By the strictest
definition all political acts are conspiracies; a group of people conspire to
bring about a certain result. Political conspiracies, in the more popular
sense, have a long history. This is one that might not be as well known in the
English speaking world.
Mention Ludwig II of Bavaria and you might not recognise the name. Mention Neuschwanstein or German fairytale castles then we’re on more solid ground.
Ludwig II was born in 1845 and ascended to the Bavarian throne in 1864 at the age of 19. Otherworldly with a dislike of public functions, Ludwig II was more interested in art, music and the theatre than he was in governing. In light of this the events of the Austro-Prussian wars might have seemed to have been a blessing for the young King. Bavaria sided with Austria in the conflict. Following their defeat by Prussia, Bavaria was forced to give up its status as an independent kingdom. Certain concessions were secured for Bavaria, but Ludwig II became a vassal king of his Prussian uncle.
Deferring much of the management of Bavaria to his advisors, Ludwig was able to retreat further from public life, devoting his time to his obsessions of legends, music (particularly the work of Wagner, for whom Ludwig was a patron), and architecture. The Neuschwanstein website explains that even though Ludwig was a constitutional monarch, he became obsessed with the concept of a holy kingdom enacted by the Grace of God. This was the drive to constructing a fantasy world to surround him, cutting him off further from the political life he had no interest in.
These concerns led
to the construction of elaborate buildings such as the copy of Versailles
Palace at Herreninsel, Chiemsee, Linderhoff, and, of course, Neuschwanstein.
itself is fascinating. Though it has come to be an idealised symbol of high
medieval castles (mainly via Disney), the castle wears a medieval cloak over a
three piece tailored suit. It doesn’t take much to see the modernity. While the
majority of the castle is constructed of limestone, the main entrance is built
of brick. The construction used steel beams, with hot air central heating, and
hot and cold running water. The original designs were by Christian Janks, a
theatre designer, which seems fitting. The theatre influence can also be seen
in the artificial grotto, a dripstone cave designed by set designer August
Dirigl, even in the 19th century illuminated by colour lights.
Over time Ludwig started to identify himself more and more with Parsifal, the Grail King, and Neuschwanstein was reinterpreted in this context, with the Throne Room redesigned as the Hall of the Holy Grail.
projects were not cheap, and though he funded the work from his own funds, the
loans necessary to bank roll the work brought him into conflict with the
Bavarian government. Foreign banks threatened to seize his property, leading to
the events of 1886.
The official story
is that Ludwig’s refusal to act in accordance with the expectations for his
position led to him being declared insane and deposed. The day after he was
interned at Berg Palace on the banks of Lake Starnberg, King Ludwig II and Dr
Gudden, the doctor responsible for declaring him insane were both found drowned
in the lake.
There are a lot of
conflicting reports about this version of events.
When the bodies
were found the doctor had bruising to his face and a broken fingernail. The
autopsy on Ludwig found no injury, or water in his lungs. The fact both were
floating has been taken to support this.
Other evidence of
foul play comes from the diary of Jakob Lidl, a fisherman involved in helping
in the search. Although sworn to secrecy, he wrote that King Ludwig recruited
him to aid his escape, and that while the King was climbing into his boat
someone from the shore shot him in the back killing him instantly. Lidl’s diary
was passed down through his family, and ended in the hands of one of his
descendents, Martin Mertl. Mertl gave a page of the diary (not the one talking
about the events of that fateful night) to Ludwig researcher Albert Widemann
who had it studied by a handwriting expert. Although images of this particular
page exist, the diary itself supposedly disappeared on Mertl’s death in 1961.
Ludwig’s body was
studied by Rudolph Magg, a local doctor. Documents written by Magg supposedly
claimed that he was pressured by the Bavarian State into supporting the
drowning explanation, and that when he examined the King he found bullet wounds
in Ludwig’s back. The only evidence for this is from an anonymous physician who
claimed to have read Magg’s confession when it was in the possession of Magg’s
evidence comes from a sworn affidavit by Munich banker Detlev Utermöhle in 2007.
Utermöhle claimed that when he was ten years old his parents took him to the
house of Countess Josephine von Wrba-Kaunitz. The Countess gathered her guests
and proceeded to show them a grey coat with two apparent bullet holes in the
back, explaining it was the coat King Ludwig II was wearing on the day he died.
Although Utermöhle claimed his mother left a written account, the coat was lost
in a house fire which also took the lives of the Countess and her husband.
The most recent
attempt to settle the mystery has been by Berlin historian Peter Glowasz.
Glowasz petitioned for the exhumation of Ludwig’s body, with the intention of
using computed tomography to examine the corpse for bullet holes.
If all the sources
were extant then there would be a compelling case to support the argument that
King Ludwig II was shot, and his death covered up. The removal of a problematic
symbol from Bavarian society. The difficulty is every time you try to grasp
onto a solid piece of evidence it becomes mist. A confession seen by an
anonymous physician. A diary now lost for nearly fifty years. Was the coat
shown to visitors by Countess Josephine von Wrba-Kaunitz the one worn by King
Ludwig II, or a prop to scandalise visitors? Was the fire too convenient, or
just a terrible accident?
As time creates distance from events, evidence can get more ephemeral. If we’re not careful the ambiguity and scarcity of that evidence can add extra weight to the suggestion of conspiracy rather than counter it. Was there a conspiracy to depose Ludwig II and lessen his influence by having him committed? Almost certainly. Did that conspiracy go further, to taking his life? The facts become tangled in lost diaries, devastating house fires, and unexhumed bodies.