An Irishman's Diary
I WAS wrong when, in yesterday’s diary, I described Erwin Schrödinger as an “Austrian Jew”. In fact he was the product of a Catholic father and a Protestant mother, and was himself brought up Christian, until becoming a professed atheist. Not that being an atheist Jew would have saved him from the Nazis. But his need to escape Austria after the Anschluss stemmed from his political principles rather than religion.
For my confusion on the issue, I plead the partial excuse of having recently read a book called Wittgenstein’s Poker, which is about another famous Austrian who spent some of the 1940s in Ireland. Not that Ludwig Wittgenstein was Jewish either, strictly speaking. But the extent to which he was considered so, anyway, was a big part of his story.
Like many Viennese Jews, Wittgenstein’s ancestors had been baptised into the Christian faith as part of their assimilation by Austrian society. And like Schrödinger’s, his included both Catholic and Protestant ancestors. But there was a sense in Vienna and other European cities that, once Jewish, a family was always Jewish, and that even several generations of baptism didn’t alter this.
Thus there were euphemisms in German – used sometimes, mockingly, by Jews themselves – to indicate the recent or strategic nature of a conversion.
These ranged from “liegend getauft” (“baptised as a baby“), through “als Kind getauft” (“baptised as a child) to “Übergetreten”, which meant the person himself had decided to convert.
The Wittgensteins’ conversion, by contrast, went back to their grandparents. Even so, the family’s Jewishness was like a club membership they had never cancelled.
Under the absurd but ominous Nazi classification system, you were considered fully Jewish if you had three or more Jewish grandparents. Fewer than that and you were “Mischlinge”, or of mixed race. Even then, your prospects differed depending on whether you were a “Mischlinge of the first degree” (having a maximum of two Jewish grandparents) or of the second (only one grandparent).
As the shadow of the Nuremberg laws fell on them, the Wittgensteins applied for reclassification to Mischlinge status, based on a combination of doubts about one of their grandparents’ religion and on the family’s military record in the first World War.
That could also have a bearing on the decision and, to their potential benefit, both Ludwig and his brother Paul had served with valour.
But in the event it was neither of these get-out clauses that saved them. Part of Nazi policy was to levy large taxes from wealthy Jews, wherever possible.
And it so happened that, thanks mainly to Ludwig’s father, a steel magnate who had invested his fortune shrewdly, the Wittgensteins were one of Austria’s wealthiest families.
Even after the Great Depression, they still owned multiple properties in Vienna, including several mansions, and a vast estate in the country. They had large overseas shareholdings too. And such affluence had not escaped the Nazis’ attention. On the contrary, it became a bargaining tool in the family’s application for Mischlinge status, which was granted eventually, but for an enormous price.