Drakopoulos, Pan: Hayek and Wittgenstein

Hayek – Wittgenstein

Who has taken the fly out of the bottle of hoax?

THE LAST DAY of August 1918 was already at its close. In the Railway station at Bad Ischl the pale light of the scattered lamps, the smell of engine-oil and sweat, the nervy orders coming through loudspeakers, the station master’s whistles as well as the babble of soldiers and their relatives seeing them off, were all mixed with the `hissing’ of steam from the engine on the last train to Vienna.

On the platform. a young officer, barely 19 years old, with an assortment of hesitation, curiosity and hope, approached a brother officer in the artillery some ten years his senior with a gloomy, distant stare, and asked him: “Are you Ludwig Wittgenstein? I am your cousin Friedrich von Hayek”. No flash of joy or surprise showed on the other’s face. He simply accepted the proposal of his younger colleague to share the same compartment with him and have a chat before they go to sleep.

Thus, the first encounter of these two men, whose thought was to stamp the 20th century, took place there, at Bad Ischl –once a popular resort of Francis Joseph I and the favorite town of Brahms, Bruckner, Straus and Lehar– and at a time that the First World War was about to end, a few months before the fall of Hapsburgs. And both of them had marching orders for the Tyrol in full military uniform. The relationship between the two cousins had begun, and I intend to give some dimensions to it –I must say, in an arbitrary and provocative way– but more substantial, I hope, than the most titillating family gossip might ever offer.

The Austrian Hayek family believed in their own merit: They were titled since the end of 18th century, although very late, it’s true, by the yardstick of the Holy Roman Empire. Friedrich, however, dropped his `von’, when he settled in England and received British citizenship in 1938, lest the reminder of his origin should trigger the Londoners’ anti-nazi reflex.

The Hayeks were a family of scientists, not of landowners; this for Prussian Germany, where the Hayeks originated from, was a feature of a third class family, but to the refined Austrian Hapsburgs the Hayeks as people of culture meant much more –although in those days, good manners did not allow them to ask how much more or what it really meant. At any event, they were a well pasteurized family of professors: one grandfather of Friedrich was a professor of Constitutional Law and the other of Zoology; his father was a professor of Botany (although he had studied medicine); one of his brothers was a professor of Anatomy and the other of Chemistry. Friedrich himself was scheduled to study biology and he was apparently destined for the Chair of Biology (in which case we would never have spoken of him –even if he had discovered the incredible effects of tricolinasis on lepidoptera). But the young man committed a deadly sin that barred his way to the Chair — a sin about which his adherents and, his obituaries, have remained silent in all decency. Anyway, our Friedrich became a socialist ; and it was that topic he wanted to talk about with his cousin Ludwig.

For the Hayeks, Ludwig Wittgenstein was considered the most unbalanced person in a family whose members all walked rather clumsily on a tightrope. Ludwig’s grandfather was one of the biggest textile manufacturers in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and since the Hayeks rated profit among the punishable sins, this in itself was a grave error; besides, he was a Jew who had converted to Christianity (as if a Jew could have ever meant such a thing) for the sake of a successful career, and with a peculiar tone in their voice they stressed that: “he sold his daughter to a Jewish banker”, although they usually avoided referring to the matter at all. It is worth noting here that `sold’ simply meant: gave his daughter in marriage ; and their repugnance for profit was expressed by their saying –or rather spitting– the word `banker’. The addition of `to a Jew’ reveals other interesting fields of the flora and fauna of the Hayeks.

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