Michael Nedo

The Wittgenstein family in Vienna, summer 1917. From left, siblings Kurt, Paul, and Hermine Wittgenstein; their brother-in-law, Max Salzer; their mother, Leopoldine Wittgenstein; Helene Wittgenstein Salzer; and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

We are inclined to think that there must be something in common to all games, say, and that this common property is the justification for applying the general term “game” to the various games; whereas games form a family the members of which have family likenesses. Some of them have the same nose, others the same eyebrows and others again the same way of walking; and these likenesses overlap.

So said Ludwig Wittgenstein in The Blue Book ; but none of the students who pored over that collection of lecture notes, which circulated samizdat -style in the Cambridge of the 1930s, could have guessed at the autobiographical bearing of Wittgenstein’s metaphor. For as Alexander Waugh shows in The House of Wittgenstein, the resemblances that united the philosopher with his own family were more than just physical. It was, above all, the ways they suffered that made the Wittgensteins one.

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s background was something of an enigma to his colleagues. F.R. Leavis, hearing him mention that he had grown up in a house with seven pianos, concluded that he must be related to Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, who was the lifelong mistress of Franz Liszt. It was “widely believed in Cambridge that he was of the princely German family,” writes Ray Monk in his biography Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius.*

In fact, his name did come from that family, but not because he was their descendant. Rather, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s great-grandfather, Moses Meyer, was the land agent for the Sayn-Wittgensteins. In 1808, when Germany was under Napoleonic rule, Jews were compelled by law to adopt a fixed surname, instead of identifying themselves by patronymic, and Moses Meyer took his employers’ name as his own. His son, Hirsch Moses Meyer, six years old at the time, was henceforth known as Hermann Wittgenstein; when he converted to Protestantism, in his thirties, he added the middle name Christian.

It is by the echt -German name Hermann Christian Wittgenstein that the patriarch of the family is introduced by Alexander Waugh in The House of Wittgenstein. There is no hint, in the opening pages where the family’s genealogy is laid out, that Hermann was Jewish; on the contrary, Waugh mentions “his Protestant ethic and his anti-Semitic sensibility,” which tend to give rather the opposite impression. Both ethic and sensibility, Waugh writes, were offended by the decision of Hermann’s son Karl, the philosopher’s father, to marry a half-Jewish woman, Leopoldine Kalmus. “My son Karl,” Hermann wrote gruffly to his future daughter-in-law, “unlike his brothers and sisters, has always, from his earliest youth, chosen to follow his own direction.” He was, in fact, the only one of Hermann’s eleven children to take an even partly Jewish spouse.

Only by reading Waugh carefully can the reader deduce that in fact Hermann’s own wife, Fanny Figdor, was also Jewish: Monk, but not Waugh, makes plain that she converted to Protestantism in order to marry Hermann. In this calculated obscurity, Waugh faithfully follows the example of Hermann, who not only forbade his children to marry Jews but kept them in the dark about their own Jewish background. Family lore had it that his daughter Milly had to ask one of her brothers (a Protestant clergyman) if the rumors about their Jewishness were true. ” Pur sang [pure-blooded]” was the lofty reply.

The witticism captures something important about the Wittgensteins and their milieu. They were, at the same time, sufficiently ashamed of their Jewishness to make it a secret and sufficiently proud to boast of it as though their sang were a kind of noble pedigree. In this contradiction, they were not untypical of the Viennese Jewish bourgeoisie, a class that revealed its Jewishness most conspicuously in its wholehearted embrace of Germanness—above all, German literature, art, and music. What the writer Stefan Zweig says about his own family, in his memoir The World of Yesterday (1943), applies equally well to the Wittgensteins:

Early emancipated from their orthodox religion, they were passionate followers of the religion of the time, “progress.” …They moved from their home to Vienna, they adapted themselves to the higher cultural sphere with phenomenal rapidity.

What made the Wittgensteins untypical was the staggering success with which they realized their class’s common ambitions. For if Hermann was a prosperous businessman, Karl managed to become possibly the richest man in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Waugh sketches his career in just a few paragraphs. Starting out in the early 1870s as a part-time engineer at a steel mill, he had become, by the end of the century, a steel magnate on a colossal scale—the Krupp or Carnegie of Austria-Hungary. “It would be idle to speculate on how much money he was worth,” Waugh writes. “He was stupendously rich.”


