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Hayek was born in Vienna, then capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the son of a doctor in the municipal health service. Hayek’s grandfathers were prominent academics working in the fields of statistics and biology. The paternal line had been raised to the ranks of the Austrian nobility, for its services to the state, a generation before his maternal forebears, also raised to the lower noble rank. Hayek’s father turned his work on regional botany into a highly esteemed botanical treatise, continuing the family’s scholarly traditions.
His mother’s family belonged to the wealthier bourgeoisie. Also on his mother’s side, Hayek was second cousin to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. His mother often played with Ludwig’s sisters. Inspired by the accident of this family connection, Hayek became one of the first to read Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus when the book was published in its original German edition in 1921.
Already as a teenager, and at his father’s suggestion, Hayek read the genetic and evolutionary works of Hugo de Vries and the philosophical works of Ludwig Feuerbach. In school Hayek was much taken by one instructor’s lectures on Aristotle’s ethics.
In 1917 he joined an artillery regiment in the Austro-Hungarian Army and fought on the Italian front. Much of Hayek’s combat experience was spent as a spotter in an aeroplane. He survived the war without serious injury and was decorated for bravery.
Hayek then decided to pursue an academic career, determined to help avoid the mistakes that had led to World War I. Hayek said about his experience: “The decisive influence was really World War I. It’s bound to draw your attention to the problems of political organization.” He vowed to work for a better world.