Friday, October 3, 2014

How Did Slavs Become the Majority in Dalmatia?

For years it has become commonplace to say that Dalmatia was a region in which “a small minority of Italians ruled over a vast majority of Slavs”. However, this is not historically accurate. Although Slavs have notoriously formed a majority in the hinterland of Dalmatia for many centuries, these hinterlands have always been very sparsely populated in comparison to the cities. Since antiquity Romance-speakers formed the overwhelming majority of the population in all the major Dalmatian cities (Zara, Spalato, Sebenico, Traù, Ragusa, etc.), which, naturally, were always more populous than the hinterlands which surrounded them. Romance-speakers, therefore, formed the majority of the Dalmatian population for nearly two millennia. Slavs did not come to form a majority of the population in Dalmatia until between the 16th to 18th centuries. Prior to this, although Slavs formed a majority in the hinterland, Latins still comprised the majority of the total population of Dalmatia.

Let it be repeated: Latins comprised the majority of the total population of Dalmatia; not merely in the cities alone, which has always been admitted by observers, but in the region as a whole as well. It was not until between the 16th and 18th centuries that Slavs began to surpass the Latin population in number. Prior to this, Slavs never formed a majority in Dalmatia, let alone a vast majority. How, then, did Slavs come to form a demographic majority in Dalmatia?

Slavic Immigration

Based on official censuses taken during the Napoleonic era, in the year 1800 Italians comprised 1/3 (one-third) or 33% of the population in Dalmatia (92,500 Italians out of a total population of 280,300). It must be noted, however, that this was only after a mass migration of Slavs took place in the region. This is not a reference to the original barbarian invasions of the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries, in which waves of Slavic hordes imposed themselves on the Balkan populations in the first place. The mass migration in question was of a much more recent date. From the 16th to 18th centuries, after the Ottomans had conquered all of the Balkans, the Venetians welcomed into Dalmatia thousands upon thousands of Slavic immigrants and refugees seeking asylum from the Turks, not realizing that within a couple centuries the Slavs would not only significantly outnumber the autochthonous Italian population, but would ethnically cleanse the region of all Italians and claim the land, its culture and its history for themselves.

This mass migration of Slavs was documented by numerous records, letters and chronicles contemporary to the migrations. A modern historian of Yugoslav history, Fred Singleton, in his book ‘A Short History of the Yugoslav Peoples’, pointed out the impact these migrations had on the Italian Dalmatian population:
“The Turkish conquest of the Balkans impelled large numbers of Serbs and Bosnian Croats to flee into the neighbouring lands of Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia. Many of those who settled in Dalmatia mixed with the existing Croat population. Thus the Slav element in Dalmatia increased at the expense of the Italians.”
In 1650 the whole of Dalmatia only had a population of some 50,000 people. The population was almost entirely Italian and concentrated in the coastal towns. By 1718 the population of Dalmatia doubled to 108,090 people. In 1781 the total population of Dalmatia grew to 263,674, and in 1795 grew to 288,320. This rapid population increase occurred due in large part to the influx of Morlach immigrants and Slavic refugees to the hinterland of Dalmatia. By the turn of the 19th century the Slavs and slavicized Morlachs formed two-thirds of the Dalmatian population.

From the 16th to 18th centuries a mass migration of Slavs had occurred, but when all was said and done the Italians still comprised one-third, i.e. 1/3 or 33% of the total population in Dalmatia, which is admitted also by recent Croatian sources (Šime Peričić, ‘O broju Talijana/talijanaša u Dalmaciji XIX. stoljeća’, 2003). Prior to this Slavic migration, Italians comprised a much larger portion of the population. Towards the end of the 15th century, prior to these migrations, Italians comprised – at a minimum – approximately three-fourths of the total population in Dalmatia, which at the time was very sparsely inhabited, with only 60,000 people living in the entire region. It was the large Slavic immigration in the following centuries that caused the population in Dalmatia to significantly increase.

Despite the great increase of the Slavic population from the 16th to 18th centuries, the language, culture and heritage of Dalmatia remained Italian, as it always had been, and the politics of the country remained Italian. So long as the destiny of Dalmatia was in Italian hands, its Italianity could not be questioned. This changed drastically, however, after the dissolution of the Venetian Republic in 1797, and the takeover of Dalmatia by the Austrian Habsburgs in 1815, followed by its incorporation into the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867.

Slavicization of the Cities

It has commonly been said that Slavs formed a majority in the hinterland, while Italians formed a majority in the cities. And this is undoubtedly true. But in the late 19th and early 20th century, during the Austro-Hungarian period, even in the cities (Spalato, Sebenico, etc.), which always had an acknowledged Italian majority, Slavs began to overwhelm the native Italian population and become a majority in the Italian cities as well (with a few notable exceptions, such as Zara).

This happened in three ways:

1. through the well-documented persecution of Italians;

2. through the well-documented manipulation of statistics;

3. through the equally well-documented mass immigration of Slavic peoples, encouraged and fomented by the Austro-Hungarian government, with the expressed purpose of slavicizing Dalmatia and eliminating the vital Italian element of the region.

During this period there was a systematic de-Italianization policy carried out against the indigenous Italians of Dalmatia on the part of the Austro-Hungarian government: Italian schools were closed, while Slavic schools were created in Italian-speaking areas, forcing Italians to attend Slavic schools; Italian politicians were removed from office, while positions of authority were placed in the hands of Slavs; Italian place names were slavicized; support was given to the ideology of Pan-Slavism; and thousands of Slavs from other parts of the Empire were moved to Dalmatia in order to increase the Slavic population and extinguish the Italian population by means of artificial mass immigration. According to Austro-Hungarian statistics, the total number of Slavs in Dalmatia tripled during these years. These newly-arrived Slavic immigrants were also granted special privileges, and were given the power to vote, in order to influence and manipulate local elections.

