(In the photograph Kurt Wittgenstein is standing to the extreme right, wearing a bow-tie)
Konrad (Kurt) Wittgenstein
Konrad, or Kurt, became, by default, the eldest of the Wittgenstein sons after the disappearance of Hans. He lived to the age of 40 before he, too, killed himself. However, the circumstances of Kurt’s death could not have been more different from those surrounding the deaths of Hans and Rudolph.
Like his other siblings, Kurt had a flair for music and could play piano and cello with accomplishment. At 5’6” he was not very tall and his handsome, if slightly babyish, face was somewhat disfigured by a prominent scar on his left cheek. He would appear to have been different in temperament from his other siblings, and certainly from his father: he was humourous, almost flippant, and jocular. His personality lacked the gravitas in view of his family members, who considered him to be a Kindskopf—an overgrown child. In a letter to Ludwig Wittgenstein, Hermine wrote thus of Kurt:
‘. . . there is no depth to his character, but since you don’t expect to find any, you don’t miss it either.’
Even though dismissed as an intellectual lightweight by the family, Kurt went to university in Hanover from which he qualified as an engineer. He was the only one of the Wittgenstein children who followed his father’s footsteps and became a businessman.
Kurt also had entrepreneurial ambitions. After his university degree Kurt volunteered in the army as a conscript, but did not excel at soldiering; his final military report concluded that he was not fit for active service. After a year as a conscript, much to his father’s delight, Kurt went straight into the steel business where he learned the ropes of the trade. In 1906, with his father’s backing, he set up his own company with a partner. (This company, more than hundred years after Kurt Wittgenstein founded it, is still in business).
Kurt was never married, but was a most probably heterosexual—he apparently had had a couple of failed courtships. He was noticeably ill at ease in adult company and much preferred the company of children. To strangers he could strike as abrupt and rude. His interests, in addition to piano-playing, included hunting and driving fast motor-cars.
In April 1914 Kurt Wittgenstein arrived in America, with the aim of exploring investment opportunities to expand his steel business in America and Canada. He quickly made acquaintances in the New York high society, bought expensive cars, and booked himself holidays in luxurious spas—in other words took to the New World lifestyle like a duck to water.
Little did Kurt know that the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, of which he was a subject, would be assassinated in Sarajevo in June 1914 and Europe would be plunged into the Great War. Kurt wanted to sail back to Austria immediately, but the American authorities would not let him. Which meant that while his two brothers—Paul and Ludwig—were fighting the war for the Empire, ‘poor, sidelined Kurt’, as his mother referred to him, was twiddling his thumbs in America. Kurt, however, was not exactly idle. When he realised that he could not go back to Europe, he presented himself to the Austrian consulate in Manhattan and was placed in the propaganda department of the consulate whose task it was to make the American public, Press, and administration more sympathetic towards the Empire’s cause in the war. He wrote letters to his family telling them that he was doing everything he could to return to Austria. He was probably telling the truth: America’s official policy at the time towards the conflict in Europe was of neutrality, and those living in the US were forbidden to take part in the war irrespective of their nationalities. Since Kurt’s stated intention was to join the Austrian army, he was prohibited from leaving America. In his letters home Kurt Wittgenstein gave his family no idea of what he was up to in America and sought to give them the impression that his American life was unbearably dull and he fervently wished he were fighting the war, like his two brothers.
The Wittgenstein family was staunchly patriotic. Paul Wittgenstein was a Monarchist and willingly joined the army. Ludwig Wittgenstein volunteered to join the army for probably different reasons. When the war broke out, he was in Cambridge, UK, and had declared himself to be ‘spiritually exhausted’. This was probably due to the fact that he had fallen out with almost everyone in Cambridge, including his mentor Bertrand Russell and his ‘close companion’, the mathematician David Pinsent (with whom Ludwig probably had a homosexual relationship, and who would be killed in the war), and was seriously contemplating suicide (this was not the first time, and would not be the last time, that Ludwig seriously contemplated killing himself—time and again in his life he seriously thought of suicide, but never acted on these thoughts). His decision to join the Austrian army was perhaps less driven by the desire to defend the Fatherland, as surmised by his sister Hermine, and more by the desire to seek liberation from the ‘exhausting’ situation in Cambridge’ by taking on a difficult task and to do something other than purely intellectual work. Be that as it may, the Wittgenstein women, all of whom had fierce loyalty towards the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were very proud of Paul and Ludwig, and, by the same token, somewhat ashamed of Kurt, who, they could not help thinking, was having an easy time in America. The women wished that he too joined the army even if that meant death. Hermine, who would appear to have felt this dishonour more acutely than others, wrote to Ludwig:
‘How terrible it is that he [Kurt] is not experiencing these times as we are; you can hardly call what he is doing in America really living. . . He will have a bad time if everyone else has played their part and suffered, except for him!’
