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Otto Neurath – Social Economist and Inventor of Icons

 Letters in the Library's Archives

Otto NeurathBorn in Austria, Otto Neurath  (1882-1945) was an important philosopher, economist and sociologist. He produced work in Germany and Austria until 1934, and afterwards in Holland and England. Neurath was a diverse thinker whose ideas developed over the years in directions that covered various disciplines.
The common thread of Neurath's intellectual work was his search for conceptual and ideological unity on a societal and human level. Neurath, a typical leftist, dealt with the development of a centralized economy and preparations for socialization. He was active in Bavaria during the Bavarian Socialist Republic in the last days of the First World War. After the fall of the Republic, he was active in "Red Vienna" in the framework of the Socialist Democratic Party.
 
In 1923, he established in Vienna a museum of city planning and housing which eventually became The Museum of Society and Economy. His work on the museum led Neurath to invest a lot of thought and effort into graphic tools and visual-symbolic language. This led to the birth of Otto Neurath's most important innovation: the Isotype  a method of creating symbols intended to represent quantitative information via clearly understood icons.
 
 

In 1934, when the "Austro-Facsist" government came to power, Neurath decided not to return to Austria from a visit out of the country, fearing persecution by the new government. Due to this, the contents of his house were confiscated and scattered, and apparently a large portion was destroyed. This is why Neurath's personal archive, which today is preserved in Holland, includes items only from the second half of the 1930's.
 
In 1947 the organization Jewish Cultural Reconstruction was Founded. The organization upon itself the task of saving materials and items connected to Jewish culture. The organization, called the JCR, was active in the American occupied territories in Germany and ensured that hundreds of thousands of books, pictures, Torah scrolls and other materials, stolen by the Nazis, and whose previous owners were murdered, made their way to Jewish institutions in Israel, the United States and other countries.  Many books and other materials also made their way to The National Library of Israel.
 
A cursory examination of one of these many folders of documents and photographs revealed letters that were written by Otto Neurath to his first wife, Anna Schapire, between the years 1903 and 1911. This pile of letters was most likely stolen from Neurath's home in Vienna after 1934 and placed in a Nazi institution where it remained until it was transferred to the JCR warehouses in Offenbach, Germany.  From there, the letters  finally  made their way to Jerusalem.
 
When Neurath wrote the letters to Ann Schapire, who was studying in the University of Bern in Switzerland, he was still at the beginning of his academic journey. In the letters, in which he expresses his love for his wife, Neurath reports on subjects connected to his doctorate which dealt with the history of the economy in the ancient world, on meetings with his professors (for instance Eugene Meyer) and on philosophical discussions with other researchers who greatly influenced him, such as, for instance, Gregorious Ittelson. Anna Schapire died giving birth to their son, Paul in 1911. Afterwards, Neurath married the mathematician and philosopher Olga Hahn. Olga died during the bombing of Rotterdam by the Nazi air force. Neurath escaped from Rotterdam to England together with Marie Reidemiester, one of his partners in the "Isotype" initiative.  The two were married and established the Isotype Institute in Oxford.
 
After Neurath's sudden death in December, 1945, Marie Neurath continued to be active in the Institute. She also published pamphlets and children's books that used the Isotype system. 
 
 

 
Recently, these letters as well as some photographs that were preserved with them were re-organized and added to the National Library's online catalog. From now on, these materials can be ordered and perused. In this way, our knowledge of Otto Neurath during his youth and regarding the issues that preoccupied the young philosopher, who would go on to influence a number of fields, can be enriched. Researchers of social economy, logic, semiotics and the graphic representation of information, as well as those who are interested in the journey of one of the most important thinkers in this field, can now read his handwritten materials that were unknown until now.