At some point in recent history countries became slightly obsessed with referring to themselves as lands of contradiction. It might sound fancy and it’ll probably look good on a poster, but it is important to remember that synonyms for contradiction include such glowing words as ‘flaw’ and ‘conflict’. What’s more this rather bold proclamation seldom holds true when put under any scrutiny, but in the case of Croatia this idea has come to define the nation.
The Croatian capital of Zagreb is a great example. It is Vienna-esque in its façade, all Central European majesty on the outside with an underbelly every bit as gritty as that of Belgrade or Skopje. The main square in town is named after Josip Jelačić, with a statue of the chap on a horse at its centre. This statue was built in 1866 facing the direction of Budapest, removed directly after World War Two and then returned in 1990, only this time facing the home of the new enemy in Belgrade. Rebecca West described it as ‘one of the strangest statues in the world’. Jelačić himself was a man of contradictions, a man who fought for two opposite goals and died bitter and unhappy. But there was one heck of life preceding that of course.
The first contradiction of this most Croatian of heroes is that he was born in the Serbian town of Petrovaradin, next to Novi Sad, in 1801. His family had deep roots in the Habsburg military tradition, and had provided officers to the Empire for 200 years. His father died before his 10th birthday, and Josip was whisked off to study at the Theresian Military Academy in Vienna. His main interests lay in history and languages, and by all accounts Josip was an excellent student.
After graduating, Josip went off to serve the Habsburg Empire in Galicia, a stint that was interrupted by a year of illness in 1824. By all accounts he was a popular soldier and returned to Galicia when his illness subsided. He was promoted to the position of Captain in September of 1830, although the majority of his fights up until this point had merely been against particularly miffed cattle rustlers in Bosnia. Still, the promotions continued, and by 1842 he had become Major General. He was also voted in as Ban of Croatia, although nobody had bothered to ask him beforehand.
Despite sustained efforts to avoid politics Josip was soon officially made Ban of Croatia. The 1840s were a fairly tense and yet exciting time in Croatia. The political life was especially vibrant, particularly after the term ‘Illyrianism ‘ (an early version of what would eventually become the ideology behind Yugoslavia) was banned in 1843. The 1840s were pretty crazy exciting throughout Europe for that matter. A mixture of romanticism, socialism, nationalism, liberalism, raw capitalism, economic crisis (ism?) and a whole pickle jar of other -isms led to revolutionary movements being all the rage throughout the continent. Croatia, which was a separate kingdom united with Hungary under the Austrian Habsburg Empire at the time, was by no means left out of this ism-orgy fiasco.
It was this ism-soaked revolutionary environment that our young Jelačić wandered into in 1842. The Hungarian revolutionary movement was gaining pace, but their liberalism didn’t extend to the Croatians. Lajos Kossuth, who was Governor-President of Hungary at the time, openly stated that he would suppress the Croatian language using the sword if need-be. Needless to say, the Croatian nation was in a bit of a pickle. Josip knew this, and decided that the best course of action was to offer his support to the Habsburgs in the hope that this would be rewarded with total autonomy from the Hungarians. As such, all ties between Hungary and Croatia were severed.
Austria didn’t take too kindly to this initially, seeing it as an act of separatism and declaring the Sabor (Croatian parliament) illegitimate. But the Habsburgs were no dummies, and soon realised that Jelačić and the Croats could be quite useful to them in quashing the Hungarian revolutions. Josip wasn’t so quick to give everything to Vienna, and the Sabor drew up a list of demands for the Habsburg Emperor. These were, in a nutshell (they weren’t presented in a nutshell), demands for the union of all Croatian provinces, the abolition of serfdom, full civil rights and separation from the Kingdom of Hungary.
A fairly reasonable list of demands one might think. On April 19, 1848 he declared the union of the provinces as well as the desire to separate with Hungary. He also proclaimed unconditional loyalty to the Habsburg monarchy. He didn’t get rid of serfdom right away however, as he was a bit short on soldiers and peasants were pretty useful when it came to rounding up bodies. Crass, yes, but this is how it was. This obviously led to protests from various sections of the peasantry, which Jelačić thwarted by executing a number of dissidents, because even our national heroes were assholes in the 19th century.
Things were moving at quite a pace now, and Josip was summoned to Innsbruck. What he wasn’t aware of at the time was that a couple of days earlier the Habsburgs and Hungarians had sealed a deal, a deal including the removal of Josip from his position. Supposedly he found this out at a train station, which is a bit harsh. Josip pretty much ignored it however, and went ahead with his plans. The Hungarians then attacked Sremski Karlovci (Serbia), and encountered some issues with the local Serbs there, because obviously. A meeting between Jelačić and the Hungarian prime minister was to be arranged.
