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jj-initials1-e1395761217629The Wittgensteins

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Hermann Christian Wittgenstein (1802-1878) 


Emancipated Jews did not merely shed their old clothes in order to put on new, but attempted to become radically changed men and women.

                                                                        — George L. Mosse [2]

The man that Joseph still called “Herr Wittgenstein” must have been an imposing presence to young Joseph. Wittgenstein was a self-made man — a businessman, not a musician — with an unsentimental outlook on the world. He was a man who placed great store by his ability to succeed — or, as Ludwig Wittgenstein’s biographer Brian McGuinness characterized it, his capacity etwas durchzusetzen: to see something through. “I began my career in other and troublesome circumstances,” he wrote in his last will and testament. “Thrown back upon my own powers, I was never despondent, never solicited nor received any man’s favor, and endeavoring to emulate my betters, I never became an object of their contempt.” [3] This was doubtless a common sermon in the Wittgenstein household; one that received a mixed reception among his children. “I can’t actually imagine myself feeling comfortable in his company,” wrote his granddaughter Hermine, “I always sense the somewhat rigid and dignified manner that my mother later found so alienating and that caused my father, who was nothing less than rigid, to dub the family lunchtime “high mass.” [4]

The artistic and irrepressible Fanny had not been attracted to Herman at first; in fact, she had been repelled by the “severe, cold, yes, even gruff expression on his face.” One wonders what their conversation consisted of that evening in 1838 when her brother Gustav brought Hermann to dinner at her father’s house. Would she not rather have spoken with Mr. Nellison, his handsome, lively Dutch business associate? Seated next to Fanny, Hermann spoke exclusively about serious matters. “…you can imagine how strangely this apparition […] affected me, in comparison with our men, who only swim on the surface of things,” she wrote to a friend. [5] Whatever his ability to make a good first impression, Herman was a man of practical decision, who would always remain confident that he could bend her will to his. “Fill your house with guests and you’ll settle your daughters,” ran the old Viennese-Jewish adage. Within a matter of days Hermann had asked for Fanny’s hand.

To her friend, Fanny wrote: “I can imagine your astonishment; I, myself, feel as though I am only playing a role in some sort of fairy tale — the whole matter has fallen so out of the clear, blue sky.” [6] The two men had returned on another day, and this time Wittgenstein had seemed more agreeable. The entire company rode out to Baden, where they spent several days together at the Figdors’ summer home. There, Hermann and Fanny came to know one another better, and Wittgenstein began to thaw. One day, he arrived for lunch alone. “I found that completely incomprehensible,” wrote Fanny; “imagine my surprise when, after he had left, Nanette confided in me that, that same morning, he had spoken with Papa, and formally asked his permission to marry me. Now it came down to my consent, — and for the first time I felt no positive antipathy. This was already a lot — so I let the matter take its course… and whether it was his admirable nature, or his assurances of sincere love, enough, I didn’t feel in the mood to say no, though not exactly yes, since Papa had spoken not a syllable to me — which, furthermore, you will hardly believe, has not happened yet. […] I would only like to know how Wittgenstein would appeal to you. You have good judgment. The other members of my family like him, for he has great savoir vivre, and he has, (not only in my opinion) great understanding. He is a man of 35 or 36 years, and by no means handsome. Given the circumstances, think what a tense mood I am in!” [7]

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Fanny Wittgenstein with her children: Anna, Marie and Paul 


Prior to their wedding in 1839, Hermann and Fanny joined the swelling numbers of upper-middle-class Jews who were converting to the Protestant faith. Fanny’s conversion to Lutheranism was likely prompted by her impending marriage: Hermann may have been baptized as early as 1811 (Christian was his baptismal name), and mixed marriages were illegal at that time. Reportedly, the Wittgensteins had ambivalent feelings about their Jewish ancestry. Hermann in particular seems to have viewed it as a misfortune to be overcome through hard work and honorable living. Fanny’s attitude may have been like that of many Viennese Jews, who — unlike their enlightened Berlin counterparts seemed prepared to leave the fold primarily in pursuit of the secular rewards of freedom and prosperity. As Hans Tietze expressed it: “The Viennese Jewry were an elite of the rich and those who had the capacity to become rich if they could establish a foothold in the new terrain; nothing bound them to their peers except a residue of oppression, and nothing to Judaism except fading memories of hometown ghettos, whose dreariness contrasted so starkly with their bright new surroundings.” [9] Whatever their motivations, Hermann and Fanny raised their children with a Christian identity. It is said that Hermann forbade his children to marry Jews, a stricture that only his son Karl had the courage to breach.  According to family lore, the renunciation of their Jewish patrimony was so complete that daughter Milly one day felt compelled to ask her brother Louis whether it was true that they were Jewish. “Pur sang, Milly, pur sang,” Louis replied.


Hermann Christian Wittgenstein (1802-1878)


With his own children, Hermann was a formidable, controlling figure who brooked no opposition within his household. Punishments for the children were severe, and included occasionally locking them away in a dark room. This strictness, combined with Fanny’s nervous energy may help to explain certain characteristics of the Wittgenstein siblings that Joseph also shared. “They had exceptional loyalty to chosen friends but also a nervousness and a degree of sensibility which… made many of them difficult to live with save for a companion endowed with an unusual placidity of temperament,” wrote Brian McGuinness. “It was hard for die Geschwister Wittgenstein to keep or restore a friendship when it fell away from complete intimacy, hard to overcome the series of offences too small for comment and too large not to be felt that in time diminish most human relationships.” [11] This same nervous temperament, this same insatiable need for reassurance and compulsion to feel loved, is to be found in the Joachim family letters, and may well have been a Figdor family trait. In a famous letter, written in 1880 and produced at the divorce proceeding between Joseph and his wife Amalie, Joachim’s once-intimate friend, Johannes Brahms, wrote of “that unhappy character trait with which Joachim tortures himself and others so irresponsibly. Friendship and love I want to breathe as simply and freely as the air. When I sense that lovely feeling in a complicated or artificial form I skirt it with diffidence, particularly when sustained and heightened by pathological, embarrassing agitation. I abhor useless scenes evoked by someone’s imagination. In friendship, too, a partial divorce is sad, but it is possible just the same. And with Joachim I rescued just a small portion [of our friendship] by exercising caution; without that, I would have been left with nothing long ago.” [12]

