04 December 2019

Tales of the Viennese Jews:
10, Ludwig Wittgenstein and
his Jewish grandparents

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) … born in Vienna, three of his four grandparents were Jewish

Patrick Comerford

The Tales from the Vienna Woods is a waltz by the composer Johann Strauss II (1825-1899), written just over a century and a half ago, in 1868. Although Strauss was baptised in the Roman Catholic Church, he was born into a prominent Jewish family. Because the Nazis had a particular penchant for Strauss’s music, they tried to conceal and even deny the Jewish identity of the Strauss family.

However, the stories of Vienna’s Jews cannot be hidden, and many of those stories from Vienna are told in the exhibits in the Jewish Museum in its two locations, at the Palais Eskeles on Dorotheergasse and in the Misrachi-Haus in Judenplatz.

Rather than describe both museums in detail in one or two blog postings, I have decided since my visit to Vienna last month to post occasional blog postings that re-tell some of these stories, celebrating a culture and a community whose stories should never be forgotten.

A plaque at the Ashling Hotel in Parkgate Street, Dublin, recalls Wittgenstein’s time as a guest (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Viennese-born Cambridge philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) taught at the University of Cambridge from 1929 to 1947. His Philosophical Investigations (1953) was published posthumously but has become one of the most important works of 20th century philosophy. His mentor Bertrand Russell described him as ‘perhaps the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived; passionate, profound, intense, and dominating.’

Ludwig Wittgenstein was born in Vienna in 1889. A family tree shows his paternal great-great-grandfather was Moses Meier, a Jewish land agent who lived with his wife Brendel Simon in Bad Laasphe in the Principality of Wittgenstein, Westphalia. Napoleon decreed in 1808 that everyone, including Jews, must adopt an inheritable family surname. Moses Meier’s son, also Moses, became Moses Meier Wittgenstein.

His son, Hermann Christian Wittgenstein (1802-1878), took the middle name Christian to distance himself from his Jewish background. He married Franziska (Fanny) Figdor (1814-1890), who was also Jewish and a first cousin of the violinist Joseph Joachim (1831-1907), who worked closely with Brahms. They both became Protestants before they married, and the couple began a successful wool trading business trading in Leipzig.

Their 11 children included the philosopher’s father, Karl Otto Clemens Wittgenstein (1847-1913), who became an industrial tycoon. By the late 1880s, he had an effective monopoly on Austria’s steel cartel and was one of the richest men in Europe. The Wittgensteins became one of the wealthiest families in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, second only to the Rothschilds.

Karl Wittgenstein married Leopoldine ‘Poldie’ Maria Josefa Kalmus in 1873. Her father, Jakob Maximilian Kalmus (1814-1870) was a Bohemian Jew from Prague; her mother, Marie Stallner (1825-1921) was a German-speaking Catholic born in Sevnica in present-day Slovenia, and was Ludwig Wittgenstein’s only non-Jewish grandparent.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was born in Vienna on 26 April 1889 in the ‘Wittgenstein Palace’ at Alleegasse 16, now the Argentinierstrasse, near the Karlskirche. He was one of nine children who were all baptised as Catholics and received formal Catholic teaching. Gustav Klimt painted Ludwig’s sister for her wedding portrait, and Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler gave regular concerts in the family’s many music rooms.

In an interview, his sister Gretl Stonborough-Wittgenstein said their grandfather's ‘strong, severe, partly ascetic Christianity’ was a strong influence on all the Wittgenstein children.

While Ludwig Wittgenstein was at school at the Realschule, he decided he had lost his faith in God and became an atheist. But his religious faith and his relationship with Christianity and religion in general would change over time. He resisted formal religion, saying it was hard for him to ‘bend the knee,’ although he once said, ‘I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view.

With age, his personal spirituality deepened, and he wrestled with language problems in religion. At a time when he was finding it difficult to work, he wrote in 1947, ‘I have had a letter from an old friend in Austria, a priest. In it he says that he hopes my work will go well, if it should be God’s will. Now that is all I want: if it should be God’s will.’

In Culture and Value, Wittgenstein asks, ‘Is what I am doing really worth the effort? Yes, but only if a light shines on it from above.’ His close friend Norman Malcolm later wrote, ‘Wittgenstein’s mature life was strongly marked by religious thought and feeling. I am inclined to think that he was more deeply religious than are many people who correctly regard themselves as religious believers.’

Wittgenstein visited his Irish friend, the psychiatrist Dr Maurice O’Connor (‘Con’) Drury (1907-1976) in Dublin in August 1947, and when he returned to Cambridge he resigned his professorship, planning to move to Dublin. He lived for some months in 1948-1949 at the Ashling Hotel in Dublin, but returned again to Cambridge.

Wittgenstein became very ill in Cambridge on the evening of 27 April 1951. When his doctor told him he might live only a few days, he reportedly replied, ‘Good!’

