A major thinker and inspiring teacher, Karl Polanyi's contributions have long been influential in a variety of disciplines, notably economic sociology and economic history. Two of his innovations, substantivist economic anthropology and the “double movement thesis,” are recognized as seminal. All of the works for which he is known, however, were written late in life, when in exile, and very little is known of his Hungarian writings, virtually none of which had, until now, been translated. Despite his fame, the biographical literature on Polanyi remains modest: some studies provide invaluable insights, yet all are brief. This article attempts to make some headway in remedying these lacunae. It sketches the contours of that extraordinary historical-geographical conjuncture in which he was formed, and explores his intellectual and political engagements in the Galilei Circle and the Radical Bourgeois Party. It seeks in particular to elucidate the complex roles played by questions of nation, ethnicity and class in the life of the young Karl Polanyi.