Death instead of life – Activities of the Galilei Circle in the first two years of the world war

The outbreak of the first world war separates the history of  Galilei Kör (Galilei Circle) (1908–1919), being one of the most significant student associations in the history of Hungary, made up of atheist-free thinking young people, into two eras. While the first, “big” era was characterized by anti-clericalism, the “small” era after 1914 was centred on anti-militarism. However, it took some time for the Galileists to take the lead in the anti-militarist movement in Hungary through organizing lectures and seminars: for a long time, it was even unsure whether the student association, feared and demonized by Hungarian extremist right-wing public actors, could continue its operation. Extract from a Galilei Circle monograph to be published soon.

There was a very simple reason for the “crisis” of the Galilei Circle based in Anker köz: after the outbreak of the war, the majority of “old Galileists” prior to 1914 went to war, several former presidents and leading personalities of the association, including Károly Polányi, László Rubin, Sándor Turnowsky, Zsigmond Kende, István Gyulai or Dukesz Artúr were sent to the front – Gyulai fell, Dukesz was later killed in the camp for the prisoners of war in Krasnojarsk. Perhaps the most extreme example is the case of Teodóra Téri Galileist, the editorial secretary of Szabadgondolat, the periodical of the Galilei Circle – who was the housekeeper of Mátyás Rákosi, also a former Galileist, in the early 1950s –, whose four brothers were sent to the front. (One of whom died, and two of whom were captured.)

The break is indicated by the fact that the above periodical ceased to operate in the summer of 1914 and it was only in the autumn of 1918 that Szabadgondolat was operated again, with Galilei Kör könyvtára and the informative Galilei Füzetek for high school students. In addition, role models, “spiritual compasses” of free-thinkers, like the biologist Ernst Haeckel and Wilhelm Ostwald, the Nobel-prize chemist lecturing in the Galilei Circle as well, were also diverted to support German war politics, threatening to disrupt the entire free-thinking movement. In opposition with the anti-war majority, Ostwald – who still spoke together with Karl Liebknecht in 1913 against war – left in 1915 from the presidential chair of the German Monist League of German free-thinkers.

How did Galileists welcome the outbreak of war? One of the prominent members, Jolán Kelen strongly asserts that similarly to the big idol, Endre Ady (who dedicated a row of poems to the Galilei Circle), “the Galilei Circle did not undertake the wretched role of an association explaining or celebrating the war”, and this statement is indeed difficult to refute. Young “new Galileists” moving to the club at Anker köz from autumn 1914 needed time to take on the rhythm of their predecessors, and a year had to pass before they came up with a programme series again.

The world war prevented their operation: “in view of anticipated invasions”, the general assembly had to be convened earlier sometimes, and owing to the officials who left, over time, they had to declare that “the officer corps and the elected body can complement themselves at any time” until the next general assembly. It was also owing to invasions that, though the Galilei Circle led the representation of women’s emancipation efforts even before 1914 – especially compared to other student associations –, after the outbreak of war, the weight of women increased even more in the Galilei Circle: In October 1915, the management declared “in theory” that they would “nominate a female co-president” in the autumn. Galileist student girls of the “small era”, who have become emblematic figures –  Jolán Kelen, writing a lot about the operation of the circle during the war, Borbála Ripper, the nurse jockeying with tbc-samples and thereby achieving the exemption of a number of soldiers, as well as the “wanderer of revolutions”, Ilona Duczynska – stood out even among men with their radicalism. The first president of the Galilei Circle, Károly Polányi, when writing about the role of the student association in emancipation, found it important to highlight that Galileist girls developed following the “Russian pattern”: “More than boys, Galileist student girls developed following the Russian pattern mostly unconsciously, and served as a characteristic resource of the revolutionary era, completing the latter ones who were decreased in number owing to the war.”

The initial hectic operation of the student association after 1914 is shown by the fact that some departments – e.g. legal – even ceased temporarily, and were later re-established. A new, economic department also appeared. Meanwhile, they tried to make the association more operative with the establishment of committees: In October 1915, committees were established to prepare for general assemblies, to organize lectures, to organize elementary lectures, for student economy, for library, for women action, for member agitation, for finances, for administration and also for press. The latter had to inform newspapers publishing about programmes of the Galilei Circle, while the other committees were in charge of preparing proposals, organization and asking for advice. For example, the library committee asked for the advice of Béla Kőhalmi, an employee of Szabó Ervin Library, regarding which periodicals the association should acquire. However, the committees did not perform their tasks equally, several of them functioned poorly. As a response, the management appointed responsible leaders within the committees as well in October 1916, Árpád Haász was appointed to be the head of the student economy committee – in the 1950s, the dean of Mar Károly University of Economics –, while Jolán Kelen was appointed to be the head of the press committee. They tried to be active in spite of the difficulties, and the management even dedicated 100 crowns to update the stock of the home library of the Galilei Circle.

In the school year of 1915/1916, we are already aware of several lectures, parts of which were not disclosed to the press, but members of the circle were informed separately. In spite of the above, Zoltán Rudas declared himself on the electoral meeting on May 27, 1916, that “the current officers are not able to lead the circle“, so there were several problems, personal conflicts sharpened, e.g. between the two most significant members of the circle at that time, Zoltán Rudas and Miklós Sisa. It was a serious problem that, unlike previously, the presidency did not always think “well ahead” about holding lectures. Therefore in October 1916 even Pál Zádor renowned leftist journalist and Social Democratic politician also appeared at Anker köz to tell his criticism: “The Circle does not organize its lectures to meet a particular purpose, but rather lets the lecturers they can get to present at the earliest select the subject matter.” The management of the Galilei Circle exerted self-criticism, and members of the electorate promised not to hold on to two lectures per week and only organize lectures if the lecturer of the pre-defined subject matter is ensured. The crisis was marked more than ever by the embarrassing failure that the celebration of the Galilei Circle in March 1916 was cancelled due to the lack of a ceremonial speaker. Therefore Rudas finally summoned the general assembly to select new committees, and at the same time, another significant leader of the “small era”, Miklós Sisa expressed his wish that “older people would also visit Anker köz and thus make club life”.

So club life was not so lively at that time: the club room of the Galilei Circle must have been quite deserted in the first two years of war.


Ádám Manóné Téri Teodóra visszaemlékezése.  Politikatörténeti és Szakszervezeti Levéltár, 867. f. 1/a–91.
A Galilei Kör volt tagjainak csoportos visszaemlékezése. Politikatörténeti és Szakszervezeti Levéltár, 867. f. 1/g–30.
A Galilei Kör 1915 és 1917 közötti gyűlési és választmányi jegyzőkönyvei. Politikatörténeti és Szakszervezeti Levéltár, 684 f. 1/1 ő. e.
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 Written by: Csunderlik Péter