So Much History

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One of the challenges in explaining to my American friends or family anything about Croatia is that it generally involves more than Croatia. Trying to just get a grasp on Croatian history requires you to understand Roman history, the Republic of Venice, the Hapsburg monarchy, and the Ottoman Empire, to name a few. To know a lot about Croatia you have to know a little bit about everywhere else.

The fact that Croatia or Croats, more specifically existed for hundreds of years at the intersection of three great empires, managed to endure conflicts, shifting borders and political machinations, kind of makes the story of America seem less impressive and A LOT simpler. Here I’ll summarize it in one sentence: Some Europeans showed up on a boat, killed the Indians, had a war with England, over a few years moved West, while inviting their other European friends to come over and eventually granted freedom to their slaves from Africa.

A longer story

Try telling the story of Croatia in one sentence. Go on, I’ll wait… pretty tough to do, huh? We are talking about a thousand years of history vs four hundred. And the ability to make American history into a simple narrative might help explain why Americans are so ignorant about our own history. There are about a billion online videos testifying to how little Americans know about the past.

I feel like to be or to live in Croatia requires an ability to understand the country’s complex history. Even at the local level you have to do this to a certain extent. Look at Split. To understand Split you have to know it was built by a Roman emperor, which means you should probably have an idea who or what Roman emperors did. Then you have to know it was controlled by the Venetians, and finally you can even end up talking about Napoleon, and that doesn’t even include the 19th or 20th centuries!

Ever aware of the past

I’m not saying that every Croatian walks around constantly thinking about the past. Nor, do I think all Croatians have a historian’s amount of knowledge in their heads. But, my experience has shown that most everyone knows something about the country or their town’s history. And they usually have an opinion about it.

And this is where Croatians differ from Americans. For Americans history feels both simple and far removed. Americans have a hard time linking the consequences of past events to their outcomes in the present, even though they’re there. In Croatia, the past is complicated and ever present, which might explain why so much of the country’s political debate continues to revolve around it. What that means for our future, well, there’s probably a clue in the past. But, what do I know? After all, I’m just an American.