The Croatian Origins of Yugoslav Nationalism and Pan-Slavism: 1830s – 1918

“The Arrival of the Croats at the Adriatic Sea” (1905) by Oton Iveković

Yugoslav nationalism is a unique phenomenon that credits its historical development to over a century of anti-imperialist politics. It was the culmination of decades of underground nationalist projects, one of idealism and sometimes even pragmatism. The growth of a “Yugoslav identity” owes its very formation to a synthesis of many different elements of Balkan culture with the common interest of security against future imperialist powers. That is to say, Yugoslav nationalism had to be created from independent nationalist movements which lacked the power to manifest themselves on their own. Croatia and Serbia were the main players in the creation of this new nationalist vision, forging a nationalist alliance despite differences in interest. It was from here that the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes came into existence and, eventually, the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. This essay will analyze Croatia’s ideological contribution to the development of Yugoslavism starting from the creation of its own national awakening up until the establishment of the first Yugoslav project, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.

I. Developing a Croatian National Consciousness

In the 19th century, Croatia was a kingdom within a kingdom within an empire. The Kingdom of Croatia pledged its allegiance to the Kingdom of Hungary which was part of the great Austrian Empire. It found relative autonomy in the federation, but feared growing nationalism in Hungary would result in increased Magyarization of Croatia into a Greater Hungary. As a response, the Croatian intelligentsia felt it necessary to revitalize their traditions, folklore, and history in hopes of preserving it. Jonathan Sperber writes in his book The European Revolutions: 1848 – 1851:

[The 19th century] was the period when the smaller, mostly Slavic nationalities of the empire – Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Ukrainian – remembered their historical traditions, revived their native languages as literary languages, reappropriated their traditions and folklore, in short reasserted their existence as nations [1].

The intelligentsia in 19th century Croatia realized that national awakening required a universal Croatian language and a literate population to maintain it. At the time, Croatia was broken into many different local dialects and lacked any homogeneity in the way its people spoke. Most Croatians were part of the illiterate peasant class. Thereby, the first step for the Croatian bourgeois class was to facilitate the printing of books to further national consciousness. Maksimilijan Vrhovac, a bishop from the city of Zagreb, is credited as one of its prime ideological architects by collecting many of the nation’s “spiritual treasures,” translating the Bible and other texts into Kajkavian Croatian (a dialect spoken in the north), and even appealing in front of the Croatian parliament in hopes of opening a public library in the capital [2]. Vrhovac would set the foundation for what would decades later become the Illyrian Movement.

Statue of Ljudevit Gaj in Zagreb, Croatia

Statue of Ljudevit Gaj in Zagreb, Croatia

In the beginning of the 1830s, a group of young Croatian writers assembled in Zagreb calling for the unity of all Slavs within the Habsburg Monarchy. These young writers were led by Ljudevit Gaj who published Brief Basics of the Croatian-Slavonic Orthography in 1830 which was the first text that established a common Croatian writing system [3]. The goals of the Illyrian Movement then became actualized into tangible demands; the Illyrians wanted a standard language and culture to counterbalance growing Hungarian power. A single language, they felt, was the only way to achieve national revitalization. Gaj penned a proclamation in 1835 outlining the goals of the movement:

There can only be one true literary language in Illyria… It is not found in a single place, or a single country, but in the whole of Illyria… Our grammar and our dictionary is the whole of Illyria. In that huge garden there are beautiful flowers everywhere: let us gather everything of the best in one wreath, which will never wither [4].

For the Illyrian movement, national consciousness extended far beyond what is today modern-day Croatia – they took their inspiration from the commonality of being historically “Illyrian.” The Illyrian people were a group of Indo-European tribes who mainly lived in the Western Balkans. The historical group spanned from modern Slovenia all the way down to Macedonia. The Illyrian movement would become the spiritual precursor to Yugoslavism, encompassing the same lands in hopes of creating a unified Southern Slavic people.

