Pathology of the Patricians
The macabre life and gruesome death of Bismarck's great-great-grandson.


Last week, while English jurors at the inquest into the death of Diana were in Paris investigating the last hours of the doomed princess’s life, an English coroner recorded his verdict in the inquest into the death of a scion of another celebrated patrician house, Count Gottfried von Bismarck, once the friend of Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, and the great-great-grandson of Otto von Bismarck, the man who united the German nation.

The count, who was 44, died of what the newspapers reported as one of the largest cocaine overdoses on record; the pathologist said that the amount of cocaine in Gottfried’s blood was “the highest” he had “ever seen.” The corpse was discovered on July 2 on a soiled mattress in the Count’s London flat, one of the arms blackened by needle marks. A friend of the Count’s, Paul Hillstead, gave evidence that he saw the Count alive on June 28; Gottfried drank wine at a Chelsea pub, the Queens Head, then returned to his nearby apartment, where for many hours he repeatedly injected himself with cocaine. A post-mortem revealed that he had consumed morphine as well as cocaine, that he had a damaged liver, and that he suffered from Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, and an HIV infection. The newspapers reported that a number of “bizarre” items were found in the flat, among them “buckets of sex toys.”

In life Count Gottfried was a character at once sinister and charming, a Prussian version of Dostoevsky’s Arkady Svidrigaïlov, with something of Waugh’s Anthony Blanche thrown in. Born in 1962, Gottfried went up at the age of 20 to Christ Church, Oxford, where he soon made himself notorious by serving dinner on a table adorned with severed pigs’ heads. Like Waugh’s Anthony Blanche, Count Gottfried was a flamboyant homosexual and dandy; he was partial to lederhosen, fishnet stockings, and lipstick. Unlike Blanche, however, he was accepted by the magnificoes of Oxford’s Bullingdon Club, who thought him a good fellow and admitted him to their vinous repasts.

Count Gottfried had, like Dostoevsky’s Svidrigaïlov, exquisite manners and an air of languid nihilism; bad things happened to those who were drawn into his circle. In June 1986 Gottfried and his great friend Olivia Channon celebrated the end of the Oxford term with Back Velvet, a mixture of stout and champagne which had been the delight of the Iron Chancellor. There was heroin, too, and the next day Channon—the daughter of Tory grandee Paul Guinness Channon and granddaughter of Sir Henry “Chips” Channon and brewing heiress Lady Honor Guinness—was found dead in the Count’s bed.

Gottfried was not implicated in her death; a verdict of misadventure was recorded at the inquest. Nevertheless, Gottfried’s father ordered him to return, as a form of penance, to Friedrichsruh, the Bismarck Schloss near Hamburg, where the Iron Chancellor died in 1898. Gottfried, it is said, was genuinely contrite; but he had a talent for dissipation, and in August 2006 a reveler at what the coroner described as a “gay orgy” in the Count’s flat perished when he plunged from a rooftop garden.

In their coverage of Count Gottfried’s death, the newspapers contrasted the splendor of the ancestor’s achievements with the shameful notoriety of the descendant’s. Yet Otto von Bismarck was in his own way a character quite as demoniacal as Gottfried, only he enacted his Walpurgisnacht yearnings on a much grander scale. The Iron Chancellor fantasized that he was a bomb; confessed himself capable of lying awake through a whole night “hating”; and spoke of the “brutal sensuality” and “depraved fantasy” that led him “so close to the greatest sins.” His dreams were violent, his imagination washed in the darker oils: at the heart of Bismarckian self-culture was the question, What have you really hated till now?