What the women did not know was that Kurt Wittgenstein had got involved in a clandestine racket—with the full knowledge of Austrian Embassy—of procuring false Austrian passports to repatriate Austrian US residents who, like him, were, for all practical purposes, detained in America. He also gave statements to newspapers, gave piano concerts and tried to mobilise the opinions in support of the Central powers, but with little effect. In one interview he declared: ‘The British have been manufacturing sentiments over here in diverse ways.’ Kurt retained his ‘job’ in the Austrian embassy for three years. During this period, despite their efforts, the American opinion continued to swing heavily in favour of the Entente allies. Linked to it, there was a perceptible rise in the anti-German feelings. This was not helped by revelations of what most Americans saw as underhand methods used by the Germans and Austrians for war propaganda. The public pressure began to build up for all the Austrian diplomats to be expelled from America. That happened in the spring of 1917: America joined the war supporting the allies; the diplomatic relations with Austria and Germany were severed; and Kurt Wittgenstein, along with 205 consulate employees, was expelled from the United States. He could now join the war, as his sister and mother so fervently wished him to.
(The above photograph of some members of the Wittgenstein family was taken sometime in 1917. On left are sitting Kurt and Paul Wittgenstein. Ludwig Wittgenstein is at the extreme right. Next to him, with her arm round his shoulders, is his sister, Helen. Next to Helen is sitting the matriarch, Leopoldine. The last man sitting is Helen's husband. The woman standing in the picture is the family maid. This photograph has something fin de siecle about it.)
Hermine wrote to her sister, Gretl, who, now that she was an American citizen (her husband Gerome was an American), had rushed to Switzerland after America joined the war and thereby missed her brother’s return: ‘Kurt is back . . . the same big child he was three years ago . . . He dashes around with children . . . Let’s hope things always go smoothly for him!’ (They didn’t. In a year’s time as the Great War finally neared its coda, Kurt was dead.)
As the time for Kurt’s departure neared, Leopoldine, to whom Kurt would appear to have been especially dear, was torn. On the one hand she wanted her son to do his duty for the Fatherland; on the other hand she was indescribably sad to see him go. Kurt enjoyed playing duets on piano with his mother; and that’s what he did on the eve of his joining the battle. He and his mother practised for hours a Schubert quartet.
The exact date of Kurt Wittgenstein’s death is not known. He killed himself sometime between September and November of 1918. The news of his death does not appear to have reached the family until December 1918. Kurt was fighting the war on the Italian front (along with his brother, Ludwig, although the two were not stationed together) where, as the war neared its endgame, the Austrian troupes were being routed by the Italians. The Austrians had lost almost 100,000 men trying to force their way into Northern Italy. The Germans were struggling on the Western front and were unable send reinforcement. As small mutinies broke out amongst the dejected and defeatist Austrian ranks, the Austrian High Command ordered a general retreat on 28 October. Within a week the armistice was signed.
The letters written by Kurt’s mother and sister (Hermine) give three different dates of what they chose to describe as his ‘fall’: ‘end of October’, ’27 November’, and ’27 September’. 27 November seems a clearly wrong date, as the war was over by then. The most probable date was end of October, when mutinies broke out in the Austrian ranks. And it is the mutinies that would appear to be linked to Kurt’s suicide.
In her memoir Hermine wrote:
‘My brother Kurt shot himself without visible reason on a retreat from Italy in the last days of the First World War.’
This bland statement gives no idea of the frantic efforts the family made to seek the explanation for Kurt’s suicide.
Over the years various versions explaining Kurt’s suicide filtered down different branches of the family.