The movement proved to be immensely successful within Croatian upper-class, but found little support from the peasant class and those living outside the Kingdom of Croatia [5]. Within where it was popular, however, it found literary success. Epic poems were published in “Illyrian grammar” (which would eventually evolve into Serbo-Croatian), the future Croatian national anthem was written by lyricist Antun Mihanović, and Croatian newspapers were allowed to be published starting in 1834. Ljudevit Gaj was responsible for establishing the first one in 1835 and thus was the pioneer of the beginning of Croatian journalism [6]. He also began the literary journal Danica as an attachment to the paper to further Croatian literary achievements. Each issue contained the motto of “[a] people without a nation/is like a body without bones” fully capturing the spirit and vigor of the Illyrian movement’s idealism. In the 1838 edition of Danica, Gaj further outlined the goals of the Illyrians against its detractors and critics. He writes:

Our intention is not to abolish individual names, but unify them under a general name, because each of the individual names carries its own individual history, which gathered together, comprise a more general history of the Illyrian nation [7].

Reading rooms were established in Zagreb for Illyrians to meet and discuss the growing linguistic developments. The first Croatian opera was written by composer Vatroslav Lisinski in 1846. The Illyrian movement thus achieved significant success throughout the Croatian intelligentsia, only to be suppressed in the wave of revolutions that would sweep Europe in 1848.

Despite these national developments, the Illyrians found themselves at odds with the Hungarian nobility and those supporting it. In 1843, the use of “Illyrian” was banned by Hungarian authorities [8]. Tensions surmounted on July 29th 1845 when the People’s Party (alternatively called the Illyrian Party) felt cheated when a Hungarian-allied candidate won during the elections held for newly-established Zagreb County of the Kingdom of Croatia-Slavonia. Members and supporters of the People’s Party filled the square in protest which angered the Croatian ban, ethnic Hungarian Fancis Haller, and the Austrian army was called to subdue the protestors. Thirteen protestors were killed and over two dozen were injured in the ensuing violence which would be remembered as the “July Victims” [9]. Croatian opinion in Zagreb was split – those of the Illyrian movement felt that the only means of securing a Croatian future was the establishment of an independent Croatian state whereas some Hungarian-Croats and other ethnic Croats felt that Croatia was best served through close relations with Hungary. With fear as an impediment to further progress, the Illyrian movement would have only one major victory after 1845. In October of 1847, with the help of politician Ivan Sakcinski, Croatian replaced Latin as the official language of the kingdom through a unanimous vote in parliament [10]. However, this major victory would be overshadowed by censorship and a crackdown on dissent in 1849 by Emperor Francis Joseph. A new constitution was created by the Austrian autocracy and the Danica soon went out of print. This effectively put an end to the Illyrian movement and any hopes of a unified Pan-Slavic state, but its spiritual adherents kept the fire going covertly, enough to influence the future trend of Yugoslav nationalism in the decades ahead.

With the suppression of the Illyrian movement, new beginnings had to be made to ensure the progress achieved was not in vein. Writers from mainly Croatia and Serbia (including one individual from Slovenia) met in Vienna in March of 1850 to discuss how Southern Slavic literature could be unified under a common banner to fight the growing empires that existentially threatened it [11]. The agreement that followed among them would become known as the Vienna Literary Agreement which established a basic method of writing for mainly Serbians and Croatians. The agreement was not formalized institutionally of course, but it provided inspiration for the codification of Serbo-Croatian as one especially during the years of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in the latter half of the 20th century.

II. The Beginnings of Yugoslavism

With the suppression of the Illyrian movement, the Pan-Slavic project had to find a new name. While the Illyrian movement was mainly a literary and linguistic ideal, future calls for a Pan-Slavic state had to be put in the context of institutions and governmental structures. Whereas the limitations of the Illyrians were that they focused only on language as a means of uniting Southern Slavs, its successor needed to transcend these limitations and appeal directly to cultural and historical unity. The Illyrians’ spiritual heir soon became Yugoslavism and its most passionate adherents. Once again, Pan-Slavism found its face in the Croatian intelligentsia.

In the later-half of the 19th century two Croatian Catholic bishops, Josip Strossmayer and Franjo Rački, were the main partisans for the Yugoslav cause and supported academic institutions in both Serbia and Slovenia. However, nationalist competition between Serbia prevented their ideas from being spread outside of the Croatian bourgeois class and they faced similar problems that the Illyrians faced decades prior. Yugoslavism also failed to penetrate the majority peasant class in Croatia, appealing to mostly liberal Catholic clergymen and the literary elite. As Lenard J. Cohen writes in Broken Bonds: Yugoslavia’s Disintegration and Balkan Politics in Transition, “Obstacles… to the Yugoslav idea… down to the lower strata’s predominant emotional commitment to its own individual locales, can, to a certain extent, be explained by the educational backwardness of Croatia’s agrarian population in the nineteenth century” [12]. The Croatian peasant class also lacked the “information about other South Slav regions and people” and thereby could not even conceive of a Yugoslav position. Most of the Serbian upper-class faced similar issues in mobilizing their largely poor agrarian population, whose “lower social layer lived like the Croats, as a subordinate agricultural stratum within the confines of the oppressive Ottoman imperial system, and also suffered from education deprivation” [13]. Most of the Serbian intelligentsia also scoffed at the idea of a Pan-Slavic identity and instead focused on Serbian aims at freeing themselves from Ottoman rule. They found little benefit in joining a union with the Croats against the Austro-Hungarian Empire; they had their own struggle against the Ottomans.

