I lived in Budapest until I was twentytwo, and came to New York when I was thirty. In the intervening years I traveled in Western Europe, living mostly in Paris. When I arrived in New York, there was a heat wave. I found the city filthy, noisy, in part exhilarating, and in part unspeakably ugly. I was dazzled by the views from the top of sky-scrapers, which were as breathtaking as the views of Budapest and the Danube from the top of the Buda hills. Both New York and Budapest had magnificent buildings, but large parts of both cities were built cheaply, haphazardly, heartlessly, and in haste. Undoubtedly, New York and Budapest were less elegant places than Paris. After a few days, once I found that my English was better than what I often heard around me, I felt entirely at home, for the first time in eight years.

This spirit of acceptance is, in my opinion, what binds the two cities and contributes to the success of Thomas Bender and Carl E. Schorske’s pioneering venture in comparing the two cities during the sixty years between 1870 and 1930. If at first it seems odd and even arbitrary to compare Budapest and New York, there are striking lessons to be drawn from considering the two cities together, not least about the very different textures of European and American experience and culture.

In Budapest in 1896, the year Hungarians celebrated the thousandth anniversary of the founding of their state, the well-known American journalist Richard Harding Davis found Budapest similar to New York in surprising ways. The country’s phenomenal economic progress as a sovereign partner in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy prompted Davis to exclaim that the Hungarians were the Americans of Europe. Indeed, late in the nineteenth century, Budapest developed more rapidly than any other major city on the continent. Its first underground railway, opened in 1896, predated those of New York by eight years; its public and private buildings and the many magnificent bridges connecting the formerly separate cities of Buda and Pest across the Danube River seemed to emerge from nowhere.

Before World War I, Budapest had more factories employing over a thousand workers than did New York—this in a city with a population of just 1.1. million in 1910, compared with New York’s 4.7 million. More important perhaps, both New York and Budapest were built in no small part by the same people: Hungarian, Slovak, Ukrainian, and South Slav-speaking peasants. Many of them first helped to construct the railway network in Hungary, then moved to dig the subways in New York, then returned to build Budapest’s tramway line, the bridges, or the immense parliament building. Their journeys often ended in America, in the Pennsylvania coal mines, perhaps, or in the steel mills near Chicago.

Budapest is not only Hungary’s capital, it is the country’s only major urban center. New York, as Thomas Bender and Carl E. Schorske note in their introduction, was only the most important in “a richly differentiated system of cities, with many large ones continually challenging New York’s leadership.” That New York was not America’s capital freed the city to develop politically, socially, and artistically. Before World War I, Budapest was the capital of a middle-sized sovereign state existing in partnership with Austria in the Habsburg monarchy. Since the defeat of the Central Powers in October 1918, it has been the capital of an independent but much diminished country which ceded huge territories to Romania, newly created Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, and even to Austria. It is also the seat of Hungary’s largest county, meaning that both national and county administrations there tend to over-shadow those of the municipality.

When it comes to municipal politics, the American story is comparatively straightforward. By uniting Manhattan with the Bronx and then absorbing Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, New York City increased more than sevenfold territorially between 1870 and 1900 to form Greater New York. Meanwhile, the city’s population grew enormously. But, as one of the contributors, the historian David Hammack, writes, the more the city developed, the more it remained the same:

Its people have always been more diverse than those of any other American city. Through all the changes that have occurred in the American economy, New York has remained the central commercial, information, and financial market. Despite significant political changes (including the extension of the franchise to all white men in the 1830s, to black men after the Civil War, and to women in 1920), it has remained an integral part of a nation that has avoided invasion and retained its basic form of government.

What changed most was the city’s ethnic composition. Overwhelmingly British, Dutch, Irish, and German in 1880, it became, by 1930, mostly Eastern European, Italian, Central European, Irish, and German. In 1920, African Americans formed only 3 percent of the city’s population, and as late as 1940 the total share of those of non-European descent was 7 percent.


