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Neuschwanstein Castle

The Killing of the King of Fairytales: Conspiracies and the Death of Ludwig II

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.

Portrait of Louis II, King of Bavaria

These concerns led to the construction of elaborate buildings such as the copy of Versailles Palace at Herreninsel, Chiemsee, Linderhoff, and, of course, Neuschwanstein.

Neuschwanstein in 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.

Ludwig’s pet 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.

Neuschwanstein Throne Hall
Throne Hall of Neuschwanstein Castle

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 daughter.

More recent 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.


Sources and further reading:

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