Who does Nikola Tesla belong to?The Serbs say that Nikola Tesla was one of the most remarkable scientists of the 20th century and the greatest Serb that ever lived. The Croats think Nikola Tesla was one of the greatest Croats that ever lived. Who is right?
The Serbs say that Nikola Tesla was one of the most remarkable scientists of the 20th century and the greatest Serb that ever lived. The Croats agree with the first statement but vehemently disagree with the latter. They think Nikola Tesla was one of the greatest Croats that ever lived. A string of public opinion surveys about Nikola Tesla have been conducted in Croatia during the last 20 years or so. The Croatian weekly magazine Hrvatski Obzor, in 1999, organized a poll to select the Croatian person of the century. The editors came up with a list of about 30 names. Nikola Tesla won by a large margin. In 2003 the weekly Nacional magazine conducted a similar poll, only this time the respondents had 100 names to choose from. In that poll Nikola Tesla came in second. In 2011 the leading Croatian agency for communications management Milennium Promotions conducted a poll to find out who the most important great men of Croatia were. Nikola Tesla won 83% of the votes, Ruđer Bošković 63% and Miroslav Krleža 48%. Branimir Pofuk later broke down the numbers and said this about Nikola Tesla’s 83% of the votes: “In every age group most respondents voted for Nikola Tesla. If we divide the respondents according to gender, place of residence, whatever, the vast majority of respondents in any given group voted for Nikola Tesla. Most of the highly educated respondents voted for Nikola Tesla; most of those who only finished primary school voted for Nikola Tesla. If we divide the respondents into groups according to this or that party membership, or those completely apolitical, again we have the same picture; most of the respondents in each group voted for Nikola Tesla. This is worthy of note since people in Serbia insist that Tesla was a Serb. I have to point out again, most people from Zagorje, Slavonia, Dalmatia, Podravina, all over, voted for Nikola Tesla. Granted, more people hailing from Tesla’s home region, Lika, voted for him, in terms of percentages than those hailing from other parts of Croatia. If only Croatian politicians, or academics, were as united as regards various issues as the respondents regarding Nikola Tesla. But, it’s a huge thing, for Croats, to agree at least on something for once. Besides, Tesla is too big for both the Croats and the Serbs. The man invented electricity, for crying out loud! He did not invent electricity for the Croats, or for the Serbs, he invented electricity for the whole humankind! Being shared between the Croats and the Serbs would be a bigger miracle than any of Tesla’s inventions. But then again, as I discovered during my research for the book Hrvatska i susjedi (Croatia and its Neighbors), there are Serbs who have no problem with admitting that Tesla was just as much a Croat as he was a Serb.”
So, most Croats agree that Nikola Tesla is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Croat to have ever lived. No one seems to be bothered with the fact that the Serbs perceive Tesla as their own, on account of his ethnicity and religion, nor by the fact that he left Yugoslavia and went to America, where he made a name for himself. In that sense he’s more American than he is either Serbian or Croatian, because he left Croatia behind as a place unsuitable for his talents. There are some in Croatia who would gladly let Serbia have Nikola Tesla. They say since they want him so much and have him on their banknotes and since they’ve named a major airport after him, let them have it, no big deal. There were even some Croatian politicians in the 90s who had a problem with Nikola Tesla because of his Serbian ethnic origin. Luckily, the number of such bigots has steadily been decreasing and there are ever more of those that think Nikola Tesla should be perceived as one of the greatest Croats that ever lived. They don’t see any point in perceiving Nikola Tesla as American or Serbian. That logic makes sense because Tesla was born in Croatia, he was educated in Croatia and spent his formative years in Croatia. In that respect Croatia generated Tesla’s genius. True, he could not realize his potential at home and he went to the USA, but he cherished his homeland and was always ready to come to its aid. On the other hand, Nikola Tesla did not have much of a relationship with Serbia. He visited Serbia only once in his life and stayed there for only 31 hours. It doesn’t really make sense attempting to appropriate Tesla because he transcends the constraints of time and space and his genius and universal humanism belongs to the legacy of the true prophets.
