#13 Comparing Slovenia with Croatia: So Near, Yet So Different (August-September, 2007)
Superficial Differences Told a Tale
When we pedaled from Austria into Slovenia, we saw the contrasts, the things that were different between those two cultures. After being in Croatia several weeks and then looking back on our experience in Slovenia, what I then saw was the contrasts between Slovenia and Croatia and the similarities, not the differences, between Slovenia and Austria.
Our first accommodations in Slovenia at Lake Bled were the worst in that country and had highlighted the Austria-Slovenia difference. The little room smacked of stereotypic, Eastern European deficiencies, like the bathroom floor drain being on the highest point instead of the lowest point of the floor.
But when looking back on each place we stayed while in Slovenia, even at Lake Bled, we had to admit that all had had a "completed" feeling. The slanted Mansard roof ceilings with little windows were annoying and the sizes and configurations of the spaces often left us disappointed, but the functional quality of the abodes was always high. All but 1, which was a terrific ski-season apartment, were less pleasing than we wanted in the moment, but they were always satisfactory. And usually we were content enough to take the first place we inspected when in Slovenia.
We only appreciated that our Slovenian accommodations were
highly functional and primarily lacked eye-appeal once we were in Croatia. In
Croatia, serious gaps in function became the norm and we declined to stay at the
worst of them. Unless we were in a real hurry or bind, we usually averaged looking at 4
different establishments before making a selection when in Croatia.
B&B-type accommodations and tourist apartments in Croatia often weren't purpose built and were sometimes a strange collection of rooms. In Opatija, our private bathroom and private kitchen were across the common area hallway instead of contiguous with our sleeping room. We were the only guests in that area, so the awkward situation still met our privacy needs. In an otherwise nicely designed apartment in Starigrad, we danced around a big propane tank blocking access to the kitchen countertop space. The brand new, built-in refrigerator had never worked at all.
In Croatia, we often heard ourselves saying "What's so hard
about......?" Our comments usually revolved around someone not completing
the job or not staying on top of the maintenance work: "What's so hard about making the
propane tank fit in the kitchen cabinet?" "What's so hard about doing the
finishing work?" came up after looking at the 3" gaps between the door
frame and the tile work in the lobby toilet rooms in one Croatian hotel.
Everything else in the room was shiny and fresh, they just never completed the
finishing work around the door.
Based on the almost-not-quite details in our room at the same hotel, I'd say
that none of it was ever going to get finished.
Twice we bought-up at Croatian hotels to get some relief from the long list of function problems and we succeeded in getting full respite at just 1 of the 2. My joke to Bill when we got stuck with a very poor-value place in Split was: "How do you know you have a $100 room in Croatia?" The answer: "The management provides a bucket for the leaky plumbing--you don't have to find your own."
We struggled to understand why the Slovenians and so many other nationalities can complete the task of putting a tourist room together properly and it is such a struggle for the Croatians. For some of the private room owners, I can believe it is because they are strapped for cash. But many of the deficiencies reflected a lack of will or energy, not a lack of money: the owners could tend to that 2" string of caulk flapping on the bathroom door. But the lack of funds doesn't cut-it for the hotels. The hotels should be setting a standard for their contractors and they should have completed projects.
In addition to the 'not quite right' quality of accommodations, the private grounds around the homes of Croats often looked trashy, with heaps of rusting cans, cars, and other clutter abounding. Much of the eye-sore quality of the homesteads could have been resolved with some elbow-grease, some "Saturday afternoon clean-up effort" and wouldn't require a cash outlay.
The Slovenes must regularly expend that extra bit of effort
to keep their property maintained as we
didn't recoil there like we did when in
Croatia. It didn't come to mind in Slovenia, presumably because it was a
seamless transition from Austria to Slovenia in the tidiness quotient. But
we did admire finishing touches, like this rural bee box building with each box
painted with a different outdoor scene and a small carved bear with a honey
bucket in his mouth.
Stepping back a bit farther to look for explanations is when I found myself reciting stereotypic labels. The Slovene personality as reflected in their property came across as energetic, motivated, industrious, and with pride in a job well done. In contrast, our experience of the Croats as reflected in their relationship with their property elicited labels like: passive; readily settle for "just good enough"; and only investing enough time or money to achieve the function needed, rather than taking the next step to tend to the aesthetics or convenience.
How Did They Become So Different?
"How did they become so different?" That's a question I know parents ask as they look at their children. They see their several children raised in such similar environments by the same parents with unchanging values and standards and yet their children often develop into incredibly different people. How motivated they are, what they are motivated to do, what they value, and how successfully they interact with the outside world are just the beginning of the long list of characteristics that significantly differentiate siblings. In the same way, I wondered how the Slovenes and Croats could be so different.
