The Penumbra of Pedigree

A revived reference book offers a fanfare for the common aristo

ONE day last September the "Court page" of the London Times carried a longer-than-usual item.

The marriage took place on Saturday at the Brompton Oratory of Count Manfredi, younger son of Count and Countess Guelfo della Gherardesca, of Florence, to Princess Maria-Theodora, only daughter of Prince and Princess Rupert zu Loewenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, of Petersham, Surrey. The marriage was celebrated by the Rev Robert Gates, assisted by Brother Rudolf zu Loewenstein, OP, and Solemn Nuptial Mass, in the presence of His Eminence Luigi, Cardinal Poggi, was celebrated by the Rev Ronald Creighton-Jobe, the Very Rev Ignatius Harrison and the Rev Patrick Doyle.

Phew! And it didn't end there. We also learned that the bridesmaids included Contessa Constanza della Gherardesca and Lady Martha Lowry-Corry, and the witnesses Marchese Giovanni Incisa della Rochetta and Conte Leone Spalletti-Trivelli. Lady Martha will be found in both Burke'sandDebrett's Peerage. (Recall Oscar Wilde's play A Woman of No Importance, in which a character recommends, "You should study the Peerage.... it is the best thing in fiction the English have ever done.") What Burke's Peerage is to England, the Almanach de Gotha is to Europe: the studbook of the royal and princely classes, where the Loewenstein pedigree is found. The Almanach was published annually from 1763 to 1944, when the place called Gotha was about to be submerged beneath the waters of history and the European upper classes themselves seemed on the point of extinction, swept away by war and revolution, communism and democracy. Two years before that last edition appeared, Henry Wallace, Franklin D. Roosevelt's Vice President, had proclaimed "the century of the common man"; three years later Gotha was occupied by the Red Army, from a country that had already savagely disposed of its royalty and nobility. With Marxism-Leninism on one side and Wallace's rhetoric on the other, it surely seemed as if everything the Almanach represented had been thrown, in Trotsky's phrase, into the dustbin of history.

But the cunning of history has a way of its own. Less than ten years ago the Soviet Union itself was thrown into that dustbin, and Marxian socialism was virtually discredited (except on American campuses); and only last year the Romanovs were re-interred with honor as Boris Yeltsin lachrymosely bewailed their murder at the hands of the Bolsheviks. Anyone who thinks the European aristocracy has disappeared need only look at that marriage announcement in the Times (even if the bride's father has made his fortune as an adviser to Mick Jagger -- though then again, perhaps that's in itself a sign of continuing vitality). And this year has seen the appearance of a new edition of the Almanach de Gotha for the first time in more than fifty years. Its publication is a nicely ironic comment on the century of the common man as that century draws to a close.

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"The Gotha," as its devoted readers knew it, took its name from a small town in Thuringia, just west of Erfurt. As the fissive House of Saxony divided over and over again into numerous principalities, the town became one of the twin residences of the Dukes of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, the dynasty that gave Queen Victoria her husband, and London the Albert Hall and the Albert Memorial. In Prince Albert's day Gotha was famous for its sausages, its insurance companies, and its publishing houses. Notable among these last was Justus Perthes, which took over the Gotha from the Almanach's founding family.

When it first saw life, monarchy and aristocracy seemed the natural order of things in Europe, and absolute monarchy at that. Then came the revolutions, American and French. A king was guillotined, along with a good many aristos, and the old order trembled throughout Europe. But when the dust of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars settled, kings and dukes were still there. A century later another cataclysm shook Europe. The end of the Great War saw also the end of four empires -- Romanov, Hohenzollern, Hapsburg, and Ottoman -- and the war after that brought further devastation. Once more it seemed that the very idea of royalty and nobility was finished.

And yet one of the oddest phenomena of the past half century has been not merely the survival of royalty and aristocracy but the continuing fascination they exercise. England has a monarch still, as do the three Low Countries and the three Scandinavian countries. But who would have guessed sixty years ago, or thirty, that Spain would once more have a monarchy? And who could have guessed eighty years ago, in the shadow of the October Revolution, just how addicted to the upper classes newspaper readers would still be?

