Sunday, 1 May 2011

Wittgenstein Family

(The Wittgensteins at dinner: from left: the maid, Hermine, the children's grandmother (Kalmus), Paul Wittgenstein, Gretl, and Ludwig Wittgenstein)

This is the latest in the series of posts on the siblings of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (based extensively on Alexander Waugh's excellent biography of the family). In the previous post we saw Paul Wittgenstein escaping the clutches of the Nazis and arriving in America. The post below is about what happened afterwards. 

Paul Wittgenstein escapes to America, angering his sisters

Back in Vienna, Paul’s sisters, especially Hermine and Gretl, were furious with him or fleeing the country and deserting them. Gretl strongly condemned Paul’s actions, accusing him of dishonourable conduct. Hermine declared in a letter to Ludwig: ‘Paul is a failure.’ 

In America, riled by these accusations, Paul, who was experiencing severe financial difficulties, felt it necessary to defend his honour. He commissioned an independent report on the breakdown of his relationship with Gretl, instructing his lawyer that his brother, Ludwig, and his heirs should receive a copy each of this report upon his death. 

As it happened, Ludwig Wittgenstein never bothered to see this report, and over the subsequent months things took such a turn that Paul became estranged from the rest of the family for the rest of his life.

Further problems for the Wittgenstein Sisters in Vienna

In Vienna, it seemed there was no end to the miseries of the Wittgenstein sisters. The public prosecutor, unhappy with their acquittal in the fake passports case, had appealed, and the sisters were petrified that the case would be heard in Berlin, outside of their sphere of influence, where they might not be regarded as ‘eminent ladies who unfortunately trusted a crook’, but ‘two old Jewesses juggling with false passports’. 

However, once again Gretl’s contacts came to their rescue. As Hermine recollected years later, a suitable man was found who changed the attitude of the public prosecutor; the appeal was withdrawn; and the sisters were ‘delivered of this serious anxiety’. 

The 'suitable man' was most probably Dr. Alfred Indra, the handsome and sinister Viennese lawyer and operator—a ‘fixer’. Indra was one of the only three lawyers who were allowed in Nazi Germany to represent both the government and the well-to-do Jews, whose properties were threatened with confiscations. Indra’s most famous client was Sigmund Freud, whose immigration out of Vienna he organised, and it was Indra who drafted the wholly untrue declaration, which the aging Freud signed when he was forced to leave Vienna, asserting that he (Freud) was leaving Austria of his own free will and that neither he nor anyone around him was in any way harassed. After the war he represented Freud’s heirs in their efforts to reclaim something of the confiscated estate of the great psychoanalyst. Indra was one of those who knew how to hunt with the hounds and run with the hair. In truth Alfred Indra was most probably a Nazi agent. He was a Nazi man, but sought to convince the desperate Jews that he was on their side. During the war years he worked for the Nazis.

Nazis step up the Pressure to grab Wittgensteins' Wealth

The Nazis, by this time, were becoming impatient to get their hands on to Wittgenstein wealth. Normally, the thuggish Nazis would simply raid the estates of the non-compliant Jews. With regard to the Wittgensteins, though, the situation was complex. The money was tied in foreign currency in a trust; some of the beneficiaries (Gretl and her sons) were American citizens, and Paul had escaped to America. Their beer-house tactics would not do; they would have to negotiate. 

Indra had incited Ji Stonborough to visit Paul when he (Paul) was in Switzerland, to induce him to return to Vienna as a gesture of good will towards the regime. Ludwig Wittgenstein had also travelled to Switzerland for this meeting. Since he had given all his assets away, he was considered as an acceptable go-between. Neither was able to convince Paul, who, instead, moved to America within a few months. 

When the Reichbank realised that Paul would not be returning to Austria, they stepped up the pressure by threatening to imprison Max Salzer (Helene’s husband, who until recently had looked after the Wittgenstein estate; at that time he was suffering from senility and had retired). 

Gretl learned from her other son, Thomas, that in cases where the family’s assets were held in a trust abroad, the trust could be broken early if all the beneficiaries agreed. Gretl tried to use this as a negotiating point: if the Reich wanted the family to liquidate the trust early, it would have to grant Helene and Hermine full citizenship status. She was told that that was out of the question: they were Jews and would remain as such. 

At this point the old chestnut of their grandfather (Herman Christian Wittgenstein) being a bastard son of a German aristocrat was pulled out again, and the wily Nazis used it cunningly to give the family false hope, threatening obliquely at the same time that their files would be passed on to Gestapo if the family did not cooperate. 

