A family resemblance

Books Alexander Waugh's biography of the illustrious Wittgenstein family portrays its members as incommunicative and fierce-willed, writes Richard Eldridge.

After losing an arm in the First World War, Paul Wittgenstein lived in a Siberian prison camp, where he developed his one-hand piano technique.
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Alexander Waugh's biography of the illustrious Wittgenstein family portrays its members as incommunicative and fierce-willed, writes Richard Eldridge.

The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War Alexander Waugh Bloomsbury Dh69

Perhaps with his own family circumstances somewhere in the background - he is the grandson and son of the novelists Evelyn Waugh and Auberon Waugh - the opera critic and composer Alexander Waugh presents the family of the Austrian steel baron Karl Wittgenstein and his wife, Leopoldine, as both unlike and like every other. It was deeply unlike every other in being astonishingly wealthy, in having its three eldest sons each commit suicide and in counting both an internationally celebrated one-armed pianist, Paul Wittgenstein, and the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, among its five remaining children. It was like most others in being marked by paternal tyranny and sibling humour, misunderstanding and rivalry - dynamics that, in the end, drove the children almost completely apart.

Waugh begins his study with the December 1913 debut of the then two-handed Paul, and he ends it with a newspaper tribute to him written by Marga Deneke, one of his closest friends, 11 days after his death in 1961. He divides the years in between into four major sections. Part I, "A Dirty Thing to Do"- the phrase comes from a letter of Ludwig's about suicide - reaches back to Karl's youth and entry into industry in the mid-19th century. It then follows the family through the births of the children, the suicides of Hans and Rudi in their early 20s, the marriage of the most forceful daughter, Gretl, to the American wastrel Jerome Stonborough and the death of Karl in 1913, 20 months before the outbreak of the First World War. The family's incredible wealth, its intense preoccupation with music - Brahms, Mahler and Strauss were among the visitors at the Wittgenstein Winter Palais in Vienna - and its fabulous collections of paintings, music manuscripts and musical instruments feature prominently. But the overall story is of the failure of Karl to induce any of his sons to enter the family business.

In a late memoir, Hermine, the eldest daughter, traced the family's problems to Karl's brutal insistence that his sons follow him into industry, a career for which none of them were suited, and to Leopoldine's ability to communicate with her children only through music. "It was tragic," Hermine wrote, "that our parents, in spite of their great ethical seriousness and sense of duty, did not succeed in creating some sort of harmony between themselves and their children; it was tragic that my father had sons who were as different from him as if he had found them in an orphanage! It must have been a bitter disappointment to him that none of them would follow his path and continue the work of his life." Parents and children simply could not talk to one another.

Echoing Oscar Wilde, Waugh remarks with regard to the suicides that "to lose one son may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose two looks like carelessness". Caught between their father's demands and their own artistic temperaments and homosexuality, Hans and Rudi were unable to experience their father as a viable model for an adult, male social identity. Part II, "A Nasty Mess" - again the phrase is Ludwig's, this time describing his own life in a letter to Bertrand Russell - treats the First World War, focusing largely on the military service of the three remaining sons: Kurt, Ludwig and Paul. Kurt committed suicide on the Italian front in circumstances that remain unclear. Ludwig served in Poland as an infantry private, then as a gunboat searchlight operator and finally as a artillery observer. While several times facing significant danger, he seems to have undergone a quasi-religious conversion inspired by his reading of Tolstoy's The Gospel in Brief. After being transferred to the Italian front, he was captured, and he completed the manuscript of Tractatus logico-philosophicus, the only book he published in his lifetime, in a prison camp at Monte Cassino.

Paul saw action against the Russians as a second lieutenant on the Eastern Front. In August 1914, his right elbow was shattered by a bullet, resulting in a hasty field amputation; while unconscious, he was taken prisoner. Almost immediately, he decided to continue his intended career as a (now one-armed) concert pianist. Showing spectacular resoluteness, he practised in Siberian prison camps in extreme cold, sometimes on keyboards sketched on cardboard, malnourished and surrounded by disease and death, until he was released in a prisoner exchange in November 1915. He made his public one-handed debut in Vienna 13 months later, with the war still raging.

Part III, "The New Disorder", focuses on the interwar period of Austrian hyperinflation, during which disagreements among the five children came to the fore. Leopoldine became increasingly withdrawn and unable to manage family life; she stayed that way until her death in 1926. The children argued over the money Gretl's husband was wasting, over politics and, above all, over who was, or wasn't, serious about life. Should Ludwig abase himself and the family by becoming a rural elementary schoolteacher, where success was very unlikely? Could his signing away his share of the family fortune have any point, or was it simply an act of immense egoism? Could or should Paul's musical career amount to anything, or was he nothing but a freakish curiosity? None of the siblings seemed able to manage an adult life of which the others could approve.

Part IV, "Connection and Meltdown", follows the family through World War II and the 1938 annexation of Austria into greater Germany. Since three of the family's four grandparents were Jewish by birth, the family fortune was subject to expropriation under Nazi racial laws. It made no difference that two of the grandparents had converted to Catholicism, and so the family as a whole had practised Christianity for three generations.

