One of the events that transformed the Balkans, Croatia included, during the last 500 years was the arrival from Asia of the Ottoman Turks and their ever-expanding empire.
Starting in 1300s when they gained their first foothold in continental Europe, the Ottomans surrounded and eventually conquered what was left of the Byzantine Empire, putting an end to one of the most powerful states that ever existed in history. As they pushed westward, the Ottomans took over Bulgaria, Serbia and Bosnia by the 1470s. Croatia seemed to be next on the list. In 1493, a joint Hungaro-Croatian army assembled at Krbavsko polje but was more or less annihilated in battle by the Ottomans, leaving the Adriatic Sea vulnerable to Turkish raids. In 1526, the Ottomans defeated the Hungarians at the Battle of Mohács, killing the Hungarian King Louis II in the process. As King Louis did not have an heir, the Hungarian throne went to the Austrian King Ferdinand I of Habsburg. This effectively absorbed all Hungarian possessions and vassals, including much of Croatia, into the growing Habsburg realms. This though didn’t make Croatia any safer from the Turkish threat. In fact by 1540, the Turks had come as far as the town of Sisak, just 50km south of modern Zagreb. As for the rest of Croatia, the Venetians held Istria and Dalmatia while the Croatian city-state of Dubrovnik was able to retain its independence by paying tribute to the Ottomans.
By the late 16th century things began to turn around for the Habsburg’s and their Austro-Hungarian domains. In 1593 with an army made up also of many Croats, the Austro-Hungarian Empire defeated the Ottomans at the Battle of Sisak. The later however were relentless and in 1683 staged a direct attack on the Austro-Hungarian capital of Vienna. This in the end proved to be a disaster for the Turks as their intrusion into Central Europe also drew in the Germans and the Poles, who united with the Austrians and Hungarians to keep the Turks in check.
The Turkish defeat was the beginning of the end of Ottoman advances in Europe and during the following centuries, the Habsburg forces drove the Ottomans further east. The sly Venetians however used the conflict between the two European super powers to consolidate their hold on the Dalmatian coast.
In 1718, a treaty called the Peace of Passarowitz was signed between the Ottomans, the Habsburg Austrians and the Venetians. The Habsburgs had got to keep all of Slavonia, the Venetians a swath of territory in Croatia from Knin to Imotski and the Kingdom of Serbia and Banat of Temeswar were created, the later two in reality under the jurisdiction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Turks got to keep what is now much of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
With the Ottoman Empire in decline and no longer posing a threat, new powers arose and began to interfere in Croatian affairs. In 1797, the French leader Napoleon Bonaparte dissolved what was left of the Venetian Republic and transformed their former possessions into a protectorate known as the Illyrian Provinces, ruled by the French governor Marshal Marmont. In his short stint as governor, Marmont actually did a lot to improve the lives of the locals in the area including building roads, developing the education system and promoting the use of Croatian and other Slavic languages. This of course was not out of French love for Slavic culture but more to wean the Croats, Serbs and others in the Illyrian Provinces from the influence of regional powers Austria and Russia by creating a sort of South Slavic consciousness.
With Napoleon’s eventual defeat, the Illyrian Provinces went back to the Austrians under the Treaty of Vienna in 1815. Though it was hoped that this sort of unification under the Austro-Hungarians would perhaps further unite the Croatians in the north with their brethren along the Adriatic coast, this actually didn’t happen due to the later being maritime traders who absorbed many aspects of Italian culture due to their trade with Italy across the Adriatic as well the remnants of Venetian influence in Dalmatia.
In the 1820s, neighboring Serbians were going through a sort of renaissance and cultural awakening. The Serbian writer and literary scholar Vuk Karađić developed a literary and colloquial form of Serbian that inspired the Croat writer Ljudevit Gaj, to do the same for the Croatian language. As the Serbs of the north had often been separated from those along the Adriatic coast with one falling into the sphere of Austria-Hungary and the others in that of the Venetians, various dialects of Croatian had developed. Gal’s work helped to standardize the Croatian language. This language and broader cultural reform movement was called Ilirizam or Illyrianism, derived from the name of the region in ancient times both before and during the Roman Empire.
In the beginning, Illyrianism was looked upon favorably by the Austrians as they saw it as a counterweight towards Hungarian nationalism. Eventually though they saw it as a threat and banned parts of the movement as well as the word Illyria in the 1840s. Things however would change towards the end of this decade as revolution once again would sweep across the continent.
Part of the Series, “History of Croatia”
History of Croatia
Early History up until the Ottomans
The Ottoman advance and Austro-Hungarian rule
The Revolutions of 1848 and the Rise of Croatian Nationalism
World War I and the Creation of Yugoslavia
1930s until World War II
Croatia during War II
Croatia under Tito’s Yugoslavia
Yugoslavia: The Beginning of the End
The Homeland War and the Road to an Independent Croatia
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