Social Elements in the Croatian National Movement of the Early Seventies: Manipulation or a National Reawakening?


Paper delivered at Ohio Wesleyan University, Delaware, Ohio, 1989

Ante Čuvalo

The Croatian national revival of the late 1960s and early 1970s has been interpreted by official and semi-official observers in Yugoslavia, and also by a number of individuals outside the country, in a negative light. According to them, the movement was a counter-revolution, rotten liberalism, blind and uncontrollable nationalism, or merely a manipulation of the masses by the young and ambitious Communist Party leadership in the republic of Croatia. It is claimed that the movement had gotten out of hand, and, therefore, the regime had no choice but to crush the evil forces that could have brought calamity to the whole country. These and similar assertions, however, are too simplistic. They have been put forward, it seems, mostly for the purpose of justifying the regime’s actions or, in the case of foreign observers, out of fear that any kind of Croatian revival might be perilous to the unity of the Yugoslav state and, therefore, to the balance of terror between the two superpowers.

If one looks a little deeper, however, it is clear that the Croatian movement was a genuine national reawakening and, as such, it became a major challenge to the centralist forces in Belgrade, their allies in Croatia, and to the Communist Party’s monopoly of power, which constantly reinforce each other.

In this presentation, we will look at the Communist Party factions at the time, how different social segments in Croatia responded to the movement, and, at the end, we will offer some general observations on the movement.

Factions in the Party

There were three party factions in Croatia in the early 1970s: conservatives, neoconservatives, and progressives. The conservatives yearned for the “good old days” when the party leadership was in full control of the state and society. Centralism and unitarianism were two main characteristics of their political view regarding the national question in the country. According to their own party comrades at the time, the conservatives were “stricken by panic only by hearing the words Croat, Croatian, Croatian language, or the like. They considered it to be a revival of unhealthy ghosts of the past….. They did not wish to accept the fact that there is no such thing as a Yugoslav nation.”1

The second faction, neoconservatives, emerged after the Tenth Session of the Central Committee of the League of Communists of Croatia in January 1970. The leading members of this group belonged to the liberal reformists party faction in the 1960s. But after a progressive party platform was promulgated at the Tenth Session, some of the former liberals began to disagree with the young top party leadership in the republic over the interpretation and implementation of the platform. As a result, they moved closer to the old conservatives, and these two factions were instrumental in bringing down the progressive party leadership and in crushing the movement.

The party progressives were found among the younger party membership, intellectuals, and at the top of the party leadership at the time. Their main goal was to implement the republic’s liberal party platform which stood for further decentralization of the Yugoslav federal center, a larger role of a market economy, Croatian national emancipation, as well as for a more pluralistic and open society.

One of the main causes of the split between the neoconservatives and the progressives was the question of handling rising Croatian national voices regarding economic, social, cultural, political, and national issues. To the neoconservatives such voices were a threat to the goals and achievements of the Revolution because they were meddling into the domain designated only for the avant-garde of the working class. They especially looked upon the intellectuals as a potential political challenge that “cultivated a deep process of political struggle with the aim of discrediting the party ….2 This party faction, therefore, advocated a policy of the “firm hand” and accused the progressives of not being decisive enough in dealing with, what they claimed to be, a political opposition in the making.

The party progressives in Croatia were heirs to the “national communism” that had been present in Croatia before, during, and after World War II. In accordance with that tradition, they attempted to combine class and national components in Croatian society. In doing so, they legitimized the Croatian national revival and also began to politicize the social elements outside the party. Both of these moves, however, were condemned by the party traditionalists. To combine the “class” and “national” struggle had been an old dualist heresy for the “old believers” in the party. But most of all, the growing politicization of the masses was seen as a threat to the party’s monopoly of power, as well as to the personal power of the “faithful servants” in the party bureaucracy. Thus, it was inevitable that a conflict would arise between those who sought to preserve the political and ideological status quo and those who strived for a change.

