use of the Glagolitic script and the Mass in the vernacular became very popular among the expanding number of Croat priests, championed by Grgur of Nin. As with King Tomislav, there are disappointingly few personal details about Bishop Grgur. We know that he defended the use of Glagolitic script and the Mass in the vernacular, and that his ambition was for Nin to become the leading see in a Croatian Church which included the cities of Dalmatia. But the Latin bishops on the coast cherished their direct ties to the see of Rome, and reinforced their claim to ecclesiastical independence from the Croats by putting forward a variety of new spiritual claims. The archbishops of Split began to insist on the 'apostolic' status of their see on the strength of a claim that St Peter had sent St Domnius, known as St Duje, to Salona. The political agenda of the archbishops of Split was ambitious. Their goal was to revive the metropolitical jurisdiction of the old Roman bishops of Salona on behalf of the new city of Split, and so dominate what they considered were the upstart, inferior Slav bishops of the interior.

Pope John X, naturally, sided with the Latin bishops and the principle of uniformity. Everything that Grgur stood for -- the Mass in the vernacular, married clergy, beards and local scripts -- contradicted the centralising tendencies at work in early medieval Christendom. But rather than alienate the Slavs by banning the practices of the Croat Bishop on his own authority, the Pope called a synod in Split in 925 to decide the issue. Given that there were several Latin bishops, that Grgur was on his own and that Tomislav had no vote in the debate, the result was a foregone conclusion. The synod endorsed Split's claim to become the metropolitan see. Nin was humiliated. The bishopric was simply abolished, on the ground that it was a modern, Slav creation, which did not correspond to a former Roman see. Services in the vernacular were prohibited except in areas where there were no clergy who knew Latin. The rather extreme nature of the conclusions may have perturbed even the Pope, as he then invited both parties to hold another meeting.

At a second synod in 928, held again in Split, the result was exactly the same. This time Bishop Grgur was offered the revived Roman see of Skradin or that of Siscia (Sisak) in exchange for Nin. It was just an insult, as the old Roman town of Siscia had been a wilderness for centuries. Frustratingly, no more is heard of the defeated Grgur.

After the rupture between Rome and Constantinople in 1054 the papacy became ever more hostile towards the kinds of ideas represented by Grgur of Nin. The imposition of Latin services was divisive in Dalmatia, for in 1057, according to the Historia Salonitana, written by Thomas, Archdeacon of Split (1200-68), the Slav clergy revolted on the island of Krk, expelled the Latin Bishop and installed one of their own. The rising was put down with the help of the Croat King Petar Kresimir IV (1058-74), who had clearly decided to throw in his lot with the great civilisational force of Rome rather than back the Slav clergy. The rebel cleric leader, named Vulf, probably not a Croat, was brought to Dalmatia for the special entertainment of the Latin bishops, who had him tortured and killed. In 1060 a third synod, again held in Split, ordered yet more draconian measures against clergy who wore beards, who said the Mass in the vernacular or who used the 'gothic' (Glagolitic) script, in line with the decrees of the Lateran Council of 1059.

In spite of persecution, Glagolitic continued to survive in opposition to the Romanising Latin culture of the coastal cities. Rome relented a little. In 1248 Innocent IV permitted the bishops of Senj to use Croatian in the liturgy, and the Glagolitic script. As late as the sixteenth century Glagolitic enjoyed a final burst of activity as the preferred script of a school of exiled Croat Protestants, who produced, among other things a Glagolitic New Testament in the German city of Tubingen in 1562. But Glagolitic had lost the battle to become the national script of the Croats, and in the seventeenth century this hardy Dalmatian survivor withered in the face of the cultural onslaught of Venice.

The Kulturkampf in Croatia over Glagolitic weakened the cause of the embryonic Croatian state. If Grgur of Nin had won his battle, the whole of Croatia would have come under a single ecclesiastical jurisdiction, a development that would have greatly boosted royal authority. As it was, the most powerful ecclesiastics in Dalmatia remained outside the Croat King's control.

