"Follow the money.” The advice famously given to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein seems to have been taken to heart by Alexander Waugh in this attractively written and diligently researched history of the Wittgenstein family.
His story begins with the colossal wealth amassed by the Viennese industrialist Karl Wittgenstein in the 19th century; it continues by showing how that wealth shaped the lives of Karl’s eight children and ends with its dissipation, symbolised by the demolition in the 1950s of the grand family home that Karl had built, the Palais Wittgenstein on Vienna’s Alleegasse. “Who can nowadays live in and upkeep a palais of such extravagance of space and grandiosity?” wrote Karl’s son, Paul Wittgenstein, when he learned that the house in which he had been brought up, the “House of Wittgenstein”, was to be razed to the ground. He was, at that time, an American citizen and a resident of New York City, where, in 1961, he died at the age of 73. He was the last of Karl’s children to die, and, with his death, the “House of Wittgenstein” in its other sense – the sense that Waugh is most interested in – came to an end.
Like the main title, the book’s subtitle has two meanings: for much of the period covered in the book, the Wittgenstein family was “at war” in the sense that they were engaged in, or decisively affected by, the two world wars of the 20th century; but they also came to be at war with one another, fighting over, perhaps inevitably, the money they had inherited from Karl. Waugh’s dogged determination to “follow the money” leads him, in the final quarter of the book, into an extraordinarily detailed account of how large parts of the Wittgenstein wealth ended up in the hands of the Nazis in exchange for being reclassified under the Nuremberg Laws from Volljuden (fully Jewish) to the much less dangerous category of Mischlinge (of mixed race). The story has been told before, but, using much hitherto unknown documentation, Waugh’s version is more authoritative and fuller than previous accounts and also, unusually, tells the story largely from the point of view of Paul Wittgenstein, who fell out violently and decisively with his siblings over what he saw as their supine attitude to the Nazis.
What was at stake in this dispute was the part of the Wittgenstein fortune that was held in trust in a Swiss bank account. The Nazis could get their hands on this fortune only with Paul’s permission, which, naturally, he was reluctant to give (and as he had fled Austria soon after the Anschluss, the Nazis were unable to threaten him directly with death or imprisonment). His siblings, especially his sisters, put great pressure on him to accede to Nazi demands in order to save the two sisters Hermine and Helene who, having like the rest of the family been brought up as Catholics, had never considered themselves Jewish and had thus remained in Vienna. Paul thought, rightly, that there was room for negotiation; their instinct, borne out of a very understandable fear, was to give the Nazis whatever they wanted. The dispute was settled in a way that both preserved the safety of Hermine and Helene and allowed Paul to keep enough of his inheritance to live out his days in comfort (a deal brokered by the people referred to by the sisters disdainfully as Paul’s “Jewish lawyers”), but the damage to family relations was irreparable. Paul never saw any of his siblings again. In his blow by blow account of this vicious family dispute, it is fairly clear that Waugh’s sympathies are with Paul.