In the case of the Wittgenstein’s son Karl, born in 1847, the irresistible paternal force met an immovable filial object as soon as Karl grew old enough to rebel. Headstrong like Hermann, a talented musician and free spirit like Fanny, Karl made his first, unsuccessful, attempt to run away from home at age eleven. At seventeen, he wrote an essay denying the immortality of the soul — an act that earned him dismissal from school. Herman hired tutors for his wayward son, but Karl was now old enough to run away for real. With nothing but a forged passport and his violin, he set off for New York, where he kept his family in the dark about his whereabouts as he waited tables and tended bar, taught mathematics and German and Latin and Greek, and played and taught violin and horn.

If Karl had his mother’s independence and love of art, he also inherited his father’s business sense. Returning to Austria after two years abroad, he pursued a technical training, and was hired as a draughtsman by his sister’s husband, the son of Schubert’s friend Leopold Kupelwieser. Karl entered the steel business while it was still in its infancy, and became, by century’s end, one of Europe’s wealthiest and most important industrialists — the Andrew Carnegie of Austria. He sold his business interests at the age of 52, and had the prescience to invest his money abroad, thus preserving the family wealth through the economic vicissitudes of the coming decades. Partly through Joachim’s influence, Karl and his wife, the accomplished pianist Leopoldine “Poldi” Kalmus Wittgenstein, became important patrons of music, art and architecture in fin-de-siècle Vienna. Their magnificent mansion was a center of music-making by, among others, Joachim, Clara Schumann, Brahms, Mahler, Josef Labor, Bruno Walter, Erica Morini and Pablo Casals. Through the intercession of his daughter Hermine, Karl Wittgenstein became a patron of Gustav Klimt. He financed the building of the Vienna Secession, and later commissioned Klimt to paint the famous wedding-portrait of another of his daughters, Margarete. Karl, who shared much of his father’s paternal rigidity, likewise had trouble with his sons. In 1902, his oldest, Hans, drowned in Chesapeake Bay, a presumed suicide. Two other sons committed suicide as well: Rudolf in 1904 and Kurt in 1918. The two sons who remained to him achieved a permanent place in history: the pianist Paul, who, after losing his right arm in World War I, continued to commission and perform an impressive repertoire for the left hand alone; and the youngest, the philosopher Ludwig.

The values and aspirations that Hermann and Fanny sought to impose on Karl were the same as they first held for Joseph—inherently respecable objectives pressed with a vehemence and rigidity that would eventually bring both boys to the point of rebellion. We find them expressed in the letter that Fanny wrote to Karl’s fiancée Poldi Kalmus on the occasion of their engagement: “Karl has a good heart and a clear head, but — he left the parental home too early. — A finished education, regularity, order, self-discipline, these are things that I hope he will learn through your loving companionship.” [13] The lesson that Hermann had ultimately hoped to impress upon his son — that “he must be brought to see that a goal can be reached only by work and that it can actually be reached by that means…” [14] — was a familiar household refrain. “I certainly wish [Joseph] well,” he once wrote to Fanny, “but he should consider that a person is often thrown, by fate or caprice, from the arms of prosperity onto the pavement of the hardest want, against which there is no protection but stoicism — that is to say, inurement. Beside this, if not before, comes keeping busy….” [15]

In these disciplinary efforts, the Wittgensteins were not very different from the Böhms, or, for that matter, Joseph’s own parents. And in a sense, they succeeded — Karl grew rich and successful in business, and Joseph achieved greatness as a musician. All his life, Joseph would carry a censorious conscience with regard to his own diligence. But no love of work, no joy in art could come from capitulation to the dutiful, unbending Wittgenstein manner. That would come instead from the strict but loving ministrations of the one man who would ever win Joseph’s lasting and unconditional love: Felix Mendelssohn.

Next Post in Series: Mendelssohn


[1] This picture available from the Wittgenstein website The Wittgenstein Archive 
3 Anderson Court
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[2] Reinharz/RESPONSE, p. 1.

[3] McGuinness/WITTGENSTEIN, p. 3.

[4] Wittgenstein/FAMILIENERINNERUNGEN, pp. 15-16.

[5] Wittgenstein/FAMILIENERINNERUNGEN, p. 7.

[6] Wittgenstein/FAMILIENERINNERUNGEN, p. 6.

[7] Wittgenstein/FAMILIENERINNERUNGEN, p. 8.

[8] This picture available from the Wittgenstein website The Wittgenstein Archive 
3 Anderson Court
 Newnham Road
CB3 9EZ 
England Tele.: 0044 (0) 1223 328200

[9] Tietze/JUDEN, pp. 146-147.

[10] Wikipedia

[11] Wittgenstein/WRITINGS, p. xxi.


[12] Brahms/LETTERS, p. 572

[13] Wittgenstein/WRITINGS, p. xxv, xi.

[14] McGuinness/WITTGENSTEIN, pp. 10-11.

[15] McGuinness/WITTGENSTEIN, pp. 10-11.