Alexander Waugh: What if Otto had been plain Count Donkeyhead?

The writer asks how bad, really, was it being a Bismarck

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Poor Count Gottfried von Bismarck seems to have been a very pathetic figure – a louche, transvestite, alcoholic whose life ended in an orgy of morphine, cocaine, drink and rubber "sex toys" at his near-empty flat in Chelsea a few months ago.

Many may remember his name linked with the Olivia Channon scandal, when the young student and daughter of the then trade and industry secretary Paul Channon died of a surfeit of drink and drugs on Von Bismarck's bed in Oxford; or the story of Anthony Casey who killed himself falling 60 feet from Von Bismarck's bedroom window after a gay orgy two years ago.

Now, it is reported, the hapless aristocrat, pictured right, had an excuse for all his dissipation: he was overburdened by his surname. He couldn't live up to being a Bismarck. If this is true, then it is particularly tragic as he seems to have grossly overestimated the importance of it. Here in Britain, where 40 per cent of the population are too ignorant to name a single member of the current cabinet, it is highly unlikely that any but the tiniest handful of the Count's debauched circle would have ever heard of his great-great grandfather, Otto von Bismarck, the first Chancellor of Germany.

Count Gottfried was the only Bismarck of his generation to suppose that fishnet tights and heroin offered an antidote to the name. With the exception of the "Iron Chancellor", most of his antecedents were minor politicians. His grandfather was what the Germans call a Botschafter, which sounds indecent, but actually means a counsellor in the diplomatic service. His father worked for the EU in Brussels. What was it poor Gottfried felt he could not live up to? Obviously he was never likely to become a great German leader but he was not, by all accounts, a stupid man and may easily have made a better Botschafter than his grandfather, if only he had kept away from the cocaine.

In many ways, he should have considered himself lucky. Bismarck is, after all, a fairly sensible German surname – something to which by no means all Teutons can lay claim. One wonders how the scions of the Ottovordemgentschensfeld family manage to get along. Their name means "Otto in front of the gosling's field". How much Drogen and schnapps does it take to live up to that one?

In 1787 Empress Maria Theresa ordered all Austrian Jews to take fixed surnames, and those that refused had names forced upon them by the registrars in charge. Many of these names are still in use today. They include Küssemich (kiss me), Eselskopf (donkey head), Ladstock-schwinger (ramrod swinger), Temperaturwechsel (temperature change), Pulverbestanteil (powder component) and Karfunkel (carbuncle). Count Gottfried von Bismarck was really very lucky when one comes to think of it.

Maybe a name like Karfunkel would have proved his salvation, in which case he should have changed out of Bismarck by deed poll. This, after all, is how most sober Germans deal with it. Alois Schiklgruber changed his name to Hitler, and his son Adolf only occasionally snorted cocaine. If only Count Gottfried had done the same, he might still be alive today.

I can think of many good names that might have lightened the Count's burden. How about Gottfried von Gummiring (rubberband); Johannes von Auspuff (exhaust pipe); or Ludwig von Fahrt (journey)? This sobering advice comes too late – I know, I know. But I offer it anyway, in the hope that it might prove useful to any number of young Metternichs, Schroders, Goethes, Bachs or Schuberts who may find themselves one day helplessly hovering between a deed poll and an overdose.

Alexander Waugh, son of Auberon and grandson of Evelyn, has just completed a history of the Wittgenstein family, published next year

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