Their common border at the northern end of the Balkan Peninsula subjected them to some similar geographic pressures. They were both settled by Slavic peoples migrating from the east around the same time. They were both dominated by neighboring Empires and States over the centuries. They both struggled against oppressors to retain their ethnic identities. They both were partners in the Yugoslavia Federation for almost half of the 20th century. And they joined together with common ideals when trying to reshape Yugoslavia into a more democratic system in 1990. And yet, like siblings in a family, our experience of the people of the 2 nations was wildly different.
Northern Versus Southern Influences
My early pondering of the factors leading to the development of such different Slavic cultures in Slovenia and Croatia revealed an important flaw: I thought that both Slovenia and Croatia had long histories of domination by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I thought that the outside influences that they had experienced for many centuries were from the same Germanic culture, but I was wrong. An overview of the early and late histories of Slovenia and Croatia reads the same, but the thousand or so years in between reads quite differently.
Pre- & Post-Roman Times
Both Slovenia and Croatia were invaded by Illyrians (Indo-Europeans) around 1000 bce or later. Both were then inhabited by Celtic tribes that brought iron technology with them. Next, both were folded into the Roman Empire and were peppered with magnificent cities and linked with the legendary Roman road systems.
And both were invaded and ultimately settled by Slavic tribes in the 6th and 7th centuries during the Great Migrations after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Then between 750 and 800 ce, Charlemagne's Frankish army was seizing territory and Christianized the region. So, for at least 1800 years, from the Bronze Age until about 800ce, the people in the current lands of Slovenia and Croatia had a lot of shared experiences and similar cultural pressures.
But for about the next 1000 years, the mix of the outside influences on Slovenia and Croatia were quite different. Slovenia's pressures were predominately Germanic with minor interruptions and Croatia's was nothing short of chaotic, with the pressures coming less from Germanic neighbors and more from Italy, the south, and the east.
Additionally, Croatia having an angular shape along a coastline meant that the folks on the long, skinny, roughly north-south coastline were hassled by different forces than their inland counterparts on more of an east-west axis. Slovenia, being generally circularly-shaped, experienced its outside pressures more uniformly throughout the country.
Middle Ages to the 19th & Early 20th Centuries
The summary of Slovenia's history from about the 10th century to the end of WWI is a pretty quick read. A formal "Germanization" strategy was devised in the 10th century, with German gentry being imported from the west to supervise the Slovenes. Once the Germanic Hapsburg's were well organized in the 13th century, Slovenia was largely under their control. Early on, Venice and Hungary nibbled on the edges of Slovenia, but the larger region was predominantly under continuous Hapsburg rule for centuries. The waves of attacks by the Ottoman Turks that terrorized southeastern Europe took its toll on the Slovenes, but the Ottomans never took control of the land for long. Though the Slovenes staged revolts and uprisings against the outside rule, the Germanic domination remained in place with little interruption until the dissolution of the Hapsburg dynasty in 1918.
A summary of Croatia's history from about the 9th century to the end of WWI is more tangled than Slovenia's. First, the pressures from the outside vary whether you are looking inland or at the coast, and second, the pressures on the coast were different in the north and the south.
In the 9th century the Byzantine Empire, the surviving
Eastern Roman Empire based in Anatolia (modern Turkey), was the dominant force on Croatia's
Dalmatian or southern coast. In the 10th century, Venice began invading
Dalmatia from the northwest. About this same time in the north of Croatia, Hungary was invading towards
Dalmatia but it was unable to take control of the coast because of the Byzantine
attack on Hungary. Venice's control of the coast held to varying degrees until
the late 1700's but there were repeated assaults from Hungary. Various Croat
nobility were able to rule small regions from time to time despite the presence
When Byzantium fell in 1453, the Ottoman Turks invaded Croatia. For the better part of 200 years, the Ottomans controlled much of inland Croatia up to the northern cities, though not along the coast. The Hapsburg's only had a dominate influence in Croatia for about 100 years, from the end of the Napoleonic Empire in 1815 until the end of WWI. But even on the coast of Croatia the culture remained Italian as the Hapsburg's restored the Italian elite as the ruling powers.
This 1000 year interval in Croatian history is much more complicated than Slovenia's and involves more players, more turn-about's, and substantially more potent influences from Mediterranean and southeastern Mediterranean cultures than from the Germanic countries. Additionally, the invaders of Croatia hailed variously from Catholic, Orthodox, and Islamic traditions, whereas the Slovenian peoples were primarily exposed to Catholicism and Protestantism.
