Wittgenstein Goes to War, 1914

From Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings (Knopf, 2013), Kindle Loc. 3015-3026, 8391-8395, 8680-8683:

In Paris, artist Paul Maze reported to the Invalides to volunteer for the army, only to discover that no more men were being immediately accepted. A hoary old sergeant dismissed the crestfallen youth with the words, ‘Why worry? You’ll get all you want before the end.’ Maze, who was bilingual, joined the disembarking British Expeditionary Force at Le Havre as an interpreter, and eventually became a decorated officer. Many young men in all countries, especially artists and writers, were less enthusiastic than curious about the prospect of seeing a battlefield.

Viennese-born Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was twenty-five, at first saw it as offering an escape from his own tortured philosophical confusions and uncertainties, intensified by study at Cambridge under Bertrand Russell. He volunteered for military service, and recorded in his coded diary delight at the civilised reception he received. ‘Will I be able to work now??’ he asked himself on 9 August. ‘I am curious about my future life! The military authorities in Vienna were extraordinarily civil. Officials who had to deal with thousands of men every day answered my questions politely and at length. Such things cheer me up enormously; they remind me of the way things are done in England.’ Within days, however, Wittgenstein’s spirits sagged. Dispatched to serve as a searchlight operator aboard the picket boat Goplana on the Vistula, he found the company of ordinary sailors not merely unwelcome, but repellent: ‘The crew are miserable pigs! They display no enthusiasm, unbelievable brutishness, stupidity and wickedness! So it is untrue that a shared great cause (the war) ennobles humanity.’…

Some civilians, especially academics, strove to keep open lines of communication with their peers in enemy countries: this was thought a civilised gesture, emphasising the universality of European culture. In October 1914 Maynard Keynes sent a letter to Ludwig Wittgenstein via neutral Norway, asking the Austrian about the possibility that he might provide a scholarship for a Cambridge logician after the war. Wittgenstein, who was rich, had earlier shown himself a generous benefactor, but now he was crewing a Vistula picket boat. He reacted crossly to receiving a mere business proposal from an old friend ‘at such a time as this’….

Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote on 25 October: ‘I feel ever more strongly the awful tragedy of our – the German race’s – predicament. It seems to me as good as certain that we cannot prevail against England. The English – the best race in the world – can’t lose. But we can lose and will lose, if not this year then next. The idea that our race should be beaten distresses me terribly because I am completely and utterly German!’

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Filed under Austria, Britain, France, Germany, military, philosophy, war

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