Saturday, December 31, 2011

Book Review: The House of Wittgenstein

This is a review of The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War by Alexander Waugh.

This book traces the lives of four generations from the late nineteenth century to the early twenty-first. During this time: a great fortune was made in trade, real estate, and industry; a pianist lost his right arm but continued to perform at a world-class level of proficiency; a philosopher rose to international prominence; the family evaded Nazi persecution.

Some of the most interesting material for me concerns war time. For example, Paul was taken as a POW by the Russians during The Great War and was held at the krepostnaia katorga at Omsk. He was allowed to send letters home, but his letters do not describe the conditions for which the prison camp was infamous. Waugh notes that the Russians censored outbound letters and anyway many prisoners wanted to avoid worrying their families or felt shame for having been captured. Interestingly, the Austro-Hungarian Kriegsüberwachungsamt was censoring inbound mail:

Letters have been received lately from our prisoners of war in enemy countries. In some of these letters the writers describe life in captivity in a very favorable light. The spreading of such news among the troops and recruits is undesirable. The military censors are therefore to be instructed that such letters of our prisoners of war as may, by their contents, exercise an injurious influence are to be confiscated and not to be delivered to their addressees. [p. 75]

The Austro-Hungarian government funded the war by printing money and consequently there was severe inflation during the twenties; "by August 1922 paper money was virtually worthless as consumer prices rose to a level 14,000 times higher than they had been before the war" [p. 128]. Trade embargoes further hampered commerce with the result that 96% of Austrian children were malnourished [ibid]. For the Wittgensteins, this led to conflicts between siblings about philanthropic and investment decisions.

It is pretty interesting to see how the Wittgenstein's understanding of the Nazis developed during WWII. Initially they supported the Heimwehr austrofascists against the Nazis in opposition of Anschluss, socialism, "exaggerated racial theories," and "a semi-pagan German national religion". When the Germans invaded, the Wittgensteins were frustrated in their attempt to sell some art abroad and annoyed by the new administration's insistence that they fly the Nazi flag over their palais, but they did not fear for their personal safety until later. They seem to have underestimated the sincerity of Nazi leaders with respect to racial rhetoric. In fact, their immense wealth and political connections outside the Reich did save them from the concentration camps even as strategic and tactical disagreements irreparably inflamed tensions among siblings.

This extraordinary group of people during an extraordinary period of time makes for an engaging narrative. It is competently written and my impression is that it is well-researched, but I certainly read it with variable velocity and interest. I recommend this book to those who are interested in the economic and political history of early twentieth century Europe, and curious about seeing those events through the perspective of one prominent family.

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