My best way to make sense of the current differences between the peoples was to yield to well-established stereotypes of the more northern, more Germanic peoples and the more southern, more Mediterranean peoples and agree that there really is something to the stereotypes. It seems credible that it was the effects of this thousand year interval of northern European culture on Slovenia that has us describing the people as industrious, focused, motivated, ambitious, and eager. And seems like it could be the thousand year history of multiple Mediterranean cultural influences that has us looking at Croatia and saying "Why don't they clean it up, finish the job, do it right the first time? However, observations from our travels have yet to identify the forces that's resulted in those stereotypic differences between northern, Germanic and southern, Mediterranean cultures.
The Rest of the Story: The 20th Century
In the 20th century, after a thousand or so years of wildly divergent experiences, the histories of Slovenia and Croatia suddenly run parallel again. From WWI until the 1990's, the big players and the major outcomes were the same but appeared to have had little influence on the underlying cultural values of these 2 regions.
At the end of WWI, Slovenia and Croatia threw their lot in with Serbia, forming the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes which was based in Belgrade, Serbia. Both the Croats and Slovenes were concerned about domination by Serbia, but hoped for more independence than they'd had under Italy and Austria. Their fears were soon realized. Belgrade signed treaties giving chunks of Slovenia and Croatia to others and Belgrade instituted polices that favored it over Slovenes and Croats.
WWII was a chaotic time for both, with their Kingdom eventually siding with Germany and Italy. What remained of Slovenia was parceled out to other countries and a strong partisan movement developed. Croatia began a vicious era of ethnic cleansing, mainly targeting Jews, Romas (Gypsies), and Serbs in a way that even the Nazi's found brutal. After the war, Croatia and Slovenia were again amalgamated with Serbia and 3 other republics to form Yugoslavia. Once again, the Serbian interests dominated the new federation for the next 50 years.
The last decade of the 20th century began with Croatia and Slovenia being on the same independence track, but their very different pasts seemed to commit them to different outcomes.
Slightly Different Constitutions Charted Wildly Different Futures
In 1990, Slovenia and Croatia jointly proposed a democratic confederation with the other Yugoslav republics to replace the communist system. Serbia, who wanted to keep the family together under its control, made it clear that the new proposal was unacceptable. In December of 1990, both Slovenia and Croatia voted in new constitutions that relieved them of Belgrade's tight control.
An important difference in the fundamental attitudes of the Slovenes and Croats was reflected in their new constitutions and charted very different courses for the 2 countries, courses that are still dominating outcomes today.
constitution created a sovereign state based on democracy and a respect for
human rights. Two of Slovenia's minority groups, the Hungarians and Italians, each represent a fraction of 1% of their population
but were protected in the
constitution and were assigned special deputies in parliament to ensure their rights.
In contrast, Croatia's new democratic constitution did not protect minority rights, which triggered immediate and severe ethnic discrimination. Soon the Serbian population that represented 12% of Croatia's people were demanding autonomy as a means of protecting themselves in a way that the constitution did not.
Their Constitutions Shaped Their Wars for Independence
In the summer of 1991, Slovenia pulled out of the Yugoslav Federation and Serbian troops moved in to fight the secessionist actions. The Serbs poised themselves to bomb Slovenia but the predecessor group to the EU intervened with negotiations. By the end of the year, Slovenia had established itself as an independent country. Since there were no disputes over borders or minority issues to resolve, it was a clean break once Serbia was resigned to it.
Slovenia's "war" for independence from the Serbians lasted 10 days. Only 66 lives were lost. Once the war was over, the Slovenes went on with their lives with the sovereignty they had craved for over a thousand years. They had looked to Germany as a model in the 1980's and Germany responded as an involved mentor and advocate in this process.
In contrast, by the summer of 1991 Croatia was at war with
its own Serbian citizens and the Serbian backed Yugoslav People's Army because of its
for minority rights. The fighting and seizing of territory continued
episodically into 1995. The number of people killed in relation to Croatia's involvement in
these 1990's Balkan Wars runs at least in the ten's of thousands, with hundred's
of thousands of people unhappy and still displaced. And if the death, destruction, and ill-will of war wasn't
enough of a set-back for Croatia, the people also suffered mightily from
corruption and privatization scandals after the fighting settled down.
How the Past is Shaping the Future
The phenomenally different outcomes for Slovenia and Croatia in the 1990's seem to have had 2 main sources: the differences in the ethnic diversity within their countries and the different posture their people take in relationship to their past.