In their struggle, each of the groups turned to their natural allies. The conservatives and neoconservatives found a strong support outside of Croatia, most of all at the federal center and the federally controlled forces. (There is a strong likelihood that these two party factions in Croatia were more an instrument of than a partner to the centralist forces.) The progressives, on the other hand, stressed moral, ideological, and historical rights in their arguments and turned to the Croatian people. However, the real balance of power was overwhelmingly on the side of the party traditionalists and the federal center. While the progressives had the masses, their opponents had the military, police, and other federal instruments of power on their side. It is no surprise, therefore, that the progressives were easily defeated when the two sides openly clashed in November 1971.


There were two main groups among the intellectuals in Croatia in the late Sixties. One was gathered around Matica hrvatska (Matrix Croatica), the oldest Croatian cultural institution, and the Croatian University in Zagreb; the other around the Praxisjournal. The Weltanschauung of the Matica and University intellectuals was humanist socialism and internationalism through freedom and equality of every individual and every nation. For them, the world was a rainbow of different races, peoples, and individuals living in harmony. Diversity, racial, and national differences were a blessing and not a curse. They believed that “a uniform world meant a homogenized emptiness.”3

It was this group of intellectuals that initiated and sustained the Croatian national reawakening in the Sixties. They were among the first to raise the question of national and individual rights, as well as of cultural suppression and economic exploitation of Croatia. Their quest was to stop such injustices and to promote full implementation of the principle of federalism, national equality, and self-management.

The second group of Croatian intellectuals was very small in number, but became known outside the country for its criticism of governments in other communist countries, and for its own interpretation of Marx. However, while criticizing the existing socialist order, their own definitions “became pure dogmas at the moment…at which those definitions were applied to existing [social, national, or economic] relations.”4

One of the major differences between the Praxis and Matica groups was that the intellectuals around Matica believed one does not have to step out of national categories in order to come to international humanism, while the other group considered nationalism, by its very nature, to be contrary to socialism and humanism. However, while the Praxis group was always ready to speak on universal issues, they tended to stay aloof from concrete national problems. Furthermore, while stubbornly supporting Yugoslav nationalism, they condemned the Croatian national movement as too constrictive, and their proclaimed humanism and liberalism became very confining, even authoritative, when they dealt with those that disagreed with them.


Since World War II until the late 1960s, university students in Croatia tended to fall into two major camps. In the first were the students who cooperated with the regime, and in the second those who stayed outside the system. While independent student organizations were not tolerated and the existing ones were mere “transmission belts” of the party, many of the students outside the party-controlled organizations were quite often denounced as anti-state elements and persecuted.

During the national revival, the organized student groups became more and more involved in political and national life on their own, and finally in 1970-71 they became independent from the party’s tutelage. As a result, the two student camps were converging into a single force. Furthermore, students at the time, like the nationalist intellectuals, did not oppose the system itself but began to work independently through it. And, in a very short time, students became the most active part of the Croatian national movement, putting the proclaimed party principles to a real test. And even more importantly, the traditional divisions between the pro-regime students and the anti-regime ones were dissipating.

With the election of Ivan Zvonimir Čičak (December 21, 1970) as Pro-Rector of the Croatian University in Zagreb and with the election of the non-party student leadership in Zagreb (April 4, 1971), the students in Croatia finally emerged as an independent social force. They ceased to be an arm of the party and began to chart their own course. They supported the progressive party leadership, worked closely with the leading intellectuals at the University and Matica, and became the heart of the Croatian national revival.

The students’ concerns went far beyond their own interests; they were very much aware of and preoccupied with the economic, social, and political problems of their nation. Like so many other student movements at the time, they had a universal vision of a peaceful global community, but their concerns were also very concrete. They wanted to be “deeply and sincerely Croatian and at the same time international and socialist in the best meaning of the word.” 5

The social background of the Croatian students was mixed. It was, however, no accident that the most active students in the movement came from the regions of Croatia and neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina that had been most economically deprived and politically oppressed by the Belgrade centralism and hegemonism. Thus, their demands were not only national but also social and economic. They stressed that speculations of whether their activities were nationally or class motivated were nothing but pure metaphysics.

While the student movement was accepted as legitimate by the party progressives, the other two factions in the party saw the student activism as a clear threat to the party role in society. The students and the Matica intellectuals were looked upon as a growing political force parallel to the party, and the conservative forces were waiting for an opportune moment to crush them.

