- The Washington Times - Monday, May 4, 2009

BOOKS:

A FAMILY AT WAR
By Alexander Waugh
Doubleday, $28.95, 333 pages, illus.
Reviewed by Martin Rubin

Anyone who read “Fathers and Sons,” Alexander Waugh’s study of his own family, knows he has a way of bringing even the most complicated familial relationships to life on the page. There was far more to “Fathers and Sons” than the overarching figures of the author’s grandfather, Evelyn, and great-grandfather and Victorian man of letters, Arthur. Lesser lights including father Auberon, uncle Alec and great-great grandfather, aka “the Brute,” all received their due and more, as did a host of other members.

But it’s one thing to be able to write about your own family; getting another one down pat is a far harder task. In “The House of Wittgenstein,” Mr. Waugh has, indeed, taken on a tribe about as different from his own as you might find.

For here we have an immensely rich, cultivated Jewish family, comfortably assimilated into the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire only to be cast uneasily into the uncertain waters of post-imperial Austria and eventually onto the shoals of Nazi Germany after the Anschluss of 1938. The Wittgensteins were a clever lot. Founding father Karl not only made an immense fortune as a multimillionaire steel magnate after unfortunate early missteps in America as a canal boat pilot, bartender and asylum night watchman, he invested it so cannily and globally that it survived the economic catastrophe that befell the defeated Austria (and its currency) after World War I.

And if all his children were bright, two of them were bona fide geniuses: Paul, one of the finest concert pianists of his generation, who managed to keep on playing splendidly with one hand after losing an arm during combat service with the Austro-Hungarian army against czarist Russia in 1914; and Ludwig, widely considered - by his peers and others - the greatest of 20th-century philosophers.

As with his earlier book, Mr. Waugh highlights the family’s star players while still painting memorable portraits of its other members. In the Wittgensteins he has lit upon a family at least as eccentric as his own - and haunted by far more pernicious demons.

The book opens with Karl’s gruesome death from a particularly painful and disfiguring form of oral cancer. Mr. Waugh notes that this might have been brought about (as with his far more famous Viennese compatriot Sigmund Freud) by the fact that “Karl had smoked large Cuban cigars all his adult life and continued to use them even after the first symptoms of his disease had been diagnosed seven years earlier.” But after chronicling death after death from cancer in one Wittgenstein generation after the other, Mr. Waugh concludes soberly that if ever a family merited being a test case of the genetic properties of this disease, this clan did.

Another specter haunted the Wittgensteins: suicide. Rudi swallowed a fatal dose of cyanide in a Berlin cafe in 1904. Kurt shot himself at the time of the empire’s surrender in 1918. Earliest of all, Hans “disappeared” in America in May 1902, another probable case of suicide. In addition to being so fitted for case studies in the genetics of malignant diseases and self-destruction, they also are a superb example of the old adage that great wealth cannot buy happiness.

What it could do, though, in the case of those Wittgensteins unwise or stubborn enough to find themselves in Austria after it was thoroughly Nazified was save them from extermination or even imprisonment in the Third Reich’s notorious concentration camps. The story of the immensely complicated negotiations by which the family members (including those resident in Britain, America and elsewhere) surrendered much but not all of their hard-currency fortune to save those held hostage in the Reich is a fascinating one, and Mr. Waugh makes the most of a good story.

In the end, the Nazis’ desire for gold trumped that for blood at this relatively early stage in their war against the Jews, and a dubious ancestry was dug up to provide the Wittgenstein family with sufficiently Aryan status. So, unlike Freud’s sisters, who went to the death camps, the Wittgenstein sisters in Vienna remained unmolested. As Mr. Waugh dryly notes, “Towards Hermine and Helene the Nazis had held true to their word, and the two old ladies lived without interference from the authorities for the duration of the war.”

On its own terms as a family portrait, “The House of Wittgenstein” is a success and certainly an uncommonly good read in many ways. How many readers will have read previously about the conditions endured by Austrian prisoners of war in czarist Russia? After reading here about what Paul endured in his Siberian camp, they will be horrified but also enlightened.

If the book has a fault, it is the author’s inability or unwillingness to engage or sufficiently elucidate the nature of Ludwig’s accomplishments as a philosopher. Given that he is for most readers the most famous of the Wittgenstein family, this leaves a hole at the book’s core.

Mr. Waugh has no such trouble with Paul. A devoted amateur pianist himself, he has written knowledgeably about music and brings to his discussion of Paul’s career a host of empathetic virtues. When he writes near the beginning of the book that “Clammy fingers and cold hands figure in every pianist’s worst dream. … The sweaty-fingered pianist is slave to his caution. If his hands are too cold, the finger muscles will stiffen. Coldness in the bones does not drive sweat from the skin and in the worst instances the fingers may be immobilized by cold while remaining slippery with sweat” - you know that he is surely on home ground.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.