Austria’s Notable Serbs

The South Slavic regions of the Empire produced many who went on to shape the 19th and 20th centuries. From inventor Nikola Tesla to the Emperor's portraitist Paja Jovanović - these six each made an indelible mark on this time.

Nikola Tesla

Inventor of alternating current, Serbian-American engineer Nikola Tesla, has been described as the man who invented the 20th century. “If there weren’t for his inventions, all the wheels in industry would stop turning,” wrote American professor Barend, “the trams and trains would stop, and the cities would be in darkness.” Tesla has more than 300 patents but is most famous for his polyphase AC electrical power system and contributions in the field of X-ray and radio technologies. Born in the Austrian imperial Kingdom of Croatia of Serbian parents in 1863, he spoke nine languages, slept only four hours a day and knew many books by heart. While he studied at the University in Graz, his professor wrote a letter to his father telling him to get Nikola back home as he would get sick by over studying. He never graduated, although he received 11 honorary doctorates, including from the Universities of Graz and Vienna. He never married, considering it a waste of time. Fearing that somebody might steal his inventions, he stored them only in his mind. In 1884 he emigrated to the United States, working first for Edison Electric and later for Westinghouse. He died in New York City in 1943, at the age of 86. At his request, the Serbian national song Tamo daleko (There, far away) was played at his funeral.

Milutin Milanković/(C) Wikimedia Commons

Milutin Milanković

Serbian mathematician, astronomer and engineer, Milutin Milanković made two essential contributions to science. Planet Insolation, which describes the individual climates of the planets, and Milankovitch cycles, which explain climate changes, both those we are experiencing today, and ice ages from the past. Milanković graduated from the Technical University in Vienna, getting a PhD in Civil engineering. After working briefly in Vienna, he moved to Belgrade where he became a University professor, at a tenth of the salary he had had in Vienna. But he preferred Serbia. In 1914, on honeymoon in Austro-Hungary with his wife, he learned that war had been declared, and was soon arrested for being a Serb. His wife fled to Vienna to find his mentor Czuber who arranged Milutin’s release. He subsequently patented a new type of reinforced concrete favored at that time for bridges and buildings. In 1923 he made a calendar of unparalleled astronomical accuracy, which was accepted at the Congress of Eastern Orthodox churches, but is only partially implemented, and never by secular governments, even though no more accurate calendar has ever been developed. At NASA, Milanković has been ranked among the top fifteen earth scientists of all time.

Paja Jovanović/(C) Wikimedia Commons

Paja Jovanović

Paja Jovanović was the favored painter of the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I, whom he painted more than nine times. The quality of his work radiates from these extraordinary portraits, as well as those of members of the Serbian royal family Karađorđević. He was sought after worldwide, which brought him great fortune at the time, leaving a body of work that can be found in museums across Europe, as well as in Victoria, Australia, and the U.S. state of Utah under the name Paul Joanowitch. A graduate of the University of Vienna where he spent most of his life, he married a Viennese woman, Muni, who became his muse. He found great pleasure in painting women and gave his best to find the beauty in each, and portray them in the best light. When he died in Vienna in 1957, he left a legacy of 1,100 works, including The Wounded Montenegrin (1882) and Migration of the Serbs (1896). Some of his best are exhibited in museums in Belgrade and Novi Sad.

Jovan Cvijić/(C) Wikimedia Commons

Jovan Cvijić

Geographer and ethnologist Jovan Cvijić is considered the founder of Serbian geography. President of the Serbian Royal Academy of Sciences and rector of the University of Belgrade, he received his PhD from the University of Vienna in 1893. For the next 38 years, he researched and mapped the Balkans, travelled through countries under Ottoman and Austrian rule during problematic political times exposing himself to dangerous situations. Through his interaction with people on his travels, he also became interested in folklore and ethnography and produced a number of papers on Balkan personality types and his most important work, The Balkan peninsula. From his research in the field of human geography, he helped determine the state borders of Yugoslavia. Among his many awards, Cvijić received a gold medal from New York Geographical Society. 

Vuk Karadžić/(C) Wikimedia Commons

Vuk Karadžić


Vuk Stefanović Karadžić was the father of the modern Serbian language. Since many of his siblings died young, he was named Vuk (meaning “wolf”) for protection. After his studies in Belgrade, Vuk went to Vienna where he met and married Austrian Anna Kraus, who gave birth to their 13 children. Vuk collected folk songs and published them together with the Serbian dictionary and grammar based on the speech of the common people, on the principle “Write as you speak, read as it is written.” His success was in part due to the simplification of spelling, which made it possible for anyone to read Serbian even without knowing the language. Folk literature and other books written in vernacular impressed his European contemporaries, including his German friends Goethe, Humbolt and the Brothers Grimm. The year 1847 marked the triumph of his ideas with the acceptance of the simplified Serbian alphabet. He became a member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences in Vienna, awarded the Knight’s Cross by Emperor Franz Joseph. A monument stands in his honor at Rasumofskygasse 23, in Vienna’s 3rd district. 

Ivo Andrić/(C) Wikimedia Commons

Ivo Andrić


Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961, Ivo Andrić was born in Travik in 1892, in Austro-Hungarian Bosnia Herzegovina. As a young man he became part of a youth organization supporting the liberation of Bosnia from the Empire. After the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, he was arrested for supporting Serbian nationalist ideas and spent almost the entire First World War in prison or under house arrest. With no evidence found against him, he was released. He went on to study South Slavic history and literature at the universities in Zagreb, Graz, Vienna and Krakow, eventually earning his PhD in Graz. In 1939 he became a member of the Serbian Royal Academy. As Yugoslav ambassador to Germany, he was in Berlin when the WWII started, and worked to free writers and artists who had been sent to concentration camps. Arrested following the Nazi-led invasion of Yugoslavia, he was allowed to return to Belgrade where he remained until the end of the war, staying in his apartment and writing his most famous novel The Bridge on the Drina, which was awarded the NobelPrize in 1961. Andrić waited for 30 years to marry his great love Milica, a costume designer at the Serbian National Theatre and proposed only after she was widowed. He continued to serve as a diplomat for Yugoslavia abroad, but always returned to Belgrade where he died in 1975. In addition to his vast contribution to Serbian literature, his works have been translated to many languages and are popular worldwide. Famous director Emir Kusturica built an ethno-town named after him – Andrićgrad, in Višegrad, Bosnia, where Andrić spent his childhood.

Vesna Špirić
Vesna Špirič is an English and Serbian language teacher and a passionate preserver of Serbian cultural heritage. She founded the Club of Young Artists in Vienna and is interested in theater and dancing. Instagram: @tender_spring

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