Even though immigrants tended to congregate in specific neighborhoods, there was a great deal of intermixing, at least among whites. As a not atypical example, Hammack points to the case of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, whose father was an Italian Catholic and whose mother was a Jew from the Hungarian (later Yugoslav, then Italian, then again Yugoslav, and today Croatian) Adriatic city known, alternately, as Fiume and Rijeka. Although much political power passed from the WASP establishment to the children and grandchildren of immigrants who were neither British nor German, Hammack argues, contrary to other social historians, that the well-to-do and well-educated were not entirely displaced by Irish political bosses and the Tammany machine they established.

At the same time, Hammack writes, ordinary working people had considerable political influence simply through their vote, and, more successfully than the small bands of reformers, they could from time to time challenge the power of Tammany Hall politicians. All male residents of New York City who were twenty-one years of age or older had the right to vote and—unbelievably by today’s standards—nine out of ten eligible voters turned out in general elections during the 1890s. The elections between 1880 and 1940 were generally open and honest because electoral fraud was vigorously prosecuted. In Budapest, too, those eligible to vote tended to exercise their rights in that period. Today, sadly, the mayoral elections in both New York and Budapest draw only a small minority of qualified voters to the polls.

What made Budapest’s politics so different from New York’s was that, between 1870 and 1920, the right to vote was limited to one quarter of the adult male population, and that the citizens who paid the highest taxes—called virilists—were allowed to elect one half of the city’s aldermen. It is difficult to imagine a system more undemocratic than one in which less than one half of one percent of the population effectively controlled the administration of the capital city. But it must be said that this elite of wealthy merchants, apartment-house owners, industrialists, managers, and successful lawyers also practiced an enlightened politics. Zsuzsa Nagy writes:

The virilist system has been attacked and declared conservative and antidemocratic by contemporaries and in current Hungarian historiography. But perhaps nothing can better demonstrate the contradictory political and social situation than the composition of the virilists themselves, of whom the greater part came from the new bourgeoisie. They were representatives of economic modernization and held modern liberal ideas. Most of them were Jews. This antiquated system, in fact, opened up the road to city politics for a new and modern social stratum. While the pauperized former gentry maintained power in the countryside, this system in the capital made such a pattern impossible.

The system had its golden age between 1906 and 1918, under the liberal mayor István Bárczy, when public services—including transport, schools, cultural institutions, and welfare for the poor—were at their most efficient, and ethnic as well as religious prejudice was strongly frowned upon. Following Admiral Miklós Horthy’s counter-revolutionary takeover in November 1919 the new antiliberal regime made the municipal voting system more democratic. Late in 1919, a few months before Congress proposed the Nineteenth Amendment, giving the vote to women, the franchise was extended to Hungarian women, provided they knew how to read and write. Soon thereafter, “virilism” was abolished. This both deprived the richest among the population of their special political privileges and radically reduced the proportion of Jews among the aldermen. As Nagy tells us, only the Jews who had been popularly elected could now get into the municipal assembly, and this democratizing tendency led to a pronounced political shift in a conservative, nationalist, anti-Semitic direction.

The Hungarian government was also intervening more and more in municipal affairs. Finally, in 1941, twentyfour of the elected aldermen were prohibited from taking office because they were Jews by race, if not necessarily by religion. Yet even these anti-Semitic measures did not fundamentally alter the ethnic and religious composition of the city’s well-to-do elite. It continued, as before, to be made up largely of (1) aristocratic landowners who maintained a residence in Budapest; (2) beer brewers and champagne makers of German origin; (3) merchants of mostly Jewish, Greek, and Serbian descent; and (4) a large number of bankers, industrialists, and lawyers, most of whom were Jews.1 This basic situation would change only after the German occupation in March 1944, the Soviet siege of Budapest in the winter of 1944–1945, and the Communist dictatorship after 1948, which managed virtually to annihilate each of the groups I have mentioned. The social revolution that began with the arrival of German troops in March 1944 can be said to have ended only with the “socialist market” economic policies adopted by the Communist regime of János Kádár in the late 1960s.