The other shadow that cast a pall over Tomislav's reign was the rise of Hungary in the north. The Magyars had ensconced themselves in the sixth century on the Pannonian plain, which earlier had been held by the Avars. They soon made their influence felt. Like the Avars they started out as a roaming, destructive force, conquering Basel in 917, burning Bremen a year later and criss-crossing the Alps, the Rhone, Bavaria and Burgundy, leaving a trail of havoc behind them. Once they settled down in their stronghold on the Danube and the Tisza it was inevitable that they would cast a covetous eye on the Croatian lands to the south. Tomislav beat off a Hungarian attack on northern Croatia in 924. But the Hungarians were only deterred, not permanently repulsed.

The cracks that appeared under Tomislav widened after his death, exposing fundamental weaknesses at the heart of this large and impressive-looking state. One problem was the quarrel between the Latin and Slav clergy. Another was that the crown lacked a strong territorial power-base. Unlike more advanced kingdoms in Western Europe, the Croat kings did not own vast tracts of land which they could lease, or bestow on courtiers. They had no great cities. There was no equivalent to London or Paris -- centres of ecclesiastical and secular authority as well as commercial activity. The kings moved peripatetically around their domains, shuttling between the small towns of Nin, Biograd and Knin. The large cities, such as Split and Zadar, were virtually independent states, electing their own bishops and governors and jealously guarding their liberty.

The first major crisis followed soon after the death in 945 of Tomislav's son, Kresimir. His successor, Miroslav, was murdered by Pribina, the Ban of Dalmatia. This unleashed a period of anarchic warfare during which Red Croatia, a substantial territory in the south, was lost to the Croats.

The signs of Croatia's weakness were not lost on Hungary, or on Venice. In the ninth and tenth centuries, Byzantium granted Venice administration by proxy over the theme of Dalmatian cities and islands. In the 1000s the Doge of Venice, Peter II Orseolo, ominously assumed the title Duke of Dalmatia, and backed his claim with a seaborne invasion. Venice's territorial gains were not permanent. Nevertheless, the ease with which it occupied Zadar, Biograd, Split and Korcula did not bode well for Croatia's future integrity.

Under Kresimir IV (1058-74) the Croatian crown recovered much of the authority it had enjoyed under Tomislav. The King regained control over the Dalmatian cities, partly thanks to the close alliance he forged with the papacy, which was cemented by the help Kresimir lent to suppressing the revolt of Glagolitic clergy on the island of Krk. Under Kresimir the capital was moved from Knin to the coastal town of Biograd and the country divided into three regions -- Pannonia in the north, Dalmatia in the west and Bosnia in the east -- each of which was placed under the regional authority of a ban. Kresimir also founded Sibenik, a new city on the Dalmatian coast which was established as a Slav rival to the older and more independent Latin cities.

From the period just after the death of Kresimir there survives an informative account of life in the medieval Croat kingdom from the deeds of donation of Petar Crne of Split in 1080. Crne was a rich nobleman who, following the custom of the time, was investing some of his money in the foundation of a new church in the nearby village of Jesenice, dedicated to St Peter. 'We invited the the Archbishop [of Split] to consecrate the church on 11 October. Many people from Split and many Croats attended the celebration,' he wrote. 'I bought a slave called Dragaca from a priest in Orihovo for five solidi ... we gave him 100 sheep, two cows and a pair of oxen, which he will keep to satisfy the needs of the church. Besides, we bought a small boy named Zloba from his father and sent him to be educated and to become a priest and serve permanently in this church.'

The fact that Crne placed 'people from Split' and 'Croats' in separate categories suggests there was still a sharp difference between the inhabitants of the old Dalmatian cities and the 'Croatians', even though Slavs had long been migrating into the cities and diluting the ethnic Latin element. Indeed, Crne himself was a Slav who lived in the city.

The death of Kresimir IV exposed all the weaknesses that resulted from the lack of a strong, royal administrative base. Again the kingdom was plunged into anarchic warfare between the faction leaders, the winner being the Dmitar, the governor, or Ban, of northern, Pannonian Croatia. As king he took the name of Zvonimir. Like his predecessor Kresimir, Zvonimir (1075-89) was determined to strengthen Croatia through an alliance with the papacy. He was crowned by a papal legate and repaid Pope Gregory VII's support with a declaration at his coronation, placing Croatia under papal sovereignty. In his coronation oath he said he was 'King of Croatia by the Grace of God and the will of the Apostolic see' and he promised the Pope a symbolic tribute of 200 gold coins each Easter. Zvonimir was criticised strongly by historians in the Communist era for this supposed 'betrayal' of Croat independence. In fact it was a purely pragmatic move that posed no threat to Croatia's independence and bolstered his hold on the throne. Zvonimir died in 1089, most probably of natural causes. It was not until long after his death that chroniclers sought to explain the end of the independent Croat kingdom by claiming that he had been murdered and had cursed his fellow countrymen, condemning them to rule by foreigners. Thus, according to the thirteenth-century Chronicle of the Priest of Dioclea, Zvonimir died at the hands of his own nobles at an assembly at Petih Crkava (Five Churches), near Knin, after failing to persuade them to support him on a papal crusade.

