Ludwig Wittgenstein: Background

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There is part of me that wants to write my biography and indeed I would like to have it all laid out clearly both for myself and for others; not so much as to hold judgment over it, but merely to be honest and open about it.
(Ludwig Wittgenstein, 28 December 1929 in the manuscript volume IV. Philosophische Bemerkungen)

The family history of the “Wittgensteins” began at the end of the 18th century, in a small village called Laasphe in the Principality of Wittgenstein in Westphalia. Around this time Moses Meier, the son of Meyer Moses from Laasphe, the landholder’s steward, adopted the name Wittgenstein.

Hermann Christian Wittgenstein, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s grandfather, was born on 12 September 1802 in Korbach, in the Principality of Waldeck, where his father, Moses Meier-Wittgenstein and his wife Brendel Simon had built up the largest trading business in the locality. In 1839, having converted to Protestantism, Hermann Christian Wittgenstein married Fanny Figdor (b. Kittsee, 7.4.1814; d. Hietzing, 21.10.1890), the daughter of one of the notable Viennese Jewish business families, who had also adopted the Protestant faith before marrying. Probably as a result of business decline in Korbach, Hermann Christian had already set up as a wool merchant in Leipzig, which was a major trading centre, from 1838 onwards in partnership with his wife’s family.

The first seven children were born in Gohlis, the home of the Wittgensteins near Leipzig: Anna 1840, Marie 1841, Paul 1842, Bertha 1844, Louis 1845, Karl, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s father, 1847 and Josephine 1848. In 1850 the family moved to Austria, first to Vösendorf and eventually, in 1860, to Vienna. In Austria, Hermann Christian Wittgenstein devoted himself successfully to the real estate business, buying up and leasing run-down properties, mostly in Hungary and the Balkans, and disposing of them at a profit after carrying out improvements. The four youngest of the eleven children were born in Vösendorf: Clara, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s favorite aunt, 1850, Milly 1852, Lydia 1854 and Clothilde 1855.

Hermann Christian Wittgenstein

Hermann Christian Wittgenstein (1802-1878), Grandfather of Ludwig Wittgenstein

Karl Wittgenstein with his ten brothers and sisters taken on the occasion of the silver wedding anniversary of Hermann Christian Wittgenstein and Fanny, née Figdor

Karl Wittgenstein with his ten brothers and sisters taken on the occasion of the silver wedding anniversary of Hermann Christian Wittgenstein and Fanny, née Figdor

Karl, Ludwig Wittenstein’s father, seems to have been the strongest character among the eleven children. The joker of the family, he was unpredictable in what he got up to. At 11 he made his first attempt to run away from home, at 17 he was expelled from high school after a consilium abeundi for writing an essay in which he expressed doubts about the immortality of the soul. A year later, in 1865, he ran away to America. Having arrived without any means whatsoever in the State of New York, and possessing only a violin, he first supported himself by working as a waiter, a musician in a bar and a barman, and later inter alia by giving lessons in the violin and the French horn and teaching Maths, German, Latin and Greek. The family heard nothing from him for almost a year. The exchange of letters which then followed, especially with his brothers and sisters, showed how difficult this time in America was for him, but alo how the adventure had given him confidence in his own abilities. At the beginning of 1867, after more than two years, he returned to Vienna and the family with more respect for his parents’ authority: Whatever happens, I shall do what my parents wish. (From the Familienerinnerungen, the recollections of the family by Wittgenstein’s sister Hermine)

In Vienna he completed a brief period of study at the Technical University. This was followed by a series of trainee jobs in various technical firms. He began his career in 1872, first as a technical draughtsman, then as a building engineer in the construction of the Teplitz steel-rolling mills. As early as 1876 he was elected to the management board, becoming Director of Teplitz Rolling Mills in 1877 and soon its main shareholder. He established the first rail cartel in Austria-Hungary, and in 1884 acquired all the shares in the Bohemian Coal and Steel Company. Besides taking over more steelworks (Poldihütte, Rudolfshütte, etc.), in 1886, in his capacity as General/Coordinating Director of the first Austrian steel cartel, he united the Teplitz Works with the Prague Iron Industry Company.

A determining factor in this remarkable career was the possession of qualities for which he was criticized, among other things, as an American in Austria: decisive, hard-working, striving and unconventional in his decisions, with a willingness to take great risks.

At the beginning of 1898, at the age of 52, in the face of huge public criticism, Karl Wittgenstein resigned from all his offices, including his post on the administrative council of the Austrian Kreditanstalt, in protest transferred his fortune into real estate and into stocks and shares in Switzerland, Holland and the United States. In this way he ensured its survival for the family through two world wars, and the amassed fortune was further greatly increased through the inflation which followed.

The mother of Karl Wittgenstein’s eight children was Leopoldine Kalmus, known as Poldi, who was born in Vienna on 4.3.1850. He had married her in 1873, at the start of his astonishing career. Jacob Kalmus, the father-in-law, a rather successful Viennese businessman, came from a Prague Jewish family, whose mother had however already converted to Roman Catholicism. His wife, Marie Stallner, came from an Austrian catholic family of businessman and landowners in Lichtenwald in Styria (in present-day Slovenia).

Probably the strongest binding element between Ludwig Wittgenstein’s parents was music, and it had a formative influence on him which lasted all his life. Poldi Wittgenstein herself was a gifted pianist, and the Wittgenstein house in the Alleegasse was one of Vienna’s musical centres. Among the artistes who were regular guests there were Joseph Joachim, the adopted son of Fanny and Hermann Christian Wittgenstein, Johannes Brahms, Clara Schumann, Josef Labor, Gustav Mahler and Bruno Walter. Enthusiasm for making and listening to music remained even when the “children” had grown up.

Brahms, Clara Schumann and Mahler were frequent house guests. Richard Strauss often played duets with Paul. They developed the same enthusiasm for the chamber music of Luis Spohr. Karl supported Schönberg; Bruno Walter, the Joachim Quartet, Erica Morini and Pablo Casals could be heard talking and playing together at the family’s musical evenings. R. Mühlfeld gave the first private performances of the Brahms clarinet sonatas. Pictures by Gustav Klimt and the artists of the Vienna Secession could be seen along with ... the early works of Puvis de Chavannes, Mestrovic and Segantini which hung alongside masters of the Munich and Vienna Schools. From time to time superb autograph manuscripts of the Viennese musical classics were to be seen lying around open as one wandered about in conversation with Hanslick or Kalbeck.
(E. Findell, Music Review 32/1971).

Wittgenstein's father Karl Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein's father Karl Wittgenstein (1847-1913)

Karl Wittgenstein and his wife Leopoldine

Karl Wittgenstein and his wife Leopoldine

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