Jewish Nobles and Geniuses in Modern Hungary. WILLIAM O. MCCAGG. Boulder: East European Quarterly, 1972. Pp. 254. $9.00. (Available in Canada through McGill-Queen's University Press)
in Canadian Slavonic Papers 17 (1975): 306-307

If one ignores the author's main thesis, that Austro- Hungary in her last seventy or so years became a breeding ground for geniuses, mainly of ennobled Hungarian Jews, the reader can delight in the author's scholarly description of the spectacular rise of an alien group close to the pinnacle of Magyar society.

In 1800 Jews constituted hardly 1.5 per cent of the nearly nine million inhabitants of the Hungarian Kingdom and were a negligible social group in her towns. By 1900 their number increased to 5 per cent with a heavy concentration in the cities. In Budapest, every fourth person was Jewish. In industry, trade, finance and the medical and legal professions, their representation surpassed the 50 per cent mark. McCagg, making judicious use of printed sources, objectively analyses the causes of this phenomenon.

McCagg utilizes the technique of sampling. He has selected short biographies to demonstrate how established and immigrant Jewish families benefited from the economic boom of the 1850's, the policies of the Viennese liberal-centralist regime of the same decade which brought the Empire to the take-off stage of an industrial revolution, and, finally, the Magyar nobility's desperate need to find an ally against Habsburg centralists and the nationalities. In 1848 Jewish emancipation was traded for Magyarization. Economic achievements were followed by a craving for social and political positions which were gradually attained by a vanguard of Jewish capitalists by means of ennoblement. Newly titled Jews abandoned Judaism and pursued a Magyar gentry lifestyle. Many of the fathers of the future geniuses became "renegades wholly unrepresentative of their class" (p. 41). However, not all Hungarian Jewish capitalists were willing to assimilate. Istvan Tisza and other leading Magyar politicians were frequently in urgent financial need so as to pursue their conservative nationalist aims, even at the price of accepting non-converted Jews into the ranks of the nobility or into high political positions. The alliance of the gentry and Jewish capitalists brought economic prosperity and a cultural renaissance to Hungary during the decade before the First World War. Economic optimism, the modernity of the cultural revival at the turn of the century, combined with the refusal of the ruling class to share de facto political power or to allow absolute assimilation, encouraged a small group of intellectuals, sons of Jewish nobles, to reject Magyar and Jewish ideologies. To escape the environment, which was laden with corruption, compromise, class struggle and humiliation, they turned instead to the sciences. This is the point where the author's thesis disintegrates.

It is a hopeless task to prove that John von Neuman, developer of the atomic bomb and founder of computer science, Michael Polanyi, Leo Szilard, Leo Lanci, Franz Alexander, Ed Teller and Theodore von Karman were geniuses because of biological or environmental factors. Their noble origin, one may suspect, is the most accidental attribute of their achievements. The author does not provide a definition of the term "genius," a statistical comparison of noble and commoner Jewish geniuses, or Jewish and gentile geniuses who emerged from the same environment at about the same time. German Jewish geniuses were quite capable of enriching the scientific field without ennoblement. McCagg's tale, nevertheless, is well told, in spite of the intangibility of his basic theme.

[Peter I. Hidas, Dawson College]