After Zvonimir's death, King Laszlo of Hungary invaded northern Croatia, claiming his right to succeed to the Croatian crown on the grounds that he was the brother of Queen Jelena, while Zvonimir's only son Radovan had predeceased him. Jelena naturally supported her brother's claim, as did many of the nobles in northern Croatia. So Laszlo was able to advance across the flat plains of northern Croatia in 1091 without meeting any resistance. However, he could not cross the Gvozd mountains and advance south into Dalmatia. In the Dalmatian heartland of the Croat kingdom the nobles were strongly opposed to a foreign king, and elected one of their own number, Petar Svacic, as the next king. Laszlo did not live long enough to pursue his claim south of the Gvozd mountains. Nevertheless, he reinforced his claim to the lands of the north by founding a bishopric in the small settlement of Zagreb. This he attached to the see of Ostrogon in Hungary, and not to the archbishopric of Split as tradition dictated.

After Laszlo's death, the crown of Hungary passed to his younger brother Kalman (1095-1116). The new King was a resourceful statesman who was determined to gain through diplomacy what could not be obtained by brute force. In 1097 he assembled a large army in northern Croatia and moved south across the Gvozd mountains. There he met the army of Petar Svacic.

His victory was total and Petar died in battle, lending his name to the mountain called Petrova Gora -- Peter's mountain. But, although the threat to his title was now extinguished, Kalman felt that the task of crushing all resistance to his rule in the mountainous interior of Dalmatia might be beyond him. Wisely, he invited the leaders of the twelve largest clans of the south, the Kacic, Kuka, Subic, Cudomeric, Svacic, Mogorovic, Gusic, Karinjan, Polecic, Lisnicic, Jamometic and Tugometic, to treat with him. The result was a historic agreement in 1102 signed in the northern town of Krizevci and called the Pacta Conventa. Under the terms of the pact, the great Croat families recognised Kalman as king. In return, he granted Croatia virtual self-government under a ban. He pledged not to settle Croatia with Hungarians, to be crowned separately in Croatia and to visit his new kingdom regularly in order to convoke the Sabor (parliament).

After the Pacta Conventa had been signed, Kalman moved south into Dalmatia to Biograd, where he was crowned. Although he had solved the dispute over the crown with the great Croat clans, his problems were not over. Several Dalmatian cities had fallen under the control of Venice during the brief rule of Petar Svacic. At Split he was angered to find the gates of the city were closed to him and he had to camp outside with his army for several days before the city could be persuaded to let him enter. This frosty welcome did not dissuade Kalman from his pacific course, and the charters he issued to Split and Trogir were very conciliatory in tone. The Charter given to Trogir stated: 'I shall allow the ancient laws to continue ... and I shall not allow any Hungarian or foreigner to live in the city unless your gracious love accepts him.' Zadar put up much more resistance and it was not until 1105 that Kalman persuaded the city to open its gates and recognise him as king. The independent kingdom of Croatia had come to an end. For the next eight centuries Croatia was to be ruled as a part of the kingdom of Hungary albeit under the Habsburgs from 1527. As the centuries wore on, the Hungarians began to take a less generous view of the provisions of the


Excerpted from Croatia by Marcus Tanner Copyright © 1998 by Marcus Tanner. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Marcus Tanner is editor of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network and a leader writer for the London Independent.  He is also the author of Ireland’s Holy Wars, The Last of the Celts, and The Raven King.

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Croatia: A Nation Forged in War 2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very comprehensive coverage but difficult to follow. The book does not flow well as the author moves from event to event with little time sequence. Also, if one is not familiar with Croatia the sheer number of names and locations covered becomes tiresome. An excellent detailed history but a tough read.