Throughout all four parts, Waugh's focus is predominantly on Paul. Even while in prison camp, he began to develop a distinctive one-hand technique, using the heavier thumb and first finger to carry melodic lines and using the pedal to give the effect of playing chords spaced too widely for a single hand. Using the family fortune, he commissioned one-hand concertos by Hindemith, Korngold, Schmidt, Strauss, Ravel, Britten and Prokofiev, all of which (save the Prokofiev) he premiered after the First World War. He feuded endlessly with the composers over orchestration, attempting either to delete orchestral passages or to shift them so that the piano, limited to at most five notes within a relatively narrow register at any moment, could nonetheless be heard over the orchestra.

As Prokofiev remarked, Paul behaved obstinately as a figure of the musical 19th century, with no feel for 20th century musical textures and rhythms. Paul's musical sensibility remained rooted in the Viennese tradition, with Beethoven, Shubert, Schumann and Brahms as central points of reference. Rhythmic spikiness, extended harmonic dissonance and not-so-singable melodies were all foreign to him. But despite his fierce temper, crazy moods, endless mistresses and general impracticality (he once had to be informed that he might buy shoes in New York rather than having to wait for them to be sent to him from Vienna), he built a major international concert career throughout the 1920s and 1930s, until his technique began to decline. In this he displayed the iron will and force of character of his father, even if in music rather than in industry. He emerges in Waugh's eyes as a figure of both charm and integrity.

The case of Ludwig is less well handled. His life has already been well recounted in a number of excellent biographies and memoirs. Waugh draws on these, and he dwells usefully on affinities of form and content between Tractatus logico-philosophicus and The Gospel in Brief, both of which suggest that the meaning of life is to be found not in successes or rewards, but at every instant in the way the present is taken. After this early book, however, there is no further mention of Ludwig's philosophical work at all. Well-known stories of his stint as a monastery gardener's assistant and of his contributing to the design of Gretl's Vienna house are duly retold, but we learn nothing of his conversations in Vienna with Moritz Schlick (professor at the University of Vienna) or what brought him back to philosophy, let alone of the distinctive character of the later work on which his reputation now rests. It would, for example, have been illuminating to see how something of the integrity, character and relentless humanism that marked Paul's career were also present in Ludwig's later work - how both brothers in effect invented themselves by force of will as major figures in the arts out of the ashes of their family life and 19th century Viennese culture.

Instead, intermingled everywhere with the motif of Paul's career are Waugh's accounts of sibling relations and of the onrushing presence of the Second World War. "It is not in the nature of us five siblings to be social together," Ludwig wrote to Hermine. "You are able to have a conversation with me or Gretl, but it is difficult for the three of us together. Paul and Gretl even less. Helene fits well with any one of us but it would never occur to you, Helene, and me to come together as a group. We are all rather hard, sharp-edged blocks who find it difficult to fit together snugly." For Christmas 1929 in Vienna, Ludwig suggested to Hermine and Paul that they each bring a friend in order to ease tensions. Everyone found Gretl's husband intolerable. Politically, Paul was an ultra-right, anti-Nazi supporter of an indigenous Austrian fascist party, while Ludwig flirted with communism.

In September 1938, Paul managed to flee surreptitiously to Zurich, where the family had been able to transfer much of its fortune into a Swiss trust. There he was also able to arrange for valuable musical instruments, including a Stradivari violin and a Rugieri cello, to be smuggled to him. Bitter negotiations took place among the siblings, both in Zurich and in New York, as the Germans attempted to force them to turn over the family assets in return for granting Mischling (half-breed) status to Hermine and Helene, who remained stuck in Vienna. So did Gretl, but she was at less risk than her sisters because she was an American citizen by marriage. Ludwig was safely in Cambridge. At Paul's urging, Gretl, Hermine and Helene attempted to flee Vienna using foreign passports, only to be caught and prosecuted. Bribes and further negotiations kept them out of prison. The situation was impossible on all sides. Paul saw that Viennese life under National Socialism was dangerous, and he wanted his sisters out; the sisters were both unable and largely unwilling to leave.

Finally, in August 1939, Hitler personally signed the order granting the Wittgensteins Mischling status in exchange for the bulk of the family fortune, estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of US dollars. Paul was allowed to keep 2.3 million Swiss francs (roughly $9 million in 2000 US dollars). Gretl was forced to emigrate to New York. Paul and Ludwig spoke to each other for the last time in Zurich in November 1938. Gretl and Paul last spoke in New York in May 1939. In February 1950, during a visit to America, Ludwig showed up unannounced at Paul's Long Island house, but found no one at home. Paul, the last surviving sibling, died in New York in 1961.

"In Berlin," the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus is supposed to have said, "things are serious but not hopeless; in Vienna they are hopeless but not serious." Vienna in the first half of the 20th century was the central site of the collapse of European high culture into ethnic antagonisms and economic disaster. At present, the West continues to live in the long twilight of the industrialisation and urbanisation that appeared in central Europe in the late 19th century, and it is increasingly faced with the ethnic antagonisms and problems of wealth and poverty that troubled the Wittgensteins' Vienna. It seems more than likely that similar problems will increasingly trouble the rest of the world as well. That the Wittgenstein siblings, pre-eminently Paul and Ludwig, managed in their environment to maintain certain forms of seriousness, rooted in the 19th century, in music, art collecting and philosophy, is a tribute not only to their fortune but also to their character and force of will; that this same drove them apart in the circumstances they faced is all too human.

Richard Eldridge is a professor of philosophy at Swarthmore College and the author of Literature, Life and Modernity.