Historical references to Croats in the Holy Roman Empire date back to the ninth century.
Stories connect the name "Croat" (Hrvat) with a powerful military chieftain in the early Middle Ages and an Alan word for "friend." Regional cultures are considered variations on the larger category of "Croatian," including the cultures of Dalmatia, Istria, Slavonia, and Zagorje.
These regions are characterized by differences in geography, traditional economy, food, folkloric tradition, and dialect. Croats share an overall sense of national culture; people often feel strongly about regional identities and local cultural variations, particularly food and language.
A small percentage of non-Croat groups identify with a different culture. Serbs usually identify with Serbian culture. Slovenes, Muslims, Jews, Albanians, and Roma (Gypsies) generally identify with their own national groups and cultures.
In two cases non-Croats constitute a significant minority in a local population and have maintained group identities as non-Croats. In Istria, an Italian minority prefer the Italian language, and identify strongly with Italian culture. In Slavonia, along the Hungarian border, ethnic Hungarians (Magyars) prefer the Hungarian language and identify with Hungarian culture. This is not generally true of non-Croat and non-Slav populations in other regions, such as Italians in Dalmatia and Hungarians in Zagreb. The Roman Catholics of Herzegovina identify with the Croatian national culture. Herzegovinans generally believe that they should be part of Croatia, not linked to Bosnia. Croats in the diaspora are represented in the national parliament.
Location and Geography.
Croatia was one of the six republics of the former Yugoslavia. It shares borders with Italy, Slovenia, and Hungary to the north and with the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia) and Bosnia-Herzegovina to the east and south. Croats think of themselves as more closely linked with Austria than with the other territories and cultures of the former Yugoslavia. They do not refer to themselves as a Balkan country but as a European one.
Croatia occupies approximately 21,825 square miles (56,540 square kilometers). The region along the Adriatic coast has a Mediterranean climate with mild winters and hot, dry summers. The inland region has a continental climate with very cold winters, hot, humid summers, and spring and autumn seasons that are often rainy. Seventy percent of the land is farmland. The largest portion of the country consists of the Pannonian plain, a flat, fertile agricultural region that extends into Hungary and Serbia. The Drava and Sava rivers drain into the plain, making it an excellent region for agriculture. Cultural variations, particularly regional cuisine, are related to geographic variations within the country; traditional economies are also linked to geography. The capital, Zagreb, is centrally located but was not chosen for that reason. It is the largest city, and historically the political, commercial, and intellectual center.
The population was approximately 5 million in 2000. Croats make up 78 percent of the population and are the dominant ethnic group. Serbs account for 12 percent, and the remaining 10 percent includes Bosnians, Hungarians, and Slovenes as well as a very small number of Jews and Kosova Albanians. The religious makeup of the nation reflects this ethnic breakdown. Roman Catholics constitute 77 percent of the population; Serbian Orthodox, 11 percent; and Muslims, 1 percent. The Serb population has decreased since Croatian independence from Yugoslavia and the war that began in 1991. In 1981, Serbs accounted for approximately 17 percent of the population.
The Croatian language has three major dialects, identified by three different words for "what"—sto, kaj, and ca. From 1945 to 1991, the official language was Serbo-Croatian. Even under socialism, Croats often referred to their language as Croato-Serbian (instead of Serbo-Croatian) or as Croatian. Croatian and Serbian variants of the language were always recognized as different dialects, and had different alphabets. Since independence, Croatian and Serbian have been declared separate languages. The government has been working to establish an official Croatian language, resurrecting vocabulary that fell out of general usage under socialism.
Croatian and related Southern Slav languages are modern versions of the languages of the Slavic peoples who moved into the lands of the former Yugoslavia around 500 C.E. Today, language is an important part of personal and group identity, but historically the Croatian language was not always spoken by a majority of Croats. Under the Hapsburgs, urban Croats spoke German, and Latin was the official language of government. A national reawakening in the nineteenth century focused on the establishment of a national language.
The dialects reflect not only regional variation but contact with and domination by different peoples. Thus, Istrians speak a Croatian influenced by Italian, while the people of Zagreb speak a Croatian strongly influenced by German. Regional dialects, such as Dalmatian, are sometimes regarded as provincial or indicative of less education and exposure to high culture. There is a counter tendency, however, to regard the regional dialects as more authentic forms of Croatian than those spoken by urban, cosmopolitan populations.
The newly independent state has had to recreate a national culture by drawing from history and folk culture. In this sense, Croatia is an imagined community. The modern national identity draws on its medieval roots, association with Viennese "high culture," culturally diverse rural traditions, and Roman Catholicism.
Croats use the metaphor of a single related people with shared blood to describe themselves as a nationality. Religion is probably the most powerful symbol of national identity today. Most Croats consider themselves Roman Catholic whether they practice their religion or not. Language and history are also important symbols of identity. Croat language and its regional dialects are much spoken of by Croats themselves. Feelings about ancient ties to a territory and a direct link to the independent Kingdom of Croatia are part of the modern Croatian national identity.
The most important national symbol is the flag, which has three bands of color: red on top, white in the middle, and blue on the bottom. This flag was first used in 1848 under Austro-Hungarian rule. Under socialism, a red star was added in the center. The present-day flag has a coat of arms in the center that includes a symbol of each of the five parts of the country on top of a red and white chessboard shield. The chessboard dates to the Middle Ages but was also used by Croatian fascists (Ustasha) during World War II. Serbs saw the resurrection of this symbol as provocation.
In the nineteenth century, Croats rediscovered their folk traditions. Folk songs, folk dances, and village customs were taken as symbols of national pride. This interest in village culture went along with a quest for a stronger national identity under Hapsburg rule. Rural people were romanticized and taken to represent the soul of the country and the character of particular regions. The word narod means both "folk" and "nation." The symbols of regional culture are costumes, dances and songs, and village customs. These folk traditions were appropriated and modified by the middle classes in the nineteenth century and celebrated as well under socialism. Folklore performances that drew from regional cultures throughout the former Yugoslavia highlighted Yugoslav "brotherhood and unity."
Important culture heroes are symbols of the long history of Croat people. Two prominent figures are King Tomislav, the first king, and Ban Josip Jelacic, a noble military leader under Austro-Hungarian rule. Foods, both national and regional, and language are important symbols of national and regional identity.