The Wild West Meets The Wild East – Buffalo Bill In Austria-Hungary

When Austrian Prince Klemens von Metternich made his famous comment “that the Orient begins at the end of the Ringstrasse” he was stating a view that the part of Europe located east of Austria was a wild, exotic world, not really European. This so called “Wild East” was a stark counterpoint to the supposedly much more civilized central and western parts of Europe. Whether or not this “Wild East” truly existed is beside the point. In this case, perception informed reality. Hungary and the eastern lands of the Habsburg Empire were viewed as economically backward, culturally incomprehensible and scarcely civilized. Conversely there was no such thing as a “wild” western Europe. That was up until an entertaining approximation brought the American Wild West to all of Europe in two stints on each side of the 20th century. This was the famous Wild West show of Buffalo Bill Cody. The show even traveled beyond the Ringstrasse into the perceived wild east. Thus, the “wild west” of America came to the “wild east.”

A poster advertising Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World

A poster advertising Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World

History On Horseback – Bringing the American West to Austria-Hungary
On May 12, 1906 a ship that traveling up the Adriatic Sea pulled into the Austro-Hungarian port of Trieste. It arrived with a cargo consisting of the entire living and structural edifice of “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World” as it was formally known. The show consisted of such dramatics as trick shooting, mock Indian attacks and a parade of cowboys on horseback. Audiences on both sides of the Atlantic were presented with a snapshot of what life was supposedly like in the 19th century American West. The factual accuracy of what was portrayed may have been lacking, but this was entertainment not history. As such it was a magnificent success that left a lasting impression on both viewers and the interpretation of western history.

Bringing Buffalo Bill’s Wild West to the Austro-Hungarian Empire was no easy feat. The logistics required to transport the show to cities across the empire were daunting. It took no less than 50 railway cars, 18 of which carried stock, to deliver everything needed to recreate the Wild West for just a few hours each day. The tour in Austria-Hungary took place over three months, from mid-May to August. The show played for several weeks to packed houses in the two largest cities of the empire, Vienna and Budapest. In Hungary, Budapest was only one of many stops. Shows went on for 30 straight days all over Hungary, including eight straight in the capital.

William F. Cody ("Buffalo Bill")

William F. Cody (“Buffalo Bill”)

Patriotism & Nationalism – Language Lessons
The show was documented in a book written by its European tour manager Charles Eldridge Griffin in 1908, Four Years In Europe With Buffalo Bill. Griffin states that Budapest “is one of the greatest horse markets in Europe. It was therefore but natural that the people should take a great interest in the Wild West, and, although every stitch of canvas was spread and every inch of seat plank in place, our enormous seating capacity was taxed to the utmost. While the entire programme (sic) was well received….Eight days were not long enough for Budapest, as thousands of people, many coming from a distance, were unable to gain admission. On the 4th of July, Buffalo Bill and his troupe were in the southeastern Hungarian city of Szeged. Celebrating American independence and the Wild West thousands of miles from home in one of the most elegant cities of the empire must have been feast of patriotism and pageantry.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show rides through the streets of Budapest in 1906 (Olivér Percel Collection)

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show rides through the streets of Budapest in 1906 (Olivér Percel Collection)

This provincial tour of Hungarian cities (including areas which are now part of Slovakia, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine) was much less successful than the Budapest shows. Griffin observed that “Hungary is purely an agricultural country, their methods of harvesting primitive, and a majority of the population, both men and women, were in the fields at the time we were there.” There were many empty seats. A communication barrier also arose between the show and its smaller audiences. Griffin identified one issue that would eventually help lead to the disintegration of the empire. “Some towns would be about equally divided between four or five nationalities, and, although they all understood German, the official language, each would insist on being addressed in his native language. We think we have a race problem in America, but it is more complicated and acute in Eastern Europe, and it is not a matter of color, either….The stores and shops illustrate their wares on their signboards, because the majority of the population cannot read.” Just twelve years before the empire would dissolve Griffin put his finger on the nationalities issue which would turn out to be so destructive. It must have been impossible not to notice. Griffin a foreigner, not conversant in any of the local languages, had nevertheless been able to recognize the problem. It certainly left a lasting impression on him. It would only worsen and finally explode in the coming years.

Linguistic map of Historic Hungary published in 1880

Linguistic map of Historic Hungary published in 1880

A “Wild East” Show – The Future On Display
Buffalo Bill died in 1917, a year later the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved. By this point Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show was a thing of the past, the Dual Monarchy had now joined it. The monarchy crumbled into competing successor states, as its wilder eastern parts separated. Perhaps there should have been a “Wild East” show to represent all that had vanished, but it never happened. That is unless one includes those curious audiences in the provincial cities of Hungary in 1906 that Griffin noted, with their babel of languages and fierce sense of ethnic nationalism. Those people were not a thing of the past. They were the future that was to come.

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