Yet in 1898, at the age of fifty-one, Karl Wittgenstein retired from business, to spend the rest of his life as a patron of art and a man of leisure. This decision, which Waugh reports without particular comment, also makes more sense when seen in the context of Vienna’s assimilated Jewry and its cultural ambitions. Again, Zweig is apt:

It is generally accepted [he wrote in 1941] that getting rich is the only and typical goal of the Jew. Nothing could be further from the truth. Riches are to him merely a stepping stone, a means to the true end, and in no sense the real goal. The real determination of the Jew is to rise to a higher cultural plane in the intellectual world.

Thus the Wittgenstein fortune was used to stimulate the now legendary art and culture of turn-of-the-century Vienna. The patronage of wealthy Jewish families was particularly important because, isolated as they were from the royal and aristocratic society that still governed the empire, they could support experimental work that flew in the face of that society’s conventional taste. Karl Wittgenstein paid for the construction of the Secession Building, designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich; when the University of Vienna rejected the mural it had commissioned from Gustav Klimt, Karl paid for that as well. Klimt also painted the portrait of Karl’s daughter Margherita, known as Gretl—though, as Waugh writes, she “loathed the finished picture, blaming Klimt’s ‘inaccurate’ depiction of her mouth, which she later had repainted by a lesser artist.” Gretl would later be analyzed by Sigmund Freud, and helped him get permission to leave Austria after the Anschluss.

But music was the Wittgensteins’ greatest love, and it was as a musician that Paul, Ludwig’s older brother, was to make his own contribution to immortalizing the family name. Musical talent ran in the family: Joseph Joachim, the great violinist, was Fanny Wittgenstein’s cousin, and she helped arrange for him to study with Felix Mendelssohn. Joachim’s friend and collaborator Johannes Brahms became a friend of the family, and the premiere of his Clarinet Quintet took place at the Wittgenstein family’s mansion on the Alleegasse, in the Musiksaal where some of Europe’s leading musicians gave private concerts. Waugh writes that Richard Strauss, Schoenberg, Mahler, and Zemlinsky were also regular guests. It is a nice irony that while Ludwig Wittgenstein was not in fact related to Liszt’s princess, as Leavis thought, his actual family was no less distinguished in musical history.

A guest at the Musiksaal in the year 1900 might well have come away with the impression that the Wittgensteins—Karl and Leopoldine, their five sons and three daughters—were one of the most fortunate families on earth. Yet in the twentieth century, they were to suffer an unbroken series of calamities. It began when the oldest son, Hans, committed suicide while on a trip to America in 1902. The exact circumstances of his death could never be determined, Waugh writes; one report had him last seen in the Florida Everglades, another disappearing from a boat on Chesapeake Bay.

Two years later, the second son, Rudi, killed himself by swallowing cyanide in a Berlin restaurant. Both Hans and Rudi, it seems, were driven to end their lives in part from despair of ever fulfilling their father’s ambitions for them to succeed in the business world, and in part from guilt over their homosexuality. Rudi, in particular, spoke of “my perverted disposition,” and apparently killed himself out of fear that he could be identified as the subject of a study of “an unnamed homosexual student in Berlin,” by the pioneering sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld.

One can scarcely imagine how Leopoldine felt when she learned, in the closing days of World War I, that her third son, Kurt, had also taken his own life. This time the circumstances were much different: Kurt was serving as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army and shot himself during the collapse of the Italian front.

By the end of 1918, then, the Wittgenstein brothers had been reduced to two, Paul and Ludwig. And while it is Ludwig whom posterity cares about most—there can be little doubt that The House of Wittgenstein would not have been published, or perhaps even written, if not for the fame Ludwig brought to the Wittgenstein name—it is Paul whom Waugh makes the real focus of his book. This may be surprising, but it proves justified, for Paul was a scarcely less enigmatic and gifted man than his younger brother. And because he was a musician, he offers Waugh, a sometime opera critic, the chance to draw on his knowledge of the period’s composers and performers.


The story of Paul Wittgenstein’s war could have come straight from a protest novel, so dramatically does it demonstrate the huge waste and futility of World War I. Like so many young men in all the belligerent countries, Paul became a soldier in 1914 as “a question of personal and national honor”—though, unlike most Austrians, he was doubtful from the beginning about his country’s chances against Russia. As a second lieutenant, he was posted to the Fourth Army on the Galician front, but thanks to the confusion and incompetence plaguing the Austrian forces, he was sent to the wrong place and arrived eight days late. On August 23, his fourth day at the front, he led a scouting mission near Russian lines, where he came under fire and was wounded. His men managed to get him back to a field hospital, but while he was unconscious the hospital was captured by the advancing Russians. He woke up to discover that he was a prisoner of war, and that his right arm had been amputated above the elbow.

