How’s this for the worst school story ever? In 1904-5 Hitler and
Wittgenstein, both 14 years old, attended the same school, the
Realschule at Linz. Most biographers are inclined to
suppose that these two schoolboys had little to do with one another.
Kimberly Cornish however begins his book by presenting quite tempting
circumstantial evidence that they made close contact. The dust
jacket of the book illustrates a school photograph which shows
(if accurate) a sad little 14 year old Hitler just behind what
seems to be the schoolboy version of the sensitive and unhappy
face of Ludwig Wittgenstein. On Cornish’s account these sad little
boys had (apparently) much in common: a passion for the writings
of Schopenhauer and for the music of Wagner – and for whistling.
They also had quite enough for a terrible antagonism: Wittgenstein,
from a wealthy, over-cultivated family of Jewish (and anti-Semitic)
Catholics, frail, stammering, hyper-sensitive, emotionally indiscreet,
perhaps even then with homosexual feelings, would have been the
perfect object for a little bully’s hatred of an outsider and
victim. Cornish supposes that their antagonism must have revolved
around a rivalry concerning their shared schoolboy obsessions.
Schools can indeed be awful places. But if Cornish is right, that
childhood horror was to grow thereafter to monstrous proportions.
‘Hitler, I suggest,’ he says ‘…was repelled by Wittgenstein
and came to attribute what he saw as Wittgenstein’s particular
personality defects to Jews in general… Something happened between
Wittgenstein and Hitler at the Realschule. We face, I
think, the astounding possibility that the course of the twentieth
century was radically influenced by a quarrel between two schoolboys.’
Could it really be that six million Jewish victims and all those
others were systematically murdered by the mass production methods
of a significant part of a civilised society just because of an
antagonism between two bewildered small boys? The horrifying thought
belongs not to ‘the detective work of history’ (Cornish’s description
of his project) but to speculative drama. There is a powerful
play to be written that presents it, but this book is not its
The scene now shifts to Cambridge, the home of those well-known
Communist Apostles and homosexual intellectuals, and dominated
by the thought and personality of the famous philosopher Wittgenstein.
The claim is that it was Wittgenstein who all along was the elusive
recruiter of all those spies and fellow travellers. Cornish’s
evidence is thin and spread over many pages. There is a familiar
smell of homophobic spycatching. Wittgenstein knew all the right
people – but then so did everybody: it was a small, intense place.
Wittgenstein had goo motives for disliking Nazis – so did most
of the best people (without having to recall schooldays in Linz).
Cornish’s clincher is that the Russians offered Wittgenstein a
chair at Kasan University (Lenin’s university!) – perhaps
as a reward. What reward, for whom?
From then on it’s down hill all the way to the Big Philosophical
Idea. Cornish’s thesis is that behind Wittgenstein’s philosophical
attack on the idea of the mind as a privileged private arena of
experience from which we cannot escape into a public and communicable
world lies a positive mystical belief in a Universal Mind in which
the individual has no real place. As an account of Wittgenstein
this is unconvincing, sometimes even unintelligible. It never
occurs to Cornish that such ideas are the objects of reductio
ad absurdam arguments of a deep and, for Wittgenstein, all-pervading
sense of intellectual irony. Kimberly Cornish senses no irony,
deep or otherwise. But then… Hitler (like Wittgenstein, haunted
by a schoolboy fascination with wilder elements of Schopenhauer)
also had his Universal Mind Theory – the great Aryan dream of
Nazi insanity. So the subsequent horrors had their origins in
a tug of war over the ownership of a schoolboy’s intellectual
fantasy developed, just possibly, in the oppressive schoolrooms
of Linz. There is evidence that Cornish really does believe something
Despite a closing discussion of the so-called ‘no-ownership theory
of mind’ where ‘the young Peter Strawson’ (sic) is discussed in
the light of Aquinas, and which establishes Cornish’s philosophical
location, this book is not ad majorum dei gloriam: it
remains a not un-entertaining, if tasteless, form of learned sensationalism.
Reviewed by Andrew Harrison