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?
Both Otto and Gottfried were romantic aristocrats who yearned for the “last enchantments of the Middle Age” and deplored the prosaic life of the modern bourgeoisie. But where Gottfried’s rebellion took the comparatively mild form of a devotion to the more rococo modes of debauchery, Otto’s shook the world: he struck at the heart of the dream of the middle and professional classes in Germany when he set out to crush the free institutions they were busily assembling. “If there is to be a revolution,” the Iron Chancellor said, “we would rather make it than suffer it.”
By “we” he meant his class, the high-born Junkers. (The term derives from a Middle High German word for young noblemen.) Bismarck made his neo-feudal revolution in order to counter those free-state ideas which, when he assumed power in 1862, seemed destined to prevail not only in Germany but also in the United States (where Lincoln was extirpating the feudalism of the planters) and even in Russia (where Tsar Alexander had emancipated the serfs). The crafty Junker concocted a formula that put the cherishers of freedom on the defensive; his governing philosophy, which combined blood-and-soil nationalism with coercive social-welfare programs, prepared the way for a host of unsavory creeds, most notably the National Socialism of Adolf Hitler.
The newspapers, with their sentimental conception of great-great-grandson Gottfried as the black sheep of a brilliant family, got it mawkishly wrong. The Iron Chancellor, so far from being ashamed of his tormented descendant, would almost certainly have sympathized with the young man’s macabre revolt against middle-class mores they both despised. What, in the vulgar world which the bourgeoisie have made, was a scion of knights and princes to do? Dabble in spiritualism and classical architecture like the Prince of Wales? Patronize bogus charities like the late Princess of Wales?
No, the Iron Chancellor, would, I think, have preferred his great-great-grandson’s uncompromising, go-to-the-devil attitude. True, Gottfried engaged in what (from the point of view of the old nobility) are the characteristic vices of the age; he dabbled in the business, in telecom promotion, in stockjobbing. But his heart was not in it: Junkers never did shine in trade. Like his great-great-grandsire, Gottfried found his métier in an outrageous, épater-les-bourgeois repudiation of middle-class sensibilities.
Joseph Roth, chronicling the fall of the Teutonic aristocracy of mitteleuropa in novels like The Radetzky March, showed how the degenerate descendants of the old knight-age, when they attempted to imitate the heroic style of their ancestors, succeeded only in burlesquing it. Yet the parodies, Roth suggested, were in their own way aesthetically exquisite: their very pathetic qualities revealed how great was the falling off, and demonstrated more vividly than any overt lamentation could what had been lost in le déluge.
Waugh, in Brideshead Revisited, made a similar plea for the beauties of a feudalism which, he maintained, had been destroyed by “Hooperism,” his term for the ethos of the democratic middle-classes. The glories of the older, pre-Hooper world, Waugh wrote, were “submerged now and obliterated, as irrecoverable as Lyonnesse, so quickly have the waters come flooding in.” In Brideshead he depicted with elegiac irony Sebastian Marchmain’s dipsomaniac protest against the vulgarity of the bourgeois age which succeeded the aristocratic one. Sebastian’s is a bouffe version of the crusades of the medieval Marchmains, and a curious pre-figuration of Gottfried von Bismarck’s own drug-fueled revolt against the middle-class masses.
The Iron Chancellor, whose sense of the dramatically fitting was keen, would doubtless have approved of the darkly comic way in which his great-great grandson Gottfried reprised his own world-shaking feudal fight against the progress of middle-class democracy, and he would have found much to admire in the louche diabolism with which his heir closed the last, bizarre chapter in the decline and fall of the feudal House of Bismarck-Schönhausen.
– Michael Knox Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal. His book, Forge of Empires 1861-1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made, is being published this month by Free Press.