I recently spoke with someone claiming that the tail end of the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was especially a fertile breeding ground for inventors and entrepreneurs, especially in the 1920s and ’30s. This may have been due to some combination of easy capital from a declining noble class and good, widely available education.

There certainly were some exceptional people of Austrian and Hungarian extraction during that time (Theodore von Kármán, Hedy Lamar), but it is not clear to me that the core claim is true.

Unfortunately, I am not sure how to evaluate this. I have read some sources (the early chapters of a biography of Kármán, Wikipedia) which are consistent with that claim, but don’t really support it. There also seem to be a disproportionate number of Hungarian recipients of Nobel prizes, though I’m not sure what to take from that. I can also see some support for that view in popular culture, like The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady, though it’s all in offhand remarks. (Also, pop culture is hardly an objective lens).

I am not sure where to look deeper. It’s easy to find political histories that cover that time period, but I can’t find any indication which (if any) would cover the economic and cultural aspects.

So, a great answer would hit three points:

  • Were Austria and Hungary producing a notable number of STEM-types who were active in 1920-1950? (Including expats).
  • If so, is it clear why?
  • How could I investigate further? (Especially looking for authoritative works or books focused on this topic that I’ve missed).
  • 3
    Please define "interwar Austria-Hungary". Apr 16, 2020 at 5:57
  • 1
    @RodrigodeAzevedo That's fair, but I don't think I can. Other answers seem to agree there was something going on. Maybe defining it is part of answering?
    – fectin
    Apr 16, 2020 at 16:33

3 Answers 3


There is ample evidence for the positive answer to your question 1. This phenomenon is well-known and is often mentioned.

On question 2, my answer is "it is not completely clear". And on question 3, I think it has not been investigated in full generality. As an example, let me cite the first few lines of the preface to the book by Janos Horwath, Panorama of Hungarian mathematics in the 20th century (Springer, 2006):

I am often asked about the reason why mathematical research exploded in Hungary at the beginning of the twentieth century. My usual answer is, only half in jest: the two reasons are the personality of Lipot (Leopold) Fejer and the High School Mathematics Journal (Kozepiskolai Matematikai Lapok, abbreviat ed KaMaL). This book will not answer the question because it would take a team of historians and sociologists to establish the causes of the scientific revolution that took place in Hungary during the first half of the twentieth century

Apparently no "team of historians and sociologists" has tried to do this so far. Explanations involving Leopold Fejer, unique high school, mathematical journal for children, and mathematical competitions are probably not sufficient, because this intellectual explosion happened in many areas, not only in mathematics and exact sciences.

See also answers to the related question: What made early 20th-century Vienna such an incubator for various intellectual activities?

  • Problem with geography & timeline: interwar vs beginning of the century (ie: prewar?). Is your A addressing pre-1914 'genetics'/'breeding' &/or education, or interwar (post'18) 'atmosphere' in Hungary? And my guess to all points would be that 'interwar is pre-war' (all around pre-fascist and worse) , not only thusly a primary driver for making (Austro-Hungarian "extraction", ie: emigration (to where-ever) a thing that large numbers of those leaving + still making a name an easy explanation? Jan 2, 2020 at 22:49
  • There is no problem with time line. The phenomenon really started in the very beginning of the century. But it became highly visible only few decades after that, which is natural. Besides, the interwar period was the period of intense emigration from Austria/Hungary, especially of people of Jewish descent. Those educated in 1910s made their careers in the West in 1920s and 1930.
    – Alex
    Jan 2, 2020 at 23:05
  • This is not how I read the Q,and yet it might benefit this A if you qualify the smallish FC explicitly.While I'd certainly prefer a quantified approach (was this really 'the case?) over this qualitative opinion (sociologists's research might reveal it…) it might still shed more light on Q & A? Also quallify whether this is urban Vienna/Budapest or also Graz/Szeged, intervening villages? Jan 2, 2020 at 23:12
  • 1
    @LаngLаngС exactly!
    – fectin
    Jan 3, 2020 at 0:25
  • 3
    Might be nice if Franz-Josef and his governments got a teeny bit of credit for fostering the tolerant atmosphere that led to all this.
    – C Monsour
    Jan 4, 2020 at 19:06

You are probably thinking of the "Martians from Hungary" — a group of prominent and very successful scientists, mostly physicists and mathematicians who emigrated to the United States in the early half of the 20th century. Quite some of them attended even the same school in Budapest.

There are several theories about the cause, but one of the most interesting notes that they were all Ashkenazi Jews, a(n ethnic) group with a remarkably high average IQ. Combined with a relative acceptance of educated Jews in Austrian-Hungarian society, availability of excellent education and good contacts with the rest of European science then lead to this phenomenon.

  • The five Martians aren’t a perfect match for the claim I heard, but this is a very helpful pointer!
    – fectin
    Jan 2, 2020 at 16:44
  • 1
    This answer would be improved by dropping the race baiting. Jan 2, 2020 at 17:18
  • 3
    I'd emphasize this differently: The whole Ashkenazi-IQ issue is very controversial (in fact, the entire concept of IQ is controversial), and either way seems not particularly vital to this answer.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 2, 2020 at 17:31
  • And not only physicists/mathematicians. Think of Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka or Wittgenstein. In Mathematics, this phenomenon is known as "Hungarian miracle", and almost all of them indeed came from the same high school. And there were many more Martians then the list you refer to indicates.
    – Alex
    Jan 2, 2020 at 21:37
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    Hungarians also established the first "Mathematical Olympiad" in the world (Eötvös Competition, est. 1894), as a tool of selection of talented youth.
    – Alex
    Jan 2, 2020 at 21:52

I don't know enough about Austria's history from that period, so I'll leave that part of the question alone and concentrate on the Hungarian side.

Marx György (a Hungarian physicist) wrote A Marslakók Legendája (Legend of the Martians), which is an excellent read about this subject. There is a semi-translation (some sentences are left out for no reason), but it's better than Google translate, so if you don't speak Hungarian I suggest reading this. His theory is - in a tl;dr version - conflicts are good for creativity, and this period was full of them here. He also held a lecture in Sweden, Conflicts and creativity - the Hungarian lesson, with huge overlaps.

What I think he was missing - probably because most people here know about it anyway - is Klebelsberg Kuno's reform. After WWI Hungary lost about 70% of the land area and 50% of the population with it, and - due to the peace treaty and end of the war - military spending had to be cut down dramatically. The money freed up was mostly spent on education, so the talents had a good environment to learn.

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