[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Go to Chapter One Section Go to Book World's Review

Wizard
The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla
Biography of a Genius
By Marc J. Seifer

Chapter One: Heritage

Hardly is there a nation which has met with a sadder fate than the Servians. From the height of its splendor, when the empire embraced almost the entire northern part of the Balkan peninsula and a large portion of what is now Austria, the Servian nation was plunged into abject slavery, after the fateful battle of 1389 at the Kosovo Polje, against the overwhelming Asian hordes. Europe can never repay the great debt it owes to the Servians for checking, by the sacrifice of its own liberty, that barbarian influx.
-- Nikola Tesla

It was during a crackling summer storm in Smiljan, a small hamlet at the back edge of a plateau set high in the mountains, when Nikola Tesla was born. The Serbian family resided in the province of Lika, a plateau and gentle river valley in Croatia where wild boar and deer still dwell and farmers still travel on ox-drawn wagons. Only a cart ride from the Adriatic, the land is well protected from invasion by sea, by the Velebit ridge to the west, which runs the length of the province and towers over the coastline as a steep cliff, and by the Dinaric Alps to the east, a chain of mountains that emerge from Austria, span the Balkan peninsula and culminate in the south as the isle of Crete.

Though hidden, Smiljan was centrally located, fifteen miles east of the tiny seaport of Karlobag, six miles west of the bustling town of Gospic and forty-five miles southwest of the cascading wonder known as Plitvice Lakes, an interlinking chasm of caves and streams and magnificent waterfalls that lie at the base of the Dinaric chain.

In the early 1800s, having been briefly part of Napoleon's Illyrian provinces. Croatia was now a domain of Austria-Hungary. With its neighboring Slavic countries of Bosnia, Hercegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia, Croatia was sandwiched between the ruling Hapsburg dynasty to the north and the Ottoman Empire to the south.

In ancient times, and for many centuries, much of the coastline along the Adriatic was ruled by the Illyrians, a piratical tribe believed to have descended from regions around Austria. Successfully protecting their borders from such rulers as Alexander the Great, many Illyrians rose into social prominence; some, at the time of Christ, became emperors.

Slavs, traveling in close-knit clans known as zadrugas, were first recognized by the Byzantines in the second century A.D. in the area around what is now Belgrade. Tesla's appearance resembled the characteristic features of the Ghegs, a tribe described as being tall and having convex-shaped noses and flat skull. Like other Slavs, these people were originally pagans and worshiped nature spirits and a god of thunder and lightning. Tesla's early ancestors were probably born in the Ukraine. They most likely traveled down through Romania into Serbia and lived near Belgrade, along the Danube. After the Battle of Kosovo in the latter part of the fourteenth century, they crossed the Kosovo plains into Montenegro and continued their migration northward into Croatia in the latter part of the eighteenth century.

All Slavs speak the same language, The major distinction between Croats and Serbs stems from the differences in the histories of their respective countries. The Croats adopted the pope as their spiritual leader and followed the Roman form of Catholicism; the Serbs adopted a Byzantine patriarch and the Greek Orthodox view. Whereas Roman priests remain celibate, Greek Orthodox priests may marry.

In the east and central regions Slavs were more successful in maintaining their own control over what came to be called the kingdom of Serbia; whereas in the west, in Croatia, outside rulers, such as Charlemagne in A.D. 800, occupied the region. While Croatia maintained the Christianization policies of the Franks, the Serbs and Bulgarians drove out the papacy and revived their own pagan faith, which included animal sacrifice and pantheism. Many of the ancient pagan gods were made saints and were celebrated in higher esteem than Jesus. Tesla's patron saint Nicholas was a fourth-century god who protected sailors.

To further alienate the two groups, although speaking the same verbal language, Croats adopted the Latin alphabet, whereas Serbs and Bulgarians took on the Cyrillic alphabet used by the Greek Orthodox church.

Before Turkish rule, from the ninth century until the 1300s, Serbia had maintained autonomy. For Serbia, this period was its golden age, as the Byzantines accepted its autonomous status. Due to the philanthropic nature of its kings, a dynamic medieval art flourished, and great monasteries were erected.

