EXCERPT: 'The Great Escape,' by Kati Marton

Some of the nine -- Robert Capa and Edward Teller -- are famous, others less so, but of equal consequence. John von Neumann, widely believed by his contemporaries to be the smartest of them all, pioneered the electronic computer and invented Game Theory. Andre Kertesz, along with Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, virtually invented modern photojournalism. The names of Michael Curtiz and Alexander Korda may be less well known today, but their work is immortal. Curtiz's Casablanca is the most popular romantic film of all time. Korda, whose life story is more fanciful than any Hollywood fabrication, also left enduring movies; in 1994 the New York Times called Korda's The Third Man "one of the finest films ever made," a widely held judgment. Arthur Koestler is on every list of the twentieth century's greatest political writers.

They had in common, first of all, a time and a place. They were members of the same generation, roughly spanning the last decade of the nineteenth century until the outbreak of World War I. All they would become started in the city of their birth, Budapest. They were by no means unique in Budapest in its brief Golden Age; gifted men, and transforming figures, but these nine were but the tip of an iceberg of talent that came out of Budapest. Over a dozen Nobel Prize winners emerged from roughly the same generation of Hungarians. (There is some dispute as to their numbers, twelve to eighteen, depending on whether one counts areas of the country the Treaty of Trianon stripped away in 1920.) Among them were George de Hevesy, John Polanyi, and George Olah, awarded Nobel Prizes in chemistry; Albert Szent-Gyorgyi and Georg von Bekesy, awarded Nobel Prizes in medicine; Dennis Gabor and Philipp Lenard, who joined Eugene Wigner in winning the physics Nobel; and in economics, John Harsanyi, who won a Nobel for his work in Game Theory, the field pioneered by von Neumann, whose early death probably denied him his own Nobel. There were others -- not all of them Nobel laureates. Marcel Breuer designed his famous chair and other Bauhaus masterpieces, as well as the Whitney Museum in New York. Bela Bartok's disturbing harmonies started in Budapest and reached the world. For decades, Bartok's students, as well as other products of Budapest's Franz Liszt Academy, among them Fritz Reiner, George Szell, Eugene Ormandy, Georg Solti, and Antal Dorati, created the sound of the world's great orchestras.

Of course, many other places have spurred such creative energy: Athens, Rome, Florence, Amsterdam, Paris, London, Edinburgh, New York have all had their day -- some more than once. In each case a certain set of unique circumstances combined to create a moment of special creativity. But what makes this moment dramatically different is that the geniuses of Budapest had to leave their homeland to achieve greatness. One can only wonder how much more potential was trapped inside the city as its brief moment of magic and opportunity turned into a fascist hell in 1944. But before all that -- before Admiral Nicholas Horthy, Europe's first proto-fascist, before Adolf Hitler and Adolf Eichmann, before the communist leader Bela Kun -- Budapest between 1890 and 1918 was relatively secure, tolerant of new people and ideas and bursting with civic pride. It was also a secular city.

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