EXCERPT: 'The Great Escape,' by Kati Marton

It was altogether fitting that these products of Budapest's Golden Age would stimulate the most momentous scientific-military enterprise of the twentieth century, leading to the Manhattan Project, and, after that, Hiroshima. Szilard, Wigner, and Teller -- these men were just part of a group of Hungarians who, after fleeing fascist Budapest in the 1920s and 1930s, brought their distinctive outlook on life, science, and culture to the United States and Western Europe -- and played immensely important roles in shaping the mid-twentieth-century world. Forced into exile by the rising tide of fascism, they would alter the way we fight and prevent wars, help shape those most modern art forms, photography and the movies, and transform the music we listen to.

This is the tale of some of them -- specifically, four scientists, two photographers, two film directors, and a writer -- who, collectively, helped usher in the nuclear age and the age of the computer, who left us some of our most beloved movies and many of the most enduring images of the violent century they navigated. The currents of twentieth-century history, science, culture, and politics entered them as young men in Budapest, and as they crossed borders and oceans in search of safety, they carried with them only their genius and ideas -- truly they had magic in their pockets.

Who were these men, and where did they come from? Was it simply a coincidence that they were from such a strange little country, with a language incomprehensible to the rest of the world? Or was there something peculiar about that country and that city at that time that created, in so many different fields, so many unusual people?

Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, and Eugene Wigner -- along with another genius from Budapest, John von Neumann -- brought to America more than the physics revolution. Having saved themselves from Hitler, they were determined to alert their new nation to the mounting danger. Buffeted by every political upheaval of the century, the four scientists, and the others in this narrative, were in the vanguard of an early warning system. Working in vastly different fields, they tried to rouse a world still averting its gaze from the gathering storm. As the scientists pushed for the atom bomb, Arthur Koestler was writing Darkness at Noon, the first real exposé of Stalinist brutality to achieve worldwide fame. Michael Curtiz was making Casablanca, as much a call to anti-fascist arms as it is a romance. Robert Capa was making an immortal photographic record of the helpless victims of Generalissimo Francisco Franco's indiscriminate aerial bombs, photographs to stand alongside Pablo Picasso's Guernica in the field of art as political statement.

This is the chronicle of the remarkable journey of nine men from Budapest to the New World, how they strove and what they learned along the way, and the imprint they made on America and the world.

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