But, some Croatian and a larger number of Serbian officials do not seem to get that. On the 70th anniversary of Nikola Tesla’s death in 2013 a formal event was organized at the New Yorker hotel, comprising an award ceremony and a two-day conference. The government of Serbia was a co-organizer of the event and the stars of the ceremony were the mayor of New York Bloomberg, the tennis player Novak Đoković and the then President of the United Nations General Assembly Vuk Jeremić. No Croats attended the event. Jeremić, a controversial figure on account of things not related to Nikola Tesla, in his speech about the success of an ordinary man from the Balkan Peninsula in the wide world, stated that Tesla “personifies some of the most recognizable traits of the Serbian national identity”. Nobody deigned to mention where Tesla was born. It is notable that in most official documents his place of birth is either Austria-Hungary or Military Frontier. Only in a few places is Croatia given as an additional qualifier. In most sources Tesla’s nationality is given as “Austrian”. Most people tend to associate Nikola Tesla with that country that appropriates him most creatively. And at this point that country is not Croatia or Serbia, but the United States of America. This is understandable because a lot is known about Nikola Tesla’s activities on the eastern seaboard of the United States and his earlier life remains shrouded in mystery. And we have no one but ourselves to blame for this sad state of affairs. If we are too lazy, or too incompetent to inform the world about our greats, then most people will accept at face value the information that is readily available, regardless of whether that information is inaccurate or provided in bad faith. Croatia doesn’t seem to be keen on capitalizing on Nikola Tesla’s legacy, not even when other countries take the lead in honoring Nikola Tesla’s achievements. Saying that Nikola Tesla was a Croat means nothing if the claim is not backed up with books, documentaries, articles, YouTube videos, podcasts and so forth. If we do not give our Nikola Tesla to the world then other countries will give their Nikola Tesla to the world. And the fact that we have the accurate information and those other countries do not becomes completely irrelevant in the face of our indolent attitude.
For years Croatia did nothing to create a brand out of Nikola Tesla’s name. In 2006 the first tentative steps in that direction were taken. On the 150th anniversary of Tesla’s birth the Croatian Parliament declared the Year of Nikola Tesla and many celebratory events took place commemorating the anniversary. The most momentous event that year was the opening of the Nikola Tesla Memorial Centre in Smiljan, in the Lika region. It is a truly magnificent facility, offering something for everyone. The complex consists of the house and estate where Tesla was born, as well as the Church of St. Peter and Paul, a cemetery, stone monuments and benches made by architect Zdenko Kolacio, a monument by sculptor Mile Blažević, prototypes of Tesla's experimental station from Colorado Springs, turbines, a remote-control boat, a bridge, a multimedia center, a hi-tech playground… The location for the memorial centre wasn’t picked at random – Tesla was born in the region of Lika and spent his formative years there. But unfortunately, only a few people are aware of the centre because no one has deemed it necessary to advertise its existence. There is only a small brown sign post on the road to Gospić pointing the way to the Nikola Tesla Memorial Centre. No doubt many foreign tourists on their way to the coast have asked themselves: “Now what has Croatia got to do with Nikola Tesla?” Again, we have only ourselves to blame.
As part of the celebrations commemorating 150th anniversary of Nikola Tesla’s birth his monument was erected in Zagreb, at the intersection between Preradović Street and Massaryk Street, a work of the most famous Croatian sculptor, Ivan Meštrović. Tesla met Meštrović in 1924 and they became good friends. Meštrović considered Nikola Tesla and Ruđer Bošković the greatest Croats ever born. Tesla admired Meštrović as a sculptor of infinite genius. Tesla had refused many offers by globally renowned artists to paint his portrait or sculpt his bust. But Nikola Tesla did suggest to Mestrović to sculpt a monument to him, saying: “For the sake of our posterity and Slav nations I’d like to leave behind a bust sculpted by none other than the great Meštrović”.
In 2014, at the initiative of the Nikola Tesla Association – Genius for the Future, the Croatian Parliament declared Nikola Tesla Day, that is to say, Science, Technology and Innovation Day which is celebrated every year on Tesla's birthday, July 10. This sparked an initiative to erect Tesla’s tower from Long Island in Zagreb, as a tourist attraction. In 2015, according to the decision of the Zagreb City Hall, the Technical Museum hosting the cabinet where Tesla's inventions are demonstrated was renamed the Nikola Tesla Technical Museum. At the moment of writing there is a campaign in progress to start celebrating Nikola Tesla Day on a global level, in other words, a campaign urging the UN to designate an international day of Nikola Tesla. The first diplomatic moves have been taken and the former Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-Mun wholeheartedly supports the initiative.
