The Evolution and Use of the Croatian Coat of Arms

Article excerpt

Hiram W. Johnson's (1866-1945) statement that "the first casualty when war comes is truth" has often been invoked by authors describing the behaviour of governments during times of war. Certainly, the propaganda efforts launched by the warring parties in the former Yugoslavia have been commented on by countless writers. At the same time, those considered neutral and outside commentators have introduced grand simplifications of their own, wherein the conflict in the former Yugoslavia is attributed to "ancient" and "irascible" hatreds seething beneath the skin of the Balkan savages.1

Years before war erupted in former Yugoslavia the various factions had launched vilification campaigns which demonized the other side. As Ivo Banac and others have shown, equating of the term Croatianism to Ustasism,2 fascism and genocide by the Belgrade media was in full swing by late 1989.3 In many instances Western commentators covering the region often followed suit and restated or simply accepted these various representations. A particularly unsettling example of this is the oft repeated assertion that the coat of arms appearing on the flag of the Republic of Croatia (plate 11) is an "Ustasa" and "fascist" symbol. Furthermore, many have argued that the adoption of this symbol was a provocation to Serbs living in Croatia and therefore partially responsible for their taking up of arms.4

With respect to scholarly literature, the same descriptions of the Croatian coat of arms and the same rationales for Serbian rebellion can be found as in the press. A representative example of this appeared in a 1994 book which provides this explanation of Serbian fears and, ultimately, justification for their rebellion:

This fear grew even stronger when the new Croatian leadership lost no time in wiping out the symbols of "socialist Croatia" and restoring all the symbols (flag, coat of arms, and so on) of the [Ustasa] state that had been responsible for mass murders of Serbs, Jews, Gypsies, and, of course, "unyielding Croats" during the Second World War.5

The charge that the Croatian government adopted a "fascist" and "Ustasa" flag and coat of arms is very serious and therefore merits closer examination. This paper will endeavour to examine the historical appearance of the Croatian coat of arms to determine whether the contention that it is a "fascist" and "Ustasa" symbol can hold up to critical scrutiny.

Among the many coats of arms used for Croatian lands throughout history,6 the coat of arms in whose shield is contained red and white (silver) or white (silver) and red squares arranged in a 5x5 pattern was known as the "chess field" or "checkered" coat of arms. Throughout the centuries it also appeared in arrangements of 3x3, 4x6, 4x7, 5x6, 6x6, 8x8, etc., red and white squares. Due to its centuries long tradition it became the most used and most significant coat of arms of Croatia.7

The precise origin and date when it was first introduced has not been determined, leading to many hypotheses and legendary tales about its origin.8 On present-day Croatian territory it originated during the time of Croatian national rulers. Among the first known examples of this coat of arms appeared on the pentagram or Eucharistic star relief (plate 1), completed in the traditional Medieval Croatian interlace motif. This pentagram was part of the decorations found on the Split baptismal font dated in the 11 th century. Chiselled on this stone monument are the profiles of three birds which contain shields of squares on their wings, with the first square raised (signifying the visually stronger colour red).9

The Croatian coat of arms (8x8 squares) is also found built into the belltower of St. Lucy's church in the village of Jurandvor near Baska on the island of Krk (plate 2). In this case the initial square is depressed signifying the visually weaker colour white. This is where the renowned Tablet of Baska, dated from the end of the 11th century, during the reign of King Dmitar Zvonimir (1076-1089), was discovered. …