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  • Fin-de-siècle Vienna and the Challenge of Family Biography
  • Paul Reitter (bio)


In 1851, a middle-aged German wool trader named Hermann Christian Wittgenstein entered into a partnership of sorts with his Austrian in-laws, who also dealt in raw materials, only on a greater scale. Hermann moved to Austria, where he began giving, in today’s parlance, extreme makeovers to estates local aristocrats had neglected, with the understanding that his in-laws would help him sell the wool, coal, wood, and corn the estates produced. The arrangement worked brilliantly. Frugal and hard driving—and eager to use industrial methods in a country that had been slow to industrialize—Hermann transformed poorly tended lands into robust enterprises. Meanwhile, his in-laws not only did their part, but they thought, as well, to direct the money that came streaming in toward lucrative holdings in Viennese property. Within a few years, Hermann was able to install himself, his wife, and several of their eleven children in a palace outside Vienna. They soon left it, despite Hermann’s parsimony, for an even grander residence, a castle in which one of Empress Maria-Theresa’s prime ministers had lived. Never mind that Hermann leased the place: he had built a House of Wittgenstein.

It would be hard to think of a family more deserving of a group biography. After all, Hermann Christian was far outpaced by the son from whom he expected the least—namely, Karl, who failed out of high school and ran away to America as a teenager. Not long after his return, Karl, the third of Hermann Christian’s sons, followed his father in marrying well; then, thanks to good instincts, an appetite for risk, booming [End Page 665] markets, and probably some manipulation of them, he made a fortune in the steel and banking businesses. It was a fortune of Carnegie-like dimensions that dwarfed most others in his country. After retiring at fifty-one, Karl spent the majority of his remaining days in his marble palais, which spanned more than fifty yards along Vienna’s Alleegasse. When he took his last breath, in 1913, he may have been the richest man in Austria.

Imperious and hot-tempered, Karl wasn’t known for behaving gently, and neither did he die that way. He suffered much the same fate as Freud: they were both prolific cigar smokers whose health was ravaged by cancer of the jaw, though in Karl’s case the proximate cause of death was an operation that was likely to have lethal effects. That he chose to spend the evening before the surgery making music with his wife, Leopoldine, would have surprised no one. For to say that Karl and Leopoldine were deeply devoted to the arts would be as much an understatement as calling them very rich. As worshippers of culture, they were zealots. Karl’s house was so full of Kunst that he began referring to his eldest daughter (Hermine), who never married and became a kind of secretary to him, as his “art director.” The house also had seven pianos, as well as one of the world’s greatest collections of musical manuscripts. Schoenberg and Mahler were regular guests. Brahms was a family friend.

Then, of course, there are the dramas and soaring accomplishments of the next generation. Three of Karl and Leopoldine’s five sons committed suicide. Precocious in music and possibly autistic, Hans, the eldest, vanished during a trip to America in 1903, and is thought to have drowned himself, though where exactly this happened remains unclear. Rudi, who was gay, poisoned himself in a Berlin bar a year later, perhaps because he believed his sexual orientation was about to be made public. Like quite a few Austrian officers, Kurt shot himself during the final days of World War One. At the time, Paul was busy resurrecting his career as a concert pianist—this despite the fact that he had lost his right arm on the Eastern Front. His younger brother Ludwig had already written his epochal Tractatus, which would appear in the early interwar period.

But even as Ludwig was winning new and, as it would turn out, enduring...


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