However, in the mid-1860s this pattern of non-cooperation between Serbian and Croatian interests was interrupted. Josip Strossmayer and Serbian foreign minister Illija Garašanin agreed on a plan that would begin the process of creating a Yugoslav state independent from both Austria and Turkey [14]. Nevertheless, Serbians lacked commitment to the issue and the plan fell apart within two years. This was because Illija Garašanin was not attracted to the romanticized Yugoslav ideal espoused by Croatian thinkers; rather, Garašanin realized that Yugoslavism fit nicely into his conception of a “Greater Serbia.” He was one of the founders of the concept, writing in his 1844 text Načertanije: “A plan must be constructed which does not limit Serbia to her present borders, but endeavors to absorb all the Serbian people around her”[15]. Thus, the question just who was Serbian became increasingly relevant among the Serbian upper-class. Vuk Karadžić, a prominent Serbian linguist of the 19th century, argued that “Serbians” encompass all those who spoke the Štokavian dialect which included large areas of Croatia and most of Bosnia. For Karadžić, these people were “Serbs who did not accept the name” and were to be assimilated into Greater Serbia [16]. It was these differences that further alienated the goal of Croatian Yugoslavism and that of Greater Serbia. Soon, Serbia’s expansionist aims would find cover in their support for Yugoslavism which gave them a platform with which to justify Serbian hegemony and power in the 20th century.

III. Struggle, Terrorism, and the Birth of the Yugoslav State        

Yugoslavism remained relatively unknown and too idealistic until the turn of the 20th century. In 1908, Bosnia and Herzegovina was annexed was by Austria-Hungary which angered Southern Slavs as they began they themselves collectively as a victim of foreign imperialism (i.e. Yugoslavs). Famous sculptor Ivan Meštrović  began writing poetry arguing for a “Yugoslav race” and even built a sculpture commemorating Serbian folk hero Prince Marko at the International Exhibition in Rome in 1911. He wished the bridge the cultural and artistic gap between Serbians and Croatians through his work, becoming immensely popular during his lifetime. In 1912, the Balkan War added another reason for the necessity of a Southern Slavic union. With a weakening of the Austrian Empire and the end of Ottoman occupation in the Balkan states by 1913, the Yugoslav project was on the verge of being actually realized.

Gavrilo Princip arrested after murdering the Austrian Archduke and his wife. He was only nineteen, one month shy of his twentieth birthday.

In the following years, the Balkans would violently erupt and organize itself on different lines. Serbia began funding paramilitary groups that would engage in anti-imperialist struggle in hopes of creating a “Yugoslav state” with Serbia as its national leader. The group Young Bosnia came to prominence in the early 1900s composed of Serbians, Croatians, and Bosniaks. Their ideals were inspired by revolutionary youth movements and the works of Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and socialist/anarchist politics. After multiple failed attempts on state leaders, Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife on the 28th of June, 1914. Angering Austria-Hungary, the empire issued an ultimatum against Serbia to stop its violence and made a list of concrete demands.  World War I ensued a month after the assassination, against the interests of the Austrian-Hungarian autocracy. During Princip’s trial, he loudly proclaimed “I am a Yugoslav nationalist, aiming for the unification of all Yugoslavs, and I do not care what form of state, but it must be freed from Austria” [17]. For many Southern Slavs, the creation of a Yugoslav state seemed inevitable.