Budapest politics thus went from being both elitist and liberal during the last part of the nineteenth century to progressively liberal early in the twentieth century, to democratic in 1918, to revolutionary Bolshevik in 1919, to right-wing counterrevolutionary in the same year, and to moderately conservative in the 1920s. In the next decade, city politics moved, though not in a straight line, in a rightwing, anti-Semitic direction, culminating in the regime of terror imposed by German and Hungarian Nazis late in 1944. Soon thereafter, Budapest was nearly wiped out in a three-month siege. When the city was liberated and occupied by the Red Army, in February 1945, Hungary began a brief experiment in democratic politics which was, however, soon replaced by Stalinist terror. There followed, in 1953, a “thaw” in Communist rule, and in October 1956, Budapest became the center of a great national revolution to overthrow the Communists. After it was crushed by Soviet tanks, the revolution was again subjected to Communist terror, which gave way, in the mid-1960s, to a more relaxed, softer form of dictatorship. Since the end of communism in 1990, the city administration and political life have been determinedly democratic, with three or four main parties.

By comparison, the changes in New York politics between 1870 and 1930 may appear inconsequential. To Europeans the city of that period appeared a sort of social-democratic enclave in a less progressive but still fundamentally democratic state and nation. It was tolerant of different ethnic groups, although less so of blacks. The authors have little to say about developments since 1930, including the large migrations to the city from the rural South and Puerto Rico following World War II, and the exodus of many middleclass residents.

Budapest and New York has much to say about the importance of Jews to the life of both cities. Although Jews made up about one quarter of the population in both cities between 1870 and 1930 they were responsible in both for a much larger share of commerce, banking, skilled labor, journalism, legal and medical practice, leftwing political activity, white-collar crime, entertainment, and work in the arts. In Budapest, most of these occupations were considered specifically Jewish, and many of New York’s Jews had come from Budapest or spent some time there on their long journey from Eastern Europe to the New World. According to several contributors to this book, the sudden burst of anti-Semitism and xenophobia in post-World War I Hungary was largely responsible for a grievous decline of Budapest as a cultural center. This seems to me doubtful. Literature, the arts, theater, journalism, and the film industry continued to flourish in the 1920s and 1930s, and Jews figured prominently in all of them.

It is true, however, that as the city became poorer after World War I, its government partly passed into the hands of antiliberal, anti-Semitic groups. After two revolutions, and a bloody counterrevolution, and a temporary Romanian military occupation in 1919, hundreds of thousands of embittered and vengeful Hungarian-speaking refugees added to the misery when they arrived from nearby countries. The wild inflation in the early 1920s was followed a few years later by the Great Depression. Still, neither poverty nor right-wing politics prevented composers such as Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály or writers and poets such as Gyula Krúdy, Mihály Babits, Frigyes Karinthy, Attila József, and scores of others from creating the silver age of Hungarian music and literature. Jews remained among the principal patrons of writers, artists, and musicians. While pre-World War I Hungary was an economic powerhouse, Hungary between the wars was degraded by its poverty but uplifted by its cultural accomplishments.

Despite both official and popular anti-Semitism, Jews in Budapest were, at least until 1938, little discriminated against in business, the professions, and cultural life. Only during World War II did official and public discrimination became real, and only the German occupation of the city in March 1944 put the lives of all Budapest Jews in jeopardy. Still, because they were protected by Horthy and by the conservative upper-class elites, many of the capital’s 200,000 Jews survived the Holocaust.