Slovenia does appear to have an edge over Croatia in both of these differences--an advantage that was underscored when they both undertook to form a sovereign nation. Slovenia's quieter thousand-year history under Germanic rule resulted in less ethnic diversity than in Croatia and Slovenia's greater cultural homogeneity made their political processes more straightforward. Additionally, the Slovenes seem to have found a more successful relationship to their past than the Croats.
The Slovenes seem to look to their past and recognize it has shaped their reality, but they leave it in the past and live in the moment with an eye to the future. They appear to be able to let bygones be bygones.
In the 1980's when the central control of the republics was loosening in Yugoslavia, Slovenia looked to its old enemy Germany as a model and mentor. The Slovenes could look beyond the sometimes brutal domination by their Germanic oppressors over the last thousand years and the atrocities of the Nazis 60 years ago to invest in their future. They saw modern Germany as the model they wanted to follow and asked Germany for its help. The public display of their history in museums and memorials acknowledges past oppression by Germanic (and other) nations, but it clearly leaves it in the past.
The Croats appear to us to be more caught up in hatred and revenge than 'forgive and forget'. While Slovenia was asking Germany for guidance in the 1980's, Croatia was erecting a bronze memorial in 1981 to document the Nazi violence they suffered in WWII. And this was despite Croatia suffering under Germanic rule for relatively brief intervals compared to what Slovenia experienced.
We were also shocked when in Dubrovnik at the display board indicating the site of each bomb and shrapnel bit that hit the city during the 1991-2 war. On this info board as well as in the Memorial Room of Dubrovnik Defenders from the same interval, the "Yugoslav Army, Serbs and Montenegrins" are itemized as the perpetrators of the war damage to their city and people.
The public grieving and honoring of losses are important in healing but sadly, nowhere in Croatia where we've seen such discussion of the war, is their any mention of their dirty hands in the 1990's war. Instead, of a tone of reconciliation or shared culpability, the Croatian focus seems to be on "naming and shaming" and sustaining a culture of hatred. It's such a contradiction as many of the memorials are shrouded with religious symbols but are devoid of the better of the religious messages. In contrast, we never sensed this 'perpetual victim' stance in Slovenia's portrayal of its history.
In addition to a less healthy relationship to their
collective past compared with the Slovenes, the Croats political world is also
made more complicated by greater ethnic diversity than in
Slovenia. But it seems that the greater diversity over so many
centuries would have heightened the Croats awareness of a need to deal with it in a constructive way.
But instead, they seem to be stuck on dealing with it in the same destructive
way as they did in the past. During WWII when external authority was lessened,
the Croats responded with ethnic-based genocide within their borders, which is
what they did again in the 1990's war.
While we were in Croatia this September, they were again making ugly headlines in the international news. They were both protesting The Hague's trial results for the war crimes committed in the 1990's war and venting their fears that they will lose their freedom if they join the EU. We certainly weren't up to speed on the details of either issue but our reaction based on our other experiences was one of "Get over it." To us, it seemed like an extension of this chip on the shoulder attitude they have as a country that perpetuates the cycles of violence and hatred. It seems that the Croats are committed to dragging the animosity of the past into their future whereas their Slovene neighbors seem to honor their past without it contaminating their future.
As we've traveled and looked at individuals and countries of individuals, it's become all the more clear how important it is to tell the truth, to fess up to one's mistakes, and to forgive others. The people and the countries that appear to be fairing the best and the one's with the brightest futures are those that can come clean about their misdoings and reach out the olive branch to others. Countries like Croatia look doomed as they keep pointing the finger at others and understating their own misdeeds. Keeping the hatred alive seems to keep them poised for another chapter of violence. In contrast, their Slovene neighbors seem to have shed the pains of their history like an old skin and have left it behind.
My 'simplistic dichotomy' approach to deciphering what we have seen in Croatia and Slovenia is based largely on our experience and not from being well-read on the subject. I'd love to hear from you if you are better informed or have drawn different conclusions from your experiences.
Where We Are Now: Nowhere's-ville on the western Sicilian coast, November 20,
A week ago we hopped on a ferry for a half hour ride from Italy's mainland port of Reggio di Calabria and landed in Messina, Sicily. From there, we took a couple of trains to get to the western tip of the island, at Trąpani. Trąpani is our departure point for Germany on December 1, so we wanted to line-up a storage place for the bikes. Having done that, we took off south on our bikes for a history tour of Sicily's west coast. We'll be back in Trąpani on November 28 to begin sorting our gear into 2 piles: staying in Italy with the bikes or flying home with us.