There now remained the small matter of convincing Paul to agree to liquidate the trust. Gretl boarded SS Washington, confident that she would be able to do this. 

Hot on her heels arrived the Nazis: Drs Indra and Schoene.

Negotiations in America: a Stalemate

What followed over the next few weeks were intensely unpleasant and distressing negotiations between the siblings, with the Nazis and Paul’s lawyer in attendance. Gretl’s son, Ji, accompanied his mother and was an enthusiastic participant in the verbal slanging matches. 

Paul indicated that he was willing to make sacrifices for his two sisters in Vienna. The question was how much of a sacrifice he should make. He had already agreed to pass on to the Nazis, albeit reluctantly, all the gold; however he wanted to hold on to more of his personal inheritance than the Nazis were prepared to allow. Out of his personal fortune of 3.5 million franc Paul wanted to hold on to 2.1 million, while the Nazis wanted all but half a million. 

Gretl gave a dressing down to her younger brother, telling him that he had no right to defend his money as he would not be in America if it were not for her. She also accused him repeatedly of having acted dishonourably by fleeing Austria. 

This was the last time the brother and sister spoke to each other. Paul instructed his lawyer to negotiate on his behalf and did not attend any of the remaining meetings. Gretl and Paul neither spoke nor saw each other for the rest of their lives.

 Evidence suggests that the Nazis used the threat of Hermine’s imprisonment and confiscation of Gretl’s vast properties in Austria to exert pressure on the family. 

However, Paul’s lawyer believed that the Stonboroughs had ulterior motives. Ji was named by Hermine as her heir. They believed (probably correctly) that Hermine would get all of Paul’s fortune once he let go of it (because she was still living in Austria). This fortune, even after the Reichbank had extracted its pound of flesh, would be considerable in a few years. 

By July 1939, the situation was still unresolved, and now Ludwig Wittgenstein arrived in New York. 

Paul’s lawyer, believing (probably rightly) that unbearable pressure would be brought upon his client to give up all of his inheritance, advised Paul to go on a vacation without giving his address. Ludwig Wittgenstein stayed in New York for a week. The two brothers did not meet although Ludwig sent a letter to Paul (now lost) from which Paul later quoted that Ludwig felt that the behaviour of Gretl and Ji was ‘both rash and stupid.’ That said Ludwig did, during the negotiations, side (albeit joylessly) with Gretl, and returned to England, apparently in low spirits, having achieved nothing. 

Years later Ludwig Wittgenstein admitted to a friend in Cambridge: ‘Had I realised how insane Paul was, I would never have treated him so harshly.’ 

Be that as it may, the meeting between Paul and Ludwig, eight months earlier in Switzerland, was their last. The two brothers never met, spoke, or corresponded with each other again.

The next Round of Negotiations in Zuric

The negotiations in America ended in a stalemate, and the next round of negotiation was held in Zurich. 

Paul refused to go for the meeting, and sent his lawyer instead, with whom Gretl and Ji refused to speak. 

Ludwig Wittgenstein came for the meeting and left early without achieving anything. 

In the meanwhile, the family had submitted very flimsy evidence regarding the birth-status of their grandfather, which was rejected out of hand by Kurt Mayer. 

However, with the Wittgenstein fortune in sight, the matters were passed on to higher authorities. The family could not hope to have it declared that it was of Aryan descent, but was still hoping for some sort of pardon—being accorded the Mischling status. 

Alfred Indra put it to Paul’s lawyer that the sisters in Vienna would be awarded the ‘half-breed’ status if Paul agreed to part with more of his personal fortune. When the sceptical Dr. Wachetell (Paul’s lawyer) expressed the view that the Nazis would later revoke the status in order to pressurize Paul to pay more, Indra assured him that that would not happen, since the decree would be signed by the Fuhrer himself. 

In the end Paul Wittgenstein agreed to waive his rights to a substantial portion of his fortune; he also waived off his right to his share in the great Wittgenstein Palais and many other estates of the families scattered in and around Vienna. 

Dr. Wachetell was convinced that Dr. Indra was lying when he told that the Fuhrer would sign the decree. 

Finally, the decree according it the ‘half-breed’ status arrived. It was signed by Adolf Hitler. (This was literally days before Hitler invaded Poland, which triggered the Second World War; however he still found time to sign the decree.) 

Throughout the duration of the war, when Jews from all over Europe were marching to their deaths in concentration camps, the Wittgenstein sisters lived unharmed in Vienna.

(to be continued)