Banker with blazing guns: Mór Wahrmann

Budapest was in a fever of excitement in the summer of 1882 about a forthcoming duel. Mór Wahrmann, the first member of the parliament of Jewish faith was to go against Győző Istóczy an antisemite MP. Who was Mór Wahrmann, this stumpy, somewhat sluggish, near-sighted politician-businessman, who was rather ready to die with blazing guns than to swallow antisemitic slur?

Mór Wahrmann

Mór Wahrmann


Road to politics
His grandfather, Izrael Wahrmann had served the Jewish community of Pest as a Rabbi for thirty years (1796-1826). One of his nine children, Mayer Wolf became a successful textile merchant and introduced his son Mór, born in 1832, early on into business. Young Mór demonstrated his openness and capabilities by simultaneously doing his main job as manager of the family business and studying liberal arts at the university. He became active in public matters early as a young man. He was a co-founder of Pester Lloyd Society, a commercial pressure group, which also published the German language daily, Pester Lloyd. He routinely published articles in the 1860s advocating for the decoupling of the Austrian and Hungarian economies.
His writing had an impact on influential Hungarian politician Ferenc Deák. In his pursuit of creating an independent Hungarian national economy, Deák counted heavily on Jewish entrepreneurial spirit and capital. Following the Austro-Hungarian reconciliation and the emancipation of Jews in 1867 he therefore called upon Wahrmann to run for the office of the representative of the Lipótváros (Leopoldstadt) district of Pest, a stronghold of Jewish bourgeoisie. Wahrmann won the race eight times in a row in the district. All through his political career, with the exception of a brief period, he was a representative of the Deák founded government party. His political career became a symbol of the successful integration of Hungarian Jews. As the Hungarian Jewish Review wrote in 1893 reminiscing over the political debut of the first Jewish MP: “it is indeed a wondrous development that the son of the ghetto now sits among the very distinguished of Deák’s best men”.
As head of the finance committee of the Parliament, he had a pivotal role in forming Hungarian economic policies and creating financial stability. He submitted the Act for the unification of Pest, Buda and Óbuda (Old Buda) into one city to the Parliament with fellow MP Ferenc Házmán. Wahrmann was obsessed with the idea of turning Budapest into a modern metropolis. The massive complex of prison and army barracks that had stood in what is today called Szabadság Square, was demolished upon his initiative to give way to the development of the area.

Maecenas and businessman
Wahrmann had not given up on his business carrer entirely for politics. He created a sizeable business empire. He was co-founder of such important flagship companies of early Hungarian capitalism as the Salgótarján Steel Works, the Ganz, the Hungarian Mortgage and Credit Bank and the Anglo-Hungarian Bank. He excelled at the bourse as well. He began to mass purchase the shares of American companies during the American Civil War, when stock prices were low, and later sold them with a considerable profit. He sold his major financial investments just a few months before the 1873 stock market crash.
He was one of the biggest taxpayers of the city. He never concealed his wealth: he had a luxurious palace built under 23 Andrássy Avenue and purchased large territories of land in Szabolcs and Hajdú counties and on the Csepel Island. As a wealthy person he was an exemplary cultural donor as well. He made substantial contributions to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the Red Cross; he was one of the co-founders of the Hungarian Historical Society. Wahrmann also was a music aficionado and as such had a permanent box in the Opera House. He supported the Academy of Music and in attempt to revive the Hungarian musical scene, financed the guest appearances before the Hungarian audience of world famous artists, such as Franz Liszt.

The “rashekol”
Wahrmann also had a clear vision of the future of Hungarian Jewry. He was one of the leaders of the 1868-69 Israelite Congress and an ardent supporter of the Neologue movement. He was aware that the modifications and easing of religious duties and rituals as well as the institutional modernization of communities would inevitably lead to the weakening of traditions. Nevertheless, he also thought that the subsequent emancipation and Hungarianization of Jews, which he supported himself, was well worth the price. He fervently criticized the Orthodox: “They wish not to leave the ruined walls of the Ghetto for they want no fresh air to breathe and their eyes cannot stand the shining of the light”. It was therefore logical that he ran for the presidency (rashekol) of the Pest Jewish Community, the largest Neologue community in the country. He won the race in 1883 under special circumstances. He was endorsed by no smaller dignitary than Prime Minister Kálmán Tisza. His opponent was Ferenc Chorin Sr., a member of the parliament himself.
The new rashekol led the community with a firm hand and with considerable efficiency. He nevertheless had many adversaries for his sullenness and often arrogant manner. The mutual hatred between Wahrmann and the secretary of the community, the world famous orientalist, Ignác Goldziher was legendary. Goldziher often called his boss the “Polish moneybag” or “His wealthellency” in his diary. All these hostilities however did not adversely affect efficient work; the financial position of the Pest Jewish Community solidified during the leadership of Wahrmann and Goldziher. Wahrmann had however lost the community elections in 1892, just a few days before his death.

A Hungarian patriot and a Jewish bourgeois
Wahrmann grew up as a German speaker and only learnt Hungarian well when in high school. Yet, the linguistic and cultural integration of Jews remained a central element of his political agenda. He had a clear point on issues of Hungarian-Jewish identity. As he said in 1891 “He who does not persist in his faith is not a patriot, nor is a good son of the homeland he, who neglects his community. The fire of love for our homeland is to burn along with our unending and unbreakable commitment to our faith”.
He had three children. Ernő, Richárd and Renée (Ráhel). Sons of the rashekol and great-grandchildren of the Pest rabbi or not, the boys led the life of the gentry in the name of assimilation. They gambled and played the cards, reveled and owned horses, spending their father’s estate. Wahrmann predicted that his children would convert to Christianity. And so it happened, Richárd converted still in his father lifetime, while his brother, Ernő after Wahrmann’s death. Renée Wahrmann, apple of her father’s eye, the princess of Lipótváros shocked the Jewish community when she announced in late December 1897 that she wished to convert. Although the move was considered unforgivable by many, then Prime Minister Dezső Bánffy undertook the role of the witness necessary to complete the conversion procedure, signaling the prestige and respect the family enjoyed.

Wahrmann stood up against antisemitism, political or public. He ferociously retorted Istóczy’s antisemitic rants, the outcome of which was the famous duel that took place 11 June 1882. The event did not lack comical elements. Istóczy and Wahrmann attempted to knock the other off several times on the designated date, but each time failed to fire their guns because of either abruptly appearing law enforcement or just crowds gathering at the scene. Shots were finally fired on the outskirts of the town of Ercsi near Budapest but no one was wounded. The public had suspicions of a prearranged duel, the duelers however appeared to have taken the matter seriously. Istóczy got married, Wahrmann put down his willing a few days before the clash.
Wahrmann was involved in other duels as well. One time he had an even stranger conflict with nature scientist, Ottó Herman. According to legend, while the almost blind Wahrmann asked his seconds “where the goy was standing”, the hearing impaired Herman enquired with his seconds if the “Jew had already fired his gun”.

Wahrmann’s memory
When Wahrmann died in 1892 the Hungarian Jewish Review remembered him as the greatest Hungarian Jew. A street bore his name in the Újlipótváros area of Budapest until 5 December 1944 when the Arrow Cross (Hungarian Nazi) government ruled that “all streets bearing Jewish family names be renamed appropriately”. The name was not given back to the street following the war either. In 1945, the new regime named the street after French writer Victor Hugo, someone with no attachment to Budapest whatsoever. Today only a short alley bears his name. The appropriate location of a Wahrmann Mór Street should however be somewhere in the historic Lipótváros, the main area of Wahrmann’s life and achievements.