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4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5 stars

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on 23 August 2014
A history of the Wittgenstein family from the 19th century into the 20th with particular emphasis on Paul Wittgenstein, the famous one-handed pianist. It covers material derived from interviews that unearth interesting detail about PW. However, I found my attention flagging after a 100 pages or so. Too much detail.
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on 28 June 2017
Terrific insight into society at the beginning of the 20th Century. Very well written and, in my opinion, educational.
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on 1 May 2016
Fascinating biography of an amazing family. Eminently readable.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 25 October 2009
A niggle first: I know there are difficulties in writing a multiple biography which is the history of a very large family; but even so, there seems to be no rhyme or reason in the way the early chapters are arranged. They dart back and forth from one member of the family to another in a perversely unchronological manner.

That said, this is a vivid account, rich in incident and anecdote, of a most unhappy family: the self-made millionaire Karl was a frightening father, his wife an intimidated and cold mother; two or perhaps three of their five sons committed suicide and a fourth, Ludwig, frequently toyed with the idea of doing likewise. Only Paul, as will be seen, had a tough fighting quality under the most unpromising circumstances. Of the four daughters, one died in infancy; Hermine remained unhappily unmarried; the formidable Gretl, was unhappily married to a man who later also committed suicide; and Helene, though apparently "the most relaxed and settled of her siblings", "suffered from tensions of a pathological and neurotic kind". The siblings constantly got badly on each other's nerves, all pretty intolerant and highly critical of, though concerned for, each other. The only warm bond in the family was their playing music together; and even then the father disapproved of Paul becoming a professional pianist.

But only a year after Paul's debut the war broke out; he enlisted in the Austrian army, and within a month he had lost his right arm on the Russian front and became a prisoner of war. The Danish consul in Omsk got him moved from the hospital there to a hotel in which there was a piano; and Paul, fiercely determined to resume his career as a pianist, immediately started practising and transcribing piano pieces for the left hand only. Indeed, in 1916, thirteen months after he had reached home as the result of an exchange of wounded prisoners, he gave his first performance in a public concert. He then insisted on rejoining the army, and the end of the war saw the three surviving brothers on the Italian front, where Paul was invalided out (probably with Spanish flu), Kurt shot himself, and Ludwig was taken prisoner.

It was from prison that Ludwig via the Red Cross sent to Bertrand Russell the manuscript of the Tractatus, the philosophical treatise which, in due course, was to make him by far the most famous of the Wittgenstein brothers. His career and eccentricities are rather sketchily described here. Waugh, in contrast to the attention he pays to Paul's achievements in music, makes no attempt to explain those of Ludwig, altogether devoting to him a fraction of the space he devotes to Paul. Although Ludwig's career is amply chronicled elsewhere (notably in Ray Monk's biography - see my review), some readers will find Waugh's treatment of Ludwig distinctly cavalier.

That Ravel composed a concerto especially for Paul (and a fraught birth it was) is well-known; less well known that there were several other composers (including Hindemith, Prokofiev, Britten and others who were famous in their time though less well-known today) who did the same; and Paul performed to great acclaim and under the most distinguished conductors all over the world, from Los Angeles to Moscow. In his personal behaviour he was as wildly eccentric and as liable to lose his temper as was Ludwig.

In 1938 the Nazis took over Austria. Three of the siblings' grandparents, though converts to Catholicism, were Jewish-born; according to the Nazi racial laws, that made the whole family, with its antisemitic prejudices, `full Jews'. Paul, who was an ardent and right-wing Austrian patriot, vainly claimed that he was `only' a half-Jew (who were at that time spared the full rigours of the treatment accorded to `full Jews') on the grounds that his Wittgenstein grandfather, born in 1802, was reputed to be the illegitimate offspring of a German princeling. When the Nazis discovered that he had a non-Jewish mistress who has born him two children, he was liable to additional penalties for miscegenation. The saga of Paul's subsequent escape to America via Switzerland, of the Nazi discovery of the attempt by his elderly sisters Hermine and Helene to escape with forged passports (Gretl had become an American citizen), and of the fraught negotiations with the Germans but also within the family - not to allow them to emigrate, but to have them classified as `half-Jews' - in exchange for huge sums of money, is told in heart-stopping detail. Everything depended on the agreement of Paul (and, for that matter, of Hitler personally). Paul eventually gave in to family pressure, and Hermine and Helene lived unmolested in Vienna all through the war. Paul never spoke to Gretl or Ludwig again, nor did he visit the dying Hermine or Helene when he was in Vienna in 1949 to play in a concert.
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on 17 August 2010
I was given this book as a present, and I did worry that it didn't sound like my sort of book, being the history of a family in Austria with only one family member I had heard of, and that person only as reference in the Monty Python Philosophers Song.

