Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Wittgensteins at War by Alexander Waugh

Paul turned the matter over in his mind. He knew that if he returned to Austria, where he was forbidden from performing or teaching and where the guardianship of his children had been taken away from him, he would be arrested and imprisoned. There was no point in trying to reclaim the property and fortune he had left behind. Instead he must concentrate on that part which was held outside the Reich, in Switzerland. But, as he well knew, his share of the Wistag Fund could not be disbursed without the consent of all the trust's beneficiaries and directors. These included his sisters, his brother in England, various nephews and nieces (most importantly Ji Stonborough in the U.S.), his brother-in-law Max Salzer and the family's financial factotum Anton Groller. A further and graver problem was that officials in Berlin knew about the fund and were demanding it be paid into the Reichsbank.

It would take time to secure the agreement of all parties and Paul, meanwhile, needed to find some way of paying his hotel bills and providing for his mistress Hilde and the children in Italy.

With the connivance of Dr. Heinz Fischer, a Swiss concert promoter, a German string quartet was invited to play in Zurich, bringing Paul's precious instruments from Vienna- two violins, one by Stradivari, one by Guadagnini, a viola by Amati and a Rugieri cello. Nobody would notice, as they crossed the border at Haslach, that the instruments in their cases were not theirs. Nor would they spot when the musicians returned to the Reich with cheaper models under their arms than those with which they had left. Dr. Fischer's and the musician's payment for this risky undertaking is not known, nor is the fate of the two violins (perhaps the instruments were themselves the smuggler's reward) but in October 1938 Paul took the viola and cello to the Swiss violin-maker Stubinger, who valued them at 18,000 Swiss francs each. A quick sale brought him temporary financial relief.

With or without the money, he had no intention of staying long in Switzerland and it is unlikely that the Swiss authorities would have continued renewing his visas indefinitely. In Zurich, as elsewhere in the country, the people were edgy and xenophobic. Fear of German invasion and resentment against the growing influx of refugees from the Reich had inspired the authorities to tighten border security and to insist, by October 1938, that all Jews' passports be stamped with a red letter "J". Within a year SS soldiers, acting on orders to rid the Vaterland of all lingering Jews, were physically pushing them over the borders. Swiss officials, on the other side, would irritably push them back again.

For Paul, who believed he looked more Jewish than any of his siblings, the growing anti-Semitism in Switzerland proscribed the country as a safe haven and by early August he had set his sights on America. Getting there, he knew, would not be easy. Like every foreign administration (with the exception of Santa Domingo) the American government refused to increase its quota of immigrants from Germany despite the international crisis. Paul had to pull strings and admitted in a letter to Marga Deneke when his travel plans were finally confirmed: "Although I have obtained the ticket for the ship to New York, I wouldn't have got it without special patronage".



  1. By late 1944 support in Vienna for Adolph Hitler had all but evaporated. The American planes that came to bomb Viennese were called Liberators. In sortie after sortie their pilots pounded the city from the air believing that they were freeing the people below from the heavy yoke of German oppression. And this is how many of the Viennese saw it too- not as punishment for having welcomed a hellish, compatriot ideologue, surrendering their country to him, implementing his savage schemes with more vim and enthusiasm than the crazed dictator himself could have dreamed possible, or for having defended his brutal regime for five years with their guns, their bombs and their lives- no, the Americans were seen as "liberators" and with the bloodthirsty Russian army now approaching at speed from the east it became crucial to the Viennese that the more lenient Americans should get to their city first.

    In December 1944 on a wet, wintry day, a U.S. Liberator bomber on a routine mission released a cluster over Vienna's once prosperous Wieden district. A bomb landed on the roof of the Wittgenstein Palais. The explosion tore through the back of the building, smashing the garden elevation and bringing down half of the rear exterior wall- the lavish bedroom where Karl had lay dying in 1913 was reduced to rubble; the ceiling of the Musiksaal where Brahms, Malher and Hanslick had once sat in rapt attention came crashing down to the floor; and the great glass dome that for seventy years had allowed the sunlight through to the marble staircae below was shattered into thousands of fragments of twisted metal and broken glass. After a deafening report, the air was filled with dust. Distant sirens disturbed the monotonous patter of rain.

  2. In the 1920's Ludwig Wittengenstein, who renounced his family fortune, spent several years teaching school in the remote villages of Lower Austria. Years later he was remembered by an old man from Kirchberg as "that totally insane fellow who wanted to introduce advanced mathematics to our elementary school children" To others, particularly his brighter pupils, he was recalled with affection as an outstanding teacher. He taught them architectural styles, botany and geology, he brought a microscope from Vienna, made model steam engines; showed them how to dissect a squirrel, and boil the flesh off a fox in order to reassemble its skeleton.

    But for all his enthusiasm and ability, Ludwig was a tyrannical, impatient and often violent teacher. One girl whose hair he had pulled in a rage found it falling out in clumps that very evening when she combed it, another was hit so hard that she bled behind the ears. When, in April 1926, he boxed an eleven-year-old several times around the head, the boy collapsed unconscious on the floor.

    In a panic Ludwig dismissed the class and carried the boy to the headmaster bumping, en route, into the father of the girl whose ears he had previously caused to bleed. The man lost his temper, accusing Ludwig of being some kind of animal trainer rather than a teacher, and insisted on calling the police.

    As the father rushed off to raise the alarm, Ludwig put down the unconscious boy and fled from the village. The law soon caught up with him and he was summoned to appear in district court. At the hearing he lied to the court- something that he deeply regretted for the rest of his life- and the judge, suspecting that he might be too deranged to be held accountable for his actions, ordered an adjournment until such time as the accused had been psychologically examined.

    Ludwig waited in Vienna for the doctor's summons. "I'm curious to know what the psychiatrist will say to me", he wrote to his friend Koder, "but I find the idea of the examination nauseating and am heartily sick of the whole filthy business"

    The case against Ludwig continued for awhile but eventually went dead. Either it was abandoned or the records were artfully removed from the slate. In either case it is probable that the family fortune had a hand in covering it up. The chief witness, Josef Haidbauer, the boy who was knocked unconscious, died shortly afterward of hemophilia. Even if Ludwig had wished to return to teaching in such circumstances, it is unlikely that he would have been offered another job.

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