What made Paul’s injury all the more devastating is that less than a year before the war began, he had launched a career as a concert pianist. Waugh opens The House of Wittgenstein with a description of his debut, on December 1, 1913, in Vienna’s Grosser Musikvereinsaal. Daringly, he played a piano concerto by the minor Irish composer John Field, along with works by Mendelssohn, Liszt, and the now forgotten Josef Labor, a blind composer whom the Wittgenstein family adored. (A recording of only one of his works, a quintet for clarinet, piano, and strings, is readily available; it is a very Brahmsian piece, which may explain why the Brahms-loving Wittgensteins rated Labor so highly.) The reviews were positive, and Paul was on his way to a major performing career when the loss of his arm seemed to put an end to his lifelong ambition.

Yet the same resolve that allowed Karl to conquer the steel industry and Ludwig to master the logic of Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell served Paul as well. He was still recuperating at a Siberian hospital when “he carefully marked out the image of a piano keyboard in charcoal on an empty crate” and began to work out an arrangement of a Chopin piece for the left hand only. The Danish consul in Omsk, who was in charge of reporting on the condition of Austrian prisoners, intervened to get Paul transferred to a facility with a piano. By April 1915, just eight months after his injury, Paul wrote to his mother to commission a left-hand piano concerto from Labor. When he finally came home, in November, the composition was ready for him, and in March 1916 he gave its first performance at the family Musiksaal.

Thus Paul began his career as a one-handed pianist, and what is ultimately more significant, in commissioning a left-handed piano repertory. Opinion varied widely about Paul’s musical talent, and about whether any one-handed pianist could be more than a novelty act. Yet Paul pressed on, paying handsome fees to composers like Ravel, Britten, Prokofiev, and Hindemith to create works for him. One might think that Paul Wittgenstein would be grateful to get these masters to write something as unlikely as a left-hand piano concerto. But in fact his patron’s assertiveness combined with his virtuoso’s pride to make him a difficult client. Things were only made more complicated by his conservative musical tastes—as he freely confessed, he was out of sympathy with the music of his time. Paul’s place in musical history is probably guaranteed by Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, yet by the end of their collaboration he and Ravel couldn’t stand each other.

Waugh devotes much less space to Ludwig, the youngest son and the only one to make it through the war physically—but not emotionally—unscathed. When he returned to Vienna in 1919, after spending months as a prisoner of war in Italy, Ludwig renounced his family, turned his back on philosophy, and enrolled in a teacher training school. A thirty-year-old among teenagers, a genius hoping to teach primary school in provincial villages, he could not have been more conspicuous, and he was once asked if he was closely related to the Wittgensteins. “Not very,” he replied, and while it was a lie, he wanted it to be the truth. He even took the dramatic step of signing away his share of the Wittgenstein fortune, living for the rest of his life on what he could earn as a teacher and professor.

The notary who witnessed that act may have been more psychologically acute than he knew when he objected, “So, you want to commit financial suicide!” For Ludwig’s death wish was not at all metaphorical. According to Ray Monk, he told a friend that before discovering philosophy as his vocation, he had endured “nine years of… loneliness and suffering,” during which he had continually thought of suicide. Nor did philosophy drive away those thoughts for long. During World War I, he not only enlisted in the Austrian army when an old injury could have kept him out of uniform, but insisted on transferring from his safe engineering post to a combat unit. In his wartime diary, he wrote, “If only I may be allowed to risk my life in some difficult assignment…perhaps the nearness of death will bring light into life.” Reading Waugh, it becomes clear that Ludwig Wittgenstein’s suicidal impulses, his estrangement from ordinary society, and his ambiguous sexuality—all of which contribute to the dark charisma of his legend—constituted just the sort of “family resemblances” he philosophized about.

Faced with such a story, one might expect a biographer—especially one, like Waugh, from a prominent family himself—to seek explanations for the Wittgensteins’ tremendous strangeness and unhappiness. Indeed, what makes the family worth reading about—beyond the fact that it produced one of the twentieth century’s great philosophers—is that their private happiness was undermined and eventually ruined by public, historical forces. They were “a family at war,” in the words of Waugh’s subtitle, long before the First World War destroyed the Austrian Empire and the Second destroyed Austrian Jewry.

