Despite, or more likely because of, its complex history, Istria lacks a museum that does any kind of justice to its rich and contentious past. The division of the peninsula between Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia (which contains the vast majority of its territory) remains contentious, and nowhere is this more evident than in displays that seek, with varying degrees of boldness, to reassert irredentist claims. The following is an attempt to present a relatively neutral version of the region’s history.
The very the origin of the name of the triangular peninsula known as Istria in English and Italian and Istra in Serbo-Croat and Slovene is disputed. Although most historians believe it derives from the Histri, the Illyrian tribe whom the Romans subjugated when they established control of the peninsula in the second century BC, a few claim that it comes from the Colchians, whom it reminded of an identically named region near the Black Sea. This latter explanation reflects the popular (though most likely mythical) belief that this Persian people founded Pula, Istria’s oldest settlement, while seeking to recover the Golden Fleece from Jason and the Argonauts. Whether or not the Colchians ever reached Istria, however, they had long since been displaced by the Illyrians and their Greek trading partners at the time of Roman settlement.
Roman rule fundamentally altered the character of region, establishing the port of Pietas Iulia (modern Pula) near the tip of the peninsula on the site of a prior Illyrian settlement, and gradually converting the inland areas into latifundia (large estates) worked by colonists and locals whom they had enslaved. Although pockets of Illyrian resistance remained in the hilly interior (establishing a pattern that would be repeated under subsequent conquerors), they succumbed in time to the Romans’ combination of military and economic superiority. Although Pula is Istria’s only settlement to preserve significant evidence of the Romans (principally its Forum and Amphitheater), most of Istria's major settlements were established in this period. Under the Emperor Augustus, Istria was incorporated as a discrete region within the Roman province of Italia, making it an integral part of the Empire, a state of affairs that remained until the Western Roman Empire’s fall in 476.
Roman influence in the region was significantly deep that despite falling to the pagan Ostrogoths in the late 5th century, Istria managed to retain its Latin culture and Christianity. In 538, it was incorporated into the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire, which had endured as part of the Exarchate of Ravenna. Although memorialized by the construction of the Euphrasian Basilica at Poreč, this period was a highly contentious one, and attacks by the Lombards from the West, Slovene tribes from the north, and Croat tribes from the east and South resulted in a state of near constant conflict. By the time the Franks established control over the region in 779, its population had become largely Slavicized. The seeds of Istria’s dissolution were sown under increasingly weak Frankish rule, which enabled most settlements to achieve de facto autonomy. The wealthier coastal towns cultivated increasingly strong economic relationships with Venice and were eventually incorporated into its territory (by 1348), while their inland counterparts fell under the sway of the weaker Patriarchate of Aquileia, which became part of the Hapsburg (Austrian) Empire in 1374.
Over the course of the next four centuries, Venice and Austria intermittently skirmished with one another, each trying to expand its holdings to the peninsula as a whole, which formed an important military and economic link between Central Europe and the Mediterranean. Perhaps more importantly, however, the Venetian-controlled coastal settlements became increasingly wealthy as a result of trade and more Italian in both culture and population. The inland regions under Austrian rule remained agricultural and also preserved Slavic (which is to say, Slovene and Croat) language and culture, despite attempts by the Austrians to suppress them. This is not to say that Croats and Slovenes were unknown on the coast or Italians in the interior, but simply that they were heavily outnumbered.
Napoleon conquered the Venetian Republic in 1797 and turned Istria (along with much of modern Slovenia and Croatia) into the "Illyrian Provinces." Although short-lived, this entity’s policy of allowing education in Slovene and Croatian (banned under Venetians and Austrians alike) was a powerful impetus to the respective peoples’ national awakenings. Elements of each of these would later harmonize into the Yugoslav movement that sought to create a single state that would incorporate the lands inhabited by all the South Slavic peoples. These ambitions were dealt a heavy blow after Napoleon’s defeat, when the entire peninsula was incorporated into the Austrian Empire.
Keen to restore a semblance of the antebellum status quo and to make use of its newfound outlet onto the sea, the Austrians sought to curry favor with Istria’s Italian population. As well as concentrating investment along the Italian-dominated coast, they made Italian the province’s official language, despite the fact that Croats outnumbered Italians by more than two to one. Pula (or "Pola" as it was known in Italian), became the Empire’s chief naval base, and Trieste (in present-day Italy), its most important merchant port. The introduction of limited democracy in 1861, by means of a regional parliament that convened at Parezzo (Poreč), only served to confirm this situation, as suffrage was limited to property owners, who were primarily Italian. The first parliament consisted of 28 Italians, one Croat, and one Slovene (who refused to take part), but served its purpose to the Austrians in defusing Italians’ calls for the region’s union with the newly established Kingdom of Italy.
This policy ended up as a mere stop-gap measure, however, as Britain and France coaxed Italy to enter the First World War on their side largely by promising it Istria at the war’s conclusion. Despite the protestations of the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (later known as Yugoslavia), the Allies made good on this particular promise. After Benito Mussolini’s seizure of power in 1922, Italy commenced a concerted campaign to suppress Slavic culture, immediately banning the public use of the Serbo-Croat and Slovene languages, and in 1927, compelling all Slavs to adopt Italian surnames. During the Second World War, Italy annexed the entire Yugoslav coast, which became a hotbed for activity by the Communist Partisan movement led by Marshal Tito, perhaps nowhere more so than in Istria, where it attracted Slavs and Italians alike. Nevertheless, many Partisans took the war as a cover to avenge Italian atrocities against Croats, and vice versa.
By the war’s end in 1945, the Partisans occupied the interior of Istria and much of its coast, while Anglo-American forces controlled the northernmost part of Istria around Trieste ("Zone A"). In 1947, the Italy recognized the Communist Federation of Yugoslavia's claims to Pula and Istria’s west coast south of Umag. The coast between Umag and Trieste remained in limbo for a further 7 years, however, during which time most of the Italian population fled from the area occupied by the Partisans, but not yet officially incorporated into Yugoslavia. In 1954, nearly a decade after the war’s end, Italy was assigned "Zone A", the region up to the present-day Slovenian/Italian border, while the remaining territory was incorporated into Yugoslavia.
Tensions between Slovenes and Croats were relatively mild, particularly in comparison to those between other peoples within Yugoslavia, although the fact that the land awarded to Italy was populated by far more Slovenes than Croats grated with the latter. Tito (a Croat whose mother and right-hand man, Edvard Kardelj, were both Slovenes) was adept at both playing down and suppressing these tensions, but he left the border between the two entities unresolved. This was relatively insignificant while both remained part of Yugoslavia and shared the grievance that much of the money earned from Istria’s hugely successful package tourist industry was diverted to the poorer republics, and indeed, while both were fighting wars of independence from the Yugoslavia. Currently, however, it is the most obvious reflection of the bitter relationship between the two countries, particularly since Slovenia is a member of both the European Union and NATO, while Croatia belongs to neither organization.
As the economy in all three countries’ portions of Istria relies primarily on tourism (and in Croatian Istria from Italy and Slovenia in particular), municipalities in all three locales have begun to celebrate the region’s diverse heritage and encourage emigrants to return. Many towns in Slovenia and Croatia have also re-adopted Italian as an official language. It will be singularly ironic if the tourists become greater agents for the appreciation of Istria’s rich history than the principal actors behind that history themselves!