Ban Josip Jelačić, 1801–1859
Josip Jelačić belonged to a Croatian noble family with roots in central Bosnia. Since the 16th century, however, they had lived in Croatia, south of Zagreb and near the Bosnian border, a position that put them within the Krajina or Military Frontier, though they were not part of the Serbian population that had been settled there. His father, from whom he inherited the title of Baron of Bužim (a village near the border that is now in Bosnia, but was then considered part of Croatia) was a general in the Austrian army. During the Napoleonic wars Lieutenant Field Marshal Franjo Jelačić participated in several of that army’s famous defeats. He died in 1810, too early to taste the fruits of ultimate victory.

Josip, nine years old when his father died, took up a military career and worked his way up through the Austrian ranks during the generally peaceful decades that followed the Congress of Vienna. As a 34-year-old captain in 1835 he won a medal for leading a campaign against Ottoman troops in the Bosnian border area. At the age of 40, he reached the rank of colonel and became district commander in the border region where he was stationed.

Like many other well-educated Croatians, Jelačić became a follower of the “Illyrian movement” in its resistance to the Hungarians’ attempts to replace the language and culture of the Croats with their own.

As Rebecca West wrote in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon:

[...] it oddly happened that inherent in Hungarian nationalism was a contempt and loathing for all nationalist sentiments felt by other people in all conceivable circumstances. This is proved by their extraordinary attitude to the language issue. It infuriated them that they should be forced to speak German and should not be allowed to speak their own language, Magyar; but they were revolted by the idea that any of their neighbours, the Croats, Serbs, or Slovaks, should speak their own language, or indeed anything but Magyar. The famous Hungarian patriot, Lajos Kossuth, showed vehemence on this point that was simply not sane, considering he had not one drop of Hungarian blood in his veins and was purely Slovak. When he took charge of the Nationalist Party he announced it as part of his programme to destroy the identity of Croatia. He declared he would suppress the Croatian language by the sword, and introduced an electoral bill which omitted the name of Croatia and described her departments as Hungarian counties.

[Editor’s note: Kossuth, the principal leader of the 1848 Hungarian Revolution, came from a noble family that, despite its Slovak origins, considered itself Hungarian. Kossuth himself, taking the issue a bit further, declared that there was no such thing as a Slovak nationality. So one can see West’s point, even though she was exaggerating slightly.]

Lajos Kossuth, 1802–1894
In 1848, when the Hungarians rose against the Empire, making no secret of their intention to force the Magyar language and identity on everyone within the lands they controlled, the Sabor (in which the National Party had taken control from the Magyarizers) elected Josip Jelačić Ban of Croatia. New elections were held, and the Sabor, constituting itself as a “National Assembly,” adopted the “Demands of the People,” which, following the Illyrians’ program, called for abolishing serfdom; making the national language official in government, courts, and schools; establishing self-rule (while affirming loyalty to the Empire); and reuniting Dalmatia (which had become Austrian rather than Hungarian territory) with Croatia and Slavonia in the “Triune Kingdom.” (This term in a Croatian context means the union of Croatia’s three historic provinces — Croatia, Slavonia, and Dalmatia — but in a more general context it refers to the ideal cherished by many 19th-century nationalists of granting the Slavic population of the Empire — including Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, and Ukrainians as well as Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs — rights and powers equal to those held by Germans and Magyars.) Jelačić, as Ban, proclaimed the union of the Croatian provinces, at the same time pledging unconditional loyalty to the Habsburg monarchy, and the rest of his program was expressed in a new Croatian Constitution.

Jelačić had some trouble winning the support of the Imperial authorities, who were negotiating with the new Hungarian government, at first accepting reforms, but then (after learning that popular uprisings in other countries were being put down) taking them back. Eventually, however, they were forced to deal with the necessity of suppressing the Hungarian movement by military means, and, with most of their military trying to keep northern Italy from forcibly parting company with the Empire, resources were few. Jelačić’s loyalty was genuine (like all Imperial soldiers, he had taken an oath to the Kaiser), and there was really no one else to turn to.

Prince Alfred I Windisch-Grätz, 1787–1862
In September, 1848, he led a Croatian army into Hungary. He won a few minor victories, but was stopped by defeat at the village of Pakozd a month later. He then marched his troops to Vienna, where an uprising against the government had begun (in part provoked by their attempt to send local guards units to Jelačić’s support in Hungary). Jelačić joined the Austrian general Prince Alfred I of Windisch-Grätz in putting the uprising down.

Franz Joseph I, 1830–1916 (in 1853)
Late in 1848, the Emperor Ferdinand I abdicated in favor of his 18-year-old nephew, Franz Joseph I. Windisch-Grätz was eager for this change, feeling that a new emperor would not be bound by the oaths that Ferdinand had sworn, when his back was to the wall, to support constitutional government.

That winter Jelačić took part, under Windisch-Grätz’s command, in another invasion of Hungary. Though successful at first, it ground to a halt. Finally it took an invading Russian army, who came the following summer after Franz Joseph asked for help from Tsar Nicholas I, to defeat the Hungarians once and for all.

Franz Joseph, in the first uncertain days of his reign, had cautiously taken an oath to support constitutional government, as his uncle had done, but once the Russian victory restored order, he felt free to renege on it. For the next decade, the Empire was under his (and his ministers’) absolute rule.

We may speculate that, if Jelačić’s military efforts had been a spectacular success, Vienna might have rewarded them by accepting some of the Croatian “Demands of the People,” but nothing like that happened. Under absolute rule, the government built schools in Croatia, but regarded them primarily as a means of teaching those who would become the educated class to speak German. Germanization may have been less fanatical, and less relentless in its implementation, than Magyarization, but ultimately it posed the same threat to the survival of Croatian culture and identity.

Jelačić continued in office as Ban until his death in 1859 at the age of 57. He rigorously enforced the government’s restrictions on freedom of speech and enforced its censorship of nationalist and anti-Imperialist publications. Perhaps it was the lifelong influence of his soldier’s oath of loyalty to the Emperor; perhaps his experiences had blinded him to any danger to Croatian identity that didn’t come from Hungary. Or perhaps he really did believe that German culture was superior to Slavic culture, a tendency that Rebecca West (who believed deeply in the Yugoslav national myth and the presence of Serbia at the center of it) bemoaned in the Croats.

At any rate, by the time he died Jelačić was much less popular with his countrymen than in the days when he led them into a war that they hoped might fufill their national ambitions. But later they forgave or forgot his shortcomings, and his statue in the square named for him has been, for most of the time it has stood there (or, during the Communist period, not stood there), a rallying point for all who want to express and celebrate their Croatian identity, and advocate its advancement by political means.

Ban Josip Jelačić statue (1866), by Austrian sculptor Anton Dominik Fernkorn