In particular, it seems clear that the paradoxes of their situation as assimilated Jews were part of what took such a toll on the Wittgensteins. Just because they were so successful, both in commerce and in culture, the profound ways in which the family failed to achieve fulfillment and security become all the more conspicuous. Yet just as Waugh downplays the Jewish and Viennese dimensions of the Wittgensteins’ rise, so he takes little interest in these enormously significant aspects of their decline. For him, the Wittgensteins were simply a very rich and very eccentric family.

Waugh does show that some of that eccentricity was temperamental, possibly genetic. As a young man, Karl Wittgenstein displayed the same kind of rebelliousness and violent temper that he would later witness in his sons. In 1865, at the age of seventeen, he ran away from home, not stopping until he got to New York City. For the next year and a half, he roamed the United States as a waiter, musician, and schoolteacher, before finally giving in to his family’s entreaties to come home. This “great rebellion,” as Waugh calls it, was aimed squarely at his father Hermann, with whom he never got along. His decision to pursue an engineering career, instead of joining the family business, was another form of revolt. His impulsiveness showed itself in more unsettling ways as well. On his wedding day, Waugh relates, Karl got mad when his coachman was slow driving away from the church, and smashed the carriage window with his bare hand.

That Karl would grow into just the kind of repressive patriarch he himself had resisted, that he would scorn his sons’ attempts to win their own independence, was predictable but still tragic. Hans, the oldest son, was a musical prodigy whose teachers hailed him as a genius; Rudi had “grand passions for music, photography and the theater.” In other words, they were faithful products of the household in which they grew up, where culture, and especially music, was the object of an almost religious worship. But Karl insisted that his sons follow him into business, and rode roughshod over their artistic ambitions and sensitive personalities. As a result, Waugh writes, “Karl was blamed (but not to his face)” for their suicides, which can be seen as their last desperate bids to escape paternal control.

What Waugh does not make clear, however, is that this sort of disastrous generational battle was not simply a product of the Wittgenstein family’s private quirks. It was absolutely typical of the German-Jewish bourgeoisie, and can be traced in the biographies of many of the writers and artists of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s generation. Stefan Zweig saw this as well:

The mightiest dynasties find their sons unwilling to take over the banks, the factories, the established and secure businesses of their fathers. It is not chance that a Lord Rothschild became an ornithologist, a Warburg an art historian, a Cassirer a philosopher, a Sassoon a poet.

Or, he might easily have added, a Wittgenstein a philosopher or a pianist. In each case, the dialectics of Jewish assimilation were at work. The fathers of these dynasties made money but could never win social status or political power, so they turned to cultural prestige—to prove, to themselves and others, that they were well and truly part of “mainstream,” gentile, German and Austrian life. But when the sons took this lesson to heart, and acted as though cultural achievement were the only route to authenticity, the money-making fathers felt they were being repudiated. No wonder Hannah Arendt wrote that “if Freud had lived and carried on his inquiries in a country and language other than the German-Jewish milieu which supplied his patients, we might never have heard of an Oedipus complex.” (It seems almost too good to be true that, according to Waugh, Hans Wittgenstein’s first word was “Oedipus.”)

Perhaps if Waugh were more alert to this cultural, generational dimension of the Wittgensteins’ tragedy, he would not tell their story with such an unpleasant tone of lofty bemusement. That tone can be heard in some of Waugh’s weirdly contemptuous descriptions of minor figures in his story. This, for instance, is how he introduces Paul Wittgenstein’s piano teacher: “His name was Theodore Leschetizky, a Polish octogenarian erotomaniac, hailed as the smartest piano teacher of his age.” Since Leschetizky’s alleged erotomania has absolutely no part in Waugh’s story, this description seems to be motivated by simple malice. Still, it is nothing compared to Waugh’s remark on the suicides of Hans and Rudi: “As Oscar Wilde might have remarked, ‘To lose one son, may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose two looks like carelessness.'” It is hard to imagine how a biographer could devote as much effort to his subjects as Waugh clearly has, yet be so deficient in sympathy and imagination as to make such a joke.

But the most damaging manifestation of Waugh’s contempt is his denigration of the intellectual and spiritual elements in the Wittgensteins’ story. Whenever he mentions Ludwig’s philosophical work, for instance, Waugh insinuates that it was all a bunch of mystification and nonsense, which he put over on the strength of his personality and good looks. Thus he describes Wittgenstein “stuttering and blathering long and incomprehensible monologues on the subject of logic and mathematics” to Bertrand Russell; and suggests that “the central thesis of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which concerned the limitations of language, seemed to be all too vividly demonstrated by its own impenetrability”; and he chortles that Wittgenstein’s Cambridge students “did not understand him…what mattered to them was to be close to his presence.” “There were of course at that time (and still are, now) many doubters—those who roll their eyes and mutter about ‘the Emperor’s new clothes!,'” Waugh writes about Wittgenstein’s work, though the only one muttering is him.

