Friday, 22 April 2011

Wittgenstein Family

(In the above photograph, Paul Wittgenstein, who looks like a girl, is sitting at the bottom.)

In this series of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's siblings, I have posted about his three brothers who killed themselves: Hans, Rudi, and Konrad. In this and subsequent posts, I shall write about the fourth brother, Paul, and the falling out amongst the Wittgenstein siblings.

While some of the information is obtained from Internet, in the main I have relied extensively on Alexander Waugh's excellent biography of the family, which I wholeheartedly recommend.

Paul Wittgenstein

Paul Wittgenstein, the fourth Wittgenstein brother, was the only son who pursued a professional career as a musician. A pupil of the blind music composer Joseph Labor, Paul made his debut in Vienna in 1913, the year his father died. The promising musical career was cut short with the outbreak of the First World War. 

The First World War

Believing that it was his moral and civic duty to defend the honour of the Hapsburg dynasty, Paul joined the army, although right from the beginning he nursed a pessimistic view of the prospects of the monarchy and by association his country. He was dispatched to the Galician front where he was wounded in an encounter within a few months. A bullet shattered the elbow of his right—his dominant—arm, which was amputated in the field hospital. By the time Paul regained consciousness, the Russians had taken the town. Paul was captured and he spent the next year as the Russian prisoner of war in Siberia, in unspeakably inclement conditions, before he returned to Vienna following an exchange of war-prisoners. It was in the early days of his captivity that Paul decided to continue his career as a concert pianist despite the loss of an arm. While his mother and sisters were agitating in Vienna that the loss might bring to surface suicidal tendencies, the loss, if anything, made Paul more determined to return to Vienna and resume his career. This is what he proceeded to do.

(Paul and Ludwig Wittgenstein as children. Paul is on the left.)


Paul, like his siblings, had become rich beyond belief when the vast estate of his father was divided amongst the children upon his death. To this was added Kurt’s share when he died, issuless, in 1918.  

In 1919, Ludwig Wittgenstein, inexplicably, gave up his entire fortune and his share of the estate. A proportion of Ludwig Wittgenstein's fortune was donated to charities. The rest was divided equally amongst his siblings. 

The children’s uncle flew into a rage when he came to know what was happening. He accused the Wittgenstein siblings of not having Ludwig’s interests at their hearts. The uncle was convinced that Ludwig had lost his mental balance, and he would come to his senses in due course and realise the mistake he had made. The uncle therefore wanted Ludwig’s siblings to dissuade him from what he was doing; he was not persuaded by Hermine’s explanation that they did, but Ludwig would not listen. The uncle suggested that at the very least, the siblings should leave aside a secret fund for Ludwig if he needed it later; however,  they chose not to. As it happened, Ludwig Wittgenstein did not repent the decision to give away his vast fortune, and did not ask for it to be returned in the remainder of his life.

Although the family lost a lot of its fortune because of the hyper-inflation that raged in Austria following the First World War, it was still stupendously rich due to the wise foreign investments of Karl Wittgenstein. Paul Wittgenstein owned, in the 1920s, an immense block of shops, offices and apartments in the fashionable first and second districts of Vienna. (This fortune would save the lives of the sisters when the Nazis came to power but would also create an irrevocable rift between Paul and the rest of his siblings.) 

Career as an Acclaimed Pianist

After returning to Vienna, Paul cautiously embarked on his career as a one armed concert pianist. In addition to his long term mentor Joseph Labor, Paul approached four composers in Vienna, three of them very prominent, to write concertos for piano and orchestra (left hand), their remuneration being paid in the highly coveted currency of US dollars. Since the purpose of the compositions was to advance Paul’s career, the composers were chosen carefully; and the music they composed was Paul’s favourite—early Romantic and late Classical (he detested modern music). At a later stage, Paul also invited contribution from Richard Strauss, which, according to the gossip columns of the time, cost him a fortune. 

The outcome of all of this was exactly as Paul had planned. In 1916, Paul made his one-handed début as a concert pianist. Within five years he was being acclaimed as a major artist on the international concert scene. He began appearing on concert platforms with some of the most famous composers in the field, all over Europe, and towards the end of the 1920s he made a successful début in America. 

Apparently Paul had a very commanding presence on stage, and the speed at which he moved his fingers across the keyboard was breathtaking. 

While there is no doubt that Paul’s considerable fortune paved his way to success—not many could have afforded to pay the exorbitant sums of money, and in foreign currency too, to the famous names whom he got to compose especially for him—without the skills, dedication, and artistry he would not have been able to enjoy lasting success.

Personal Life

Paul was the only Wittgenstein brother who married and had children. He was rumoured to have had many affairs and mistresses. In the 1930s one of Paul's mistresses was an attractive, dark-haired piano student, named Hilde Schania, who was almost thirty years younger than him. She also was almost half-blind after an attack of measles and diphtheria in childhood left her with a damaged optic nerve. Her mother separated from her father in the 1930s and committed suicide. The father, Franz Schnia, who had made the transition in the 1930s, with regard to his political affiliations, from Socialism to Hitler’s National Socialism, disliked Paul intensely. He was three years younger than Paul, and never forgave him for impregnating his daughter and not marrying her. (In the late 1930s Schnia would illegally a vast apartment formerly owned by a rich Jewish family and would carry on there until his death.) The Wittgenstein family considered Franz ‘nicht standesgemass’ (not of the right class), and Paul avoided all contacts with Hilde’s family. When Paul discovered that Hilde was pregnant, he moved her into a luxury flat (which was registered in her father’s name, but Paul paid the rent) with a maid. In 1935, their first child, a daughter whom they named Elizabeth (apparently after the late empress ‘Sissy', the wife of Franz Joseph, who was stabbed to death in 1898 by an Anarchist as she boarded a steamship in Lake Geneva), was born. The secret of Paul’s mistress and daughter was so well guarded that for a considerable period only a few of the very trusted servants in the family knew about it. Less than two years later, in 1937, Hilde gave birth to their second daughter, Johanna.

Throughout the 1930s, the political tensions and the anti-Semitism were on the rise. In the neighbouring Germany Hitler had risen to power and had unleashed a series of laws, enshrined under the infamous Nuremberg legislation, segregating and in effect reducing the Jews to the second class citizens. In Vienna, Paul and the rest of the Wittgenstein clan had reasons to believe that this would not affect them because of their position and also because, by that time, the family had practised Christianity for almost hundred years. 

Politically Paul—in contrast to his younger, philosopher brother, who was staunchly socialistic—, leaned to the far right, and financially supported the Austro-Fascist Heimwehr, the army of a young swashbuckling aristocrat Prince Starhemberg. The brown-shirt Nazi fascists were also on the rise, and their aim was to unite Austria with Germany. 

In the spring of 1938 Hitler annexed Austria; Herman Goring declared that the Greater German Reich had risen and the seventy-five million Germans were united under the banner of the Swastika; and the nightmare of the Wittgenstein family began.

(to be continued)