Monday, 25 April 2011

Wittgenstein Family

(In the above photograph Margarate (Gretl) Wittgenstein, who, after her marriage became Stonborough (her husband, Jerome, had anglicised his original German-Jewish surname Steinberger) is sitting to the left of the eldest sister Hermine, with her hand on her chin. Paul Wittgenstein is sitting at her feet. In later life Paul and Gretl would fall out spectacularly.)

A quick recap: In the previous posts I have written about the four brothers of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Hans, Rudi, Konrad--all them killed themselves--and Paul who, in the 1920s and 1930s became a distinguished musician in Vienna.

This and subsequent posts will be about the changes in the family's fortunes after Austria was annexed by Germany.

On 11 March, 1938, the day before the German army rolled into Austria, Paul Wittgenstein was arrested—it is very probable that the Nazi agents were aware of his secret funding of Heimwehr—, cautioned and released without charges. He was ordered to fly a huge swastika flag from the Wittgenstein Palais. 

                                       (Paul Wittgenstein as a young man)

On the same day Paul was sacked from his position as a professor of music from the Vienna Consevatoire. The punishment was because of his political, anti-Nazi, beliefs; the Nazis had not yet ‘discovered’ that the family was Jewish. That happened within two weeks of Anschluss. One morning in late March, Hermine, the eldest of the Wittgenstein children, was sitting in one of the rooms, when Paul entered, shaking and his face white with horror. He said to her: ‘Wir gelten als Juden!’ (We count as Jews!) 

With the exception of their maternal grandmother (Maria Kalmus), all the grandparents of the Wittgenstein children were by blood and upbringing Jewish, and had converted to Christianity in their adult lives. Therefore, according to the 1935 Nuremberg legislation, the family counted as Voll-Juden (full Jews). Later, in her memoir, Hermine was to write:

 ‘Our most intimate family had never considered itself Jewish.’ 

This was undoubtedly true, as their ancestors had converted, and all the Wittgenstein children were raised as Roman Catholics. At the same time it is inconceivable that the family was not aware of its Jewish ancestry. Indeed, some time before his father’s death in 1913, Paul Wittgenstein had taken a keen interest in family genealogy and had produced a family tree that showed that the family had descended from several distinguished Viennese Jewry, linking them to the famous banker Samuel Oppenheimer (1635-1703). 

At one stroke the family found itself subjected to all the draconian anti-Semitic restrictions. Paul’s position would become even more precarious when the Nazis found out that he had hidden away an Aryan mistress and their two children in a flat. The children would be proof that Paul was guilty of Rassenschande (race defilement) under section 2 of the Nuremberg Law for the ‘Protection of German Blood and German Honour’. 

Bizarrely, Paul was also found to have fallen foul of yet another decree of Hitler: Reichsflaggengestz (Reich Flag Law), which forbade the Jews from flying the Swastika flag. This was ironical, as it was the Gestapo who had forced Paul to fly the flag in the first place; but that was before they discovered that he was Jewish. Now he was ordered under threat of arrest to down the flag on the basis that the occupants, now considered Jewish, had no right to fly it. 

Of the Wittgenstein children, only two were safe: Ludwig, who was living in Cambridge, UK; and one of the sisters, Gretl, who had become an American citizen when she married her husband all those years ago. For Paul and his two sisters—Hermine and Helene—there was no escape. 

In Cambridge, Ludwig Wittgenstein had worked out that ‘by annexation of Austria to Germany’, he had become a ‘German citizen and by the German laws, a German Jew’. With regard to his family in Vienna, Ludwig Wittgenstein resolutely attempted to look on the brighter side and convinced himself that since ‘they are almost all retiring and very respected people who have always felt and behaved patriotically it is, on the whole, unlikely that they are at present in any danger.’ 

Gretl, who arrived in Vienna from Switzerland, had no such illusions, and it was she who came up with the plan that the family should bypass the ‘pettifogging power-maniacs’ in Vienna, and appeal directly to the far more important people in the higher echelons of the Nazi party, in Berlin. The family decided to present the Nazis with a dossier of the family’s worthy and patriotic achievements over several decades. Hermine wrote to Ludwig in England, requesting him to add his weight to the family’s application. Ludwig Wittgenstein, who, much against his wishes, was in the process of applying for a British citizenship (he claimed to have been caught between two displeasing alternatives of becoming a German citizen—Austria having been ceased to exist—which was ‘appalling’ to him, and applying for a British passport , ‘something I have always rejected on the grounds that I do not wish to become a sham-Englishman’) agreed, but was anxious not to jeopardise his own application for British citizenship, and asked Hermine that the dossier ‘must not’ lead to the ‘misunderstanding’ that he was involved in their application. 

Armed with the dossier, Paul and Gretl arrived in Berlin and wangled a meeting with Kurt Mayer, the head of the Agency for Genealogical Research. Mayer treated the pair of brother and sister with courtesy, and told them that the past glories of the family had nothing to do with their case and they must accept the official classification of ‘Volljuden’. Their only hope was to discover that at least one of the three Jewish grandparents was an illegitimate child of an Aryan, in which case they might be eligible for the status of ‘Mischling’—half-breed, a status, which, while unpleasant, would exempt them from the more oppressive anti-Semitic laws.

 ‘A second Aryan grandparent is essential,’ Mayer told Paul and Gretl. 

There then followed an increasingly desperate quest by the Wittgenstein children to prove that their paternal grandfather, Hermann Christian Wittgenstein (after whom Hermine was named), was a bastard son of a German aristocrat, Prince Georg Heinrich-Ludwig. 

To be fair to the Wittgenstein children, this was not a complete fiction. For a long time rumours had circulated in the family that Hermann indeed was born on the wrong side of the tracks; that Prince Ludwig, the reprobate scion of the princely house of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg, had impregnated a pretty Jewish maid by the name of Breindel Brendel, and, to cover up the scandal, the maid was forced to marry the prince’s land agent and factotum Moses Mayer. The couple then had moved to another Wittgenstein estate where Herman Christian Wittgenstein was born; except that he wasn’t called that at birth; he was probably called Hirsch Moses Mayer. Following the Napoleonic decree of the 1808 by which all Jews were ordered to adopt fixed surnames, the family took the name Wittgenstein. In 1839, at the age of 37, Hirsch converted to Christianity and adopted the name Hermann Christian Wittgenstein. So the family folk-lore went. 

Neither Paul nor Gretl was greatly taken by this idea, but it seemed to be the family’s only chance, and they eventually hired a professional genealogist. This search however proved futile as the family was unable to obtain any conclusive documentary evidence that their grandfather was a bastard son of a German aristocrat. 

The family nevertheless was still stupendously rich and the Nazis were aware of it.

(to be continued)