Croatia Myth&Reality: Borders were drawn to benefit Croatia


MYTH: The Serbian-Croatian border was drawn up secretly by Tito, a Croatian, in 1943 benefiting Croatia at the expense of Serbia.

REALITY: Croatia's border with Serbia is essentially the same as in 1848 and 1918 with the exception of those lands taken from Croatia and given to Serbia and Montenegro under both Yugoslav regimes.

This mythology is a recent creation of the Serbian government and has been given wide circulation by Serbian apologists Nora Beloff and David Martin. The purpose of the myth is to stress to the world that the borders of the former Yugoslav republics are simply administrative boundaries with no historical significance. Once this myth is taken as fact the argument follows that such meaningless borders are subject to negotiation and change, in favor of Serbia.

The reality is that Croatia today has roughly the same borders as in 1848. Serbia has increased its borders after every one of its many wars since 1813. Today Serbia controls more territory than it has in its entire history. In the north it has annexed the lands of the Hungarians and Croatians. In the south two hundred thousand Serbs rule over two million ethnic Albanians in the absolute police state of Kosova. Montenegro has become nothing more than a Serbian province.

The myth that Serbian lands are held by Croatia was used by the Serbian government to launch a war of aggression to seize valuable gas and oil fields, rail and shipping corridors and port facilities. Eastern Slavonia, where Serbian aggression resulted in the total devastation of the ancient city of Vukovar, had a Serbian population of 16.4% according to 1991 census. Dubrovnik, which underwent months of siege by Serbian forces, had a Serbian population of only 6.2% in 1991. Neither region has ever been a part of Serbia.


The borders of Croatia have changed over the past thousand years reflecting the ebbs and flows of the great empires around her. When King Tomislav united Pannonian and Dalmatian Croatia in 925, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus recorded that Croatia covered some 100,000 square kilometers (38,600 square miles), had a population in excess of two million and fielded 60,000 horsemen, 100,000 foot soldiers, 80 galleys and one hundred cutters, a formidable state for tenth century Europe.

Serbians at the time were under the control of Bulgar or Byzantine rulers and did not organize their first state until 1170. Serbia reached its zenith under Czar Stephen Dusan who died in 1355. His death was followed by civil war among Serbian nobles which led to a Turkish invasion. The Serbs suffered a stunning defeat at the battle of Kosova in 1389 and another at Smederevo in 1459. Serbia remained only as an Ottoman vassal state well into the nineteenth century when it was fully reestablished as an independent state by the Treaty of Berlin in 1878.

The expansion of the Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth century also had tremendous effect on the size and character of Croatia. The Croatian lands of Bosnia and Hercegovina were absorbed by the Ottomans in 1463 and 1482, reducing Croatia to a 16,000 square mile crescent protecting Europe from the Turks. In 1699 the Habsburgs recovered all of Croatia and Slavonia and settled Germans and a large number of fleeing Serbs into Slavonia and Vojvodina. Upon the defeat of Napolean, the Congress of Vienna incorporated Illyria into Austria. Although parts of Croatia were governed by different branches of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the eastern borders of Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina were well established by 1848. In the west, Istria, the city of Zadar and several Dalmatian islands would remain under Italian control until 1943.


Even when still an Ottoman principality, Serbia gained territory in 1833 and 1878, bringing its size to some 18,500 square miles. The newly established Serbian state began almost immediately to covet its neighbors lands and developed the official slogan "Serbia must expand or die!" Serbian expansionism was first directed toward the south into Macedonia and west toward the Adriatic through Bosnia and Hercegovina. In order to thwart Serbia's westward expansion, the Austrian protectorate of Bosnia-Hercegovina was annexed to the Empire in October 1908. As various European powers took sides supporting Austria-Hungary or Serbia in diplomatic and military alliances, the groundwork was laid for confrontation and the outbreak of the First World War. Deprived of Bosnia, Serbia turned to Macedonia, then a part of the Ottoman Empire. The Balkan War of 1912 freed Macedonia from Turkey but led to a dispute over the spoils between the victors Bulgaria and Serbia. Aided by Greece and Romania, Serbia defeated Bulgaria and took the lion's share of Macedonia and all of Kosova. Only the establishment of a new Albanian state prevented Serbia from reaching the Adriatic.


When the Croatians elected a Habsburg as their king in 1527, they did so with the understanding that the crown would respect the rights, laws and customs of the Croatian Kingdom. While this principle was often violated by Hungary and Austria, Croatia maintained a great deal of autonomy and its ancient Sabor or Parliament and Ban or Viceroy. By 1914 the Croatians were on the verge of restoring their full political rights within the Empire.

The heir to the throne, Franz Ferdinand, was a liberal thinker who envisioned a new Empire based upon greater recognition of the Kingdom of Croatia. The Prince envisaged replacing the "Dualism" of Austria-Hungary with the "Trialism" of Austria-Hungary-Croatia or even a federal system based upon the American or Swiss model under a single benevolent Emperor. The thought of such a Croatian state, perhaps encompassing Bosnia-Hercegovina, presented a major threat to Serbia's dream of westward expansion and a "Greater Serbia." On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a member of the Serbian terrorist group "Black Hand" assassinated Arch-duke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo. Princip was one of seven assassins sent by Colonel Dragutin "Apis" Dimitrijevic, Chief of Serbian Intelligence. Within weeks the world was at war.


