November the 16th, 2023 – Just when you thought Nikola Tesla was hogging all of the Croat-Serb fallout, physicist Ruđer Bošković has asked him to hold his beer. Dubrovnik’s newly coined Ruđer Bošković Airport causes a regional scandal.
When it comes to the genetic makeup, birthplace or nationality of outstanding individuals from this part of Europe, an area which has seen states change hands and powers come and go very frequently, things can get confusing.
Nikola Tesla is a prime example of this and is the topic of an eternal conflict, usually carried out on the battlefields of online forums and in the comment sections of news articles. It’s obvious why anyone would want to claim someone as remarkable as Tesla as their own, and his origins are indeed confusing. Born and raised in Lika, which is modern-day Croatia, but was then part of the Austrian Empire, Tesla was a Croatian-American inventor with Serbian heritage. Oh, did I forget to mention that the Americans claim him, too? Tesla did indeed become a naturalised US citizen, and spent many years there, ultimately dying in New York. One quick glance at Croatian-language Wikipedia and English-language Wikipedia speaks volumes:
The first link is to Croatian-language Wikipedia, which describes Tesla as I did – a “Croatian-American inventor and engineer of Serbian heritage”.
On the other hand, English-language Wikipedia simply refers to him as a “Serbian-American inventor”.
Is this just another case of Croatia’s tireless desire to complicate? Or might we dare to assume that Tesla, having been born in Croatia, and having only spent mere hours of his life in Serbia, might be more inclined to agree with the description in the first link? Perhaps he was indeed above it all, claiming his pride for his Serbian origins and his Croatian homeland. Belgrade still got there first and named their airport after him, and who can blame them? Still, this article isn’t about Tesla, but about another great mind from Croatia – Ruđer Bošković.
The burdens of being a genius
Dubrovnik, or should I say the Republic of Ragusa, was the birthplace of this physicist, astronomer, mathematician, philosopher, diplomat, poet, theologian, Jesuit priest, and polymath. The recently changed name of Dubrovnik Airport to Ruđer Bošković Airport has caused a stir among Croats and Serbs, so much so that even The Guardian has been talking about it.
It seems that in order to be a genius in this part of the world, you need to have a complicated or unclear ethnic background, and now Ruđer Bošković is suffering Tesla’s fate. Born to an Italian mother in the Republic of Ragusa (Dubrovnik), Ruđer Bošković’s father is the protagonist of the current debate. Nikola Bošković was employed as a trader from Dubrovnik’s more immediate, mountainous hinterland. He hailed from the village of Orahov Do, which is now part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The thorny issue at hand for the Serbs is the fact that Orahov Do now lies within the territory now governed by Republika Srpska. The complexities surrounding Bosnia and Herzegovina’s two politically autonomous entities give way to endless back and forth, and it appears not even deceased mathematicians and their parents are immune to them.
Trebinje’s negative connotations
Here’s where it gets even more complicated. Trebinje, which lies a stone’s throw away from Dubrovnik in the Republika Srpska-governed part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, also wants to build an airport. Naturally, it wanted to name its airport after this same Dubrovnik-born genius. They claim that the Bošković family had converted to Catholicism, Croatia’s majority religion, and before that, they were Serbs. Given the fact that Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and indeed Serbia have seen an enormous amount of historical and political turbulence, it’s important to understand that holding certain national identities and even religious beliefs carried very different meanings during different periods.
Ethnicity and religious affiliation aside, it would be quite bizarre to have a Ruđer Bošković Airport in Dubrovnik, and then another Ruđer Bošković Airport just mere miles away in Trebinje. Trebinje in general represents a very prickly issue for many people from Dubrovnik as it is, as Homeland War scars run deep, and Trebinje had a lot to answer for during the atrocities committed against the UNESCO gem in the 1990s.
It’s hardly surprising that Serbian and Montenegrin scholars claim that the Dubrovnik-born polyglot’s father Nikola “visited Orthodox churches” in the region. On the other hand, the commercial director of the newly coined Ruđer Bošković Airport, formerly Dubrovnik Airport, has stated that Dubrovnik needs nobody’s permission to name their airport, and that “of course Ruđer Bošković isn’t a Serb”.
It would be interesting to hear what both Nikola Tesla and Ruđer Bošković, though born in very different times, make of these quarrels that have spanned generations. Perhaps someone should conduct a séance and find out once and for all. One thing is certain, even if some sort of occultic ritual were to be conducted, and both Tesla and Bošković made their feelings clear – it would fall on deaf ears.