My favorite things Hungary

The Austro-Hungarian empire does not count per se, so I will use the Hungarian language for demarcation.  As you might expect, there is lots:

1. Author: Peter Nadas, A Book of Memories, is a classic novel of ideas which is under-read in the United States.  Nadas has a new book coming out this fall.  Imre Kertesz doesn’t do much for me.

2. Movies: Bela Tarr, Satantango.  It’s over seven hours long, but don’t be put off.  It has some of the best shots of grazing cows and angry peasants committed to reel, and I wanted it to be longer.  It’s mesmerizing in a way that makes it one of the film classics of the new century.  I find Werckmeister Harmonies too corny but it has some fine scenes.  Less traditionally thought of as Hungarian is the great Emeric Pressburger, who collaborated with Michael Powell on numerous fine films.  Alexander Korda did The Thief of Baghdad.

3. Actor, Peter Lorre is the obvious choice, plus Bela Lugosi made the best Frankenstein ever, forget about Dracula.

4. Conductor: You have George Szell, Antal Dorati, Georg Solti, and Eugene Ormandy.  Szell was so often perfect, Dorati cut some of the best sounding records of all time, Solti’s whiplash style was either offputting or splendid, and Ormandy was deeper than he was given credit for.   Ivan Fischer is a more recent contender, for instance his Mahler’s 4th reflects a scrupulous concern with rehearsals.  Péter Eötvös is an excellent conductor of contemporary music.

5. Pianist: Gyorgy Cziffra and Ervin Nyiregyhazi are two memorable eccentrics.  Solti and Szell were underrated as pianists and Zoltan Kocsis is very good.  Don’t forget Franz Liszt, even though no recording has survived.

6. Scientist: There is Szilard, Teller, and von Neumann and many many others but can they come close to this top tier?  The options for Hungarian mathematicians defy belief.  Hungarian inventors were critical to the “great non-stagnation” of 1870-1940, including for the all-important electrical transformer; few if any of those names have survived much into general Western history which I suppose says something.

7. Artist: Victor Vasarely is the obvious choice, but I don’t like him so much.  This area seems oddly weak.  Am I forgetting something?  Mihaly Munkacsy anyone?

8. Economist: Janos Kornai comes to mind, and Melchior Palyi remains underrated.  I believe Milton Friedman’s parents were from Hungary.

The bottom line: You can’t gush enough about music and math and physics and science and invention.  The achievements from a small country are staggering and unprecedented.  Yet literature and painting are relatively weak.  Hungarian composers will get a post of their own, but there is a strong line-up of Liszt, Bartok, and Ligeti.  What else am I forgetting?  I can’t think of major films set in Hungary and I don’t count the Hollywoodesque The Shop Around the Corner even though nominally it is Budapest.


I remember loving Thief of Baghdad when I was about 10.

One more popular import from Hungary: The late Congressperson, Tom Lantos, (D-CA, but he was OK even though he was a Democrat:-) was the only person ever to serve in Congress who had lived under both the Nazis and the Communists; quite an achievement to survive through all that. Back in the 1950's when he was a professor, and there was some controversy over whether to allow a Communist to come to the college and speak, Prof. Lantos offered to debate with the Communist. At the close of the debate, Prof. Lantos suggested that they try it again at his alma mater, the University of Budapest, but as far as I know, that institution never extended an invitation.

Economists: John Harsanyi, Karl Polanyi

Scientists: Michael Polanyi and John Polanyi, the latter of whom won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

The Polanyi family seems to have produced a lot of big figures.


Did you forget Fritz Reiner? Some of the best performed and best sounding records of all time as well.

Thanks, you beat me to Reiner! He could make Richard Strauss sound not-long-winded. I also second Moholy-Nagy--got to plug the Chicagoans at every opportunity. Didn't know that Friedman's ancestors had come from that funny little bit of Hungary/Slovakia/Ukraine which I can't spell...I had thought Lviv (Lwow / Lemberg), which is actually where Mises's family was from.

Too bad the Haydns don't count; I can't name an actual Hungarian-Hungarian composer pre-1900.

