Drakopoulos, Pan: Hayek and Wittgenstein

PROFESSOR FRIEDRICH HAYEK was waiting at the railway station in Basel, Switzerland. This outstanding libertarian had just given an impressive speech on his book The Road to Serfdom”, which had immediately become not only a best seller but also an object of praise and controversy. A small group of professors had escorted him to the station. They had booked a place for him in a compartment for two in a wagon-lit in the train from Vienna to France. The professor would continue his journey to England by boat.

The train arrived at midnight sharp. Hayek got into his wagon lit and in the half-light saw that his unknown fellow-passenger was asleep. He carefully took his clothes off and crept up on the upper berth to go to sleep. As soon as he lay down he heard his fellow passenger say in a loud voice as though he was giving an order: Are you the Professor Hayek! At once he recognized the voice of his cousin, he bent his head to look at him and have a chat with him. But the other had already turned his face to the wall; he apparently wanted nothing more than that recognition. Hayek, somehow uneasily, went back to sleep.

In the morning, when he woke up, Wittgenstein was absent. He was not in the restaurant car, where Hayek went to breakfast. But when, somehow bewildered, he returned to the compartment, Wittgenstein was there reading a detective novel with deep concentration and it was obvious that he would accept no interruption. Hayek remained silent as though before him was an indifferent stranger. Wittgenstein, as soon as he had finished his detective story, started a conversation with Hayek which soon became revealing.

Ludwig Wittgenstein had gone to Vienna to see his beloved sister Ermine for last time (he concealed from Hayek the fact that he, too, now suffered from cancer). In those days Vienna was partly under the Soviet occupation and the gifted logician/philosopher, before having visited Vienna, had been happy in that knowledge, believing that the communist army would bring back order and would respect Man and the cultural inheritance. But, he confessed to Hayek, he had found out that that army had actually imposed a regime of terror, corruption, and unbelievable brutality. The hunger of the people was nightmarish, while frequently mass-execut-ions –often for no reason at all– and the rape of women, adolescents and even small children by soldiers and officers formed a setting that he would hardly dare to describe. With his family dead, his health on a fatal course and –primarily– his social ideals reduced to tatters by the violent, skeletal hand of reality, Wittgenstein would ask Friedrich Hayek: which then was his mistake and why couldn’t he take any fly out of the bottle of hoax?

It was the first time since that train journey that would take them to the battle-field of the First World War that the two cousins started to talk (this time for hours on end) on ethics, freedom and spiritual battles.

It was destiny’s will to stage the first and the last meeting of those two eminent intellectuals of our times in a train. It wanted them to speak about freedom with the rhythmical accompaniment of the train to remind them –if they would take notice of it– of the iron tracks of necessity on which both of them, as well as the rest of us, move along.

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