However, before a Yugoslav state could be constructed, it had to be agreed on just what was to be established in the years ahead. Croats (including the Croatian Peasant Party and other social democratic parties) and the Serbian diaspora living in Croatia and Bosnia preferred a federated system of governance which would allow different Southern Slavic ethnic groups to cooperate amongst each other. Conversely, Serbs living in Serbia had plans for a Greater Serbia or a centralized Yugoslavia dictated by Belgrade, Serbia’s capital [18]. While Serbia was funding paramilitary groups aimed at uniting Southern Slavs, Croatia organized the Yugoslav Committee which was given the task of mapping out the future state. Its board was composed of mostly Croats and a few Serbian and Slovenian members. Although Serbian and Croatians aims for a Yugoslav state were fundamentally different, the Yugoslav Committee signed a compromise declaration with the Kingdom of Serbia in 1917 [19]. The declaration allowed for a parliamentary monarchy, composed of three nations, universal suffrage, and two different alphabets (Latin and Cyrillic) that were equal before the law. The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was established in 1918 with support from the Allied Powers. And it was then that the Yugoslav project became realized, albeit not as many Croatians had envisioned it.

IV. Conclusion and Remarks

Yugoslav nationalism was the product of literary romanticism, idealism, and anti-imperialist politics. However, it began very different in Serbia than it did in Croatia. Concepts of “Greater Serbia” constantly clouded any hope of a truly federalized cooperative state among Southern Slavs and instead replaced it with Serbian hegemony. This became apparent in the years following the formation of the Yugoslav Kingdom and the Serbian monarch’s established dictatorship in July of 1929, much to the outrage of the other ethnicities within Yugoslavia. Thereby, Croatians are hesitant when Serbian leaders speak of “Yugoslavia” in good light; for most Bosnians and Croatians, “Yugoslavism” has become synonymous with Serbian hegemony and power which has manifested itself in virtually every attempt at “brotherhood and unity” within the Balkans. The failed attempts at unification have stalled any proposals for federative unity within the Southern Slavic region; instead, individual nations have turned to nationalism and self-reliance as a means of coping with larger powers. As this proves ineffective, since Balkan states lack any bargaining power against Western nations, feelings of the Illyrian Movement and Yugoslavism might again return. However, it will return with another name as has been the cyclical case in the Balkans ever since national consciousness took hold in the tumultuous region during the 19th century.

***

1.     Sperber, Jonathan. The European Revolutions, 1848 – 1851.”(Cambridge University Press,                 2nd Edition, 2005)

2.     Šanjek, Franjo. Christianity in the Croatian Religion. [Kršćanstvo na hrvatskom prostoru].                     (Kršćanska sadašnjost, 1996).

3.     Becker, J. Carl. A Modern Theory on Language Evolution. (iUniverse, Inc. 2004).

4.     Vukcevich, Ivo. Croatia: New Language, New Nationality, and New State. (XLIBRIS, 2013).

5.     Marc, L. Greenberg. The Illyrian Movement: A Croatian Vision of South Slavic Unity. (Oxford                                 University Press, 2011).

6.     Ibid. 3.

7.     Gaj, Ljudevit. “Danica.” (National and University Library in Zagreb)

8.     Fishman, Joshua. Garcia, Ofelia. Handbook of Language and Ethnic Identity: The                                 Success-Failure Continuum in Language and Ethnic Identity Efforts, Volume 2. (Oxford                         University Press, 2011).

9.     Hawkesworth, Celia. Zagreb: A Cultural and Literary History. (Signal Books, 2007).

10.    Press Office. 165 Years Ago Croatian Parliament Proclaimed Croatian as Official                                  Language. (Croatian Parliament, Web).

11.    Greenberg, D. Robert. Language and Identity in the Balkans. (Oxford University Press,                          2008).

12.    Cohen, J. Lenard. Broken Bonds: Yugoslavia’s Disintegration and Balkan Politics in                               Transition. (Westview Press, 2nd edition, 1995).

13.    Ibid.

14.    Göransson, Markus Balázs. A Cultural History of Serbia. (Web, 2013).

15.    Garašanin, Illija. Načertanije. (Croatian Information Center, Web).

16.    Greater Serbia: From Ideology to Aggression. (Croatian Information Center, Web, 1993).

17.    Andjelic, Neven. Bosnia-Herzegovina: The End of a Legacy. (Routledge, 2003).

18.    Djokić, Dejan. Yugoslavism: Histories of a Failed Idea, 1918–1992. (University of Wisconsin               Press, 2003).

19.    Dragnich, Alex N. The First Yugoslavia: Search for a Viable Political System. (Hoover                             Institution Press, 1983)

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2 comments
  1. I will definitely have to talk to you more about our parents history at another date. Great article!

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