Diary

Christopher Hitchens

In his memoirs, Claud Cockburn wrote about the occasional charm of things being just the way they’re supposed to be. Thus, the first time he went on the Orient Express he met a tempestuous woman who was later arrested for espionage; the first time he interviewed a politician he was told a breathtaking lie in the first five minutes; the first time he entered an Irish castle a fine large pig ran squealing across the main hall. Sometime in the Seventies, I was taken to one of those nightclubs in Berkeley Square, and there ran into Jonathan Guinness and his party. Introductions were effected; I didn’t catch all the names and said to the small dark man who still had hold of my hand: ‘Sorry, did you say you were Paul from Romania?’ He released the mitt and drew himself up somewhat. ‘Paul of Romania.’ I burbled something about it being dreadfully noisy in here, he unbent a little and produced from his inside pocket an enticing brochure about real estate in the Seychelles.

Well, I mean to say, a sprig of Balkan royalty night-clubbing with a sideline in real estate ... I sent a postcard to Claud the next day. And now I look up my friend in the new reborn and revived edition of the Almanach de Gotha.[*] Romania has less than two pages devoted to its royal house, which is rather modest considering that His Majesty King Michael I of Romania serves as Chairman of the Comité de Patronage of the Société des Amis de I’Almanach de Gotha 1998. From these pages I learn that Michael or Mihai was born to King Carol in 1921 and ‘reigned, firstly’, from 1927 to 1930, or in other words between the ages of six and nine. He was then made Crown Prince and Grand Voivode of Alba Julia, before becoming sovereign again between 1940 and 1947. He now lives in Switzerland. He has several daughters, among them Princess Maria, whose address is listed as that of her husband, the ‘financial analyst’ Casimir Mystkowski of New Rochelle, NY. But there are no sons or brothers or crown princes in the lineage. Could it be that my chance acquaintance was that even finer specimen of Cockburnian central casting – an impostor? Romania and mythomania are close kin, as Dorothy Parker knew when she wrote:

Oh life is a glorious cycle of song
A medley of extemporanea
And love is a thing that can never go wrong
And I am Marie of Romania

One of the prime purposes of the old Almanach was precisely to clear up the question of who was who, and in what order of precedence. The issue more than once became critical. On 20 October 1807 the Emperor Napoleon, feeling even more upwardly mobile than was customary, wrote a stiff note to his Foreign Minister, de Champagny.

This year’s Almanach de Gotha is badly done. I protest. There should be more of the French nobility I have created and less of the German Princes who are no longer sovereign. Furthermore, the Imperial Family of Bonaparte should appear before all other royal dynasties, and let it be clear that we and not the Bourbons are the House of France. Summon the Minister of the Interior of Gotha at once so that I personally may order these changes.

The next year, the Almanach serenely carried two versions, one entitled ‘Edition for France – at his Imperial Majesty’s Request’ and the second ‘The Gotha – Correct in All Detail’. This stratagem was more than a temporary solution, as Lord Lambton emphasises in his history of the Mountbatten family. ‘The Newly Mediatised families were allowed into the second section of the Almanach de Gotha, while the unmediatised withered in the third. The Bonapartes, despite their overthrow, were placed in the second section of this Royal Bible. How could they not be? Napoleon had married a member of the Hapsburg family.’

A note may be necessary here on ‘mediatisation’, which applies to the second-order families of the Holy Roman Empire and of its successor states. ‘An “immediate” fief was held by feudal tenure directly from the Emperor, with no intervening superior Lord. When such a fief was placed under the authority of a feudal superior other than the Emperor and that superior was himself a tenant within the Empire, this fief was thereby “mediatised”.’ The distinction was felt most keenly in Germany, which in its form between the 1871 Empire and the Weimar Republic was an association of sovereign states, grand duchies, duchies and principalities. At the May 1913 wedding of Princess Victoria of Prussia to Prince Ernst August of Hanover, it mattered like anything that a specially-composed waltz was reserved for guests listed in Gotha Part One, holding the rank of royal highness or higher. Feverish courtiers flapped through the book as the orchestra struck up. You laugh, perhaps. Possibly you scoff. But this Saxe-Coburg-Gotha racket is the origin of our own dear house of Battenberg-Windsor, which had a momentous ‘King and Country’ row with its German cousins the following year. And don’t I recall a tiny fuss only a little while ago, about the removal of the title HRH from one delinquent Windsor by marriage? ‘The wires of democracy cannot take too high a social voltage,’ Leon Trotsky wrote in The German Puzzle in 1932, as Weimar was collapsing. ‘Such are, however, the voltages of our time. The worthy Almanach de Gotha once had trouble in defining Russia’s political system, which combined popular representation and an autocratic tsar.’ One of those new-old dilemmas, affecting any modern nation with an ancien regime. Nancy Mitford was premature in saying: ‘An aristocracy in a republic is like a chicken whose head has been cut off: it may run about in a lively way, but in fact it is dead.’ We shall see.

The Duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was overrun by the Red Army in 1944 and the Almanach went into what is technically known as abeyance. Its reappearance, in a rather tackily-bound edition with microscopic computer-generated print, is one of the unintended consequences of a reunified Germany. An accompanying press release gurgles excitedly of the relevance and up-to-dateness of it all, and speaks of an Almanach web-site as well as the fact that almost half the member states of the EU have a reigning royal house. But this sales talk obscures the true pleasure of the text, which lies in its evocation of the world of Saki and Rudolph Rassendyll and Fouche d’Otrante and Fratting und Pullitz and (my darling among the entries) Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn, not by any means to be confused with Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg. Saki was especially good on this world, in both taking it seriously and not seriously. The dialogue between Reginald and the Duchess in Reginald at the Theatre, for instance:

There are certain fixed rules that one observes for one’s own comfort. For instance, never be flippantly rude to any inoffensive, grey-bearded stranger that you may meet in pine-forests or hotel smoking-rooms on the Continent. It always turns out to be the King of Sweden.

And later:

     ‘Which reminds me of the man I read about in some sacred book who was given a choice of what he most desired. And because he didn’t ask for titles and honours and dignities, but only for immense wealth, these other things came to him also.’

     ‘I am sure you didn’t read about him in any sacred book.’

     ‘Yes, I fancy you will find him in Debrett.’

King Juan Carlos of Spain is the other co-sponsor of the Comité de Patronage. He is generally accounted the best of the Bourbons. In the same Prado where hang the Goya portraits of his dubious ancestors, you may go and view the Caprichos. Number 39 of this sequence has a smirking jackass, pointing proudly with his hoof at two pages of a family album. There, in silhouette, Goya has etched in a line of jackass forebears. Hasta su abuelo says the title – ‘as far back as his grandfather’. (Goya invariably renders donkeys and asses, not as beasts of burden, but as burdens themselves. In other Caprichos peasants are shown carrying them.) This catches the innate absurdity of all genealogical fetishism, but it doesn’t quite answer the question of why everybody is fascinated by it, and why people other than ‘the quality’ cling to their ancestors and their family albums. The cult of ‘the blood royal’, with its supposed connection to antiquity and service to continuity, is actually little better than an attempt to breed, not a hereditary master-race, but a hereditary master-class. As the Almanach’s own propaganda gloatingly states: ‘Under some royal and princely and dynastic laws still in existence, members who marry a spouse from outside a Gotha Part One family lose all dynastic rights and titles. In some German families this still means forfeiture of estates and property.’ How quaint! But, just as those states and nations that opt for racial purity have always brought calamity on themselves and others, so the families and houses that self-select for breeding have declined in a welter of cretinism and porphyria, to say nothing of disputed codicils.

Nonetheless, the interest in forebears and provenance is human and natural and often harmless – or absurd, as in the thousand generations of Kinnocks that we once had to hear about. My own Great-Uncle Harry, who was sunk at Jutland yet managed to save not only himself but also the ship’s Maltese mess steward, was painted as a lad in a ‘Young England’ portrait competition, and I have the oil to this day because in boyhood I was held to have a likeness to the old mariner. I won’t say I wasn’t touched when a visitor mistook it recently for a painting of my firstborn son. So it’s the minute fanaticism and superiority of the Almanach that offends: the chilling and narrowing of the kinship tie into something denatured and artificial.

Mind you, at the demotic and plebeian end of the heredity biz, things can get pretty grotesque also. One of the few complete sets of the Almanach de Gotha, a collection of volumes from 1763 until 1944, is held by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, vulgarly known as the Mormons of Utah. The purveyors of today’s Almanach are vague as to what the Mormons want it for, but I know why. Perhaps oversensitive at having been founded by an unskilled huckster named Joseph Smith, the Mormons have been acquiring some ‘background’ on the sly. They have established an International Genealogical Index, listing at least 147 million names. The aim – a classical piece of micro-megalomania where the monstrous scale of the effort dwarfs the essential pettiness of the enterprise – is to subject all these dead people to a retrospective Mormon baptism. Every day in Mormon temples, a proxy or surrogate living devotee is immersed while as many names as possible are recited. Every ancestor of every Mormon is inducted as a matter of course, but the proselytisation has gone far beyond that, in an effort to Mormonise everyone who has ever been recorded. In Corinthians, St Paul speaks sternly but vaguely, saying: ‘Else what shall they do, which are baptised for the dead? If the dead rise not at all, why then are they baptised for the dead?’ Stupid question.

Adherents of other dogmas are not delighted by this tactic, which recalls that general of Chiang Kai Shek’s who had his troops baptised en masse with fire-hoses. There was a promising row two years ago, when American Jews discovered that the Mormons had ‘baptised’ a list of 350,000 victims of the Nazis. Since these people, however misguided in failing to recognise the divinity of Jesus, had not lived as Mormons and certainly not been foully slain as Mormons, the zeal of Salt Lake City seemed excessive, even offensive. The Utah leadership now says it won’t do this any more. But, over Catholic objections, it has baptised Ignatius Loyola, Joan of Are and Francis of Assisi. (I must say I think that’s quite funny.) In one temple in Provo, Utah, it has also laid claim to Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson. Most wondrous of all, though, it has obviously now baptised Franz Joseph Maximilian Maria Antonius Ignatius Lamoral, ninth Prince von Thurn & Taxis. As Elias Canetti has it in ‘The King-Proclaimer’, the first part of his Earwitness:

It is touching to see her with forgotten kings, she never forgets them, she retains even the worst has-beens among them, writes to them, sends them suitable small gifts, obtains work for them, and when the honour is long past, she is the only person still to remember it. Among the beggars with whom she pays her respects on grand occasions, one can find a former king or two.

[*] Almanach de Gotha, 704 pp., £60, March 1998, 0 9532142 0 6.