Wittgenstein, Shame, and the Nazi Problem

“Hate between men comes from cutting ourselves off from each other. Because we don’t want anyone else to look inside us, since it’s not a pretty sight in there.” (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 1945)

Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein hated himself. If you described him as a self-loathing ludwig-wittgenstein-2aristocrat, a self-loathing Jew, or a self-loathing homosexual, you would probably be right, but it is anyone’s guess which of the three descriptions is most accurate. He gave his money away, responded ambiguously to race and religion, and necessarily kept his sexual and romantic inclinations as private as possible.

Ludwig was reared in a Roman Catholic home and did not have a strong Jewish identity as a young man despite having three Jewish grandparents. By coincidence, Ludwig and Adolf Hitler attended the same grammar school; although they were about the same age, they were two years apart as Ludwig was advanced a year and Adolf was held back a year in school. Some believe Ludwig is the Jewish boy who first provoked Hitler’s anti-Semitic rage as described in Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Others point out that Hitler probably wouldn’t have known Ludwig was Jewish at the time. Either way, it is likely Ludwig would not have thought much of his less accomplished contemporary at the school. If they met, it is doubtful Ludwig would have shown any sort of camaraderie to the young Adolf, and Adolf probably would have resented Ludwig on reflection even if he did not during their time at school together. Throughout his life, Ludwig could be brash, even to his friends, so it is easy to imagine how he may have treated those he saw as his inferiors. Bertrand Russell once wrote that Ludwig could be “destitute of the false politeness that interferes with truth.”

Regardless of whether Ludwig provoked Hitler, we can’t help but wonder the source of Ludwig’s own anti-Semitism. He identified as a Catholic but also deprecated himself in terms of his Jewishness, saying, for example, “Amongst Jews ‘genius’ is found only in the holy man. Even the greatest of Jewish thinkers is no more than talented. (Myself for instance.)” (Culture and Value, 1931). All writers and thinkers are plagued by self-doubt, and sometimes a free-floating anxiety seems to just hover around us waiting for a place to land. Perhaps this was a convenient way for Ludwig to explain his doubts and insecurities to himself, even if his assertion is demonstrably false, but he certainly had a complicated relationship with his own racial identity.

Ludwig similarly seemed to feel guilty for his staggering wealth. Thanks to his father’s ruthless business strategies, Ludwig was one of the richest people in Europe. He seemed to find his wealth problematic. Perhaps he believed money itself is corrupting or maybe he was ashamed of how his wealth was acquired. Whatever the case, he gave his money to his siblings and lived in famously stark accommodations.

His father, Karl Wittgenstein, was a wealthy industrialist who amassed much of his wealth through aggressive business dealings during the war between Russia and Turkey in 1878 (my info here is largely based on an essay by Jorn K. Brammann and John Moran, which can be found here). He emerged from his war dealings as the leader of the iron and steel industry with one of the greatest fortunes in Austria. Once established as a leader in industry, Karl pursued greater power through vertical integration and control, establishment of cartels, and gaining influence with financial institutions. Karl opposed government protection of consumers but sought government protection of entrepreneurs from foreign competition. His strike busting activities were described in Arbeiter-Zeitung, by declaring that the director evicted workers “with a lot of policemen, and the latter began the expulsion. The head of a family with four children was expelled late at night, when the children were already asleep in their beds. Sergeant Werner, a well-known enemy of the workers, mercilessly dragged them out of their beds, and they were made homeless.” Karl’s only apparent political ideology seemed to be to promote policies that would aid industrialists like himself in the search for wealth and power.

As an ostensibly Catholic family with seemingly limitless wealth and power, the Wittgenstein family might understandably feel insulated from the effects of world affairs. They may have felt that Hitler’s advance was no threat to them personally, but their safety was more precarious than one might expect, and protecting the sisters from Nazism required a significant bribe. In 1939, Ludwig and his only surviving brother, Paul, managed to convince Hitler to grant half-breed status to the daughters of Karl Wittgenstein in exchange for the gold and foreign currency held in Switzerland by a Wittgenstein trust (for more information, see here). At the time, Ludwig and Paul were both safely outside Austria. The amount of money transferred to the Nazis was significant and surely aided the continued advance of the Reich to one degree or another. Ludwig distanced himself from his own race, used his extreme wealth to buy privilege for his family, and likely helped the Reich survive, and perhaps we do not blame him for it.

Ludwig’s brother Rudi committed suicide, it is thought, after fearing he could be identified as a homosexual in a published study.  Rudi left a suicide note that referred to his “perverted disposition.” Ludwig had every reason to hide his own homosexuality. It was illegal, and the punishment could be devastating. Ludwig was a contemporary of Alan Turing, who was subjected to “chemical castration” by the British authorities, and his “treatment” led inexorably to his death by alleged or supposed suicide.  Ludwig’s own sexuality was secret and remains a source of speculation. Depending on who is telling the story, Ludwig falls somewhere on a continuum between being a homosexual who almost never engaged in physical sex to being a promiscuous gay man scouting about for anonymous sex. Each of the most extreme descriptions seems motivated by homophobia, and his sex life was probably much less interesting than either virtual celibacy or promiscuity would suggest. The existential threat to gay men was real, though, so being homosexual robbed one of any sense of safety and security.

