The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War by Alexander Waugh
“Follow the money.” The advice famously given to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein seems to have been taken to heart by Alexander Waugh in this attractively written and diligently researched history of the Wittgenstein family.
His story begins with the colossal wealth amassed by the Viennese industrialist Karl Wittgenstein in the 19th century; it continues by showing how that wealth shaped the lives of Karl’s eight children and ends with its dissipation, symbolised by the demolition in the 1950s of the grand family home that Karl had built, the Palais Wittgenstein on Vienna’s Alleegasse. “Who can nowadays live in and upkeep a palais of such extravagance of space and grandiosity?” wrote Karl’s son, Paul Wittgenstein, when he learned that the house in which he had been brought up, the “House of Wittgenstein”, was to be razed to the ground. He was, at that time, an American citizen and a resident of New York City, where, in 1961, he died at the age of 73. He was the last of Karl’s children to die, and, with his death, the “House of Wittgenstein” in its other sense – the sense that Waugh is most interested in – came to an end.
Like the main title, the book’s subtitle has two meanings: for much of the period covered in the book, the Wittgenstein family was “at war” in the sense that they were engaged in, or decisively affected by, the two world wars of the 20th century; but they also came to be at war with one another, fighting over, perhaps inevitably, the money they had inherited from Karl. Waugh’s dogged determination to “follow the money” leads him, in the final quarter of the book, into an extraordinarily detailed account of how large parts of the Wittgenstein wealth ended up in the hands of the Nazis in exchange for being reclassified under the Nuremberg Laws from Volljuden (fully Jewish) to the much less dangerous category of Mischlinge (of mixed race). The story has been told before, but, using much hitherto unknown documentation, Waugh’s version is more authoritative and fuller than previous accounts and also, unusually, tells the story largely from the point of view of Paul Wittgenstein, who fell out violently and decisively with his siblings over what he saw as their supine attitude to the Nazis.
What was at stake in this dispute was the part of the Wittgenstein fortune that was held in trust in a Swiss bank account. The Nazis could get their hands on this fortune only with Paul’s permission, which, naturally, he was reluctant to give (and as he had fled Austria soon after the Anschluss, the Nazis were unable to threaten him directly with death or imprisonment). His siblings, especially his sisters, put great pressure on him to accede to Nazi demands in order to save the two sisters Hermine and Helene who, having like the rest of the family been brought up as Catholics, had never considered themselves Jewish and had thus remained in Vienna. Paul thought, rightly, that there was room for negotiation; their instinct, borne out of a very understandable fear, was to give the Nazis whatever they wanted. The dispute was settled in a way that both preserved the safety of Hermine and Helene and allowed Paul to keep enough of his inheritance to live out his days in comfort (a deal brokered by the people referred to by the sisters disdainfully as Paul’s “Jewish lawyers”), but the damage to family relations was irreparable. Paul never saw any of his siblings again. In his blow by blow account of this vicious family dispute, it is fairly clear that Waugh’s sympathies are with Paul.In fact, so much of the book is told from Paul Wittgenstein’s point of view that one suspects it began life as a straightforward biography of him and then broadened as Waugh became fascinated by the Wittgenstein family and their money. Certainly Waugh devotes far more space to Paul than he does to Paul’s siblings, including his more famous younger brother, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, about whom he is content simply to repeat well-known anecdotes. Where Waugh’s real interest lies is in showing that Paul’s life and personality are as extraordinary and fascinating as Ludwig’s.
Paul Wittgenstein was a concert pianist who seemed, at the outbreak of the First World War, on the brink of a glitteringly successful career. During the war (in which, like Ludwig, he served in the Austrian army), however, Paul lost his right arm in the course of an heroic reconnaissance mission for which he was later decorated. After he was captured by the Russians, he used his time in captivity to learn how to play the piano using just his left hand, and, amazingly, was able, after the war, to resume his career as a concert pianist, playing works specially written for him by the most distinguished composers of the day, including, most notably, Ravel. Paul’s life story has never been told before in such detail, nor with such sympathy. And though he is shown to be at times arrogant, maddeningly obstinate and heavy handed, he emerges from this book as what Waugh clearly believes him to be: a hero.
The book begins with Paul’s debut performance in December 1913 and then, by way of providing the background to that occasion, tells the stories of Paul’s father and his siblings, dwelling in particular on the suicides of Paul’s older brothers, Hans and Rudolf. From a literary point of view, this first section is a tour de force. So many narrative threads are wound together that it is a wonder, and testimony to Waugh’s great gifts as a writer, that the whole thing does not become unravelled. From a historical point of view, Waugh’s approach is cautious; he does not attempt to draw general conclusions and is careful to sift documented fact from hearsay and gossip.
It is only in this first section, however, that the book attempts to give equal weight to the eight siblings of the Wittgenstein family. By the time we get to the First World War, the focus is firmly on Paul. Waugh has an excellent section on the third suicide in the family – that of Kurt, who shot himself, for reasons that remain a mystery, at the end of the war – but of the remaining members of the family, the three sisters, Hermine, Helene and Gretl, he says comparatively little. The story of Gretl’s unsatisfactory marriage to the American Jerome Stonborough, and of her relationships with her unremarkable sons, Thomas and John, is told in probably more detail than it merits, but, even then, it does not occupy much space, and, as for Hermine and Helene, they remain invisible throughout the book until the last section, when they become the cause of great strife among their siblings over the question of how much of the family wealth ought to be given to the Nazis.
What The House of Wittgenstein shows is that, however interesting it might be to follow the creation, spending and losing of a vast fortune, it cannot compare to the fascination exerted by exceptional individuals. This book will be read by those wanting a detailed and historically accurate account of the deal the Wittgensteins made with the Nazis, but it will, one suspects, attract far more readers because of its utterly absorbing account of the military, musical and personal heroics of Paul Wittgenstein.