Caught Between Empires | Croatia Unbound


Tomislav, recognized by the pope as king, ruled over a territory that encompassed most of modern Croatia as well as the coast of Montenegro and portions of Bosnia. Though Croatian monarchs ruled for the next two centuries, their rules held together an only fragile unity.

The transition between kings generally led to moments of anarchy and vulnerability—opportunities Venice took advantage of as early as the mid-10th century. Soon after, Venice launched an invasion and established their first foothold into Dalmatia.


The death of Croatian King Zvonimir marked the end of Croatia’s independence. Both Hungary and Venice began to exert more effort into conquering Croatia. Though Hungary initially attempted to overpower Dalmatia, it remained under Byzantine control until Hungarian King Coloman convinced the Dalmatian nobility to accept him as the King of Croatia and Dalmatia in exchange for limited self-governance.

Venice continued to exert control over Croatia’s ports and shortly after Coloman’s death invested in a long-term campaign to overtake Croatia. Throughout the 13th century, Venetian influence continued to expand along the coast, and the significant occupations of Zadar (after a 10-year siege) and Dubrovnik further consolidated Venetian rule.

For over 700 years, Venetians controlled the Croatian coast. Northern Rab and Robinj to the southern Hvar and KorĨula remain redolent of their Venetian heritage to this day.

Political upheavals continued wherein Hungary attempted to re-establish control and persuade Venice to withdraw from Dalmatia. At once point Croatian nobility marshalled their forces and crowned Ladislaus of Naples King of Zadar only for Ladislaus to then sell Zadar to Venice for a mere 100,000 ducats.

By the early 15th century, Venice had a firm grip on Dalmatia, remaining in control of the region until Napoleon cast his imperial eye on it in the 18th century.


Croatia once again found itself caught in the wake of imperial designs with the rise of the Ottoman Empire. The fall of Bosnia in the 15th century left the doors to Croatia open, an opportunity they quickly took advantage of and claimed much of southern Croatia.

At that time, Hungarian King Louis II fell in battle against the Turks, leaving his throne to his Hapsburg successor, Ferdinand I. Thus, Croatia entered into the Hapsburg Empire.

The Hapsburgs attempted to defend Croatia against the Ottoman onslaught, but their efforts proved ineffectual. During this time, the Ottoman Empire controlled around 75% of Croatia, and the Hapsburgs buffered their remaining territory with the Vojna Krajina (Military Frontier).

The Hapsburgs were able to push out the Ottomans by the mid-17th century with a final victory at the Siege of Vienna in 1683. However, the internal turmoil once again allowed the Venetians to reassert control over Dalmatia.

During this conflict, Orthodox Serbs known as Vlachs were settling in under the direction of the Hapsburgs. By the 18th century, Slavonia saw a further influx of Croat, Serb, Hungarian, Albanian, and Slovak immigrants as well. The influx and tensions that began to arise at this time sowed seeds for many 20th century conflicts including WW1.


Croatia found itself in a sociopolitical tug-of-war between Venice, Hungary, and Austria throughout the 18th century. It was a perpetual pushing of cultures and languages on all sides, an internal tension somewhat put to rest by the entrance of Napoleon.

By 1808, Napoleon had captured towns along Croatia’s coasts, once again united Dalmatia with Slovenia and inner Croatia. The combined territories were dubbed the Illyrian Provinces, giving the Illyrian heritage a renaissance period. Napoleon’s defeat in 1815 cut the renaissance short, however, leaving Dalmatia in control of the Hapsburgs who crushed the reawakening Croatian nationalism consciousness.


Croatians began to nurture their growing sense of national identity in a backlash against the cultural heavy-handedness of the Hapsburgs and Hungarians. The Illyrian movement centered largely around the reestablishment of the Croatian language, with Croatian nobles beginning to address the Sabor in the Croatian language and an ongoing refusal to accept correspondence written in Hungarian. The Sabor even voted Illyrian as the national language in 1847, despite Hungarian protest.


The rise of Illyrianism and the desire for Croatian autonomy eventually led the Croats to side with Austria during the Hungarian revolutionary movement spreading across Europe. Unfortunately, Russian-backed Hungary subdued the revolution and Austria rejected the demands of self-determination from its Croatian subjects.

The subsequent birth of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1866 placed Croatia under a new dual monarchy, with Croatia and Slavonia governed by Hungarian administration and Dalmatia governed by Austrian administration.

Croatians continued to be politically discontent, however, and two political movements began to take form: a movement favoring a South Slav Union in which a Yugoslav entity would exist within the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a movement favoring an independent, Greater Croatia.

Despite the growing movement for unity between the Serbs and the Croats, animosity between the two factions continued—nurtured, in part, by the empire who believed in the old adage of “divide and conquer.” Nonetheless, the Croat-Serb Coalition was formed in 1906—a shift that greatly threatened the Austrian-Hungarian power structure. You can learn more on our Croatia walking tour.