Budapest was historically minded in ways that few American cities could match. Richard Harding Davis was amazed by the contrast between electric tramways in the streets of the Hungarian capital and the ancestral chain armor worn by civic leaders during the 1896 celebrations of the country’s thousandth anniversary. The contrast would have been less shocking to Davis had he considered that the Hungarian historical festivals of the late nineteenth century were largely modeled after the dazzling parades mounted in Vienna by Hans Makart, the painter who also was a master impresario of historical celebrations. Nor did Makart’s or the Hungarians’ mustachioed tribal chieftains and mounted medieval warriors differ greatly from the costumed figures Davis might have encountered at the Lord Mayor’s Show in London or even at some contemporary ethnic parades in the United States. But it is true that almost until the end of World War II the members of the Hungarian social elite continued to dress up on holidays in resplendent outfits supposedly inspired by Hungary’s ninth-century conquerors or sixteenth-century Turk-slaying heroes.

In reality, of course, these latter-day noble costumes were largely the imaginative creation of fashionable Budapest tailors and dressmakers; but no one openly distinguished between those who were truly descended from earlier warriors and those who only recently had reached high social positions. Thus Hungary’s minister of defense during World War I, a Habsburg general, was born a Jew with the name of Kohn. On solemn occasions he wore the same type of gold-laced aristocratic suit and diamond-studded saber as, say, Prince Esterházy.

Comparing the city park in Budapest—the Városliget—and New York’s Central Park, the book brings out the very different conceptions that inspired the two. Gábor Gyáni describes Városliget as, among other things, a place for national pilgrimage and meetings; in 1896 it served as the center of Hungary’s great anniversary celebration. Besides trees and playgrounds, Városliget had a number of national historical monuments, an ornate swimming and bathing complex, exhibition halls, an amusement park, a permanent circus, and a beautifully constructed zoo. According to Elizabeth Blackmar and Roy Rosenzweig, Frederick Law Olmsted’s Central Park had decidedly different origins. It was meant to serve as an escape from the pressures of modern city life, a place where the social and political elite could safely enjoy their supremacy. The less-refined classes were not really welcome in Olmsted’s bucolic and romantic haven, while Városliget was a national institution, planned from the beginning for the entire city population. (Yet all the Városliget institutions mentioned above charged an entrance fee.)

That Central Park was once a center of class conflict might come as a surprise to some New Yorkers. In their account of the park’s history, Blackmar and Rosenzweig emphasize that its founders excluded poor people by making sure, among other measures, that its space would be surrounded by elite residences and by designing it so that it was more accessible for carriages than for pedestrians. (A major event in the class war occurred in July 1901, when working-class visitors smashed the chairs a private vendor was renting for a nickel.) The authors note with some satisfaction the later success of poorer people in turning what was meant to be an exclusive oasis into something more like an amusement park, complete with music, drinking, panhandlers, and a zoo.

Blackmar and Rosenzweig note that attendance in Central Park increased rapidly after its opening in 1859. Of the annual 8.5 million visitors to the park, more than half arrived in carriages, “costly vehicles that only the wealthiest 3 percent of the city’s 800,000 residents could afford to own.” A simple calculation reveals that, of the city’s 800,000 inhabitants, only 24,000 could have owned a carriage. This elite must have therefore paid a minimum of 4.3 million visits, each year, to the park. Or, to put it differently, each and every member of the social elite would have visited the park an average of 180 times every year. When we consider, moreover, that most men in this class had to stay in their banks and offices, and that most well-to-do women and children would have left New York during the hot season, it appears that if the authors’ statistics are correct, in the late 1860s, upper-class women and children paid at least one visit a day to Central Park. This would have been a truly remarkable effort on the part of well-to-do New Yorkers to reinforce, as the authors put it, their “claims to cultural and political authority.”

