Croatian Culture

Core Concepts

Primary Author
Chara Scroope,

Croatia is a relatively new nation state (formed in 1991), and this fact has played an important role in shaping contemporary Croatian culture. Once a part of the former state known as Yugoslavia, Croatia often seeks acknowledgement as a country and culture that is independent from other Eastern European states and their associated cultures. continues to play a large role in Croatian culture, particularly in terms of identity formation and interactions. Moreover, Croatians often take great pride in their country’s cultural heritage and maintain a strong sense of loyalty to their nation, regional identities and families.

Ethnic Interactions

A variety of groups coexist within the country, in part due to the fact that the lands that make up modern-day Croatia were once part of the former Yugoslavia. In contemporary Croatia, approximately 90.4% of the population identify as Croat, 4.4% identify as Serbian, 4.4% identify as some other (including Bosniak, Hungarian, Slovene, Czech and Roma) and 0.8% are unspecified (est. 2011). While Serbs make up the largest minority group, the total number of Serbs fell dramatically after the conflicts for independence and the resulting breakup of Yugoslavia.

In Croatia, , religious affiliation and language tend to correlate with one another. The association between religion and influences social perceptions such that one’s is considered to indicate one’s religious affiliation. Those of Croat tend to identify as Roman Catholic while Serbs tend to identify as Eastern . In terms of language, those who identify as Croat speak Croatian while Serbs speak Serbian. Although the languages of the former Yugoslav states are quite similar – particularly Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian – political developments since the collapse of Yugoslavia have encouraged the three groups to emphasise the differences among their languages, meaning that language is quite a political topic.

Interactions between Croats and Serbs are often quite tense, while the relationship between Bosnians and Croatians is generally harmonious. Croats abroad may be quite conscious of showing national pride as they fear having an unpleasant encounter with Serbs.

The ‘Homeland War’ (1991-1995)

In the post-WWII period, Croatia was a republic governed under the unified communist state of Yugoslavia, led by Josip Broz Tito. In 1991, a referendum voted overwhelmingly in favour of Croatia becoming an independent republic, thus leading to Croatia’s declaration of independence from Yugoslavia. The immediate post-independence period, tagged as the ‘Homeland War’ (also known as the ‘Croatian War of Independence’), entailed a four-year struggle against occupying armies from the former Yugoslav state of Serbia. Many families were impacted, as it was common for families to have members who were part of the battle.

The underpinning rationale for the Homeland War was to create a “Croatia for Croatians”. This reasserted divides, particularly with Serbs. However, tensions between Croats and Serbs had a long history before being further strained during the Homeland War. For many Croats and Serbs, there is much grief and sorrow that runs deep into the memories of many generations, thus making the process of reconciliation complex. The aftermath of the conflict entailed widespread reconstruction of the country’s economy and infrastructure. Today, it is common to find many Croatians in Croatia working multiple jobs in order to economically support themselves and their family.

Simultaneously, many experience a feeling of ‘Yugo-nostalgia’. This feeling reflects the nostalgia people from former Yugoslav states may feel towards their country during the pre-war days. Indeed, many Croats feel aggrieved about the difficulties that arose since Croatia gained independence, which was not present during the unification of Yugoslavia. Such difficulties include less social security, problems with healthcare, struggles to attain a work-life balance, poor job prospects and the overt involvement of the Catholic Church in the political sphere. This sense of nostalgia also reflects the resurgence in interest in the arts, music, culture and lifestyle of Croats before the war.

There is a generational divide when it comes to experiences and feelings towards the Homeland War. Those who were mature during the war find it difficult to speak about Serbia. When discussions about the tensions between Serbia and Croatia do arise, it may evoke emotions of sorrow, grief and/or anger. The older generation passed on their experiences of the conflict to subsequent generations, who may speak more openly about it.

National and Personal Identity

The post-independence political atmosphere saw Croatians question and reflect upon their own personal and national traditions, history and identity. This made room for the Croatian national identity to be shaped to reflect that of the Croat majority. However, despite state efforts to construct a national state identity, not all Croatians subscribe to the ethnonational vision. Construction of identity is often influenced by regional/local identities, traditions and experiences, with many Croatians feeling strongly towards their region’s distinctive folklore, language, dialect and food. This attachment to locality, along with many years of shared experiences and memories, tends to outweigh the desire for a distinctively national Croatian identity.

Croatians often seek respect and recognition as a culture that is distinct from other cultures from the former Yugoslavia. Indeed, Croatians do not appreciate being referred to as 'Yugoslavian'. As the largest group, Croats tend to think of themselves as more closely linked with Austrian and Viennese culture rather than with the other cultures of the former Yugoslavia. Croatians often wish for others to acknowledge Croatia's distinctiveness from neighbouring cultures and countries. However, while Croatians want to be seen as 'European', attempts to be identified as such have been largely unsuccessful. The journey to become a part of the European Union (EU) was difficult, taking much longer than anticipated for the country to integrate into the EU. Thus, Croatians still tend to refer to greater Europe as 'those Europeans' rather than 'we Europeans'.

Collectivism and Loyalty

The Croatian proverb, ‘tko ce kome ako ne svoj svome’ (‘who will you help if not your own’) reflects the nature of Croatian society. Croatians are generally very loyal people and show long-term commitment to members of their family, extended family or extended relations. A common metaphor used among Croats to describe their loyalty and identity is that of a single group of people who share the same blood. Croatians are hardworking and will often use the fruits of their labour for the benefit of their family.

For Croatians abroad, there is a tendency to try and keep a connection with their hometown. Some migrants are from the older generation who left their rural ancestral homes due to the war or in search of economic security, while the more recent migration of Croatians abroad is driven by the search for jobs. It is common to find Croatian remaining in touch with political developments in their hometowns and their homeland more generally. They may do so through various Croatian clubs or by visiting their hometown and family when possible.

Folklore and Nationhood (Narod)

Historical memories of the nation, shared through folklore and myths, are important to many Croatians. These artistic mediums, as well as those of poetry, music and dance, play a notable role in unifying Croatians. Such artistic expressions are influenced and inspired by the life experiences of Croatians, particularly those who reside in rural areas. This is in part due to the romanticising of rural lifestyles and traditions as the ‘soul’ of the country during the post-independence period of the country. The association between folk culture and nationhood is reflected in the Croatian word ‘narod’, which means both ‘folk’ and ‘nation’. However, the capital city of Zagreb is increasingly taking on a new role as the country’s cultural centre. Indeed, the youth of Croatia often prefer the lifestyle in larger cities, and few return to their hometowns.

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