In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Illyrian movement, headed by the Croat Ljudevit Gaj, began to spread in Dalmatia. This movement intended to create a single culture and political consciousness among the Southern Slavs. Although it remained confined mostly to Croatian areas, members of the Serb community of Dalmatia also joined them. The Illyrian movement of the early 19th century transformed into the so-called “Croatian national movement” after 1848, which gave rise to the “Croatian popular resurgence” (hrvatski narodni preporod) in Dalmatia and clashes with the dominant Italian Dalmatian community.
Up until that point in Dalmatia, both the Italians and Slavs had had lived without any problems or prejudice, but the birth of Pan-Slavism led to the first tensions between Italians, who were concentrated in the coastal cities (and formed a majority in most of the cities), and the Croats, who had become an overall majority in Dalmatia after the 16th century as a result of plagues which devastated the Romance population, and above all due to the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans which had sparked a mass migration of Slav refugees into Venetian territory. At the beginning of the 19th century Italians still formed about 33% (one-third) of the entire Dalmatian population.
Between 1848 and 1918 – especially after the loss of Venetia following the Third Italian War of Independence (1866) – the Austro-Hungarian Empire encouraged the rise of the Slavic ethnicity to counteract the irredentism of the Italian population. During the meeting of the Council of Ministers of 12 November 1866 Emperor Franz Joseph outlined a major project:
“His Majesty has expressed the precise order that we 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.”Regarding the pro-Savic policy of the Imperial government and Franz Joseph's order of Germanization and Slavicization, the observations of Massimo Spinetti, former Italian ambassador in Vienna, in his article “Costantino Nigra ambasciatore a Vienna (1885-1904)”, are very interesting. Spinetti maintained among other things that:
“This anti-Italian policy found particular application in Dalmatia, especially after the announcement of the marriage between Crown Prince Vittorio Emanuele III and Princess Elena of Montenegro.”The introduction of the constitutional regime in 1860 led to profound changes in Dalmatia: the freedom of press and association favored the Croatian national movement which had hitherto been held back by the Viennese authorities (although they also were using it against Italian irredentist aspirations, in compliance with the policy of “divide and conquer”). The Austrian electoral laws favored universal suffrage (and therefore favored nationalities with larger numbers), which is why Italians lost political hegemony in Dalmatia between 1860 and 1885: only the city of Zara remained ruled by Italians until the First World War, guided by the Autonomist Party (Partito Autonomista). It was a process parallel to that of other Austrian provinces, such as Carniola and Bohemia, where the Slavs were able to conquer the institutions of provincial autonomy. In Dalmatia, however, this process was even more traumatic for the Italian community, since, unlike the Germans of Bohemia and Carniola, the Italians could not rely on political support from the central government in Vienna. The central government, which had frequently supported Croatian parties in Dalmatia, was ready to make concessions to the Slavs in Dalmatia which they never offered to the Slovenes in Carniola or the Czechs in Bohemia. Therefore middle schools, which depended on the central government (in contrast to elementary schools), were gradually Croatized. The same happened with primary schools in the municipalities governed by the Slavs. The Italian language thus lost its historical status, although it retained its prestige as a “cultural language” (so that even Frano Supilo, one of the leaders of the Croatian national movement, said “Despite being a Croat, I think in Italian”). The size of the Italian community in the coastal cities began to gradually decrease, with the exception of the aforementioned Zara.
The historian Matteo Bartoli, in his book “Le parlate italiane della Venezia Giulia e della Dalmazia”, wrote that:
“After the naval battle of Lissa of 1866, in Dalmatia, just as in Trentino and Julian Venetia, all things Italian were opposed by the Austrians. Unable to Germanize Dalmatia because it was too far away from Austria, the authorities favored the Slavs to the detriment of Italians. In the various Dalmatian cities the administrations gradually passed from Italians to the Croats. In 1861 all of the 84 municipalities of Dalmatia were administered by Italians. In 1875 it so happened that 39 of them now had a Croatian administration, 19 had an Italian administration, and the remaining ones had a mixed Italian-Croatian administration. The municipalities with an Italian administration were: Blatta, Brazza, Cittavecchia di Lesina, Clissa, Comisa, Lissa, Meleda, Mezzo, Milnà, Pago, Ragusa, Sabbioncello, Selve, Slarino, Spalato, Solta, Traù, Verbosa and Zara. In 1873 Sebenico passed to a Croatian administration, in 1882 Spalato also passed to a Croatian administration, followed by Traù in 1886, Arbe in 1904 and Slarino in 1910, leaving only Zara. Also from 1866 to 1914 – with the exception of Zara – Italian schools were closed while Croatian ones were opened. The collapse of the Italian component in Dalmatia is mainly due to this fact, since Italians did not have freedom of cultural expression. The transformation of Italian schools into Croatian schools was accompanied by numerous protests, even in the remote city of Tenin where numerous families demanded they be allowed to retain the Italian language. In Lissa a petition was even brought to the Emperor. Therefore the National League (Lega Nazionale) was founded in the 1890's, and in Dalmatia they had to fund private Italian schools with their own money. The National League had sections in: Cattaro, Ragusa, Curzola, Cittavecchia di Lesina, Spalato, Imoschi, Traù, Sebenico, Scardona, Tenin, Ceraria, Borgo Erizzo, Zara and Arbe, as well as in Veglia, Cherso, Unie and Lussino. All this took place in a climate of continual harassment by the Slavs who had conquered political power. Antonio Baiamonti was the last mayor of Spalato before it fell into the hands of the Croats. He devoted all his life and put all his substances into his city, substances that were never reimbursed by the Austrians despite repeated promises. He died at age 69 in debt up to his neck. He often said: “We Italians of Dalmatia retain a single right: to suffer!”.”In 1909 the Italian language was prohibited in all public buildings and the Dalmatian Italians were ousted from the municipal administrations. Consequently, by the end of the First World War (1914-1918) the Italian population was almost completely eliminated from Dalmatia, with the exception of some Dalmatian cities and islands.