Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Wittgenstein and the Nazis

I've been reading about Wittgenstein, possibly the foremost philosopher of the twentieth century. Whilst I don't pretend to have mastered him every time I read Wittgenstein I always have these surging thoughts "This is important, this is clearly important, I wish I understood this better!" I hope I'm not the only one, but a spell at the bottom of the class will no doubt do me good.

Anyway, it's not his philosophy that concerns me here but his relationship to the Nazis. He, and his family, crossed paths with this scourge more than once in their lives, never happily. For a start Ludwig went to school with Adolf Hitler and they were only a few days apart in age.

If the picture is anything to go by school days were utterly miserable for the pair of them. Ludwig was insufferable and arrogant at times, and as heir to the greatest fortune in Austria no doubt a subject of jealousies, not least because whilst the two boys were of the same age they were two years apart in schooling (with the dullard Hitler held back and the genius philosopher bumped up a year). However, claims that the Jewish Wittgenstein was responsible for Hitler's anti-Semitism seem rather far fetched and stupid in my opinion - even if Wittgenstein is singled out in Mein Kampf for Hitler's ire.

Life was not really going to improve for either of them as, just a few years after this picture was taken, both of them would find themselves on WWI's front line. Ludwig was conspicuously brave, winning several medals for valour and (if the tales are true) he used to volunteer for dangerous duties in no man's land as it gave him the space to think and write the one philosophical work that was published in his lifetime Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. This story alone qualifies him officially as a "dude" and leaves threatening Karl Popper with a poker in the shade.

The war left a deep impact on the young philosopher, whose brother committed suicide on the front line. When Ludwig came home from a prisoner of war camp in Cassino he was a fundamentally changed man and gave away all his wealth to his brothers and sisters making them promise they would never return it. This was also around the time that he published his Magnum Opus (which he felt solved all currently outstanding philosophical problems). He described himself as a "communist at heart" and was haunted by demons the rest of his life.

He never really settled down and when Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany in the thirties he was fortunate enough to find himself out of the country at Cambridge. The same could not be said for his sisters and thus began a bizarre negotiation for the release of his family, which had to be approved by Wittgenstein's old classmate himself.

Ludwig's brother, Paul, was essentially haggling with the Nazi state who wanted to commandeer the Wittgenstein's enormous wealth and by 1939 things were looking more and more desperate. Eventually Ludwig went to Berlin personally, at the height of the Third Reich. These negotiations eventually found almost two tonnes of gold go from his family's accounts to the Nazis in return for his sisters.

I found this quite shocking. This amount of gold was (and is) an extremely significant sum and would be worth billions in today's money. I had to sit back and think about what precisely had effected me so deeply about the story. Of course there is the horror of a brother desperate to gain the release of his family from the anti-Semitic state and unable to travel there until he gained the citizenship of another country - which he was only able to do because of the connections his brilliance had afforded him. But to gain their release they gave a significant boost to the machine that was busy destroying the lives of so many others, others who did not have the wealth or connections of the Wittgenstein family.

If they had transferred these funds just a few months later it would have been a capitol offense for which they could have been hung, which at least helps clarify in my mind where I find the difficulty.

Leaving aside whether it is understandable that they did everything they could to gain the release of their sisters, was it morally right to do so in the full knowledge that you would be aiding the most evil regime on the planet in its genocidal plans? Could it be morally justified to leave your kith and kin to their certain deaths when you have it in your power to save them? One path leads to the guilt of abandoning those you love, the other to the knowledge that you have assisted in the deaths of millions. I don't know what to think - yet again.

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