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A Family at War

by Alexander Waugh

Pub Date: Jan. 20th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-385-52060-7
Publisher: Doubleday

Having dealt with four generations of his famous family in Fathers and Sons (2007, etc.), Waugh delves into another quirky, brilliant, ill-starred clan.

The author is quite taken with the messy, convoluted genealogy of Vienna’s Wittgenstein family, enormously wealthy industrialists, philanthropists and artists. He focuses on the nine children of maverick entrepreneur Karl Wittgenstein, who in defiance of a difficult father forged a career as a wildly successful steel magnate. Waugh begins and ends with his evident favorite among the siblings: Paul, the artistic middle child, who lost an arm in World War I and nonetheless went on to become a famous pianist. All the siblings were marvelously musical, perhaps, Waugh speculates, as a means of communicating with their diffident mother. Three of Paul’s older brothers—Hans, Rudolf and Kurt—committed suicide, possibly as a result of their “sulphurous” relationship with their father, while youngest son Ludwig became a philosopher of cult status. Sister Hermine, the eldest, remained unmarried and tended the flame at the Wittgensteins’ Vienna homestead, writing a sanitized family memoir in her old age. Gretl married a rich American who succumbed to syphilitic psychosis and lost much of his fortune in the 1929 stock-market crash. Helene married a pillar of the Austrian Protestant establishment and had many children. In direct, thematic chapters, the author leads readers through family tragedies and crumbling of the old order, culminating in the Anschluss of 1938. Raised as Catholics and vaguely anti-Semitic, the now-middle-aged siblings were horrified to learn that three grandparents who had converted to Christianity cut no ice with the Nazis, who classified them all as “full Jews.” Led by well-connected Gretl, they collectively had to sign away much of their fortune in order to stay out of prison. Their opulent world, recaptured by Waugh in digestible, appealing biographical segments, was gone for good.

An immensely readable literary account of eccentric, memorable characters.