Beregszász (the birthplace of Friedman's parents)

George Soros, Harry Houdini and Zsa Zsa Gabor are all world famous.

There are also Charles Simonyi (software), Imre Lakatos (philosophy), Rubik (the cube),

Nicolas Sarkozy is the son of a Hungarian.

Football - puskas

Also Laszlo Biro invented the Ballpoint pen.

For economists: Peter Bauer, Nicholas Kaldor, Thomas Balogh

For conductors: what do you think of Fricsay?

don't forget Kurtag

Artists: Moholy-Nagy?

The Magyars have more than their fair share of photographers: Brassai, Capa, Munkácsi

Don't forget Andre Kertesz.

Antal Szerb's Journey By Moonlight is (rightly, in my opinion) considered one of the great Hungarian novels. Szerb has recently been the subject of a number of excellent new translations by Len Rix (published by the outstanding Pushkin Press) - Journey By Moonlight, Oliver VII, The Pendragon Legend, The Queen's Necklace, and Love In A Bottle.

How about Rubik's cube vworlds largest selling toy?

I haven't been to Hungary since 1991, just after the iron curtain fell. But at that time the food in Hungary was among the best in Eastern Europe.

There was one point during the Manhattan Project where everything had to be translated from Hungarian into English so that all the scientists could work together.

The following three figures are probably in my top 30 liberal thinkers of the twentieth century (the first two definitely):

Michael Polanyi, though born in Vienna.

Thomas Szasz, he left Hungary when he was 18.

Peter T. Bauer, he left Hungary when he was 19.

There is no choice for Hungarian Mathematician.


The most colorful of them all!

Denis Gabor - holography

And, don't forget about that Hugarian born great American Patriot, George Soros.

It is interesting how many of the names on this list were persons either made their reputations in the West before the communist occupation or were born after the occupation and made their reputation while living in the West.

Any names of persons living in Hungary after the communist occupation who made a reputation in the West.

Or is this too Western centric. Any who made a reputation in Hungary that we should begin to recognize in the West.

Physicists : Also Eugene Wigner

There are all those Hungarians who worked in the British film industry after the war: Emmerich Pressburger, Alexander Korda, for two.

I'd reiterate liberalarts - Hungarian food deserves a mention, as do some of their wines.

Enlightened Duck - no choice? Not even a thought for von Neumann?

oh, and Tyler, your favourite things Hungarian doesn't include any architecture? Budapest is a truly beautiful city.

How about chess? The greatest female chess player ever: Judit Polgar. (Her sisters are not too bad either.) Or Peter Leko who drew his match against Kramnik for the world chess championship. Earlier olimpic gold winners include Lajos Portisch, Ribli and Gyula Sax. Even before Geza Maroczy.

I agree that painting is relatively weak but I think you underrate Hungarian literature. Have you read anything from (among many others but these are my favourites) Endre Ady, Attila Jozsef, Istvan Örkény or the best pulp fiction writer ever Jenő Rejtő (alias P.Howard)? Probably the language is the part of the reason why Hungarian literature is not more famous.

To physicists, Wigner is probably the most familiar name.

In other disciplines: János Bolyai (non-Euclidean geometry), Dénes Gábor (holography), Albert Szent-Györgyi (vitamin C).

The list is incomplete without the Vizsla, the Hungarian pointer. Wonderful dog.

Ditto on Satantango, an absolutely beautiful film. It sticks in your brain like few others.

Favorite foods from childhood: Haluska (cabbage & noodles), Kalacs (walnut strudel), palacsinta (crepes w/home made preserves)

Makes you wonder how much better the US might have done had she remained a loosely coordinated aggregation of "small countries" rather than an ever more centralised Empire.

In many respects the US remains frustratingly loosely aggregated ; dealing with different regulations and laws across the various states one sees very little centralisation except in issues such as foreign policy . The hoops other states make you jump through , when you are doing business from another state makes you feel you are dealing with other countries. As Bill pointed out a lot of this adulation is for people who lived in the West. A Hungarian in 1956 may have wondered if there was any light at the end of the tunnel.

Bela Lugosi played both Ygor and the Frankenstein monster but never Frankenstein.