Paul Wittgenstein’s version, as told to his friend, Marga Denke, was as follows: an army order commanded Kurt to expose his battalion to what he saw as complete annihilation before a battery of enemy guns. Knowing that no conceivable military advantage was to be gained, Kurt disobeyed the order. Then a fear of court martial preyed upon his mind. It became too much for him and he killed himself. This was on the eve of surrender in 1918. In the confusion of those days there would have been no inquiries.
Paul’s version differs from that of John (Ji) Stonborough, Gretl’s son and Kurt’s nephew. According to Ji, Kurt shot himself, like many other Austrian officers, in the 24 hour period after the surrender was signed, because he refused to be taken as a prisoner by the Italians. Another version, recorded by Paul Wittgenstein’s daughter, Johanna (after she interviewed family members in Austria in the 1980s), is broadly similar to Paul’s version, with a few more details added. According to this version, Kurt was ordered to lead his men across the river Piave. There followed a heated exchange between Kurt and his commanding officer in which Kurt shouted, ‘I am not offering my men in vain. The war is already lost.’ At this point he drew his pistol from his holster and threatened the officer that if he did not remove himself immediately from his sight he would be shot. The astonished commander withdrew, threatening a court martial. Kurt then summoned all his men, instructed them all to go home, and minutes later shot himself.
Finally, there is a fourth version, according to which the men and not Kurt who rebelled. This version claims that Kurt ordered his men to action and they refused to obey by deserting him on the field. Standing alone with a revolver in his hand and facing the heavy Italian bombardment, Kurt had three choices: to desert with his men; to fight alone and risk being captured by the enemy; to put a bullet through his head. He chose the last option.
The truth behind Kurt Wittgenstein’s death will never be known. Like many of the eight and a half million soldiers who lost their lives in the Great War, his body was never found.
The suicide of the third Wittgenstein brother, on the one hand could be described as an honourable death; on the other hand, as Paul Wittgenstein said to his friend, it was a waste of a young life. Kurt could have easily ‘seen out’ the war in the safety of America; however, a sense of patriotism which was wholeheartedly abetted by the Wittgenstein women saw him return to the madness of the Great War, only to die a day before the armistice was signed and the defeat was a certainty.
Kurt’s suicide seems to have broken the spirit of his mother Leopoldine, probably because she secretly blamed herself having actively encouraged him to return to Austria to fight to save the honour of an empire that did not even exist at the end of the War. From the time she received the news of Kurt’s death, Leopoldine’s health and spirits declined inexorably. In addition to the accumulating physical health problems, she lost all interest in life and she died a few years later.
It would appear that the two surviving brothers, Paul and Ludwig, continued to believe in the heroism of their brother, but Hermine, the principal instigator of Kurt’s return to Europe from America, began to have her doubts. In her memoir Hermine writes affectionately and effusively of her many worthy uncles and aunts; she devotes a whole chapter to Ludwig, ‘the most interesting and worthwhile of my brothers’; she leaves a very fond and puzzled description of Hans in his youth; but writes next to nothing about Paul and Rudolph. (The omission of Paul can perhaps be attributed to the fact that by the time Hermine started writing her memoir, Paul had fallen out with his siblings.) She despatches Kurt off in one paragraph: he is portrayed as a ‘relaxed’ person, a ‘typical young bachelor without serious duties’, with ‘a harmless, cheerful disposition’, and ‘a natural and delightful masculinity’, who despite all this carried ‘the germ of disgust for life within himself.’ There is no mention of any act of heroism; if anything Kurt’s suicide is faintly condemned as an act of weakness. Perhaps this is linked to the Catholic upbringing of the Wittgenstein children (their parents were raised as Protestant Christians, but gave a Catholic upbringing to the children), and adherence to the view that suicide could never be an act of courage. Therefore, Hans who went missing and whose fate was officially not known is mentioned; Rudolph who killed himself most probably over his sexuality—another Catholic taboo—is not mentioned at all; and Kurt who killed himself on the battleground is mentioned but glorifying his death was out of the question.
Disapproving she might have been of the manner in which Kurt died, but Hermine had no objection to adding the account of Kurt’s bravery (sans suicide) to the dossier the family hastily sought to present to the Nazis twenty years later, when it discovered to its horror that it was, in the eyes of the Nazis, Jewish, racially speaking, and was desperately trying to convince them of its impeccable credential (it did not help).
(to be continued)