It is important to note that the men who make up this narrative were all double outsiders once they left their native land. They were not only from a small, linguistically impenetrable, landlocked country, they were also Jews. (One could argue that, in fact, they were even triple outsiders, since they were all nonobservant Jews whose families had consciously rejected the shtetl for the modern, secular, cosmopolitan world that, briefly, lay glistening in front of them.)
The nine men who are the subject of The Great Escape were Jews in a city that briefly welcomed and encouraged their ambition. Unlike the Jews of Russia and Romania, Budapest Jews were integrated into the city's great academic and cultural -- though not its political -- institutions. Budapest, like New York, Paris, and Berlin, became a magnet for the brightest from all over the region. The multiethnic cauldron of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in its closing years helped to ignite creative explosions in both Budapest and Vienna. It is no accident that another secular Jew, Theodor Herzl, born in Budapest in similar circumstances only a few years earlier, created modern Zionism out of the ferment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
All nine were big thinkers, with big dreams. The small, the political, or the bureaucratic were neither open nor appealing to them. It was no accident that they excelled in new fields where they could break new ground, and where official or institutional support was less important than talent: mathematics, physics, literature, photography, and film. Their forefathers had lived on the margins, but this generation believed they could change the world, just as their world had itself changed.
Then, just as most of them were reaching manhood -- though the youngest, Robert Capa, was still a boy -- in the wake of the catastrophic First World War, these daring young men collided with the realities of hate and violence. Creative life could not flourish in a climate of fear. First wearing the guise of nationalism and then murderous racism, fear marched into Budapest in the 1920s and 1930s. Jolted out of the comfort of their lives, they would never again feel entirely secure; fame and fortune would not alter that condition. Their westward journey took them to Vienna, Berlin, Paris, New York, and, for some, Hollywood -- through a boiling continent and beyond. They reinvented themselves and assimilated cultures as they moved west. But the city of their youth, pulsing with energy and in love with the new, and, however briefly, secure but not smug, marked them for life.
When it came to politics, they were as sensitive as burn victims. All nine had experienced how quickly things can change. Some, particularly Korda, Capa, and von Neumann, masked their insecurity better than the others. But as Sir Georg Solti, one of the most celebrated conductors of our time, wrote of his childhood in post-World War I Budapest: "Since that time, I have never been able to rid myself of the fear of anyone wearing a military or police uniform, or even a customs office uniform, because in Hungary uniforms always meant persecution in one form or another." Such feelings were buried deep within all the men in this narrative.