Politics

Was Tesla Serb or Croat? The Ridiculous and Very Balkan Diplomatic Row

By 13 August 2019

August 13, 2019 - A diplomatic row has erupted between Croatia and Serbia over the use of Nikola Tesla. What would the great man have made of it all?

I want to take you back in time to a hotel room in New York in 1943. Lying on his deathbed at the age of 86 was one of the greatest geniuses ever to walk this planet. Although he did not achieve as much as he himself had hoped for the betterment of humanity, Nikola Tesla changed the world immensely and made it a better place. 

After a lifetime of achievement, he perhaps reflected on his successes and arguably thought back to his family, homeland and childhood. He was  certainly proud of where he came from, as he wrote in 1936:

"Thank you very much for your much appreciated greetings and honors, I am equally proud of my Serb origin and my Croat homeland. Long live all Yugoslavs." 

Perhaps Tesla reflected how he might be remembered in the future. Some 75 years later, history has treated him kindly, and he is a global figure. A new revolutionary electric vehicle brand bears his name, and a local, new generation genius called Mate Rimac is becoming a global superstar with his electric vehicle and battery technology.

But how is he remembered and discussed in his homeland? 

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Well...

I was told once that the best way to start an argument in Split is to drop into a bar and ask everything there who were the top 5 Hajduk players of all time and the leave. On a regional level, there is only one question - was Nikola Tesla a Serb or Croat?

As Tesla's sentence above suggests, he probably considered himself both - an ethnic Serb growing up in his Croatian homeland. His father was a Serb Orthodox priest, his mother the daughter of a Serb Orthodox priest. 

It seems quite clear-cut to me, but nothing is that simple in the Balkans. 

When Tesla was born in 1857, the village of Smiljan was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in what was known as the Croatian Military Frontier, a district of the Military Frontier. 

Today that village lies in modern Croatia. And although the country Tesla was born in was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it is interesting to note that he was "equally proud of my Serb origin and my Croat homeland."

I don't think that anyone would disagree with the following statement. Nikola Tesla was an ethnic Serb who was born in the village of Smiljan, which is located today in Croatia. 

And if you can accept that statement, then the logical next step (if you can briefly put nationalism and dick posturing to one side) is to conclude that Tesla has a story to tell in both Serbia and Croatia. 

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It is a fact that Serbia has done MUCH better promoting its Tesla heritage so far, naming Belgrade Airport after the world's most famous Serb, even dedicating a science day to his birthday. 

By contrast, Croatia has done little with the Nikola Tesla gift on its territory, and the exhibition in Smiljan is an embarrassment compared to what it could offer. 

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There are signs that this is changing, however, and Zagreb was chosen as the opening location for the Nikola Tesla Mind from the Future exhibition which will tour the places which had the biggest influence on Tesla during his life - Budapest, Prague, Paris, New York, as well as Dubai. 

But not Belgrade, for although Tesla was a proud Serb and lived, studied and worked in Gospic, Maribor, Graz, Budapest and Prague, he only actually spent 31 hours and one visit in Belgrade. 

And while Croatia might want to lay claim to the Tesla heritage, at such times it is conveniently forgotten that his house was twice destroyed in the 1940s and 1990s. 

A diplomatic row has broken out between Croatia and Serbia over the great inventor has announced its plans to celebrate Croatian innovation at Dubai Expo 2020, celebrating Croatian innovators, including Tesla. It is something I applaud, as I have long been saying that It is Time for Croatia to Claim Its Nikola Tesla Heritage.

Serbia is not amused.

"With his scientific contributions and inventions, Nikola Tesla belongs to the world but as regards his ethnic background, he belongs to the Serb people. No tragicomic attempts to falsify that simple truth can change that," the Serbian Culture and Information Ministry said in a statement. 

Nobody is trying to say anything but that Tesla was an ethnic Serb, but by the same token it is hard to deny that he was born in Smiljan, which lies not in Serbia but in Croatia. And Telsa himself spoke of being "equally proud of my Serb origin and my Croat homeland."

Or are we saying that Tesla himself was wrong to refer to his "Croatian homeland"?

Or that we cannot refer to anyone as American apart from the original indigenous tribes?

Tesla was known for having a mind for the future, and the future was where his focus always was. So why don't we honour the great man and do the same?

Rather than indulge the keyboard warriors, why not do what Tesla would have done and look to the future. There will be 21 million electric vehicles on Europe's roads by 2030, and more than 75% of Croatia's tourists arrive by road. As I outlined in my recent blueprint for resetting tourism here in Branding Croatia: 5 Gifts and Trends to Focus On, Smiljan has a big role to play, 

Instead of fighting, why not work with EU funding cross-border funding programmes to celebrate Nikola Tesla and the innovation of this region. Build a Theatre of Dreams at Smiljan to stimulate the next generation, as well as similar projects in Serbia. South-East Europe, a hub of innovation and invention, symbolised by the great Nikola Tesla, whose presence was felt throughout the region. 

Do you think that idea would have made that dying old man in a New York hotel room 86 years ago a little prouder than the ridiculous situation we have at present?

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