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If Kimberley Cornish, the author of the Jew of Linz, is to be believed, six million Jewish lives might have been spared had it not been for an indiscreet Jewish boy who attended high school with Adolf Hitler, and who made young Adolf hate the Jews.

Absurd? Sure, but not uniquely so. As the historian John Lukacs and the journalist Ron Rosenbaum have recently reminded us, childhood-trauma theories about the Führer’s anti-Semitism abound in the field of Hitler studies. Trauma theorists typically paint Hitler as a man eternally haunted by a lone Jewish tormentor, whether it’s the Jewish doctor who may have botched his mother’s cancer treatment, the Jewish teacher who supposedly broke his half niece’s heart and caused her suicide, or the Jewish prostitute who may have given him syphilis. So now it’s a schoolmate. So what?

But wait. It gets weirder. Even by the exacting standards of Wacky Hitlerology, Cornish breaks new ground. According to Cornish, Hitler’s teenage adversary was no ordinary Austrian Jew. It was Ludwig Wittgenstein.

"Something happened between Hitler and Wittgenstein," writes Cornish, who is described on the book’s jacket as a graduate of the University of Western Australia and a former student of the anarchist philosopher Paul Feyerabend. Indeed. "We face...the astounding possibility that the course of the twentieth century was radically influenced by a quarrel between two schoolboys." You got it: no Wittgenstein, no Holocaust.

Not surprisingly, Cornish’s book caused a stir in England when it was published last March by Century Books, an imprint of Random House. (The cover is a group photograph of Hitler and his schoolmates in Linz, one of whom, Cornish maintains, is Wittgenstein.) The Sunday Times excerpted the book, and a number of drolly dismissive commentaries ran in The Guardian, The Economist, The New Statesman, and The Times Literary Supplement. And while nobody took the book seriously, the publicity itself was an extraordinary coup for an unknown author whose manuscript nearly got buried in Random House’s slush pile. "It was a great idea–that these two great people in history had been inspired by each other, as it were," explains Century Books assistant editor Liz Rowlinson. "Of course there are flaws in the argument, but it is a great piece of historical detective work."

How, then, does Sherlock build his case? It goes like this: Sometime in 1904, Wittgenstein and Hitler befriend each other at the Realschule in Linz, drawn together by their mutual interests in Schopenhauer and music. The upper-class, assimilated Jew–"forceful and used to commanding servants and expressing [himself] in High German"–introduces his lower-middle-class buddy to Eastern mysticism, Madame Blavatsky’s theosophy, and embryonic formulations of his masterwork on language. "For some unknown but historically crucial reason," Cornish explains, the friendship crumbles, and Hitler projects his hatred for "the apostate Jew" and his wealthy family onto the Jewish people.

In order to fight Wittgenstein, Hitler devises Nazi metaphysics, a version of "Wittgenstein’s theory of the mind modified so as to exclude the race of its inventor." Wittgenstein’s influence serves him well: Drawing on his enemy’s magical insights into the social nature of language, Hitler is able to "develop the powers of fascination" that hypnotize the German masses.


Fortunately, Wittgenstein stands ready to oppose him. With almost telepathic awareness of Hitler’s ascendancy, Wittgenstein leaves Vienna for Cambridge in 1929, in order to offer his services to the Russians. The Russians try to woo him with a post at the University of Kazan in 1935, but he has grander things in mind. He thinks to himself, his words helpfully intuited by Cornish, "Yes, I can help. I’ll select the people who, in my judgement, can further the cause of the only international organization that stands for armed opposition to Hitler; I will back the Comintern!" And so Wittgenstein becomes the notorious "fifth man," the Cambridge spymaster who recruits his fellow homosexuals Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, and Guy Burgess to Stalin’s cause. And how does he pull it off? Through (what else?) his obscure but enchanting philosophy, the force of which leads to his students’ "adopting Communism as a religious revelation."


It’s been known for some time that Hitler and Wittgenstein overlapped one year at the Realschule. But did they ever meet? "I know of no evidence that they were in the same classes or that they ever knew each other," says Ray Monk, Wittgenstein’s biographer.

Cornish concedes the point but brandishes what he believes to be a reference to Wittgenstein in Mein Kampf–a passage about a "Jewish boy who was treated by all of us with caution, but only because various experiences had led us to doubt his discretion and we did not particularly trust him." There were fifteen Jews at the Realschule, Cornish admits, but Wittgenstein was hands down the best candidate for ostracism: "How could any other student have stood out more from the rest than a homosexual, truss-wearing, stuttering, Austrian equivalent of a Carnegie, a Krupp or Rothschild?"

In any case, evidence isn’t the point here. According to a well-established rule of occult history–a rule that holds doubly true in the absence of empirical proof–the paths of canonical figures living within a twenty-mile radius must have converged, and must have converged fatefully. As Cornish puts it in his clinching argument, "Each was possessed of a personality so dominating as to count as remarkable within twentieth-century history."

There is another, equally important rule in occult history: A tortured explanation is always preferable to a simple one. In The Jew of Linz, all roads, however circuitous, must lead to Wittgenstein and his family.

Why did Hitler adore Wagner? Where historians point to Wagner’s romantic nationalism, his bullying aesthetics, and, not least, his anti-Semitism, Cornish says the real reason was Wagner’s hatred of the Wittgensteins. In the great debate over the future of German music, Wagner had a falling-out with his friend Joseph Joachim, the violin virtuoso. A Hungarian Jew, Joachim had been adopted at the age of twelve by none other than Wittgenstein’s grandfather. Wagner’s wife, Cosima, also, it turns out, had reason to despise the Wittgensteins, since her father, Liszt, had had an affair with one of Wittgenstein’s aunts. Concludes Cornish: "Hitler’s infatuation with Wagner might well have been sustained by...Hitler’s (reasonable) belief that Wagner, too, hated Wittgensteins." If Cornish had his way, we would speak not of anti-Semitism, but of anti-Wittgensteinism.

Ditto for anti-Communism. It turns out that Wittgenstein’s ideas were a shaping, albeit secret, influence in the international Communist movement–a kind of "mental socialism." Why else would the Russians have offered him that job?

There is, to be sure, a simple explanation for the Russian proposal. As Monk notes, "Wittgenstein was perceived as one of the world’s greatest philosophers, and it would have been a great coup for any regime to have him. The Soviet authorities probably offered him the job as a courtesy to John Maynard Keynes, who was friendly with Ivan Maiskii, the Russian ambassador." But Cornish thinks such an explanation is far too simplistic. In debunking the notion of a wholly private language and in positing a "no-ownership theory of mind," he says, Wittgenstein advanced the cause of Bolshevik collectivism among the intelligentsia. And far from detracting from his appeal to the Soviets, Wittgenstein’s opacity was of supreme strategic value, as alluringly lofty as dialectical materialism was grubbily concrete. The results were far-reaching. "Wittgensteinian influence," Cornish observes, "had a role to play in producing Australia’s own spy, Ian Milner." One wonders what Cornish would make of the Rosenberg letters, in which traces of Wittgenstein’s influence have not yet been discerned.

If you read Cornish’s book for too long a sitting, you may find yourself seized by his delirium and asking all sorts of questions. How did ordinary Germans come to share Hitler’s hatred of the Wittgensteins? Was the fall of Stalinism a defeat for Wittgenstein’s thought? Do anti-Wittgensteinians in philosophy departments present an imminent genocidal threat? If so, should there be Wittgenstein-tolerance seminars? Is Steven Spielberg interested in getting involved?

Such questions leave us speechless, which is, of course, exactly how Wittgenstein would have it.


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