The Austrian censuses themselves — even if in some cases they were notoriously rigged against Italians — reveal a rapid decline in the percentage of Italians between the mid 19th century and early 20th century, due in large part to the aforementioned mass migration of Slavic immigrants:
Italian population in Dalmatia
1845 - 19.7%
1865 - 12.5%
1869 - 10.8%
1880 - 5.8%
1890 - 3.1%
1900 - 2.6%
1910 - 2.7%
The purpose of all this was to eliminate the ancient Italian presence in Dalmatia, which was a constant thorn in the side of Habsburg Austria. For this same reason, similar policies of de-Italianization were implemented also in Istria, Fiume, Trieste, the Trentino and Friuli-Venezia Giulia These latter three areas fortunately survived this forced de-nationalization policy of the Habsburgs and today retain their Italianity, both ethnically and culturally. The same, unfortunately, can not be said of Istria and Fiume.

This policy of de-Italianization was openly promoted by Emperor Franz Joseph in a meeting of the Austrian Council of Ministers on November 12, 1866, in which the Emperor declared that Austria must:
“...decisively oppose the influence of the Italian element still present in some crown lands, and to aim unsparingly and without the slightest compunction at the Germanization or Slavicization – depending on the circumstances – of the areas in question, through a suitable entrustment of posts to political magistrates and teachers, as well as through the influence of the press in South Tyrol, Dalmatia, and the Adriatic Coast.”

Second World War

The Italian city of Zara — the last remaining major bastion of Italianity in Dalmatia by this period — was nearly entirely destroyed by the Allies during the Second World War. Thousands of Italian civilians were killed in the bombing raids, and many Italians from other cities were murdered by Slavic partisans in the Foibe Massacres between 1943 and 1945. Those Italians who remained in Dalmatia were forced to flee and moved to Italy. Their descendants have yet to be compensated or even acknowledged by the post-Yugoslav governments.


Two great mass migrations of Slavs took place in Dalmatia between the 16th and early 20th century.

The first wave, between the 16th and 18th centuries, was purely demographic, and took place during the Venetian period. In this period thousands of Slavic immigrants and refugees arrived in Dalmatia, fleeing the invasions of the Turks. It was not until the arrival of these Slavic immigrants in the 16th to 18th centuries that Slavs began to surpass the Italian population in number. But the cities remained Italian, the culture of Dalmatia remained Italian, and the politics of the country remained Italian, despite the increase in the Slavic population.

The second wave was both demographic and political, and took place during the Austro-Hungarian period. In this period there was a systematic de-Italianization policy implemented against the indigenous Italians of the region on the part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. During this period the number of Slavs in the region tripled, and Slavs began to overtake Italians even in the cities.

Finally, at the end of the Second World War, many Italians were killed in Allied bombing raids and massacres by the Slavs, and the last remaining Italians were forced to flee. The entire region was annexed to Yugoslavia in 1947.

In this way, within the course of a century and a half, Italians — who still formed one-third of the population in 1800 and maintained a majority in all the major Dalmatian cities — were ethnically cleansed from a land in which they had built and inhabited for more than 2,000 years.


Since the 19th century the Slavs and their apologists have pretended that Slavs always formed the majority in Dalmatia, ever since they first invaded the region in the 7th and 8th centuries, and have used this as a pretext to occupy and annex the region away from Italians. But as has been demonstrated, this is not the case at all. It was only through mass immigration in the 16th to 18th centuries that Slavs became a majority in the Dalmatia region; up until this time Romance people comprised the majority of the total population in Dalmatia. The vast majority of Dalmatian Slavs in the 19th century were not descended from medieval invaders who lived in the region for centuries, as they like to pretend, but rather were descended from those more recent immigrants and refugees; desperate guests who fled the Balkans and immigrated en masse to Dalmatia, seeking refuge from the Ottoman Turks, which was granted to them — in hindsight naively — by the Italians. And it was only through mass immigration and the anti-Italian policies of the Austro-Hungarian government in the late 19th and early 20th century that Slavs became a majority in the Dalmatian cities as well.

Up until the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the coastal cities of Dalmatia had remained predominantly and almost exclusively Italian in ethnicity and culture. This is important to remember, as it was from the cities that Dalmatia received its character and civilization; its art, its literature, its language, its governors. The cities were the commercial and cultural centres of Dalmatia, the source of Dalmatia's identity, heritage and character, which for over 2,000 years was indisputably Latin and Italian. But by targeting the cities, filling them with Slavic immigrants, overtaking the Latin population, and persecuting the Italians, the Austro-Hungarian authorities assured that the whole region would become rapidly slavicized. This forced slavicization and intentional ethnic cleansing of Italians was completed by the Yugoslav partisans at the end of the Second World War.

Nearly all of the Slavs who inhabit the cities of Dalmatia today are post-war immigrants who arrived in Dalmatia only after 1947, after the end of the Second World War, after the native Italians were systematically killed and chased from their homes, and the region was annexed to Communist Yugoslavia. It is estimated that there are approximately only 800 Italians still living in Dalmatia today.

See also:
The Agony of Italian Dalmatia Under Franz Joseph
The First Dalmatian Exodus, 1870-1880
Brief History of Dalmatia in the 19th Century
The Population of Dalmatia in the 12th Century
Quotes on the Italianity of Dalmatia
Quotes on the Italianity of Fiume
Quotes on the Italianity of Istria
Quotes on the Italianity of the Quarnaro
Quotes on the Italianity of Ragusa