Historian -- John Lukacs, still writing at nearly 90. I had the pleasure of being his student.

Artist -- Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. One of the leaders of the Bauhaus; should definitely be on the list.

I don't know about this neat dichotomy. For one thing, László Krasznahorkai is a pretty amazing writer among the best currently alive.

Tibor Fischer is an excellent (IMHO) if somewhat controversial novelist; his early _Under the Frog_ remains the best literary portrait of the 1956 uprising I know of.

According to Philip Mirowski, John von Neumann was the greatest economist of the 20th century. You have him under "scientist."

The elephant in the room:

Many (if not most) of the people on Tyler's list and in the comments were not considered particularly "Hungarian" at all for most of that country's history -- not legally, ethnically, or even linguistically. Many of the surnames are 19th century inventions.

This post seems less about "The achievements from a small country" than it is about a very brief golden age of Jewish emancipation and assimilation, from 1867 to 1944, and the achievements it produced. What was the reputation of Hungary before that period? What was it afterwards?

Not a movie, but Sjöwall and Wahlöö's "The Man Who Went up in Smoke" has a memorable central section set in Budapest.

John Von Neumann FTW!

* Von Neumann architecture for computers (still used to layout your Mac and PC to this say)
* Game theory
* One of several people that were the inspiration for Dr. Strangelove
* First Chess AI (very similar to the one used by Deep Blue)

As a side note, he thought his MINMAX algorithm for chess was "too trivial" to waste on precious computing time so he used to play chess with himself using MINMAX calculated with pencil & paper.

I'm surprised Mr. Ethnic Dining Guide didn't list a few favourite dishes.

What NNM said.

On a more serious note, I’ve heard that a Hungarian can follow you into a revolving door and come out in front.

The greatest Hungarian pianist was Franz Lizst, hands down (no pun intended).

Gyula Krudy, read him

The greatest Hungarian pianist in living memory may well have been Ernst von Dohnányi.

Hungarian literature is perhaps stronger in poetry (i.e. Kosztolányi, Ady, Weöres) and theatre (Molnár, of course), but Magda Szabó, Péter Esterházy, and Imre Kertész are all fine writers.

All very well and good. And let's not forget that Budapest is one of the world's most livable cities, certainly among the top five in the middle tier.

On the other hand, a bit of proper economic (and with it, political) governance would be helpful, and certainly the key requirement to allow that society to live up to its potential. George Kopits, an economist, might be considered a noteworthy contributor on that front.

Film: Istvan Szabo and Jancso Miklos seem choices that would hold up well to Pressburger's body of work. Although, much of the later Szabo is not in Hungarian.

And while I like Nadas, I didn't see anyone mention Sandor Marai, whose novels are quite good I think.

The Mighty Magyars soccer team from the early 1950s. They were the first team to beat the English on English soil and did so in dramatic fashion, 6-3. The three lions traveled to Budapest the next year hoping for revenge but were butchered again. This time the ledger tallied 7-1. However, after beating West Germany 8-3 in the group stage, the Magyars lost to them in the final by a goal as their star, Ferenc Puskas, played injured.

The Wikipedia article is interesting throughout. See the bit about Total Football and the virtures of Marxist principles.

Hungary was a fluid multi-ethnic country with many ethnic Germans and Jews and a very weak sense of national identity for most of its' history. Therefore, discussing "Hungarians" from pre-WWII (pre-Magyar dominated) Hungary is tricky and needs some qualifying.

This is half-right and half-not.

Multi-ethnic Hungary? Check. Many Germans and Jews? Check.

But Hungarian nationalism was very much alive already in the middle of the 19th century, and Hungarian ethnicity is strongly linked with the language, a de-facto isolate in a sea of Indo-European languages, horribly hard to learn for anyone but a small child.

The definition of a Hungarian as somebody who speaks Hungarian as his mother tongue is very reliable, and has been reliable for centuries.

While mentioning Pressburger and Kordas, why leave out Michael Curtiz ("Casablanca"), George Pal ("The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao) and Billy Wilder?

Frank Darabont for all you Shawshank fans.

