Croatia? Where’s Croatia? It’s true, most Americans couldn’t find Croatia on a map or answer a single Croatian trivia question. So we’ve put together a smidgeon of background info about a country rich with natural beauty and culture and a history that’s among the oldest in Europe. Croatia sits at the crossroads of Southeast and Central Europe and the Mediterranean. The country’s five million people live on 21,851 square miles of land, making it slightly smaller than the state of West Virginia with about two and one-half times the population. About 87 percent are Roman Catholic and 90 percent identify as ethnically Croatian.
Geography and Climate
The country is shaped like a lopsided, upside-down croissant, with the longer side consisting of more than 1,100 miles of Adriatic coast, and the shorter side reaching inland toward Serbia. The regions along the coast, Dalmatia and Istria, are rocky and hilly with pristine beaches. With plains in the interior and mountains in the center, Croatia’s geography is quite diverse. Zagreb, positioned in the center, is the capital and largest city with a metropolitan area containing about 978,161 people. Split and Rijeka are the next largest with populations of around 200,000.
A Mediterranean climate dominates the coastal regions, which means the summers are dry and warm with mean temperatures between 75–80 degrees Fahrenheit, and winters are wet. Mean winter temperatures in the north are about 35 degrees Fahrenheit, while in the south means are nearly 50 degrees. The interior has a continental climate with more extreme temperatures in the winter and summer.
With endless stretches of idyllic coastline and 1,200-plus islands, tourism has been a major industry in Croatia since the Roman Emperor Diocletian built his retirement palace in Split in the third and early fourth century AD. Along with the beaches, picturesque islands, and breathtaking parks and natural features, Croatia boasts seven UNESCO World Heritage sites, including Dubrovnik, the ancient walled city on the southern Dalmatian coast that was catapulted to modern international fame as a filming site for the TV series Game of Thrones. Tourism is the country’s major industry, accounting for up to 20 percent of the GDP.
The official language is Croatian, which is linguistically classified as a South Slavic language, a language group that includes Croatian, Serbian, Slovene, Bosnian, and Montenegrin. Croatian uses the Roman alphabet, has about 5.6 million native speakers, and three major dialects. Generally, Croatians can easily understand and read the other South Slavic languages but all agree that the differences, especially in writing and literature, are significant.
Many Croatians speak at least one other language, with a large number speaking some English—a 2005 survey estimated about 50 percent knew some English and that number has likely risen sharply in the past ten years. Since independence, children learn English in primary school and throughout their education. Pervasive exposure to English TV and media and the tourism industry provide opportunities for practice, resulting in a younger generation with advanced English skills. The region of Istria is closest to Italy and has always had strong cultural ties there. Croatians in Istria generally speak Italian and Croatian. Italian and German are also popular second languages.
Men have likely lived in Croatia since before the Paleolithic period. Traces of several prehistoric cultures can be found throughout the region, with later evidence of Illyrian culture and Greek influence. Rome began establishing power here in about the second century BC and was the dominant influence on the area until the fourth century AD.
Croatia’s location in the crossroads of the East and the West has defined much of its modern history, causing the country to alternate between periods of rule from outside empires such as the Romans, Byzantines, or Habsburgs and periods of “self-rule” under local kingdoms. After World War I, Croatia was united for the first time with Serbia as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, which included the modern areas of Slovenia, Serbia, and Croatia. The union quickly declined into civil war and Josip Broz Tito’s partisans rose to power at the end of World War II.
After World War II, Yugoslavia consisted of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia, and Serbia. Under Tito a form of planned market socialism was implemented and enforced. When Tito died in 1980, the Yugoslavian system began to fall apart as long-standing cultural and political divisions and differences were ignited. The situation broke out into violence and war in 1991 with Croatia declaring independence from Yugoslavia, which had centralized its power in Belgrade. What followed was a bloody war with Serbia that lasted until 1995 and resulted in more than one hundred thousand deaths.
The War for Independence was particularly gruesome and left a heavy mark on an entire generation and their children. Many pieces in Underpass tell tales of the war and its aftermath. That time period still plays a large role in modern Croatian politics and the national psyche.
Since the war, Croatia has struggled to privatize its industries, grow its economy, and build effective democratic institutions. While corruption scandals and a particularly harsh blow from the 2008 recession have slowed Croatia’s growth, its economy is stronger than many in the region and it became the twenty-eighth member of the European Union in 2013.