Serbia made no secret of its ambitions in the War. As early as September 4, 1914 the Serbian government circulated a letter to all of its diplomatic missions calling the war an opportunity to create "a strong southwest-Slav state (to) be created out of Serbia, in which all Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes would be included." Serbia was more than willing to bargain away Croatian lands to Italy in a secret annex to the Treaty of London in 1915 in order to fulfill the dream of a Greater Serbia. Making use of the well intended but unelected Yugoslav Committee, Serbia with the backing of the victorious Allies, annexed Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Slovenia and Montenegro in 1918 into the new Kindgom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.

The borders of the Triune Kindgom of Croatia-Slavonia-Dalmatia and those of Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1918 were roughly those that had been in place since 1848. In the north Croatia gained two small territories from Hungary, Medjimurje and Baranja, but lost several coastal islands to Italy in negotiations between 1918 and 1920.

When King Alexander declared himself absolute dictator and changed the name of the country to Yugoslavia in 1929 he abolished the traditional borders and reorganized the country into nine banovinas and the prefecture of Belgrade. Croatia was divided into the 15,649 square mile Banovina of Savska, primarily Croatia proper and Slavonia, and the 7,587 square mile Banovina of Primorska, primarily Dalmatia. While some traditionally Bosnian territory was added to Primorska Banovina, the oil and mineral rich region of Srijem, Croatian since 1718, went to the Serbian Banovina of Dunavska.


From 1918 through 1938, Yugoslavia had thirty-five governments with a total of 656 ministers. Only twenty-six had been Croatians. The top-heavy Army had 161 generals. One, in charge of supply, was a Croatian. In the elections of December 1938 the Croatian Peasant Party and its leader Vlatko Macek were defeated by a very close count of 1,364,524 to 1,643,783 for the royalist government. Given the fraud and terrorism common to all Yugoslav elections, it was obvious that the Peasant Party had won a stunning victory. Even government figures confirmed that over 650,000 Serbs had voted for Macek. Despite this the Stojadinovic government refused to recognize the results or form a coalition government.

Faced with the threat of armed rebellion, Prince Paul sacked Stojadinovic and replaced him with Dragisa Cvetkovic, a former mayor of Nis and a person open to negotiation concerning the "Croatian Question." The result was a Sporazum or Agreement of August 26, 1939 which formed the semi-autonomous Banovina of Croatia covering 38,600 square miles with a population of almost four and one-half million, 80 per cent of whom were Croatian. The new Croatian Banovina was connected to Yugoslavia only in matters of defense, foreign relations and a common postal system. Its borders included all of the two previous Banovinas, portions of western Bosnia and parts of western Hercegovina. Eastern Srijem and the strategic bay of Kotor with the southernmost tip of Dalmatia remained in Serbian hands.


The formation of the Banovina of Croatia was a gesture that could have saved Yugoslavia in 1918, but coming only a week before the outbreak of World War II, it was simply too little, much too late. When Yugoslavia disintegrated at the first sign of German troops, a new Independent State of Croatia, known by its Croatian initials NDH, was founded on April 10, 1941. Its borders, which incorporated Bosnia-Hercegovina, were finalized by the Treaty of Rome on May 18. While Germany was willing to recognize the pre-1918 borders of Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina in the new state, Italy demanded and received most of the Dalmatian coast and set up an occupation zone comprising almost one third of the country. The NDH covered some 46,300 square miles with a population of 6,750,000. Internally the state was divided into 23 prefects or velike zupe which were further divided into 142 districts and cities. Although Italian Dalmatia technically reverted back to the NDH upon the fall of Italy in 1943, much of the region was in Partisan control for the remainder of the War.


Tens of thousands of Croatians fought and died in the 39 Croatian partisan brigades that began the Liberation War under Josip Tito on June 22, 1941. The Partisans promised a new Croatian Republic, with full rights and autonomy, within a new federated Yugoslavia.

After the partisan victory, a commission was established to set the borders of the new Yugoslav state. That commission was headed by Milovan Djilas, a Serb from Montenegro, and included ministers from Serbia, Croatia and Vojvodina. In the west, Croatia regained all of Italian Dalmatia, including Zadar and Istria. After years of negotiations the border was finalized in 1954 with Croatia gaining most of Istria, the city of Zadar and those islands occupied by Italy between the World Wars. In the south, the commission gave Montenegro access to the sea by removing the port of Kotor and the surrounding districts from Croatia. In the north Croatia's border returned to its pre-war configuration with the inclusion of Medjimurje and Baranja which had been Hungarian prior to 1918 and which had been seized by Hungary during World War II.

The borders of the Banovina of Croatia included a great deal of territory traditionally part of Bosnia-Hercegovina, including the cities of Travnik and Mostar. In 1945 the border was returned to 1918 boundaries with minor adjustments in the Bihac area where a number of Croatian villages were given to Bosnia-Hercegovina. But it was on the border with Serbia that Croatia would take its greatest territorial loss in 1945. The oil and mineral rich eastern Srijem region with the city of Zemun, Croatian territory since 1718, but partitioned by Alexander in 1929, was joined to Serbian Vojvodina.


The Croatian people again declared themselves to be free and independent on June 25, 1991. One year later, virtually the entire world had recognized Croatia within the borders designated in 1945. The overwhelming majority of Croatia's twelve hundred mile border is based upon ancient boundaries that Croatia brought with her into Yugoslavia in 1918. In those areas where the borders were changed, Serbia gained and Croatia lost. Despite this basic reality, the Republic of Croatia has made no territorial claims against any other nation; nor has Slovenia, Bosnia-Hercegovina or Macedonia. Serbia and Serbia alone since 1813 has constantly expanded in pursuit of the dream of a Greater Serbia stretching from Bulgaria to the Adriatic Sea. It is a dream that has cost the lives of millions over the past century and one-half and brought the worst fighting to Europe since World War II. How many more will die for Serbia's dreams of empire remains to be seen.