Croatia, on the other hand, was in much more turmoil. Influenced by western Europe, the ruling class attempted unsuccessfully to institute a feudal system of lords and serfs. This policy directly opposed the inherent structure of the democratic zadrugas, and so Croatia was never able to establish a unified identity. Nevertheless, one independent offshoot of Croatia, Ragusa (Dubrovnik), which had established itself as a port of commerce and a rival of Venice as a major sea power, became a melting pot for south Slavic culture and a symbol for the Illyrian ideal of a unified Yugoslavia.

The identity of Serbia as a nation, however, changed for all time on June 15, 1389, the day 30,000 Turks obliterated the Serbian nation in the Battle of Kosovo. Cruel conquerors, the Turks destroyed Serbian churches or converted them to mosques. Drafting the healthiest male. children into their armies, they skewered and tortured the men and forced the women to convert and marry Turks. Many Serbs fled, taking up residence in the craggy mountains of Montenegro or the hidden valleys of Croatia. Some of those that remained became wealthy as Turkish vassals; others, mostly of mixed blood, became pariahs.

The Battle of Kosovo is as important to the Serbs as the Exodus to the Jews or the Crucifixion to the Christians. It is commemorated every year on the anniversary of the tragedy as Vidov Dan, the day "when we shall see." As one Serb told the author, "It follows us always." The massacre and ensuing defilement of the kingdom became the dominant motif of the great epic poems which served to unify the identity of the Serbian people through their centuries of hardship.

Unlike the Croats, who did not have this kind of all-embracing exigency, the Serbs had Kosovo. Combined with their adherence to the Greek Orthodox religion in a twofold way, Serbs, no matter where they lived, felt united.

The century of Tesla's birth was marked by the rise of Napoleon. In 1809 the emperor wrested Croatia from Austro-Hungarian rule and established French occupation. Extending his domain down the Adriatic coast, Napoleon reunited the Illyrian provinces and introduced French libertarian ideals. This philosophy helped dismantle the outmoded feudal system of lords and serfs and reawaken the idea of a unified Balkan nation. At the same time, the occupation created an identity with the French culture. Tesla's paternal grandfather and maternal great-grandfather both served under the French emperor.

With support from the Russians, Serbian bands united in 1804 under the leadership of the flamboyant hog farmer George Petrovich, known as Kara-George (in Turkish, Black George), a man of Montenegrin heritage trained in the Austrian army. However, in 1811, Napoleon invaded Russia; thus, support for Serbia evaporated.

Forty thousand Turks marched against the Serbs, leveling towns and butchering citizens. Serbs were often executed by impalement, their writhing bodies lined up along the roads to the city. All males captured above the age of fifteen were slaughtered, and women and children were sold as slaves. Kara-George fled the country.

Milosh, the new Serbian leader, was a sly and treacherous character, able to walk a thin line between Serbs and the sultan. In 1817, when Kara-George returned, he was decapitated, his head sent by Milosh to Istanbul. A tyrant as terrible as any Turkish pasha, Milosh became the official head of Serbia in 1830.

One of the more sapient figures of the day was the scholar and Serb Vuk Karadjich (1787-1864). Schooled in Vienna and St. Petersburg, Vuk believed "all Yugoslavs were one."

Pleading with Milosh to build schools and to form a constitution, Vuk created, with a student, a Serbo-Croatian dictionary that combined the two written languages. He published the epic folk ballads, which gained the attention of Goethe, and through this means the Serbian plight and also its unique literature were translated and spread to the western world.

In Croatia, the land of Tesla's birth, Emperor Ferdinand of Austria in 1843, issued a proclamation forbidding any discussion about Illyrianism, thereby helping keep the Serbs and Croats a separate people. In 1867 the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy was created, and Croatia became a semiautonomous province of the new empire. Simultaneously, in Serbia, Michael Obrenovich was finally able to "secure the departure...of the Turkish garrisons from Belgrade" and convert the state into a constitutional monarchy.

Tesla's background was thus a mixture of crossed influences, a monastic environment, a Byzantine legacy of a once great culture, and incessant battles against barbarous invaders. As a Serb growing up in Croatia, Tesla inherited a rich mix of tribal rituals, egalitarian rule, a modified form of Greek Orthodox Catholicism, pantheistic beliefs, and myriad superstitions. Women cloaked their bodies in black garb, and men packed a cross in one pocket and a weapon in another. Living at the edge of civilization, Serbs saw themselves as protectors of Europe from the Asian hordes. They bore that responsibility with their blood for many centuries.

© 1996 Marc J. Seifer

Birch Lane

Back to the top