Sunday, July 09, 2006

Happy birthday, Nick
Today is the 150th anniversary of Nikola Tesla, one of the great geniuses of the era of electrical invention and a favorite figure of numerous schools of conspiracy theory. If neither of those is a good enough reason for celebration, then you should raise a glass just for the excuse to use the word sesquicentennial in a sentence. Those don't come along every day you know.

Tesla was a Serb born the village of Smiljan in a district called Lika, in what was then called the Croatian Military Frontier of the Habsburg Empire. Before Tesla was an adult, the Habsburg Empire became Austria-Hungary and the Military Frontier was absorbed into Croatia proper (which was itself part of the Hungarian half of the empire). Tesla was not especially interested in politics, but the successive rulers of Smiljan have politicized his memory.

After World War One, Croatia, Lika, and Smiljan were all absorbed into the new Yugoslav kingdom. During World War Two, the region was part of the Independent Croatian State (that was really its name. It's kind of pathetic when you have to put "independent" in the name of your country). The local Serbian population suffered atrocities at the hand of the local fascists, the Ustasha.

Following the War, Yugoslavia was recreated as a federation with Smiljan included in the socialist Croatian state. It was not inevitable that this would happen. Roosevelt thought that maybe Yugoslavia had been a bad idea to begin with and suggested dividing it into two parts. Stalin might have agreed, seeing advantage in a different solution for every shift in the international situation. At various times, he supported a unitary Yugoslavia, a complete break-up into tiny republics, a federal Yugoslavia, a super federation that would have included Bulgaria and Albania, and annexing the Balkans into the Soviet Union. Tito's federal state just happened to be the solution Stalin was supporting at the end of the war and the one that solidified into reality before he could change his mind.

During the break-up of Yugoslavia, Smiljan was included in the short-lived Serbian Republic of the Krajina, which seceded from Croatia. When the region was reconquered by Croatia, most of the Serbian population fled to Serbia proper. True to the nature of the region, almost every word of the preceding historical summary will be sure to offend someone's nationalist narrative.

During all of this, the memory of Nikola Tesla was something of a political football. Tesla died in 1943, before the Communists came to power in the old country. As he had few opportunities to offend them, he was adopted as a national hero. Tesla was a perfect Yugoslav icon. Both Serbia and Croatia could find reason to claim him as a native son, the former by ethnicity and the latter by geography. There were Tesla museums and Tesla statues in both Belgrade and Zagreb. Tesla was shown on the currency of the Yugoslav Federation.

When I visited Belgrade in 1993 to interview Milovan Djilas, the economy was in the final stage of a total collapse under runaway inflation. A liter of beer cost a hundred million dinars at the hotel I stayed in. To keep up with the rising prices, the government mint introduced a new bigger bill every couple weeks and stopped printing some of the smaller ones. Seeing that I was interested in the currency, one of the refugees living at the hotel gave me a handful of obsolete bills for souvenirs. With enough old bills, it was easy to see how the mint could get new denominations into circulation so quickly. They simply reused the designs and changed the numbers, colors, and, in some cases, shuffled the designs on the back. The child who appeared on the 50,000 dinar note with a green background and roses on the back reappeared on the one million dinar note with an orange background and an iris on the back. I still have a few five million dinar notes with Tesla on them.

This was in the Serbian remainder of Yugoslavia. In Croatia, his statue was blown up, and the house where he was born was allowed to fall into ruin. Now the Balkans are moving on to another era. The leaders of Croatia and Serbia are looking for causes to bring them back together. Tesla is available for the job.

The Croatian government has spent $8.75 million restoring Tesla's house and the presidents of Croatia and Serbia will both be present to dedicate it as a museum today. In Zagreb, the Croats are unveiling a new statue and name a street after Tesla. In Belgrade, the Serbs are renaming the airport Nikola Tesla International.

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