Four of his former students arrived at his bedside – Ben Richards, the Limerick-born philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, Yorick Smythies, and Con Drury, once an Anglican ordinand at Westcott House, Cambridge, and later a regular communicant at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

Anscombe and Smythies were both Roman Catholics. At their request, the Dominican friar and founding warden of the Dominican retreat centre at Spode House near Rugeley, Father Conrad Pepler (1908-1993), also attended. Wittgenstein had asked for a ‘priest who was not a philosopher’ and had met Father Conrad several times before his death.

His friends were unsure at first what Wittgenstein would have wanted. But they remembered he had said he hoped his Catholic friends would pray for him, so they did, and he was pronounced dead shortly afterwards. He was given a Catholic burial in Cambridge.

A plaque in the chapel of Trinity College Cambridge recalls Witthenstein’s time as a fellow and professor (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

On his religious views, Wittgenstein was said to be greatly interested in Catholicism and was sympathetic to it. However, he did not consider himself a Catholic. According to Norman Malcolm, Wittgenstein saw Catholicism as a way of life rather than as a set of beliefs he personally held.

So, did Wittgenstein see himself as Jewish?

Wittgenstein wrote repeatedly about Jews and Judaism in the 1930s, and many biographical studies present that his writings about Jewishness as a way in which he thought about the kind of person he was and the nature of his philosophical work.

On the other hand, as David Stern points out, many philosophers regard Wittgenstein’s thoughts about Jews as relatively unimportant, and many studies of his philosophy do not even mention the topic.

Yet, some writers have referred to Wittgenstein as a ‘rabbinical thinker’ and a far-sighted critic of anti-Semitism.

There is much debate about the extent to which Wittgenstein and his siblings, who were of three-quarters Jewish descent, saw themselves as Jews. The 1935 Nuremberg laws in 1935 defined as Jewish someone with three or four Jewish grandparents.

In a diary entry shortly after the German-Austrian Anschluss, he described the prospect of holding a German Judenpass or Jewish identity papers as an ‘extraordinarily difficult situation’ and compared it to hot iron that would burn his pocket.

In his writings, Wittgenstein frequently referred to himself as Jewish, at times as part of an apparent self-flagellation. For example, while berating himself for being a ‘reproductive’ as opposed to ‘productive’ thinker, he attributed this to his own Jewish sense of identity.

He wrote, ‘The saint is the only Jewish genius. Even the greatest Jewish thinker is no more than talented. (Myself for instance).’

While Wittgenstein would later claim that ‘my thoughts are 100% Hebraic,’ as Professor Hans Sluga has argued, if so, ‘His was a self-doubting Judaism, which had always the possibility of collapsing into a destructive self-hatred (as it did in [Otto] Weinberger’s case) but which also held an immense promise of innovation and genius.’

Wittgenstein once wrote, ‘Bach wrote on the title page of his Orgelbüchlein, “To the glory of the most high God, and that my neighbour may be benefited thereby.” That is what I would have liked to say about my work.’

In a letter to Bertrand Russell in 1912, he said Mozart and Beethoven were the actual sons of God – both composers died in Vienna.

Although I could find no exhibits relating to Wittgenstein in the Jewish Museum at the Palais Eskeles on Dorotheergasse last month, across the street from the Museum there are frosted portraits of Mozart and Beethoven in the window of Vienna’s best-known music shop, the Musikhaus Doblinger at Dorotheergasse 10.

Mozart and Beethoven in the window of Vienna’s best-known music shop, the Musikhaus Doblinger on Dorotheergasse (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)
Other postings in this series:

1, the chief rabbi and a French artist’s ‘pogrom’

2, a ‘positively rabbinic’ portrait of an Anglican dean

3, portraits of two imperial court financiers

4, portrait of Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis

5, Lily Renée, from Holocaust Survivor to Escape Artist

6, Sir Moses Montefiore and a decorative Torah Mantle

7, Theodor Herzl and the cycle of contradictions

8, Simon Wiesenthal and the café in Mauthausen

9, Leonard Cohen and ‘The Spice-Box of Earth’

10, Ludwig Wittgenstein and his Jewish grandparents

11, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his Jewish librettist

12, Salomon Mayer von Rothschild and the railways in Vienna

13, Gustav Mahler and the ‘thrice homeless’ Jew

14, Beethoven at 250 and his Jewish connections in Vienna

15, Martin Buber and the idea of the ‘I-Thou’ relationship

16, Three Holocaust survivors who lived in Northern Ireland.

17, Schubert’s setting of Psalm 92 for the synagogue.

18, Bert Linder and his campaign against the Swiss banks.

19, Adele Bloch-Bauer and Gustav Klimt’s ‘Lady in Gold’.

20, Max Perutz, Nobel laureate and ‘the godfather of molecular biology’.

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