The national movement was not limited to the students at the university level. It also involved the secondary school and the Youth Alliance itself, which traditionally had been a hotbed of party recruits. The leadership of the Youth Alliance in Croatia stressed at the time that their organization was not “above or below the interests of people of Croatia” and that the Alliance was “an integral part of the national movement as a whole.”6

Workers and Peasants

Because there were no political or cultural centers, or organizations exclusively for workers and/or peasants, except under the party control, it is very hard to measure how deeply did the movement penetrate these two social groups in Croatia. These two elements make up the largest portion of population in Croatia but it can be stated that this majority was a “crowd” without a specific political or even social framework. The social lines between the two groups had been very much blurred since many workers were at the same time peasants and vice versa and there was not an independent political structure to give an organizational framework to that “crowd.”

The relationship between the party and workers and peasants had been of political nature. Although the party had legitimized its rule and claimed the leading role in society by proclaiming to be the avant-garde of the working class, it had become progressively alienated from the working class, and even more so from the peasants. In 1948, for example, workers represented 30.1 per cent and in 1970 they made up 29.9 per cent of the party membership. At the same time, the peasants constituted 47.8 per cent and 6.5 per cent of the membership for those respective years.7 The relationship between the workers and the regime was described at the time in this way:

The workers have comprehended that under the existing conditions they cannot find solution to their vital problems. They do not want barricades. But the political leaders of the land gave them what is most necessary – they gave them a passport. They did not, however, go to Sofia but to Munich. In this way, they are solving their problems.8

The workers’ problem, however, cannot be put simply into a class problem, because, among other things, massive immigration of the Croatian working class pointed to the national dimension of the difficulties that the worker/peasant class faced.

Probably, the best indicator of the popularity (a fact that even the regime conceded) of the Croatian national movement and a clear sign that it did spread to Croatian villages, factories, and even to all elements of society is the growth of Matica hrvatska. For example, from November 1970 until December 1971, some thirty new branches of Matica were organized in today’s Republic of Croatia. At the same time, its membership grew from 2,300 to 41,000. By the end of 1971, this organization had 33 steering committees to organize new chapters. (One should also keep in mind that Matica was not allowed to organize its branches directly among the workers.) Furthermore, Matica had 14 publications when it was crushed at the end of 1971. Hrvatski tjednik/Croatian weekly, the main voice of the movement, reached a circulation of over 100,000 copies in only 33 weeks of existence. This could not have happened if the nationalist ideas did not find a fertile soil among the Croatian common people.

A possible explanation for this phenomenon can be found in the fact that the Croatian peasant and worker, or better said, a common person, has never adhered to the idea of “Yugoslavism” or Communism. These two ideologies remained alien to the common people; these were ideologies of the elite. That is why none of these ideologies has ever been legitimized in Croatia, and the representatives of both ideologies have been constantly looked upon with mistrust and even with animosity. It was among the common folk where the elementary national identity had been preserved and, most probably the Croatian village played a more important role in post-World War II Croatian nationalism than has been visible on the surface.

Another indicator that the movement was widespread in all regions of the republic, and that it cut through all elements of society, is the official statistics about the party purges in 1972. Out of 741 Party members dismissed before April 1972, 228 were from Osijek (north of the republic), 171 from Split (south), and 213 from Zagreb (center). Out of that number, 85 were workers, 80 “technical intelligentsia,” 96 “humanist intelligentsia,” 288 leadership officials, 144 administrative officials, 56 students, 43 retired personnel, and 37 other.9 The enthusiasm and high hopes among the Croatian masses during the movement, massive purges, and national lethargy in the post-Karadjordjevo period strongly indicate that the movement was a genuine national revival and not merely an artificially concocted crusade by the party leaders, as it has been suggested by a number of analysts in the West.

