Nobody does good old-fashioned Continental aristo-toffery like the Germans, says Anne McElvoy
Nobody does good old-fashioned Continental aristo-toffery like the Germans, says Anne McElvoy German Special Report
I am not sure why I began to like posh Germans. Frankly. I can take or leave the British aristocracy and I’m sure they feel the same about me. But there is something different about the world of the Bolles, Calles Mizis, Putzis which, (according to Marlene Dietrich singing Cole Porter’s lyric) does ‘something to me, something that really mystifies me’.
If you want to peek beneath the classless veneer of today’s Germany, the histories of the old families is a secret passageway into the past. When I haven’t seen my ‘Posh Germans ‘for a while, I miss the men, young and old, bending over a female hand on greeting, and the vestige of a heel-click on meeting and the way the women hold their heads with a particular uprightness.
Post-war Germany has no place in its neat constitution for an aristocracy, which only make those with titles even more insistent on using them. ‘The Count is downstairs and the Prince is in the hall’ being the daunting instructions I received on first arriving for a weekend at Friedrischruh, the Bismarck family seat.
My old Berlin friend Isabella von Bülow, a striking six-foot blonde who resides in Fulham, when not striding around the Andes or riding bareback in the Pampas, is the perfect example of the modern PG goddess. Pitching a project once to some bureaucrat, she found herself treated to a long lecture on the Brandenburg Gate and was asked if she knew much about its history. ‘Well a bit,’ drawled Isabella, ‘One of my ancestors had it built.’
Much mocked for my attachment to friends from the nether reaches of the Almanach de Gotha, I suddenly find Posh Germans more socially acceptable in London. Caroline Sieber (let’s count in Austrians for social purposes) is the trophy party-guest. Prinz Casimir Sayn-Wittgenstein cuts a swathe in the City and, though I’ve never met him, I have spent a hell of a lot of time with his ancestors.
The Sayn-Wittgensteins are a great example of what you can learn about the lurching course of German history from the PGs. The family website starts with the first counts in the 10th century, meanders up to a marriage to the niece of Henry IV and – via a few pages – to the mid-seventeenth century Count Ludwig Adolph , who fought for the Russians as a field marshal in the Napoleonic wars and is celebrated as the ‘saviour of St Petersburg’.
Leap a few pages and the odd war to a marriage with a Radziwil (handily bringing the largest privately owned estate in Europe with her), onwards to the destruction of the family castle in the Thirty Years’ War, a princely title, the rebuilding of the castle, the destruction of the family seat (it keeps happening, what with one thing and another) in 1945. A leading family member was implicated in the political funding scandal of the 1990s, though oddly it doesn’t mention that.
There is a dire warning on the website not to confuse the Sayn-Wittengensteins with ‘zu’ (old nobility) in their titles with a mere ‘von’ – since a lot of people claiming to be vons have ‘bought the title from the newspapers’. The sheer and bizarre detail, and cross-currents, keep me glued to all this for hours.
When Florian Henkel von Donnersmarck won his Oscar for The Lives of Others, the rise of the PG was finally burnished with star status. Florian describes himself modestly as the ‘working aristocracy’ and wrote his film script in a two bedroom flat in a Berlin suburb. But when I described his father in a newspaper profile as a ‘distant cousin of the Queen’ I got a long email back explaining why the Queen wasn’t so distant at all. Posh Germans know their family trees inside out and aren’t slow to tell you about them.
German history is usually studied in neat packages of time: Bismarck’s founding of the Reich in the period 1871-1914, the period between the wars, 1945-89 and the unified Germany. But family histories remind us that the neat divisions are not the way lives are lived. While modern Germany rests on the foundation of 1945, as ‘Year Zero’ from which all is rebuilt, the great families remind us of the continuities across time. At the von Bismarck’s estate, there’s the German flag fluttering in the middle of the grounds. There is hardly another country in Europe where one family claim to have founded the modern state and where its founders’ descendants live in seclusion among the hunting forests.
Gottfried von Bismarck’s death from a drug overdose this year robbed London of one of its most flamboyant German aristocrats and, for those close to him, of a dear friend. As one of his many obituarists noted, he was a man as much at home on a weekend shoot with members of the great houses of Europe as in leather trousers at an outrageous club in the early hours. Asked how he managed this transition he replied, ‘I just change my trousers.’
I would often introduce him to people who expected a spoilt playboy and then find them raptly listening to his insights – often comical – into the differences in the aristocratic pecking order between the families who had lost their old lands in the East – the Ostadel, from the old forfeited territories – and the ‘Restitution aristos’, those who through some lengthy court case have managed to get back some land in a desolate part of the East German countryside. Visiting one mutual friend from an impoverished branch of some ancient clan, he sniffed, ‘Etagenprinz’ (Staircase Prince: an aristo who has no family seat and has to live in an apartment.)
Even the Bismarcks, he noted did not really pass muster among the conservative Hochadel of the South where he would not be considered suited in status to marry into one of the really big families, ‘Even supposing I would want to,’ he would add with a dismissive flick of his Marlboro. PGs have a huge aversion to anything ‘spiessig’ – petit-bourgeois.
My grand German friends go out to eat ‘spaghettis’ – always in the plural rather than mere ‘pasta’ and never, ever, mere ‘Nudel’. Women dress as in the 1980s in Britain – Barbours, corduroys, cashmere (not your Primark variety, obviously). Toddlers have Luis e Lei Italian shirts for boys and sailor dresses for girls. They don’t do Boden. PGs’ mamas and papas speak ‘schlossdeutsch’ (Castle German), which you can spot immediately. In very grand families, the correct form of address is still the third-person, mother to son: ‘Can he pass me the milk?’
Their children have loosened up a bit – though not so far as ‘Estuary German’. Toilette is as out there as it is here. Say klo if you must and you don’t have a wohnzimmer (Living room) but a Salon. Wendeline von Bredow, the European business correspondent of The Economist, adds some brilliant detail on the pitfalls of being a PG, which include: ‘Never take flowers to dinner, never say the common or garden.
‘Tschuss’ for goodbye – only ‘Ciao’. Anyone who isn’t a PG is ‘die Leute’ (the people) and should you have the bad luck to attend a function and find no one of your own sort you say simply, ‘No one was there’. To which I would add from bitter experience, use High German ‘köstlich’ for ‘delicious’ and not, as I once blundered ‘lecker’ (low German), which is the equivalent as saying to your host over the roast wild boar, ‘Ee, that were smashing.’
People who are not aristos are ‘nicht geboren’ (literally – ‘not born’) or, as a friend once told me when reporting some scandalous extra-marital affair ‘And she comes from a family!’ As opposed to what precisely? ‘Don’t say how much you work,’ adds Wendeline, ‘It is rather sad having to be in paid employment in the first place. And if you have intellectual prowess, don’t talk about it.’
A Berlin hostess asked me to a dinner party for a grand old man of German letters, which left me wondering how I was supposed to read his sprawling autobiography in time. ‘Oh I never read him,’ said my friend, ‘I just ask him to dinner.’ If you must be pretentious, go French, at least in Berlin, where we once attended a ‘cocktail prolongué’ (accent e), i.e., a very long drinks party.
All these small differences from the world around them are part of a history which is past, but never dead. At one wedding a few years ago, uniting an aristocratic Berlin family with the dashing son of an Austrian dynasty, an elderly relative leant over and announced, not sotto voce, to the proud mother of the bride. ‘I have never had much time for Prussia.’ Beat that for small talk.