How Napoleon put Croatia on the path to independence

August 10, 2021 – The fascinating French road from Brela in Dalmatia actually leads nowhere. But, although unfinished, it is an incredible reminder of the modern era that Napoleon’s short reign ushered in. He put Croatia on the path to independence.

Some of Croatia’s best heritages today are the remnants of the empires that once ruled here. Roman arches and an amphitheater help define the city of Pula. In Split, the palace of Emperor Diocletian does the same.

Atop the hills of central Šibenik, four Venetian fortresses recall their undefeated position against the Turkish invaders. In the nearby town of Drniš, the westernmost minaret of the Ottoman Empire is a testament to this city’s different fate. Meanwhile, in Zagreb, the awe-inspiring architecture and carefully preserved park tell of the capital’s prestigious past in Austria-Hungary.

Napoleon, the First French Empire and the Dinaric Alps in Dalmatia

There are few traces of the time of the First French Empire on this territory. However, there is strong evidence to suggest that Napoleonic rule had a much deeper effect on Croatia than just aesthetics. Indeed, it was in the hands of the French that Croatia was placed on a road that would ultimately lead to independence. But that’s not the only road they left behind.

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In fact, the French initiated the most advanced infrastructure project attempted in Croatia since Roman times. The plans left behind provide incredible insight into how Napoleon’s empire hoped to modernize – and conserve – the region. They wanted to build a huge contemporary road network across the Dinaric Alps.

Not only would it stretch the entire length of Dalmatia – from Zadar in the north to Metković and Dubrovnik in the south – but also it would cross the mountains. In doing so, hinterland towns such as Knin, Drniš, Sinj and Imotski would for the first time be connected to the coast by modern roads.

Unfortunately, the First French Empire was not there for too long for the road to be completed. However, a large piece of the French road in Brela testifies to the boldness of the project. It is the largest and best preserved section of road that exists.

Governor Auguste de Marmont and the need to build the French road to Brela

After the fall of the Roman Empire, transport across Dalmatia did not improve for over 1,000 years. In fact, it only got worse! In ancient times, the average daily commute distance was only 12 kilometers per day for an ox cart. 20 km per day for a heavily loaded mule and 30 km per day for pedestrians, including a regularly marching army.

This slow progression was a serious obstacle for Napoleon’s forces, which began to settle in the eastern Adriatic territories from 1797. Indeed, it was only after a decisive victory against the Austrians in 1809 as the First French Empire finally succeeded in gaining full control of the Region.

Marmont_as_Marshal_of_the_Empire_by_Jean-Baptiste_Paulin_Guérin_1837.jpgMarmont as Marshal of the Empire, by Jean-Baptiste Paulin Guérin (1837) © Public domain

Installed as the first governor of the Illyrian provinces was Auguste de Marmont. His tenure would prove to be the largest and most influential of anyone who took the job. He immediately got involved in transforming the region’s infrastructure, in particular by starting work on the French road at Brela. However, it is the changes in society brought about by the French that will be truly irreversible.

Napoleon and the French domination in Croatia

Blason_des_provinces_illyriennesSodacanSamhanin_1.pngVersion of the coat of arms of the Illyrian provinces © Sodacan / Samhanin

A major priority was to establish the French bureaucracy, culture and language. The French have also introduced compulsory national service. The inhabitants were drafted into the regional regiments of Napoleon’s army and / or put to work on the infrastructure project. While this looks like impositions similar to those imposed by any empire controlling the region, in fact French rule was second to none. Because the French system conceals many new advantages for the inhabitants.

Although they did not quite succeed in eliminating the medieval feudal system from the Illyrian provinces, the French brought the first real taste of emancipation to the people. The importation of the French legal system meant – in principle – that all citizens were equal before the rule of law, regardless of their social status or wealth. French has become the official language of the provinces. However, all respective states were allowed to speak and work in their native languages.

Tabla_carinarnice_Ilirskih_provinc_iz_Radeč_pri_Zidanem_mostu_1809_1.jpgAlternative version of the coat of arms of the Illyrian provinces © Public domain

The separation of church and state was introduced and the judicial system nationalized. The tax system has been standardized, abolishing certain tax privileges in order to create a more just society. The inhabitants of the Illyrian provinces had Illyrian nationality. The French have embarked on an overhaul of the education system in the provinces. One example is the founding of a French-language military school in Karlovac, headquarters of the Croatian army. However, it was not only the French language that was taught, but also French culture and history.

The Illyrian provinces inspire the Illyrian movement

People who lived in the Illyrian provinces learned exactly how life had changed, how universal rights were established, after the French Revolution. As the awareness of national identity became more and more prevalent across Europe during this long period, French domination in this particular region must be seen as a catalyst for the awakening of such feelings in Slovenia and Croatia.

Ljudevit_Gaj_1898_Theodor_Mayerhofer_1.pngLjudevit Gaj by Theodor Mayerhofer, excerpt from Đuro Šurmin ‘Povjest književnosti hrvatske i srpske’ Zagreb 1898 © Public domain

In 1814, a new period of Austrian domination replaced that of the French on the territory. As a result, work on projects in the Illyrian province such as the French road to Brela has ceased. But, in less than a decade and a half, linguist and writer Ljudevit Gaj and other members of the Zagreb intelligentsia have begun a process of national renewal and standardization of language and alphabet. It is no coincidence that their Illyrian movement referred to the same regional history as that of Napoleon’s Illyrian provinces. In the foundations of this Zagreb-based movement was both a future of merged states of the southern Slav peoples, liberated from Austria-Hungary and also from the future independent Croatia.

Heritage

Reassessed through the eyes of an independent nation, French rule has assumed a greater appreciation than it had when it first emerged. Of course, French domination is not as unknown in Croatia as in other countries. Subsequently, you can find squares, fountains and streets here, all named after the brief French period, most notably the famous Marmont ulica in Split.

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But, the most alluring and intriguing remnant of the Illyrian provinces in Croatia is the French road to Brela. It zigzags for almost 100 meters up to Biokovo mountain. However, never at a slope greater than 6 ° (in order to accommodate carts, riders and easy walking).

Looking at it today, one is tempted to imagine the radically modernized Dalmatia that would have emerged if it had been completed. But, when you remember that your point of view is taken within a fully independent Croatia, it is easier to appreciate the consequences of French domination, rather than to regret everything that has not been achieved.

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The author and Total Croatia News would like to thank the following people for their invaluable help in building this article: Vice Rudan Photography, visitor Center by Brela, doc. dr. sc. Marko Rimac, Department of History, University of Split, dr. sc. Tvrtko Jakovina, University of Zagreb. All photographs and videos by Vice Rudan, unless otherwise accredited.

If you want to know more about the fantastic holiday destination that is Brela, please see our detailed guide

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