This kind of thing cannot do much harm to Wittgenstein’s reputation, of course. But by failing to take Wittgenstein’s thinking seriously, Waugh misses another chance to place his story in its true perspective. One of the major themes of Ray Monk’s biography is the debt Wittgenstein owed to the thought of Otto Weininger, the twenty-three-year-old philosopher whose suicide in 1903 made him a legendary figure to the Viennese of Wittgenstein’s generation. Weininger is significant because, a Jew and a homosexual himself, he devoted his book Sex and Character to a truly insane explanation of why Jews and homosexuals were soulless, sterile, and deserving of death. His suicide was thus an extremely vivid demonstration of the relentless logic of Jewish and gay shame.

Since these same themes are so prominent in the Wittgenstein family’s own story—and since Ludwig Wittgenstein himself told George Moore that Weininger “is fantastic but he is great and fantastic…. It is his enormous mistake which is great”—one might think that Waugh would take Weininger seriously. But here too, he prefers knowingness: “The Weininger story is quickly told. He was an intense, clever, misguided young man, small and simian of aspect,” whose work “took a tough line on women (he was a misogynist) and on Jews (of which he was one).” Waugh mentions Weininger merely to suggest that Rudi Wittgenstein’s suicide may have been a “copy-cat” death—as, for instance, when “the US suicide rate increased…after Marilyn Monroe took her fatal overdose.”

Given Waugh’s approach, it makes sense that the question of the Wittgensteins’ Jewishness should come to the fore only when he reaches 1938 and the Anschluss that brought Austria under Nazi control. For only then did the Wittgensteins’ background become an explicit problem for them: though the family had practiced Christianity for three generations, and sometimes made, as Waugh notes, disparaging remarks about Jews, they were Jewish under the Nuremberg Laws. “One morning in late March,” Waugh writes, “Paul came into the room where [his sister] Hermine was sitting, his face white with horror, and said to her: ‘ Wir gelten als Juden ‘ [We count as Jews!].” What this meant became clear in short order. Hermine’s charity school for boys was turned into a Hitler Youth school, and Paul was banned from performing or teaching. Most menacing of all, Paul, who had fathered two children with his Catholic mistress, Hilde Schania, was liable to prosecution for Rassenschande, race defilement.

The second half of The House of Wittgenstein is largely given over to Waugh’s account of the family’s desperate attempts to escape their newfound status. Ludwig was able to take British citizenship; Gretl had been married to an American, Jerome Stonborough (né Steinberger), and was a US citizen. Paul fled Vienna for Switzerland and then New York, where he would live until his death in 1961. That left Hermine and Helene, who remained in Vienna as easy targets for Nazi extortion. Waugh traces the complex and bitter negotiations that took place between Paul, his sisters, and the Nazi lawyers who wanted to get their hands on the Wittgensteins’ Swiss trust.

In the end, Paul agreed to hand over 1.2 million Swiss francs to the Reichsbank; in exchange, the Reich Agency for Genealogical Research agreed to reclassify the Wittgensteins as only half-Jewish, Mischlinge. The authorization for this, Waugh reveals, came from Hitler personally, who evidently found time to sign off on the Wittgensteins’ racial status just three days before the invasion of Poland. The failed artist from Vienna must have taken special pleasure in having the great Wittgensteins under his power. Perhaps he even remembered that, for a year in childhood, he and Ludwig Wittgenstein had attended the same school in Linz.

Even with Hitler’s sanction, however, the obscene niceties of Nazi race law had to be observed. The family’s Mischling status, which enabled Hermine and Helene to survive the war, depended on all sides endorsing the fiction that Hermann Christian Wittgenstein had only been half-Jewish himself, because he was the product of an illegitimate union between his mother and her noble employer, Prince Georg of Waldeck. In support of this contention, a member of another branch of the family submitted photographs to the Reich Agency for Genealogical Research purporting to show that “neither Hermann Christian nor any of his eleven children looked Jewish,” and what’s more, that “Hermann had been a brazen anti-Semite.” In a sense, of course, this is what the family had believed all along: that appearing non-Jewish and looking down on Jews meant that they would not “count as Jews” themselves. Where Waugh errs is in allowing the reader to suppose that they paid the price for this illusion only in 1938. In fact, as his sad chronicle shows, they had been paying it all along.