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The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War (original 2008; edition 2010)

by Alexander Waugh

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247346,499 (3.76)6
Member:shervinafshar
Title:The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War
Authors:Alexander Waugh
Info:Anchor (2010), Edition: 1, Paperback, 368 pages
Collections:Read but unowned
Rating:*****
Tags:Austria, History

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The house of Wittgenstein : a family at war by Alexander Waugh (2008)

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Friedrich Torberg loved to tell the anecdote about two boys in Prague who approach the two rich daughters from behind, look at their faces and, having passed them, exclaim: "God is just!" Similarly, all the wealth of the Wittgenstein family could not buy them happiness. Led by a despotic tycoon, the family members made each other's lives a living hell, three of the five sons ended their life by suicide. Only in music could they communicate and play together. Their money made the rest of humanity tolerate their ill-behavior and bad manners. Their madness was not without a spark of genius: Ludwig Wittgenstein's appeal for silence can be interpreted as a means to keep the Freudian demons in check. The focus of this family biography is not on him, though, but on his slightly older brother Paul.

Paul Wittgenstein was a talented amateur pianist whose wealth allowed him to bypass the usual gatekeepers. His family simply hired the Musikverein for him and filled its seats with servants and hanger-ons. Having lost his right arm in the first months of the First World War (which he spent as a Russian POW), he used his wealth to have the best of composers such as Korngold, Ravel and Rachmaninov write him concerts for a one-handed pianist.

The highlight of the biography is the bitter tale of the Wittgenstein family's dispossession by the Nazis and the internal family feud that made it possible. While the Wittgenstein family had converted to Christianity a hundred years ago, the Nürnberg race laws reverted them into Jews (a classification US immigration officials upheld), thus forsaking their local fortunes. The Wittgensteins had transferred some of their wealth to Switzerland and other countries, which started a devil's bargain with the Nazis for the lives of some clan members who wanted to continue to stay in Austria during the Nazi years. The Nazis deftly used the internal divisions amongst the family members to extract a huge part of the family wealth. Paul Wittgenstein, safely escaped to New York, had to fight tooth and nail to hang on to some of his part of the family fortune. Other family members were all to willing to sacrifice his wealth for their private accommodations with the Nazis. This ruptured many of the remaining family relations. Hit by a bomb, the Palais Wittgenstein in Vienna was razed after WWII and replaced by a bland office building in 1950. Only Ludwig Wittgenstein's strange foray into architecture survives today as the Bulgarian cultural institute.

Overall, an interesting account about an odd family with a suicidal bent that fits well into Austria's World of Yesterday literature. ( )
  jcbrunner | Oct 31, 2012 |
A great insight into a family who's vicissitudes spread across the beginnings of the twentieth century and two world wars. They are all absolutely mental, and quite possibly none of them were ever happy. It tapers off towards the end, as the Wittgensteins themselves do likewise. ( )
  markpeterwest | Aug 4, 2009 |
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Epigraph
Es gibt eine Unzahl allgemeiner Erfahrungssätze, die uns als
geweiß gelten. Daß Einem, dem man den Arm abgehackt,
er nicht wieder wächst, ist ein solcher.


There are an enormous number of general empirical
propositions that count as certain for us. One such is that
if someone's arm is cut off it will not grow again.

- Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty 273-4
Dedication
For Sally
First words
Vienna is described—over-described—as a city of paradox; but for those who do not know this or have never been there, it may be pictured as a capriccio drawn from the flat sound bites of the Austrian Tourist Board, a place defined by its rich cream cakes, Mozart mugs and T-shirts, New Year's waltzes, grand, bestatued buildings, wide streets, old fur-coated women, electric trams, and Lippizaner stallions.
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A portrait of the Wittgenstein family of Vienna traces the triumphs and vicissitudes of a star-crossed dynasty held together by a love of music yet torn apart by money, madness, conflicts of loyalty, and the cataclysmic upheaval of two world wars.

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