Was Olmsted truly a patrician concerned to exclude the poor? No doubt he meant to educate the people in the proper use of the park, which implied a certain decorum in appreciating natural beauty. As far as his public pronouncements were concerned, however, Central Park was for everybody. Writing in 1858, he noted with pride that Central Park was “the first real park made in this country—a democratic development of the highest significance.” Laura Wood Roper writes in her biography of Olmsted:

Olmsted understood well that this first essay in the creation of a beautiful and extensive landscape for public enjoyment was an important departure for the art in the United States, making its benefits available not to a privileged few but to citizens generally. 2

Perhaps much of the difference between Gyáni’s Városliget and Blackmar and Rosenzweig’s Central Park lies in the authors’ differing politics and perceptions. Both parks were major achievements of an age when the local authorities and their well-to-do allies were willing to spend huge sums to beautify their cities. Central Park and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, also designed by Olmsted, have depended heavily on contributions by private foundations. Városliget, entirely dependent on the government, could thrive only when the city had money. Its unhappy condition today, as well as that of some of New York’s parks, testifies to bureaucratic mismanagement, lack of civic pride, and many of the other ills that now plague both cities.

As Robert W. Snyder and Péter Hanák show in their spirited essays on pre-World War I popular culture, New Yorkers were drawn to vaudeville, with its stock types, while the audiences in Budapest liked gently spoofing operettas. New York vaudeville was quintessentially metropolitan; operetta in Budapest—and in Vienna—made much of the ethnic peculiarities within the empire. Vaudeville, writes Snyder, was at the center of New York’s popular culture partly because it appealed to different classes and ethnic groups, and to both men and women:

In the middle of a modern metropolis, it fostered a cultural dialogue between native and immigrant, working class, middle class, and upper class, Jews and Gentiles. The result was a many-sided conversation, in a context midway between the street culture of the Bowery and the motion picture companies of the twentieth century. Vaudeville combined nationwide theater chains and intimate contact between artist and audience, old staples like blackface comedy and new elements like movies.

Central European operetta, writes Hanák, cut across the regions of Central Europe, with characters, plots, and songs coming from places as different as Bohemia, Transylvania, Vienna, and Paris. The Hungarian Imre Kálmán’s Csárdás Princess, for example, was performed at the same time during World War I in Paris, St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Vienna. As an Austrian critic wrote in 1917: “The whole world resounds with two things: the roar of the cannon and the success of The Csárdás Princess.”

Late in the nineteenth century, Budapest jokes, with their razor-sharp wit, displaced the older type of anecdotes about country bumpkins. Although the main Budapest humorous journals were owned and written by Jews, Géza Buzinkay writes, they poked incessant but not vicious fun at Jews. Their less successful and less talented narrowly conservative competitors told pseudo-Jewish jokes that were anti-Semitic. Outsiders could not easily tell the difference, but then outsiders counted for little in the Hungarian capital. The liberal governments of the pre-World War I era did not interfere with the Jewish comic journals, Buzinkay writes, because both the government and editors of the journals were tolerant when it came to questions of religion; they were less so with regard to ethnic minorities, such as Romanians, Slovaks, and Serbs. (In Hungary Jews were officially recognized as a religious denomination, not as an ethnic minority. Also, most Jews in multi-ethnic Hungary were emphatically Hungarian.)

Things changed after the war; in 1919, Béla Kun’s Republic of Soviets denounced the comic journals as bourgeois and shut them down. Though several reappeared in the interwar years, they were not the same. The nationalist and populist intellectuals who then became influential protested against what they saw as the journals’ “debasing of the language.” Nor did the Horthy regime have much sense of humor. Still, such stock characters of Budapest wit as the smart Jewish kid Little Moritz and the seemingly dumb friends Kohn and Grün easily survived the fascist era and later became irrepressible underground opponents of Stalinist rule. (Kohn is a steady worker and is awarded a Communist medal in a heartwarming ceremony. The festivities are over, yet he still doesn’t move. “Comrade Kohn, what are you waiting for?” the Party secretary asks. “I am waiting for the money that comes with the medal.” “There is no money with this medal,” says the secretary. “No money?” Kohn exclaims, “Only the shame and humiliation?”) Budapest wit started to lose its sharp edge only after the onset of goulash communism, and in today’s democracy it is only a shadow of its former self.