The new Gotha is published in its traditional pocket size: those who were in it used to carry it with them to check the credentials of those who might not be (the person who claims falsely to be in the Gotha was once a stock figure of fun in novels and plays). Nowadays, however, those who need the Gotha aren't so much those in it as gossip columnists everywhere. In England, where the new edition was published, we don't clamor to read about dissolute aristocrats on the Continent (we get quite enough of that sort of thing at home). But look at Germany, a republic for many decades, where the use of titles for official purposes is supposedly illegal, and yet the pages of German papers and magazines pullulate with the names of Thurn und Taxis, Hanover, Bismarck, and Sachsen-Weimar.

This "Erster Teil," or first volume, of the Gotha covers reigning and formerly reigning houses and also the mediatized sovereign houses of the Holy Roman Empire, ranging from the famous to the obscure, with the Hapsburgs standing first. Ninety years ago that dynasty ruled over a large part of Central Europe, from Switzerland to the Ukraine, from the north of what is now the Czech Republic to the northern part of what is now Serbia. (Considering what has happened in the intervening ninety years, it isn't only sentimental monarchists who sometimes regret the passing of "imperial and royal" Austria-Hungary.)

The last Emperor was Karl, who abdicated in 1918. But his son Otto -- or, rather, Franz Joseph Otto Robert Maria Anton Karl Max Heinrich Sixtus Xaver Felix Renatus Ludwig Gaetan Pius Ignatius, Archduke of Austria, formerly Crown Prince of Austria and Hungary, Head and Sovereign Order of the Golden Fleece, Knight of the Honourable Teutonic Order, Bailiff Grand Cross of Honor and Devotion of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, et, as you might say, cetera -- sits as Dr. Otto von Hapsburg in the European Parliament. As the "formerly" in that list suggests, he has formally renounced any aspiration to the old throne, and indeed he resides in Brussels; although I notice that his youngest son, Archduke Paul Georg, now lives in Budapest with his wife, the daughter of Duke Johann of Oldenburg, perhaps awaiting the call from the Magyar people.

Even the Hapsburgs haven't been free from the advances of social equality. Of Otto's other children, one daughter is married to a duke and grandee of Spain, but others are married to a lawyer, a Swedish farmer, and a count who holds a diploma in agricultural engineering and sounds "The sort of peer who well might pass/For someone of the middle class." These are not men who would have been considered by the August House to possess Ebenbürtigkeit, the equality of birth deemed necessary for marriage to royalty (a sore point with the Hapsburgs: the Archduke Franz Ferdinand married a woman who was not ebenbürtig, and he was subsequently, if not consequently, assassinated at Sarajevo in 1914, precipitating the Great War).

As well as having married beneath them, many of the other old ruling families are now far-flung. Princess Beatrice-Maria of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach lives in west London with her businessman husband, and Prince Carl Christian von Hohenzollern has washed up in Calgary, Alberta. And so with the princely families. The princes of Lobkowicz once owned large parts of Bohemia, before it became part of Czechoslovakia, whence they departed for obvious reasons more than half a century ago. Several members of the family have now returned there, but they also have cousins living everywhere from France and Switzerland to Canada.

Does it matter -- or do they? For all that ironic comment on the century of the common man, the age of aristocratic rule is ended: even the hereditary peers of Great Britain's House of Lords have accepted that the game is up. But you don't have to be a political legitimist to take a legitimate interest in the families, who did, after all, play a part in the making of European history. During his unhappy involvement in 1961 in the affairs of the former Belgian Congo, Conor Cruise O'Brien met the Prince de Ligne, and later wrote that this brought out the Proust in him.

Like most people who read history -- however progressive their opinions -- I was not insensitive, at a sub-rational level, to the penumbra of a historic name. (Reader: "A pompous way of admitting he is a snob.")

Despite that little joke, snobbishness is not required. I neither want to be ruled by the Auerspergs and Schwarzenburgs nor want to spend many evenings among the Loewensteins and Gherardescas. All the same, even if it was right to chuck 'em out of political power, it's comforting to have the Gotha once more to check 'em out.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is an English journalist and author. His most recent book, (1996), won a National Jewish Book Award.

Illustration by Amanda Duffy

The Atlantic Monthly; February 1999; The Penumbra of Pedigree; Volume 283, No. 2; pages 14 - 16.