Myth: The Croatian twenty-five field "chessboard" coat-of-arms and the red, white and blue flag bearing that coat-of-arms are Fascist symbols.
Reality: The ancient Croatian coat-of-arms has been used for hundreds of years by every Croatian government, and was used by both royalist and Communist Yugoslavia.
The tale that the Croatian coat-of-arms is a symbol of Fascism is a very new myth that, like many others, was created by the Serbian apologist writers David Martin and Nora Beloff and has been repeated by some other ill informed reporters. "They waved the Croat checkered flag-something akin to waving a Confederate flag at an NAACP meeting" wrote the Christian Science Monitor. Today again the Ustashe flag has been raised" cried Nora Beloff in the Washington Post. "Mr. Tudjman's decision to adopt a flag modeled on the Ustashe flag has only made matters worse," lamented David Martin writing in the New York Times.
It is ironic that those who repeat this myth do not mention or perhaps do not know that the government of Serbia from 1945 onward continued to use the same coat-of-arms used by the Nazi government of General Milan Nedic during World War II. The Serbian arms, which appeared so prominently on the world' s most viciously anti-Semitic postage stamps during the War, continued to be proudly displayed by the Communist Serbian regime.
The Hrvatski Grb or Croatian shield is one of the oldest national symbols in Europe. The true origins of the Grb have been lost to antiquity. Croatian mythology once said that King Stjepan Drzislav who ruled Croatia from 969 to 997 defeated a Venetian prince at chess to maintain Croatia's freedom. In fact Venice was defeated by Croatia in a sea battle in 887 and was forced to pay tribute to Croatia until 1000. There are many other myths regarding the origins and the exact design of the shield. Many scholars believe that the Croatians originated in what became modern day Persia or Afghanistan where they were mentioned in the cuneiform inscriptions of the Persian King Darius the Great (522-486 B.C.E.). The design of the Grb, red and white alternating fields, may have been related to the ancient Persian system linking colors with direction which gave us such terms as the Red Sea and the Black Sea. The terms White Croatia and Red Croatia for western and southern Croatia were still in use well into the eleventh century. Silver seems to have been interchangeable with white throughout history.
The oldest known use of the Grb in Croatia is to be found on the wings of four falcons on a baptismal font donated by King Kresimir IV (1056-1073) to the Archbishop of Split. The Grb was used on document seals from the fifteenth century and can be found dating from 1490 in the cathedral of Sinj and a church on the island of Krk. Although the Grb is usually in its classic five-by-five form, there are numerous variations in history. One example is the charter of the Croatian Sabor or Parliament dated January 1, 1527 displays a shield of sixty four fields. Perhaps best known to Croatians and tourists alike is the roof tile design of historic St. Mark's church in old Zagreb incorporating the coat-of-arms of the triune Croatian Kingdom and the City of Zagreb. St. Mark's was built in the thirteenth century and beautifully restored between 1876 and 1882.
Red or White?
Croatians have debated for generations whether the first of the twenty-five fields should be in white or red. Historically, red was more common for Croatia proper while white was more common in Bosnia. For most of Croatia's history both versions could be found. Prior to the revolution of 1848 red was most common. In 1848 the design was codified with twenty-five fields beginning with a white field. The Grb was incorporated into the state arms of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as can be found on the beautiful coinage of Empress Maria Theresa.
When the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes which would become Yugoslavia was formed in 1918, the first field reverted to red. King Alexander Karageorgevic ordered the Yugoslav coat-of-arms and his personal arms to incorporate the Grb, red field first. It is ironic that those who called the Grb an affront to all Serbs were unaware that it was superimposed on the Serbian double-headed eagle by the last Serbian King and remained there throughout the life of royalist Yugoslavia. Even in exile the Serbian would-be royalty continued to use the Croatian coat-of-arms as a part of their royal seal.
Following years of struggle for greater autonomy, Croatia became a semi-autonomous Banovina in 1939. The Banovina retained the Grb, red premier field and added a Crown above the shield. The Ustase regime of World War II changed the first field to white and replaced the Royalist crown with a "U" for Ustase above the shield.
When the Partisans emerged victorious in 1945 they introduced a Soviet-style coat-of-arms with the usual sheaves of grain surmounted by a red star. Prominently in the center of the shield was the ever-present twenty-five field Grb with the first field back to red. It was the Communists who first insisted that red and only red could be used. At one time it was a crime to display the Grb with a premier white field. Whether through error or intent, the last Constitution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia adopted in 1974 displayed the arms of Croatia with a white premier field!
In May 1990 when democracy was restored, tens of thousands of red, white and blue flags with the ancient Hrvatski Grb appeared from hiding places to replace the red star of Communism. The new Croatian government retained the traditional Croatian shield, red field first, with a five pointed crown representing the coats-or-arms of five of Croatia's historical regions.
The Croatian flag and the Croatian coat-of-arms were carried into battle against the Turks. They were carried into battle by Croatian-American GIs in World War I, and they were carried joyously through the streets of Croatia in 1990. The flag and coat-of-arms pre-date the arms of many European states and were in common use when Columbus set sail for India only to bump into America along the way. This is the proud reality of the Hrvatski Grb.