However, having now read it, I can say it is an absolutely fantastic book... really well written, a truly fascinating topic put in the most brilliant context and with a lightness and page-turningness (sorry) you would expect from a thriller, not a family history with three suicides, two deaths from cancer and a one-armed pianist.
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on 20 December 2009
I was enthralled with this book throughout. The history of the family was one thing. Combined with the history of Austria it made a 'what will happen next?' un-put-downable book. And not fiction. All true and painstakingly reasearched and documented. Mr Waugh, you have my greatest admiration.
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on 1 December 2009
I enjoyed this book, partly because I've read a lot about and am interested in Ludwig Wittgenstein (the philosopher), but because the family drama was of a very rich group of people centered initially in Vienna who encountered WW1, post-WW1 hyperinflation, the 1929 crash and the devastation wrought by fascism and WW2. Of course it's critical that the family was judged to be Jewish following the 1938 Anschluss (union of Austria and Germany).

I agree with another reviewer who found the story hard to follow in the early chapters, e.g., because there were lots of relatives, ... but as the narrative settled down and focused on Paul and Gretl, and particularly on the 1930's as WW2 approached, the story became fascinating. Paul is the leading figure in the story, and he (one handed after a WW1 injury) built a career as a pianist, philanthropist and music sponsor.

The coverage of Ludwig Wittgenstein is limited. One would hardly guess that he was putatively one of the leading philosophers of the twentieth century, and the comments made seem to support the idea of his active homosexuality and the force of his temper (eg problems when school-teaching). I had not realised that Ludwig was so influenced by Tolstoys thought about the Gospel.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 9 January 2011
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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on 1 June 2010
The biography of this remarkable family is written as taughtly as a throller, and contains surprises no author of diction could possibly introduce without disbelief- for exampel, the horror the Wittgensteins felt when they foudnthey were treated by the Nazis as Jews. Totally enthralling: and even a new light on the philosopher
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on 25 October 2013
This biography is very clear and concise with nice short chapters that are nicely cut between the viewpoints of each member of the Wittgenstein family, showing how events are seen differently by each family member. Short chapters also made for easy reading and I think it was something of a necessity as writing a book encompassing so many view points of the same events in history could easily become turgid. As it turns out the style and pace of the book make for quite the page turner. The key events cover the years just before the 1st world war and ending a few years after the end of the 2nd world war (the sub title of the book "A Family at War" obviously having more meaning than I 1st imagined, although familial conflict does appear the norm). I personally found reading this book interesting because it did a lot to show Ludwig in a different light other than fandom. I found Edmond and Eidinow's book "Wittgenstein's Poker" makes an interesting compassion as the later book makes much of Ludwig's achievements or presets them in a light that seems much more miraculous than presented in Waugh's family biography. Waugh also highlights the influence of Tolstoy on Ludwig, something I had not come across before and something that now seems like a glaring omission now that I am aware of it. I also found the various accounts of the Wittgenstein siblings very interesting inn themselves and as the events move on to the 1930s there are interesting accounts how the ravenous greed of the Nazis for gold and currency proved more effective in dividing the Wittgenstein siblings more than anything else. It also provides an example of a master class in how not to negotiate. It is hard to say who would enjoy this book. I would say it was just a good little read and if you have any interest in period from say from 1912 to 1940 it would make a good read epically when you consider all the world wide events (1 world war, a global depression and the start of a 2nd world war) that happened between these years. I suspect however that the appeal is quite esoteric only appealing to those interested in Ludwig or Paul Wittgenstein, but I still say if you want to read about one of the more interesting European families of the 1st half of the 20th century then this enjoyable read is well worth considering.
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