Those in the business of branding know that the country which promotes a given historical figure with creativity and persistence – through films, documentaries, manifestations, products, museums – will profit the most. Austria, some people jokingly aver, is the world champion in branding through historical figures because it has convinced the whole world that Hitler was a German and Beethoven an Austrian! There is actually a lot of truth in the joke. Nikola Tesla was born in Croatia and is one of the greatest Croats who ever lived. The fact is indisputable and Croatia should really do its utmost to ram the fact home, promote Nikola Tesla, his name and his achievements as a Croat until the cows come home. Tesla’s name is an asset of tremendous importance in today’s globalised and high-tech world. Moreover, Croatia has an obligation towards Tesla to keep the memory of him, as a Croat, alive. Croatia, it has to be pointed out, officially recognised Tesla’s genius while he was still alive. In 1896 Tesla became an honorary member of the Yugoslav Academy of Sciences and Arts. In 1926 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Zagreb (10 years later the University of Belgrade followed suit, as well as the Polytechnic School in Graz and the University of Paris 11 years later). In 1936, when a celebration was held at Banski Dvori commemorating Tesla’s 80th birthday, Tesla sent a cable to the then leader of Croatia thanking him for the honor and stating that he was proud of both his Croatian homeland and heritage and Serbian ancestry.
Tesla loved Zagreb, as the capital of his homeland and had nothing but deep respect for the city. When he visited Zagreb, at the invitation of the then mayor of Zagreb, Milan Amruš, in 1892 he gave a speech in the Zagreb City Hall. At one point he said: “I consider it my duty, as a citizen of my country, to help Zagreb in any way I possibly can!” During his stay Tesla also gave a lecture to the representatives of the Zagreb City Assembly about the possibilities to electrify the capital. Other information about his stay in Zagreb is not known. He stayed in the capital of Croatia for three days, unencumbered by matters of protocol and free to do as he wished. From Zagreb the road took him to Varaždin and thence to Budapest. Three days after leaving Zagreb, in the evening hours on June 1, he arrived in Belgrade from Budapest by train, at the invitation of the Belgrade City Hall. Altogether he stayed in Belgrade 31 hours. Tesla’s stay there was exactly the opposite of his time spent in Zagreb. Everything was pomp and circumstance. Already at the train station hundreds of people waited in welcome for him, including the Belgrade elites. The poet Jovan Jovanović Zmaj even wrote the following verses in honor of Tesla’s visit to Belgrade:
Today Belgrade is a happy city
Shaking hands with him who’s done Serbia proud
Revealing its joyous heart
To our Serbian hero ever so loud
The following day Tesla was received by the recently crowned King Aleksandar Obrenović and then the visit turned into a tiring protocol – meetings, receptions, toasts… Tesla’s visit to Belgrade meant a lot for the Serbian leaders and members of the Serbian academic, scientific and religious communities. In a way it was a confirmation of his Serbian ancestry, especially because he had never been to Serbia before and had no relationship with either the country or its capital city. The Serbs simply decided to exploit the fact that Tesla was an Orthodox Christian and Croatian Serb for all it was worth. Tesla would never travel to Serbia again.
Croatia was lucky in the sense that Nikola Tesla remained loyal to it to the very end. Still, his ideas presented to the councilors in Zagreb were never realized, even though the then Mayor of Zagreb Milan Armuš was staunchly in favor of the electrification of the city. Lacking investors and good will, Zagreb had to wait to be electrified for 15 long years after that visit by Nikola Tesla. Only in the fall of 1907 was a thermal power station built, providing the city of Zagreb with electricity. Still, Tesla’s words directed at the councilors had some effect; it gave a confidence boost to a number of Croatian engineers who, following Tesla’s instructions, built a hydroelectric power plant under the Skradinski buk waterfall on the Krka River. It was the first hydroelectric power plant powered by AC built in Europe and second in the world – the Skradinski buk power plant was put into operation only two days after the hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls, built by Nikola Tesla’s patents, had been made operational. Thanks to the electricity received from the Skradinski buk hydroelectric power plant, Šibenik was the first city in the world with public lighting and with household use of alternating current. Even though the Niagara Falls hydroelectric power plant was the first of its kind in the world, the city of Buffalo only started receiving electricity from the plant one year after its construction, when the power lines had been built and the low voltage distribution network set up. Zagreb did not recognize Tesla’s vision and did not take advantage of his good will and readiness to help, but Croatian engineers did justify the claim that Croatia is the homeland of the great Nikola Tesla.
(A chapter from the book "Understanding Croatia" by Božo Skoko, that can be ordered on Amazon)