Hungary was a fluid multi-ethnic country with many ethnic Germans and Jews and a very weak sense of national identity for most of its’ history. Therefore, discussing “Hungarians” from pre-WWII (pre-Magyar dominated) Hungary is tricky and needs some qualifying.


I think we (Tyler in this instance) are far too eager to use modern notions of nationality in describing those who lived 75+ years ago in Europe. Ethnicity was simply viewed differently then. Among other things, religion - let's not be coy, being Jewish - had a huge effect on how an individual was defined. In US, Milton Friedman, among many others, is unquestionably considered to have been an American economist. In Hungary, and many other places, he would not so long ago have been considered a Jewish economist.

"The achievements from a small country are staggering and unprecedented."

Scotland. Hume, Adam Smith, Maxwell.

And if you want to extend "country," Jews.

Nothing about Hungarian food on the list? There's almost nothing better than Chicken Paprikas in this world.

I am stunned that so many comments missed composer Zoltan Kodaly.

You can also search within Wikipedia and find another dozen or so:

Berehove was part of the Kingdom of Hungary (11th century - 1917) with the name of Beregszász in the Bereg megye (county) in the Kárpátalja provincie (province) of Hungary and was the capital of Bereg megye prior to WWI.

Next, it was part of Czechoslovakia (1918 - 1938) with the name of Berehovo in Podkarpatská Rus (Sub-Carpathia).

During the period 1938 - 1944, it was again part of the Kingdom of Hungary,

but after WWII, it became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (1945-1991) with the name of Beregovo and,

since 1991, known as Berehove in the Berehove rayon (district) of Zakarpats'ka oblast (county) of the Ukrai

Herend porcelain deserves a mention. It may be the best in the world.

The food also deserves some attention. It is an oasis of edibility in a sea of Slavic and Teutonic gruel.

The world's first institute of technology was founded in Selmecbánya, Kingdom of Hungary (today Banská Štiavnica, Slovakia) in 1735. The Budapest University of Technology and Economics (BME) is considered the oldest institute of technology in the world with university rank and structure. Its legal predecessor was founded in 1782 by Emperor Joseph II.
Important names in physics are Joseph Petzval, Roland von Eötvös who discovered the weak equivalence principle (one of the corner-stones in Einsteinian relativity), Rado von Kövesligethy who discovered laws of black body radiation before Planck and Wien.[87][88] Hungary is famous for its excellent mathematics education which has trained numerous outstanding scientists. Famous Hungarian mathematicians include János Bolyai, designer of modern geometry (non-Euclidian geometry) in 1831. Paul Erdős, famed for publishing in over forty languages and whose Erdős numbers are still tracked;[89] and John von Neumann, Quantum Theory, Game theory a pioneer of digital computing and the key mathematician in the Manhattan Project. Many Hungarian scientists, including Zoltán Bay, Victor Szebehely (gave a practical solution to the three-body problem, Newton solved the two-body problem), Mária Telkes, Imre Izsák, Erdős, von Neumann, Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner and Edward Teller emigrated to the US. The other cause of scientist emigration was the Treaty of Trianon, by which Hungary, dimished by the treaty, became unable to support large-scale, costly scientific research; therefore[citation needed] some Hungarian scientists made valuable contributions in the United States. Thirteen Hungarian or Hungarian-born scientists received the Nobel Prize: von Lenárd, Bárány, Zsigmondy, von Szent-Györgyi, de Hevesy, von Békésy, Wigner, Gábor, Polányi, Oláh, Harsányi, and Herskó. All emigrated, mostly because of persecution of communist and/or fascist regimes.[90] Names in psychology are János Selye founder of Stress-theory and Csikszentmihalyi founder of Flow- theory.Some highly actual internationally well-known figures of today include: mathematician László Lovász, physicist Albert-László Barabási, physicist Ferenc Krausz, biochemist Árpád Pusztai and the highly controversial former NASA-physicist Ferenc Miskolczi, who denies the green-house effect.[91] According to Science Watch: In Hadron research Hungary has most citations per paper in the world.[92] In 2011 neurologists György Buzsáki, Tamás Freund and Péter Somogyi were awarded one million Euro with the "Brain Prize" (Dk) for ".. brain circuits involved in memory..."[93]