Given the circumstances and the fact that he contemplated suicide often, it is amazing that Ludwig did not kill himself. Bertrand Russell wrote of Ludwig: “He used to come to my rooms at midnight, and for hours he would walk backward and forward like a caged tiger. On arrival, he would announce that when he left my rooms he would commit suicide. So, in spite of getting sleepy, I did not like to turn him out. On one such evening, after an hour or two of dead silence, I said to him, ‘Wittgenstein, are you thinking about logic or about your sins?’ ‘Both,’ he said, and then reverted to silence.” We might be tempted to say that philosophy saved Wittgenstein, and perhaps it did, but his philosophy offers little comfort, frankly, for his followers who read him with the hope of alleviating their own discomfort. Believe me, I would know.

Wittgenstein’s shame was ambiguous. We can’t fault him for the behavior of his father, his inherited wealth, his desire to save his sisters, his Jewishness, or his homosexuality, but, still, we can understand his shame. Wittgenstein finds expiation in the same evidence that condemns him. He devoted much of his life to trying to overcome ambiguity and paradox and to atone for his stained being, but declared that nothing unambiguous could be said about ethics. In his “Lecture on Ethics,” he said, “Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.” Ethics could not ameliorate his torment.

Despite his despair regarding both religion and ethics, one of his most trusted, and arguably more accomplished, students was Elizabeth Anscombe, a Catholic and dedicated ethicist who saw ethical rules as both absolute and universal. Wittgenstein named Anscombe as one of the literary executors of his estate. In responding to Oxford University’s decision to award Harry Truman an honorary degree, Anscombe wrote an open letter denouncing the honor. After the bombing of Japan, she argued that the intentional killing of innocent people is never justified, even if it results in some good. She asked, “Come now: if you had to choose between boiling one baby and letting some frightful disaster befall a thousand people—or a million people, if a thousand is not enough—what would you do?”

Wittgenstein’s entire life was a kind of penance. He was rich but gave his money away to avoid its corruption. He taught school. He was a gardener. He worked in a hospital. He served in the military. He tried to guide and protect the ones he loved. In the end, he aided the Nazi apparatus, brutalized children, and made those around him miserable. Describing his own life, he said, “I sit astride life like a bad rider on a horse. I only owe it to the horse’s good nature that I am not thrown off at this very moment.” (Culture and Value,  1939-40). He spent his years on earth devoted to determining what can be said precisely or how it can be possible to communicate, but he left us only with the same ambiguity he found so tortuous to begin with. When we study Ludwig’s life and words, we see no way forward. As such, Ludwig’s shame seems to serve no purpose.

Then again, perhaps Ludwig leaves us with some comfort, after all. We all carry our private shame, but that may be exactly what connects us to the rest of humanity. Ludwig wrote, “Of course, you must continue to feel ashamed of what’s inside you, but not ashamed of yourself before your fellow men” (Culture and Value, 1945). We need not be ashamed before our fellow humans because we are all flawed and seeking our own redemption. Some people run from their shame, some try to suppress it, some try to atone for it, and some, like Ludwig, do all three, but everyone has to manage it one way or another.

Hannah Arendt, who infamously had an affair with her Nazi professor, Martin Heidegger, said she was tempted to respond to people who were ashamed to be German by saying it made her ashamed to be human (see “Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility”). Surely, Arendt had to manage her own shame, but she wasn’t paralyzed by it. She went on to say, “For the idea of humanity, purged of all sentimentality, has the very serious consequence that in one form or another men must assume responsibility for all crimes committed by men and that all nations share the onus for evil committed by others. Shame at being a human being is the purely individual and still non-political expression of this insight.” In the end, Ludwig’s shame was a political act, even if unconscious.

As human beings, I’m amazed we can live with ourselves at all. For a moment, in the late 20th century, some of us were able to convince ourselves that humans were evolving to a better state. We thought humans were becoming increasingly humane. Ludwig and Arendt both lived in times of terror, and both engaged with evil in one way or another. Against terrifying odds, the holocaust eventually ended, and we slowly came to believe we would not make such mistakes again. However, nothing exists in the world now to remind us of our optimism. We must rely on our old crutch, hope, so that we can do better in the future. Arendt urges us to feel shame for all of humanity because if we feel no shame, we also lose hope. Those who are shameless will seek to destroy our world, and only those of us filled with shame can save it.

Our shame, like Ludwig’s, may be ambiguous, but it serves a purpose. It is the source of our humanity and our only hope for salvation.





About ethicsbeyondcompliance

I hold a PhD in medical humanities with an major emphasis in ethics. I began teaching college-level ethics in 2000.
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