Friday, November 16, 2007

Who shot King Ludwig?

Earlier in the week I stumbled upon an article from the Independent which reported on recent evidence suggesting that King Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845-1886) was murdered.

Known as the "fairytale king" and the "swan king," Ludwig was declared legally insane and -- to further add to his mystique -- he died under mysterious circumstances.

The Life of Ludwig

When he ascended to the throne in 1864, Ludwig was only 18 years old. The early years of his reign were a tumultuous time for Bavaria: Prussia and Austria were struggling for predominance among the German states, and the little kingdom was caught in the middle. Predominately Catholic Bavaria had long been allied with the Empire of Austria, and thus Ludwig agreed to fight along side the Austrians in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. This proved to be a bad move. Not only did they lose, but as part of the peace agreement Bavaria was forced to sign a mutual defense treaty with Prussia. Incidentally, in Italy this conflict is called the Third War of Independence: the Italians fought along side the victorious Prussians and liberated the city of Venice from under the Austrian yoke.

In fulfillment of his obligations under the treaty, Ludwig reluctantly sent Bavarian troops to join the Prussians in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) against Napoleon III. Victory further consolidated Prussia's hegemony over the German states, and in December 1870 -- at the behest of Prussian Prime Minister Otto Von Bismarck (1815-1890) -- Ludwig wrote a letter calling for King Wilhelm I of Prussia (1797-1888) to be declared the Kaiser of Germany. This effectively ended Bavaria's days as an independent kingdom.

After this, Ludwig grew increasingly withdrawn from politics and public life, spending most of his time at his royal residences in the country. He was an eccentric man. Supposedly, his servants were instructed to run and hide when they heard him coming, or --failing that -- to stand silent and motionless like a statue, so that they would not disturb his solitude. He detested public ceremonies, but would ride through the countryside on a sleigh, sometimes stopping to socialize with his subjects. This helped make him very popular among the people of Bavaria.

It is also widely accepted that King Ludwig was gay. He had several infatuations/affairs with handsome young courtiers. But Ludwig was also a fervently religious Catholic; at Neuschwanstein he had a chapel dedicated to Saint Louis, King of France whom he particularly identified with given that (a) he too was a king and (b) he was his namesake. As Ludwig's diaries attest, he was greatly conflicted between his sexual desires and his faith, and thus he attempted to suppress his homosexuality. Ludwig also had a close relationship throughout his life with his cousin Elisabeth (aka "Sissi", 1837-1898), who would marry the Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria (1830-1916).

Ludwig's Legacy

Ludwig's greatest legacy is in the arts. He was a patron to the composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) whom he gave much needed financial support. During his reign, Ludwig also commissioned several striking works of architecture (following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather), most notably the never-fully-completed Neuschwanstein Castle. Neuschwanstein is located in the Bavarian Alps near the town of Füssen, where it overlooks Hohenschwangau Castle which had been built by Ludwig's father. It was constructed out of stones from the nearby Swan Lake quarry, and it is generally believed to be the inspiration for Disney's Cinderella Castle.

It is a common misconception (actually repeated in the Independent article) that building these follies drained Bavaria's treasury and put the kingdom on the edge of bankruptcy. In reality, however, these projects were all funded from the king's privy purse. Far from bringing ruin, they were actually beneficial to Bavaria's economy given that many local workers and artisans were employed in their construction. Moreover, the economic benefits continue on into the present as many tourists come to Bavaria to visit these architectural oddities every year.

Meeg's trip to Neuschwanstein

Yours truly actually visited Neuschwanstein along with some friends (Lee, Greg, and the Sonz) in the spring of 1999. We rented a car in Munich and drove out into the countryside. I remember that after the tour we stopped to have lunch at a nearby restaurant where we were served by a friendly Bavarian MILF. Oh how I wish I had a picture to share with you! I was looking through my mess of a closet, but all I could find was a blurry photo I took of Hohenschwangau. At any rate, this trip took place in what I refer to as my "Cochese" period. I hadn't had a haircut in like six months, so my dago-fro was in full effect. Add to that a '70s 'stache and you can see why I wish I had a picture. Also my face was pudgy and I was pale and wore stupid clothes. We really could have had a fun time critiquing my look. But I digress...

Ludwig the Lunatic?

On June 10, 1886, Ludwig's enemies in the Munich parliament had him declared legally incompetent by reason of insanity. He was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, but many people question the validity of this claim given that the diagnosis was based on second-hand reports of the king's behavior rather than an actual in-person examination. When a commission was sent to Neuschwanstein to arrest him, Ludwig had them thrown in the dungeon and shouted out all sorts of wild punishments that should be levied against these disloyal officials. The king's servants were rather embarrassed by this and, when it was Ludwig's nap time (or something), they quietly set the men free. This incident probably didn't do much to convince people of the king's sanity.

On June 12, Ludwig was successfully arrested and committed into the care of Professor Bernhard von Gudden (the same psychiatrist who had pronounced the diagnosis). The next evening (June 13), Ludwig asked for permission to take a walk around Lake Starnberg. Dr. Gudden agreed and accompanied the king. Later that night, the two men's bodies would be found floating by the shore of the lake. The official story is that this was a murder-suicide perpetrated by the mad King Ludwig.

Ludwig's beloved cousin, the Empress Sissi, said of his alleged madness, "the King was not mad; he was just an eccentric living in a world of dreams. They might have treated him more gently, and thus perhaps spared him so terrible an end."

New Evidence of Foul Play

The new evidence cited by the Independent is two-fold. First, in a sworn affidavit, a 60-year-old Munich banker named Detlev Utermöhle recounts an incident from his childhood which he insists he remembers vividly. When he was 10 years old, Utermöhle and his mother were invited to tea by Countess Josephine von Wrba-Kaunitz, who was a sort of caretaker for the House of Wittelsbach. In a stage whisper the Countess told the gathered guests "Now you will find out the truth about Ludwig's death without his family knowing. I will show you all the coat he wore on the day he died." She then opened up a chest and pulled out a grey Loden coat which Utermöhle saw had two bullet holes in its back. The coat was destroyed when the Countess' home caught fire -- killing her and her husband -- in 1973.

Utermöhle's account is further collaborated by art historian Siegfried Wichmann who this week published a hitherto unknown photograph of a postmortem portrait taken mere hours after King Ludwig's death. The portrait shows blood oozing out of the late king's mouth. This would seem to be incompatible with the official explanation that Ludwig drowned: if that was the case one would expect his lungs to have filled with water, but this bloody discharge suggests a trauma.

Many have long suspected that Ludwig may have been assassinated on the orders of his political enemies in Munich. For years some have called upon the Wittelsbach family to exhume his body so an autopsy can be performed, but thus far the family has chosen to let the matter, and King Ludwig, rest in peace.

Royal Bavarian coat of arms was found on wikipedia which states that under German law such images are not subject to copyright. Photo of 18yo Ludwig taken at Hohenschwangau was also found on wikipedia which states that the image is in the public domain. Neuschwanstein photo (c) flickr user jaegerpt. Photo of Memorial Cross taken by Nicholas Even who grants a GNU Free Documentation License over it.


Josie said...

Hey, I've been to Neuschwanstein too!! If Ludwig had lived in modern times would he not have a total Michael Jackson creep thing going?

Meeg said...

that's ignorance

Amanda Fliger said...

It's not ignorance, it's "White Diamonds, Michael!"