Concluding Remarks

If taken purely from the functional point of view, every nationalism has, at least partially, a mobilizing role. Thus, the latest Croatian national movement too was a strong mobilizing force. However, if probed deeper, one can easily discern that the movement was much more than a tool in someone’s hands, as it is often portrayed. This movement had a painful birth among the Croatian intellectuals in the early 1960s, and grew very slowly during the process of decentralization of the country after Aleksandar Ranković‘s fall in 1966. As it has been stated earlier, the Croatian national consciousness and desire for national emancipation was preserved in the Croatian society at large, but it was suppressed by the Belgrade regime, more specifically by the infamous Udba and its methods of terror. The reforms of the late Sixties and early Seventies, however, created enough room for a change. Croatians had a strong enough will to take the chance, and try to turn a deep desire for individual freedom and national emancipation into a national movement.

This movement could not have been manipulated by a single group or by an individual, because it was not fully unified not controlled from a single nerve center. One can, perhaps, say that there was a tacit understanding between the different social elements, primarily between the party progressives and the Matica intellectuals, that something should be done to change the fate of the Croatian nation, but there was not a central group that planned the events nor manipulated the masses. Students, for example, went on strike contrary to the party progressives’ wishes and that marked the end of the movement at the beginning of December 1971. Actually, there had been some deep mistrust between the Matica and the progressive party leadership. An indication of this disunity can be even seen in Miko Tripalo’s only interview since 1971 given last year to Mladina (March 11, 1988) in which he talks about “we” and “they”, meaning the party progressives and those at Matica.

That the movement had not been a mere balloon in the hands of the party progressives which lost all the air when it was punctured at the end of 1971, is evident from the official and semi-official assessments of the national situation in the country, which constantly have being pointing out that Croatian nationalism, although in a dormant stage, continues to be present in schools, churches, sport stadiums, the university, among the young and the old alike. If it had only been a superficially created nationalism, without deeper roots in the society at large, it would have disappeared as soon as the increased persecution began. But, because it did grow out of a deep Croatian dissatisfaction with the Yugoslav state and it had the support of the masses, the crush of the movement merely proved to the Croatians that their future was in serious jeopardy in Yugoslavia.

The real issue in December 1971 was not the threat of Croatian nationalism or of counter-revolution. It was a struggle between centralist and decentralist forces, and the party’s fear of losing the monopoly of power. An indication of this, is the notorious meeting of Tito with Croatia’s communist leadership in Karadjordjevo, Bačka (December 1, 1971) where the main discussion centered around the intra-party struggle and not the students’ strike or the so-called counter-revolution. The movement was portrayed as a threat to the country and/or to peace in Europe; and it was simply labeled as ustashism and fascism for the purpose of disarming it of any positive value, so that its suppression and the regime’s terror could be justified in the eyes of the world.

If we look at those events from an historical perspective, the Croatian national movement of the late Sixties and early Seventies, in its goals and methods, corresponds closely to Radić‘s movement of the 1920s. Its methods were peaceful and popular. Its main goals were national self-preservation and emancipation, direct participation in the world rainbow of nations, with its national colors and not through mediators like Vienna, Budapest or Belgrade; its ultimate goal was individual and national freedom.

1 Savka Dapčević-Kučar, Deseta sjednica Centralnog komiteta Saveza komunista Hrvatske (Zagreb: Vjesnik, 1970), p. 8.

2 Jakov Blažević in Zapisnik sjednice iz Karađorđeva (Chicago: Hrvatska tiskara, 1975), p. 185.

3 Vlado Gotovac, “Autsajderski fragmenti,” (III) Kritika Vol. 2, No. 8, 1969, p. 538.

4 Z. C. “Praxisov bijeg od sadašnjosti,” Dometi Vol. 1, No. 2-3, 1968, p. 82.

5 Hrvatsko sveučilište No. 5, April 15, 1971.

6 Mirko Madjor, “Preobražaj Hrvatske – zadatak mladih,” Hrvatski gospodarski glasnik, No. 4, July 5, 1971., p. 22.

7 April Carter, Democratic Reform in Yugoslavia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), p. 261. One should also keep in mind that the percentage of the unskilled workers in the party has been constantly declining.)

8 Ivan Babić, Studentski list, No. 22, October 26, 1971.

9 Izvještaj o stanju u Savezu komunista Hrvatske u odnosu na prodor nacionalizma u njegove redove (Zagreb: SK Hrvatske – CK, 1972), p. 127-130.