It is almost 80 years since the genius that was Nikola Tesla died alone in a New York hotel room, the end of an extraordinary life of invention and creativity that changed the world for the better.
He certainly deserves to be remembered and celebrated for all he contributed, but the latest proposed recognition of his genius has once more ignited a Balkan political row and fired up the Internet’s army of Balkan keyboard warriors.
It wasn’t long after starting Total Croatia News 6 years ago that I learned that the two most clickbait evergreen topics which would attract tons of aggressive comments were the origins of Nikola Tesla and anything that mentioned the word Tito. As such, I have learned to avoid referring to either for the most part, but the latest row regarding Tesla’s origins has included statements from the Croatian President, as well as both Croatian and Serbian Prime Ministers.
Someone once told me that the quickest way to start a lively negative debate on Facebook in this region is to invite thoughts on whether Tesla was a Serb or a Croat. It is a question that the Serb authorities take very seriously, as appears to be the case once again after Nikola Tesla was voted to appear as a symbol of Croatia on three coins when Croatia eventually joins the EU.
Before we dive into the quagmire, it is worth recalling Tesla’s own words on the subject, back in 1936:
“I am equally proud of my Serb origin and my Croat homeland. Long live all Yugoslavs.”
A nice, balanced statement paying tribute to the two nationalities with which he clearly associated, even though he went on to be an American citizen. Nobody disputes that he was ethnically Serb, or that he was born and grew up in Smiljan, a small village in what is today modern Croatia.
But then things get interesting. Serbia claims Tesla as their own – and ONLY theirs – there is no question that Tesla is anything but a Serb, despite the great man professing equal pride at his Croat homeland. Serbia has certainly done a great job at getting the message out there, even naming its main international airport after him. But the proud Serbs who claim him as their own fail to mention a couple of relevant facts. Tesla never had Serbian citizenship, and he only actually spent 31 hours in Serbia in his entire life, a solitary visit in 1892. If you travel to Serbia to search for places that Tesla spent time or created things, then you are going to be disappointed, as there is nothing to see, apart from his ashes which were transferred to Belgrade in 1952. Hardly surprising, given that he only spent 31 hours of his life in Serbia.
The claim that he was born in Croatia should also be clarified, as Croatia was not an independent country at the time of his birth, rather part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Smiljan was in the zone of the Military Frontier at the time, and his citizenship was Austrian, before he bcame an American later in life. Having said that, the quote above shows that Tesla identified with both his Serb ethnicity and Croatian homeland.
There is, of course, a certain irony – given the nationalist passions in some quarters of this region – of Serbia objecting to the celebration of a Serb on a Croatian coin, but that is perhaps another discussion.
What can also not be disputed is that Smiljan today is firmly within the boundaries of modern Croatia. And for those looking for evidence of Tesla’s formative years, there is plenty to explore, from the visitor centre at Smiljan, his school in Karlovac, the surrounding nature which inspired him, and the city of Sibenik, which was the first city in the world to have street lights powered by alternating current. It is probably worth mentioning that had Tesla’s education and life experience continued in this region, he would probably not have fulfilled his potential, as it was only once he got to the States and was exposed to bigger things that he flourished.
As I wrote a couple of years ago in It is Time for Croatia to Claim its Nikola Tesla Heritage, Croatia has thus far done a terrible job marketing its Tesla heritage, and it is one of the several gifts that it possesses which are totally underutilised. The birthplace of Tesla should be a global attraction, and one which is there to inspire the minds of the next generation. It could – and should – be developed for that purpose, rather than the very poor effort that we have at the moment at Smiljan – there was not even a cafe the last time I visited. Combining the Tesla story with the huge success of Croatia’s 21st-century innovator, Mate Rimac, is a compelling story which will bring more interest not just to Croatia, but to the wider region.
Would Tesla have preferred to be represented on a Croatian or Serbian coin 80 years after his death? He would probably not have had to choose, as Serbia will also get to choose its motifs for the coins if and when it adopts the euro. And wouldn’t it be nice for him to be commemorated by both, given that he was equally proud of his association to both?
Just as Nikola Tesla was equally proud of his Serb origins and his Croat homeland, wouldn’t it be nice if his Serb origins and Croat homeland could agree to celebrate the genius of a man who gave the world so much, rather than try and score cheap political points?