The English word "coach" came from the Hungarian kocsi ("wagon from Kocs" referring to the village in Hungary where coaches were first made).[94]
Wolfgang von Kempelen invented a manually operated speaking machine in 1769.
János Irinyi invented the noiseless match.
In 1827 Ányos Jedlik created the first device to contain the three main components of practical direct current motors: the stator, rotor and commutator.
David Schwarz invented and designed the first flyable rigid airship (aluminium-made). Later, he sold his patent for German Graf Zeppelin.
Ottó Bláthy, Miksa Déri and Károly Zipernowsky invented the transformer in 1885.[95][95]
(Ottó Bláthy) invented the Turbogenerator and Wattmeter.
Telephone exchange (Tivadar Puskás), József Galamb was the inventor of many parts of the Ford Model T and co-developer of the assembly line, the Tungsten electric bulb (1904) (with Sándor Just) and the krypton electric bulb.
(Imre Bródy), weak equivalence principle and surface tension
Loránd Eötvös, Electronic Television and camera-tube (1926) and Plasma TV (1936) (Kálmán Tihanyi),
József Mihályi was co-designer or designer and inventor for KODAK the following cameras: Kodak Ekstra, Kodak Medalist, Kodak Super Six-20[96] and Kodak Bantam Special.[97]
Béla Barényi designed the Volkswagen Beetle and is the father of passive safety in automobiles.
Ferenc Anisits created the modern diesel engine.
Vitamin C and the first artificial vitamin Albert Szent-Györgyi
Mathematical tools to study fluid flow and mathematical background of supersonic flight and inventor of swept-back wings "father of Supersonic Flight" (Theodore Kármán)
Ramjet propulsion Albert Fonó, Turboprop propulsion by (György Jendrassik)
(Leó Szilárd): nuclear chain reaction (therefore he was the first who realized the feasibility of an "atomic bomb".
Prezi, a web-based presentation application and storytelling tool, developed by Adam Somlai-Fischer and Peter Halacsy in 2007.
In August 1939, Szilard approached his old friend and collaborator Albert Einstein and convinced him to sign the Einstein–Szilárd letter, lending the weight of Einstein's fame to the proposal. The letter led directly to the establishment of research into nuclear fission by the U.S. government and ultimately to the creation of the Manhattan Project. Szilárd, with Enrico Fermi, patented the nuclear reactor).
Other notable Hungarian inventions include holography (Dennis Gabor), the ballpoint pen (László Bíró), thermonuclear fusion and the theory of the hydrogen bomb (Edward Teller), and the BASIC programming language (John Kemeny, with Thomas E. Kurtz), Low level laser therapy or "light therapy" (Endre Mester). Ferenc Pavlics was one of two co-developers of NASA Apollo Lunar rover. Antal Bejczy developed Mars Rover Sojourner[98] Rubik's cube was created by (Ernő Rubik). ArchiCAD, 3-D software was developed by Bojár (1987). Charles Simonyi was chief-architect at Microsoft and oversaw the creation of Microsoft's flagship Office suite of applications.[99][100] Gömböc, a new geometrical body, was invented in 2006 by Hungarian scientists Gábor Domokos and Péter Várkonyi. Dániel Rátai invented the three dimensional monitor: Leonard3Do.[101] The three dimensional scanner microscope 3D Alba (international patent in 2007) was developed by Katona Gergely and Rózsa Balázs[102]

I must to notice, That Hungarian Scientific type of Nobel award / capita ratio is higher than American or British.

In the visual arts, Hungary is very strong in photography especially

László Moholy-Nagy, André Kertész, Robert Capa*

Yona Friedman (architect), Attila Csörgö, Róza El-Hassan, Rita Ackermann, Endre Tót

*Born Endre Friedmann to Dezső and Júlia Friedmann on October 22, 1913 in Budapest, Hungary.

Yes, we're basically talking about Hungarian Jews.

Yes, we’re basically talking about Hungarian Jews.

Comments for this post are closed