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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wittgenstein family brings up an interesting question...., 9 Jan 2011
This review is from: The House of Wittgenstein: A Family At War (Paperback)
Alexander Waugh - of The House of Waugh: Famous Writers - has written a superb biography of a group of people who were related by blood but could not make a family together. The nine children of Austrian Karl Wittgenstein - one daughter died as a baby - were all born in the late 19th century and grew up fabulously wealthy in Vienna. Their father had amassed a huge fortune in business and the family enjoyed the fruits of his fortune. They shared a common interest in music and emotional weaknesses that made it difficult to maintain relationships with each other, or to many people outside the family.

The first two sons committed suicide in the early 20th century, a third disappeared and was presumed dead in the US, while a fourth killed himself at the end of WW1 in murky circumstances. So, three brothers dead of suicide and another never heard from again. The final two brothers - the two youngest - were strange birds themselves. Paul, who lost his right arm in action in WW1, was a pianist - all members of the family were musical - and performed special piano compositions with his left hand. He had a career of sorts in both Europe and the United States. The other son, Ludwig, was a famous philosopher, based mainly in Cambridge, England, but lived here and there during his adulthood, often taking menial jobs as a way of supporting himself and avoiding interaction with the world around him. Ludwig was gay and had many "crushes" and a few relationships but was mainly a loner. Paul, who was straight, waited til he was in his 50's to finally marry a woman 28 years younger than himself, with whom he had already fathered two daughters at the time of their marriage.

The three Wittgenstein sisters were equally as odd as their brothers. The oldest daughter remained at home, never marrying, and finally evolving into a very mannish-looking old woman. The two younger daughters did marry, one very unhappily but producing two sons; the other marrying and maintaining a somewhat happy relationship with her husband and raising a family together. The sisters also survived the war; two in Vienna and one in the US. But few of the siblings were on speaking terms at the end. Long-standing family feuds - both real and imagined - tore the family apart.

Okay, here's what I find interesting. The Wittgenstein family were practicing Catholics and Protestants, but had three Jewish grandparents. All three grandparents converted to Christianity, seemingly as a way to assimilate into modern Austrian society. The family, by the time the eight children of Karl Wittgenstein were born, maintained their Christian identity by denying their Jewish roots. However, when the Nazis took power in the 1930's and after the Anschluss in 1938, having three Jewish grandparents - no matter how many conversion slips they could produce - still made the Wittgensteins Jewish under Nazi law. For the children still living in the Ostreich, this made a difference between life and death, and between fortune and prosperity. The way to "get around" the "fully-Jewish" status accorded to the Wittgensteins, was to try to "de-Judify" the family even further by getting one of the grandparents - in this case the father of Karl - declared the illegitimate son of a Christian father, rather than the legitimate son Jewish father. So, papers had to be produced, from 1802, testifying that Karl Wittgenstein's father, Herman Christian Wittgenstein, was the son of a Christian, rather than a Jew. This was done to gain the family members "Mischling" status, providing some protection from the Nazi laws.

My question, which is not exactly about the Wittgenstein family but they are a very good example of converting through assimilation, is how many Jews in western and middle Europe did so in the 19th century? We speak today of losing Jews through assimilation, but I'd love to know how many were lost in earlier times. I'll bet it was a fairly large number, particularly those who were the more affluent after the Napoleonic laws giving Jews citizenship.

Waugh's book is a very well-written look at a "dysfunctional" family that began with so much in terms of money and brilliance, but has over the generations been whittled down to two or three survivors.
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Jill Meyer

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