WEALTH AND WOE
The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War
By Alexander Waugh (Bloomsbury 384pp £20)
Exclusive from the Literary Review print edition. Subscribe now!
The story in this book is so gripping and fascinating that it is remarkable that it has never been told in this way before. It is probably just as well, for it is hard to imagine another account showing such fluency, wit and attention to detail as Alexander Waugh's. Most literate people have heard of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Austrian philosopher who made a substantial career at Cambridge under the patronage of Bertrand Russell, and whose Tractatus is considered one of the finest works of twentieth-century thought. Others will know of his brother, Paul, a gifted concert pianist who lost his right arm in 1914 fighting for Austria against the Russians and who then used some of his considerable wealth to commission the most famous composers of the day (including Prokofiev, Britten and, most important, Ravel) to write works purely for the left hand. Yet these were only the tip of the Wittgenstein iceberg. A big family, built on manufacturing wealth, living in palatial style in Vienna, visited by personal tragedy, torn apart by two wars, in the second of which their Jewish ancestry made life exceptionally complicated: it is dramatic stuff. Waugh avoids triteness and vulgarity, but that ought not to stop him selling the film rights for a fortune.
The head of the family was Karl Wittgenstein, born into a respectable middle-class family in the 1840s. He failed at school and ran away from home in 1865, barely seventeen, and seemed to have disappeared: he was in fact on his way to New York, where he piloted a canal boat and served whiskies for six months in what he termed a 'nigger bar'. His mother found out where he was and sent him money, and he started to suffer from something that was possibly dysentery. He returned home in some disgrace in the spring of 1866, and was sent off to work on a farm. His father, Hermann, had become an estate manager, made some money, and invested extensively in property.
By the time of Karl's apparently quite horrible death from tongue cancer (he was a cigar addict) in 1913, he had built up the family fortune and become a steel magnate, thanks to a combination of good luck and hard work. He owned mines and mills all over the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and filled his vast houses with art treasures. Always a superb violinist, Karl would play music with his wife, and they would use their salon to give concerts. At his death he was 'stupendously rich'. He had also been predeceased by two of his eight children, both sons who had committed suicide. Another son also killed himself, apparently for reasons of honour, at the time of the Austrian defeat in 1918. Waugh outlines these various tragedies concisely and with all the necessary detail, as he does the lives of the daughters, notably the unsatisfactory marriages two of them made. Above all, though, this is a tale of the unhappiness brought by the prodigious wealth that the younger Wittgensteins inherited.
Waugh makes Paul the centre of his story. Ludwig - who, Waugh reminds us, had the interesting distinction of being a schoolmate of Adolf Hitler's in Linz - is the better known, and the nature of his explosion upon the Cambridge scene just before the Great War, and on the world of philosophy, is superbly described. Like his elder brother, Ludwig was eccentric to the point of offensiveness. He was also rigidly idealistic, and gave his money away. Paul too was free with his riches. He sent a fortune, and raised more money besides, to alleviate the suffering of Austrian prisoners in bestial Russian camps during the Great War. Paul had been a prisoner of war, released after the best part of a year thanks to the serious disability he had suffered. He had marked out the keys of a piano when he was in the camp and taught himself a technique of playing one-handed. He also strove to make arrangements in his head, then on paper, of certain of the great two-handed works that he could then play with one hand. As soon as he was free he used his wealth to commission several composers to write for him. He fell out with most of them, though Prokofiev tried to charm him. Britten became prickly and reluctantly made some changes to the score to placate his patron (in a later, revised score he removed the amendments Wittgenstein had insisted upon). The pianist's main gripe was that the orchestra would often be too loud and would smother the soloist. Ravel made no such changes, only to attend a performance and be shocked that what he heard Wittgenstein play bore little resemblance to what he had written. Wittgenstein was unashamed, not just because he had paid for the work, but also because, in his belief, performers were not slaves: Ravel retorted that that was exactly what they were. The falling out was terminal.
Paul got out of Austria just as the Nazis were coming in. He took an immense amount of gold and other wealth with him, which the Reichsbank wanted to claim for themselves. It was at this stage that the authorities decided that there were enough Jews in the family for it to count as entirely Jewish. This meant penal taxation, and an emigration levy on top of that, which meant that any Jew who managed to leave the country would be almost totally robbed. One of Paul's sisters was married to an American and could come and go as she pleased: two others were trapped in Austria and were effectively held hostage by the Nazi authorities who attempted to blackmail Paul into coming back himself, or at least handing over his money in return for their safe passage. An attempt by the sisters to escape on false passports, and to smuggle rare manuscripts out of the country, was foiled, meriting the attentions of the Gestapo and resulting in a court case that they were extremely fortunate to win. Again, Waugh tells this part of the story brilliantly, capturing every detail of the to-ings and fro-ings - by this time Paul was in America, with his mistress (later his wife) and their children.
In the end, the surviving Wittgensteins got out. None ended his or her life especially happily, however. Ludwig may have accrued the greatest fame, but he was plagued by severe ill-health and was dead at sixty-two. His relationship with his celebrated brother broke down a decade before Ludwig's death. Acrimony, not least over the use of the family's money, flared into hatred. Paul made a reasonable career as a concert pianist with just one hand, though the impression remains that but for his wealth and social position - which allowed him to stage his first concert in Vienna as early as 1913 - he might have sunk into oblivion. It is clichéd to call the Wittgensteins an ill-fated family, but that is what they were, and the situation was made worse by the sheer magnitude of all they had. They could have wanted no finer chronicler than Alexander Waugh, who evokes their characters, and the milieu in which they lived, with sure-handedness and subtlety.