Gaj, Ljudevit

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GAJ, LJUDEVIT (1809–1872), Croatian nationalist leader.

Ljudevit Gaj helped lead the first Croatian national movement in modern times, the Illyrian movement. That movement dominated Croatian political and cultural life from 1832 to 1841. From the latter date, the Illyrians remained influential but were forced to compete with other visions of a Croatian future. Gaj's legacy is mixed: he was a talented organizer with a novel vision, but he is often accused of having appropriated the ideas of others. His public career ended in scandal in 1848.

Gaj was born in Krapina, Croatia, in 1809. Like other national revivalists of his era, he was not born of Croatian parents; he was of German/Slovak background. He was intelligent and talented and wished to study Croatia's history. Gaj came of age as the Hungarian national movement gained force, so it is logical that he was motivated to a great degree by the desire to establish a Croatian counterforce to the Hungarian movement, which he believed threatened the integrity of Croatia and Croatian culture.

From 1826 to 1829, he studied in Austria (first Vienna, then Graz); he then went to Budapest, where he came into contact with Jan Kollár, the Slovak language reformer. Kollár's belief in the unity (reciprocity) of the Slavic languages undoubtedly influenced Gaj's own ideas. While in Budapest, Gaj published the Short Outline of a Croatian-Slavic Orthography, which eliminated foreign (non-Slavic) influences and introduced a phonetic alphabet. This alphabet, Gaj believed, could be used by others who spoke similar languages (Croatian, but also other Slavic tongues). While in Budapest, he also wrote the poem "Croatia Has Yet to Perish," which later became a patriotic Croatian song.

Gaj returned to Zagreb in 1832 with a law degree and novel ideas about the language of the South Slavs. Along with a coterie of other cultural figures, he created what came to be called the Illyrian movement. First, he applied to be allowed to publish a newspaper called The Morning Star of Croatia, Slavonia, and Dalmatia. This proposal would only be approved in 1835, when the Habsburg emperor deemed it useful as a counterpoint to the much more threatening Hungarian national movement. That newspaper was published at first in the kajkavian dialect of Croatian, which was the dialect dominant in Zagreb. However, within a year, Gaj began to publish the paper in the štokavian dialect, which was spoken by Croats in Bosnia and much of Dalmatia and Croatia. This decision, rooted in his belief that only the most "reciprocal," broad-based language could fuel a national movement, went against the grain in Zagreb, but built on the work of other Illyrians, primarily Count Janko Drašković, whose 1832 Dissertation or Discourse… had proposed both the Illyrian name for a future South Slavic state and the use of štokavian as a literary vehicle for nation-building.

The choice of štokavian was, of course, Gaj's most notable practical contribution to the national movements of the South Slavs. It signified his desire to reach out to otherwise fragmented peoples, including Serbs, who uniformly spoke the štokavian dialect. Štokavian was also the language of Dubrovnik, which all Croats had come to idealize over the centuries. The Serbian response to this act of Croatian self-sacrifice was not particularly positive. Vuk Karadžić, Gaj's Serbian counterpart, declared in a famous 1842 article that speakers of štokavian were Serbs—"all and everywhere," as he put it.

Nevertheless, the Illyrians formed a political party (the National Party), which dominated Croatian politics until 1841. The National Party had no allies among the traditional Croatian political strata. The party did have support in Vienna, however, at least until the emperor no longer found it a valuable counterforce to Hungarian nationalism. In 1841 Croatian conservatives finally got their act together, creating a Unionist Party, commonly referred to as the "magyarone" party, for its desire for close ties to Hungary. For the next seven years, the Illyrians were out of favor in Vienna and Zagreb. In 1848, however, they had a chance to recapture some of their lost glory. The Croatian Sabor (diet), provoked by the hostile words of the Hungarian nationalist leader Lajos Kossuth, passed much of the old Illyrian political agenda. The Illyrian choice for Ban of Croatia, Josip Jelačić, was accepted by the emperor, whose fear of Hungary once again spurred him to support Croatia. Gaj, however, did not benefit from this revival of Illyrian prestige. In 1848, he was accused (accurately) of accepting money for using his influence in the name of the Serbian government. Thereafter, he retired from public life.

See alsoAustria-Hungary; Jelačić, Josip; Metternich, Clemens von; Nationalism.


Despalatovic, Elinor Murray. Ljudevit Gaj and the Illyrian Movement. Boulder, Colo., 1975.

Nicholas Miller