Lajos Batthyany was his name, the first prime minister of Hungary, and I really have no idea how to pronounce that. His name of course, I know how to pronounce Hungary. He called Jelačić a separatist, to which our Josip retorted that it was a rebellion, something the Hungarians should know about. Batthyany told him that this would probably lead to war, in the hope that this would scare off Josip. Jelačić didn’t budge, because Slavs, and the meeting ended with this rather delightful exchange; Batthyany – ‘See you on the Drava’; Jelačić – ‘No need to tire yourself. See you on the Danube’.
Disorder was fast growing into outright chaos, and Jelačić decided to act immediately. This worked in the favour of the Austrians who in turn quickly rescinded his previous sacking and so our hero was to become the Ban once more. Not just that, they also made him commander of all Habsburg troops in Hungary, which isn’t too shabby a deal when you’re about to fight a war there. On September 11 (1848) this army crossed the Drava. His army wasn’t at full strength however, as a lot of the best soldiers were otherwise occupied with fighting revolutionaries in Northern Italy. In their stead he got a lot of useless volunteers, 12,000 of which he eventually sent home after the Battle of Pákozd. This battle was a draw, but further attempted revolutions in Vienna saw Josip called back to the capital of the empire.
The cynicism continued to plummet towards staggering depths, as the Austrians realised that the Jelačić and his band of merry men (Croatians) could be used for just about any purpose that suited them at the time. They didn’t want Jelačić to enter Pest (one of the two cities that would eventually make up Budapest), they only needed him to put pressure on the Hungarians. He did, and when he had done as much as necessary the Croats were pulled back to defend the Empire in Vienna.
This is how empires work in all fairness, but the cynical point here is that all along the Croatians were led to believe that they would be rewarded if the Empire were to survive.
Did Croatia get rewarded? No, no they didn’t. The Austrian Empire survived thanks to the valiant defence of the Croats, and in return they were rewarded with oppression and centralisation. Jelačić did all he could to prevent Magyarisation, and was rewarded with Germanisation by constitution. The only vague reward was the statue of Jelačić that stands in the square that bears his name today, a statue commemorating a Hungarian defeat that was erected whilst Hungary was still fairly dominant over Croatia. Contradictions. Robert Morier, an English diplomat from the good old days (the 19th century), sums up this whole ridiculous situation quite succinctly, when he said that ’…a more wholesale act of injustice, ingratitude, and bad faith, a display on a large scale of mean and paltry spirit, grosser fraud, more clumsily veiled, it would be difficult to meet with in all the pages of history’
As one would expect, this not so victorious victory led to Jelačić’s popularity at home dwindling. He still held a position of relative power, but all of his enthusiasm was gone. He stopped going to Vienna for official meetings. He was under constant police surveillance, due the whole being viewed as a separatist thing. His policy became to save whatever could be saved, like a father whose house has flooded cramming sopping wet family photos into his overstuffed and soggy pockets.
With this entire thing going on it is easy to forget that Josip Jelačić also had a personal life. In 1850, at the age of 49, he married Countess Sophie von Stockau. She was 33 years his junior, which meant she was 16 years old,. They had a child together, Ana, but she died young. The weight of disappointment, personal tragedy and years of fruitless fighting had taken their toll on Josip, and he died of advanced syphilis and insanity in 1859. His ideals had been annihilated by the regime he had helped to save.
Jelačić wasn’t exactly remembered fondly throughout the 20th century, but it truly depended on which foot your shoe sat. The communists lambasted and ridiculed his puppy-like slavishness to Austria, renaming the main square in Zagreb ‘Republic Square’ and removing his statue. Croat nationalists praised him as heroic defender of their national rights. The statue would remain in the basement of Zagreb’s Gliptoteka Gallery all the way up until the bleeps on Yugoslavia’s life support machine began to sound further apart in 1990.
His reputation has since been completely rehabilitated, and today the Croatians consider him a national hero, hence the statue. He is remembered fondly, although he didn’t achieve anything for the nation outside of them being taken advantage of a little more than normal by the Austrians. His contradictory goals of fighting for the good of his native land as well as for a powerful, undivided Austria left Croatia broken and miserable. But hey, at least he received the first telegram sent in South Eastern Europe!
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