Today, 28 February 2016 marks 120 years since the death of Dr. Ante Starcevic, one of the wisest ever born among the Croatian people. Starcevic is referred to as the father of the free Croatian nation; a well of energy for freedom and democracy that lasted and lasts.
Ante Starcevic (1823-1896) was one of those Croatian politicians who had the strength to strongly resist all political parties in the then Croatia (swallowed as a territory of the Austrian and then Austro-Hungarian Empires in his lifetime). His political ideals and convictions remained consistent throughout his adult life and his assertion of Croatian rights as a distinct nation entitled to freedom and democracy of its own often left him alone and lonely in public circles. However, he did enjoy the support of only a few intellectuals, writers, youth and nationally oriented youth.
In 1861, he was appointed the chief notary of the coastal Rijeka county as well as being elected to the Croatian Parliament as Rijeka Representative; with Eugen Kvaternik, in that year Starcevic founded the Croatian Party of Rights (i.e. state’s rights) and was re-elected to the parliament in 1865, 1871, and from 1878 to his death. The founder and the leader of the Croatian Rights Movement, Starcevic was a persistent and staunch advocate of democracy, uncompromising fighter against slavery, a visionary Croatian freedom and independence, an anti-cleric and a rebel; Starcevic was sharp on the tongue and the pen as no one in his day in Croatia. The program of his Party of Rights was essentially in the tradition of the nineteenth-century nationalism and it called for the formation of an independent state of Croatia. In 1862, when Rijeka was implicated in participation in protests against the Austrian Empire, he was suspended and sentenced to one month in prison as an enemy of the regime. When he was released, Starcevic returned to working at Sram’s law firm in Zagreb, where he remained until 11 October 1871, when he was arrested again, this time on the occasion of the Rakovica Revolt. Croatian armed revolt against authorities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; the revolt was soon quashed by the Imperial Austrian troops and Starcevic’s Croatian Party of Rights – abolished. Starcevic was released after two months in prison. He retained followers and after his death in 1896 his followers split and one may say it was by no surprise – the hardline to independence ideas seemed to punch wedges of divide as they did not seem to be capable of deciding which was the greatest enemy of independent Croatia: Vienna, Budapest or Belgrade. Almost a hundred years on Croats would learn, soaked in blood, that Belgrade was and had been the greatest enemy.
As Austro-Hungarian Empire ceased to exist after WWI, Croatia was forced into the Serb-led Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later/1929 renamed as Kingdom of Yugoslavia) Starcevic’s Croatian Rights Movement did not of course make any comeback; Croatia was more oppressed under the Serb dynasty than ever before and any whiff of freedom and democracy was fiercely quashed.
Starcevic’s Croatian Rights movement re-emerged during WWII within the complex of Independent State of Croatia movement under Dr Ante Pavelic who considered Starcevic as spiritual father of his Ustashe forces. Pavelic was a part of revitalising Starcevic’s Croatian Rights Movement since 1919, when Croatia was attached to the oppressive Serb-led Kingdom within the former Yugoslavia territory. The success of this attempt for Croatian freedom was doomed from the start as Ante Pavelic decided to side with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy as support for achieving the goal of independence. Hence, Starcevic’s name sunk into deep mud out of which it would not rise again for decades and when it did the mud from being associated with Pavelic’s regime would stick at home and abroad. At the same time Croatian (and Yugoslav) communists led by Josip Broz Tito fought against the Nazi’s, the Fascists and Pavelic’s Ustashi forces towards the aim of keeping Croatia within Yugoslavia and thus deny it independence and freedom. Hence, it was Communist Yugoslavia that once again quashed any ideas or attempts for independent Croatia, which of course, included the outlawing of the Croatian Rights Movement.
The Movement rose again in 1990 as part of multi-party democratic system drive led by dr Franjo Tudjman for a free, independent and democratic Croatia. Starcevic was among Franjo Tudman’s favourite politicians in the history of the Croatian people. Modern Croatian Party of Rights was established in 1990 without Tudjman’s membership, though. The modern Croatian Party of Rights and it’s various alternatives did not manage to muster wide support among Croats since 1990’s and that was perhaps because of the connotation associated with it from the terrible WWII crimes committed by those whose political fodder came from Starcevic’s grand and honourable ideas. An overwhelming number of Croatians chose in late 1980’s and early 1990’s to join Franjo Tudjman’s Croatian Democratic Union and achieve the honourable and deserved dream of freedom and democracy Ante Starcevic dreamed of more than a hundred years before and before him all Croats for more than nine centuries, since the Kingdom of Croatia perished at beginning of the twelfth century.
Given that Croatia is still much influenced by the communist Yugoslavia oppressive rut, there is little done to mark Starcevic’s life and anniversaries of his death. It would seem that Starcevic suffers today still (as he did 150 years ago) – his ideas purposefully misinterpreted and misrepresented in some circles especially the pro-communist or pro-Yugoslavia ones of today. In the space of wide political and ideological divide that has plagued Croatian public discourse and served obstacles and barriers for notable progress in democratic freedom and economic well-being one cannot but think that Croatia today needs politicians of Starcevic’s caliber. In saying that such a politician in the fashion imagined by Starcevic would cut short the politicians (parliamentarians’) preoccupation with political survival and get down to the roots: worry about and act for the betterment of each individual person in the country, regardless of his/her religion or ethnic origin. Talk about Starcevic, Starcevic’s works and thoughts should take a prominent place everywhere in Croatia for, as Starcevic thought, true national independence and freedom can only be sustained with the true independence and freedom of each person.
“…Therefore, survival of the government, of the State and of the Nation depends on people,” Starcevic wrote. “And I judge every system that survives, no matter what kind it is or where it is, by its fruit and that fruit shows itself most clearly in the morality and well-being of the people …States are built and ruined by people, and people are guided by freedom, well-being – fortune. Where these do not exist there can be no survival of the State, no matter how old or recognised it may be. No one has yet succeeded in forming a State or keeping it upon misfortune of its citizens…fortune is, therefore, individual people that form a nation … I do not look to see how many souls there are in a nation or a State – I look to see if all the souls in that make up the nation are happy, that they do not suffer some injustice …”
Lest we Croats forget this champion of freedom, independence and democracy. Ina Vukic, Prof. (Zgb); B.A., M.A.Ps. (Syd)