“I am not sure why we are here, but I am pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein, described by Bertrand Russell as the most perfect example of a genius, was the youngest of nine children born to Karl and Leopoldine Wittgenstein. With the exception of Dora, who died within a month of her birth, all the Wittgenstein children reached adulthood. The eldest, a daughter named Hermine—named after the children’s grandfather, Hermann—, was fifteen years older than Ludwig.
Alexander Waugh’s extensively researched and unputdownable biography of the family throws fascinating light on the lives of Wittgenstein siblings.
Wittgenstein died this month 60 years ago. The 60th death anniversary of the great philosopher would be an opportune time to look at his extraordinary family.
Ludwig Wittgenstein had four elder brothers: Johannes (or Hans), born in 1877; Konrad (or Kurt), born in 1878; Rudolph (or Rudi), born in 1881; and Paul, born in 1887. He also had three elder sisters (not including Dora who died in infancy): Hermine, born in 1874; Helene, born in 1879; and Margaret (Gretl), born in 1882.
The Wittgenstein family was one of the richest in Vienna in the 19th century. The patriarch, Karl, was one of eleven children. His father, Hermann, was a businessman, originally from Saxony. Hermann made a fortune in various business enterprises, which he invested in properties all over Vienna. Karl was the family black sheep. He ran away from home twice, the second time all the way to America from where he returned, a few months later, in disgrace. Karl was a wheeler-dealer—in later life he liked to describe himself as a ‘self-made’ man—who made his fortune, even greater than that of his father, in iron and steel industry, which he invested (like his father) in properties all over Vienna, but also in foreign shares and foreign currency reserves. (It was this decision of Karl that would insulate the family from the hyperinflation and the loss of value of Austrian currency in the 1920s, and safeguard the children after the Anschluss when the Nazis deemed the family to be Jewish. At a time when even Sigmund Freud had to leave Austria, and only with the pressure put on the Nazis by the American ambassador to let Freud leave, the Wittgenstein sisters lived in Vienna through the war, unharmed.)
Hans, the eldest of the Wittgenstein sons, vanished without trace when he was 24, in 1902. He was an odd boy—the first word he ever spoke was ‘Oedipus’—who grew up to be an odd youth. He was extraordinarily good in mathematics and showed prodigious talent for music—his passionate interest in life. From a young age Hans showed an impulse to translate the world around him into mathematical formulae. According to one family story, as a small boy, he was strolling in one of the Viennese park with his sister, Hermine, when they came across an ornate pavilion. Hans asked his sister if she could imagine that the pavilion was made of diamonds. ‘Yes,’ replied Hermine. ‘Now let me have a go,’ Hans said, and, sitting on the grass, he proceeded to calculate the annual yields of the South African diamond mines against the accumulated wealth of the Rothschilds and the American billionaires, to measure every portion of the pavilion in his head, including all of its ornaments, and to build up an image of the diamond-studded pavilion in his mind, slowly and methodically until—very suddenly—he stopped. ‘I cannot continue. I cannot imagine my diamond pavilion any bigger than this’ he said, indicating a height of three or four feet above the ground. ‘Can you?’ he asked his sister. ‘Of course,’ Hermine answered, ‘what is the problem?’ ‘Well,’ Hans replied, ‘there is no money left to buy any more diamonds.’ At the age of four he could apparently identify the Doppler Effect as a quarter tone drop in the pitch of a passing siren. At the age of five, he flung himself to the ground, crying, ‘Wrong! Wrong!’ as two brass bands at opposite ends of a long carnival procession played simultaneously two marches in different keys. According to another story, as a child, he once played a music score, without ever having heard it, simply by studying the separately printed sheets of the music score, having formed a clear impression in his head of how the musical lines would sound together. Hans was left-handed, and could play violin, piano and organ to a deft standard. Julius Epstein, Mahlar’s teacher and a distinguished professor of piano at the Vienna Conservatoire, hailed Hans Wittgenstein as a genius.
In 1902 Hans went to America on a three week study trip and never returned. His relationship with his overbearing father was very strained at this time. Karl Wittgenstein was a great patron of art, but he wanted all his children, especially his eldest son, to follow his foot-steps in to the family business. Hans would rather play music. At Karl’s insistence Hans had been, prior to the America trip, to the production plants in Germany, Bohemia, and England, ostensibly to gain work experience, visits he greatly resented. During this period, Hans had put on weight and had apparently become obsessed with the nihilistic philosophies of Arthur Schopenhauer. According to one report, he was known to be a homosexual.
When Hans disappeared, the family did not accept for almost a year that Hans could have died, although it probably had prior intimations of his suicidal tendencies. At the time of his disappearance, there was only a short report in the newspapers that Hans had had a canoeing accident in America.
The tyrannical Karl prohibited discussing the disappearance of his eldest son in the household, which, nevertheless, did not stop the family members from speculating. The family gossip produced many explanations. Some members believed that he fled to Cuba; others believed that he had gone to the South Americas. (The family sent an employee to Venezuela to search for him.) One source recorded that Hans died in Everglades, Florida. The most consistent theme in various versions purporting to explain Hans’s disappearance is that he sailed off in a boat, and either the boat capsized (as believed by one of his nephews), or he drowned himself, or he shot himself. While no one ever knew what happened to Hans, it is very likely that he did not go on to live a full life abroad in secret from his family; and, equally likely, he took his own life.
The family publically accepted that Hans had died a year after his disappearance.
Ludwig Wittgenstein would have been 13 at the time of the disappearance of his eldest brother. It is not known whether he and Hans were close—there was a considerable age difference between them. He never spoke about Hans in later life.
(In the photograph, Ludwig Wittgenstein, the youngest of the siblings, is sitting in the lap of his eldest sister Hermine. Hans Wittgenstein is second from right, sitting behind Kurt.)
(to be continued)