January 20, 1913, is the day on which Austrian industrialist Karl Wittgenstein died, in Vienna. Though remembered today mainly, if at all, for being the father of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karl was a self-trained engineer who, through initiative, vision, shrewdness, ruthlessness and luck, organized and controlled a monopoly of the iron and steel industry of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His business leadership in the latter half of the 19th century was largely responsible for the industrialization of Austria-Hungary, and made him one of the world’s wealthiest men.
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Karl Wittgenstein was born on April 8, 1847, in Gohlis, today a section of Leipzig, Germany. He was one of 11 children of Hermann Christian Wittgenstein, a wool merchant, and Fanny Figdor, both of them Jewish converts to Lutheranism. Fanny was from one of Vienna’s leading Jewish business families.
Karl was a headstrong and rebellious child who, in 1865, at age 17, ran away from Vienna, where his family had moved four years earlier. When he turned up again, he was in the United States, to which he had sailed with only his violin after buying a passport off a classmate hard-up for cash.
In America, he joined a minstrel band, worked on a canal boat and then at a bar, and finally got a job as a teacher in New York, before returning to Austria in early 1867 for an uneasy reconciliation with his father.
Back home, Wittgenstein studied briefly at a technical college before taking on a series of jobs around the empire, including in the railroad industry, shipbuilding and at a turbine factory.
High productivity, lower wages
In 1872, Wittgenstein took a job as a draftsman with the Teplitz Rolling Mill, a Bohemian steel firm. By 1877, he had become the company’s director, and owned some 40 percent of its shares. From here, he began assembling an empire, through a combination of enterprise and aggressiveness. He introduced new technologies in the firms he controlled, new management practices that raised workers’ productivity and lowered their wages, and he assembled a vertical monopoly that, in the words of historians Jorn K. Bramann and John Moran, gave him control of “a [steel-production] process that extended from the mining of coal to the selling of scythes.”
In 1873, Wittgenstein married Leopoldina Kalmus, the daughter of a Jewish father who converted to Catholicism, and a mother born into that faith. The couple had nine children, the youngest of whom was Ludwig, born in 1889. Three of their five sons committed suicide; Ludwig’s brother Paul lost an arm in World War I, but went on to become a successful concert pianist, commissioning a number of pieces from prominent composers for one hand. The four sisters, too – not just the one who died at birth, but also the three who survived -- had their fair share of unhappiness and misfortune.
Although the Nuremberg Laws defined the Wittgenstein children as Jews, because their grandparents had converted only as adults, they convinced Adolf Hitler (who, as it happens, attended the same school at the same time as Ludwig) to declare them Mischlinge (racially mixed), on the pretense that Hermann Christian Wittgenstein was actually the illegitimate son of a German prince. In return, the German Reichsbank took possession of all the family gold and many of its other assets that had been held in a family trust in Switzerland.
Karl Wittgenstein didn’t live to witness the dispersion of the family wealth. He largely retired from an active business life in 1898, at age 51. He had become, in the meantime, a supporter of the Secession art movement, the Austrian version of Art Nouveau, and paid for the construction of its flagship exhibition hall.
Wittgenstein died of cancer on this day in 1913, at the age of 65.