When it comes to the fine arts, Wanda Corn and Eva Forgács concentrate on the city itself as subject matter. In their views of the city, the avant-garde artists who worked in New York—among them were Albert Gleizes and Francis Picabia—experimented with new techniques learned from European realists and impressionists. Artists of New York’s Ashcan School, such as John Sloan, George Luks, Everett Shinn, and George Bellows, were impressed by contrasts between the dizzying heights of the city skyscrapers and the facelessness of a population lost in crowds on dingy streets. The abstract artists were interested not so much in identifiable buildings or neighborhoods as in the very sensations of big-city life. Disconnected forms and strong diagonal shapes—as in the work of Joseph Stella, John Marin, and Max Weber—convey the dynamism and frenetic movement immediately palpable to a newcomer. These artists sensed in New York’s looming structures and accelerated tempo a new kind of wilderness that stood as a metaphor for a new American identity.

In Budapest, which experienced the same revolt against academic style as New York did early in the twentieth century, the aim of the artists was not to define the modern city but to redefine “Hungarianness” against the nationalism of the ruling gentry. The avant-garde ignored the city as subject. Budapest in the conventional Hungarian view was a city too sophisticated for its own good, indifferent to the traditions that the countryside held so dear, too modern to represent the true Hungarian spirit. At the same time, Budapest was not modern enough to suit Hungary’s avant-garde painters. “All they saw in the city,” writes Forgács, “was a fake dignity of the ornately designed apartments, the pseudo-Renaissance facades of the civic buildings, and the bulky, lazy, coffeeshop character of the city compared with the bracing modernity that they interpreted in the pictures arriving from America.”

In the book’s final comparison, Philip Fisher argues that new forms of the urban novel emerged in American cities, including New York, while Miklós Lackó finds that much of Hungarian literature retained its provincial character. Before 1920, Fisher writes, the naturalist novel, descended from the tradition of Dickens, portrayed characters doomed to fail in a chaotic city whose life was hostile to the small-town values of stable families and rural neighborhoods. In the following decade, Dos Passos, Dreiser, Henry Miller, and Fitzgerald wrote sympathetically about people leading marginal lives in a large metropolis. New York City, says Fisher, began to change its literary identity from a place of danger to one of experiment with the sensations of the Jazz Age.

Even though Budapest had long been the center of literary activity, some of its small-town ties had not disappeared. This was because the growth of Hungarian literature had been closely tied with nationalism. Yet even in Hungary a number of first-rate writers, the so-called urbanists, concentrated nearly exclusively on life in the big city, and the quintessentially “peasantist” author Zsigmond Móricz wrote some of his most moving stories about the difficult life of country people who come to Budapest and find themselves in a social limbo.

It was New York’s good fortune. Bender and Schorske write, that New Yorkers could concentrate on their own lives without being too distracted by what was happening elsewhere in the US. Budapest, as the capital of a troubled country, had no choice but to struggle to accommodate Magyars, Slavs, Germans, Jews, and others in a single Hungarian nation. What is remarkable is that, despite government pressures and the city’s position as the nationalist capital of a beleaguered country, Budapest managed to remain relatively tolerant and cosmopolitan. No mayor of Budapest was elected on an anti-Semitic platform, as the mayor of Vienna was in 1896. The city, like every true metropolis, continued to harbor eccentric writers and artists, anarchist philosophers, Communist and later anti-Communist dissidents, Jewish and other refugees.

In my youth, but especially in the lifetime of my parents and grandparents, Hungarian was spoken in Budapest with a great variety of Slavic, German, Yiddish, and provincial Hungarian accents. A hopeful democratic revolution in October 1918 began in Budapest; so did the similarly exuberant democratic revolution in October 1956. When he entered the capital, in November 1918, at the head of his White counterrevolutionary troops, Admiral Horthy publicly branded Budapest a “sinful city.” It might well have been made the city’s slogan, proudly displayed on its coat of arms.

This Issue

December 21, 1995