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
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]