Monday, March 2, 2015

Monarch Profile: King Ludwig II of Bavaria

Probably no other King of Bavaria looms so large in the popular memory as Ludwig II. This is due in large part to the lasting legacy he left behind as well as the fact that he was such an enigma. He also reigned during a pivotal time in Bavarian history, when the leadership of the German-speaking peoples passed from Austria to Prussia and when the German states were reunited into the German Empire. A man of vision to some, a lunatic to others, his leadership qualities have often been doubted but his accomplishments cannot be. He left an indelible mark on the Kingdom of Bavaria and aside from any personal problems he may have had, a few facts stand on their own; accusations of his mental instability do not stand up to close scrutiny and he left a Bavaria more secure and more beautiful than he found it. He may not have been exactly “normal” but if one takes a step back from all of the controversy, they might see that King Ludwig II was not so unusual as most think and he certainly stands above any republic leader his country (or later state) has had since the downfall of the monarchy.

Prince Ludwig Otto Friedrich Wilhelm, of the royal house of Wittelsbach, was born on August 25, 1845 at Nymphenburg Palace to King Maximilian II of Bavaria and Queen Marie of Prussia (niece of King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia). He was named Ludwig after his Bavarian grandfather and because he was born on the feast of King St Louis IX of France, Otto was the name favored by his parents and Friedrich Wilhelm of course came from the Prussian side of the family. In keeping with the times, Prince Ludwig had a very strict upbringing as a child. In fact, those who think of royals living pampered lives of privilege would undoubtedly be shocked to know just how strict even some of the most lofty royal children were treated in the past. From his earliest childhood his days were dominated by rigorous schedule of hours of study broken by regular doses of intense exercise. There was scarcely time to even consider idleness or frivolity and he had much more contact with his tutors than with his parents. Ludwig and his father seemed to have little to say to each other and he never even referred to his mother as such but in later life simply called her, “my predecessor’s consort”. Most regard him as being closer to his grandfather, King Ludwig I, known for his artistic and romantic attachments and that it was Ludwig I who imparted a fascination with architecture and building on Ludwig II.

In fact, Ludwig and his father may have been more alike than most people think. King Maximilian II had an interest in architecture as well, was also a great patron of the arts (particularly literature) and, as monarch, Ludwig II would carry on with essentially the same policies as his father, especially in regards to foreign affairs. Rather, tensions between father and son seemed to be something of a family tradition. The first Ludwig and Maximilian II did not get along terribly well and so it is not very surprising that he and his son were not very close either. Too much shouldn’t be made of such a thing as it was hardly unique to Bavaria and as cool as fathers and sons could be to each other, things certainly never degenerated to the point they did in places like Britain or Prussia with fathers having their sons arrested! As he grew into adolescence, Prince Ludwig came to have a fascination with ancient German history and mythology, stories of chivalry and knighthood and developed very close friendships with Prince Paul of Thurn und Taxis and his cousin Princess Elizabeth (future Empress of Austria).

The young prince was eighteen when the death of his father brought him to the Bavarian throne on March 10, 1864 as King Ludwig II, a handsome and popular monarch from the outset. He was young and inexperienced but had the awareness to acknowledge this and so kept his father’s ministers where they were and made no major changes in policy or personnel. King Ludwig II is often accused of caring nothing for the government of his country but rather being focused on his own personal interests such as art, music and architecture. However, this is putting a noticeably negative “spin” on what could just as easily be seen as a very coherent national policy and that was the beautification and revitalization of the Kingdom of Bavaria. When he began construction of the new Gärtnerplatz Theater, he was setting out on what amounted to a program of Bavarian glorification. What is often called an obsession with his own hobbies can just as easily and with as much justification be called a campaign to make the Kingdom of Bavaria a cultural heartland for the German people.

It would take time, of course, but it would make Bavaria stand out and it may have, at least in part, been influenced by the international situation in the German-speaking community. When Ludwig II came to the throne the Second Schleswig War had already started and the rivalry between the Kingdom of Prussia and the Austrian Empire for German leadership was becoming heated. Ludwig II was the son of a Prussian mother but his national policy was one of alliance with Austria and he had family ties with the House of Hapsburg as well. The artistic endeavors of the king might have served to raise the status of Bavaria in the midst of this rivalry as well as reminding both sides of their shared German heritage through such works as the King’s favorite composer, Richard Wagner, many of whose works focused on Germanic-Norse mythology and folklore. It would also be untrue to say that Ludwig II cared nothing for his people, something often suggested by his shunning of large crowds and public events of royal pageantry. The King disliked such mob events but frequently traveled around his kingdom, talking individually to ordinary Bavarians on their farms and in small villages. He would listen to them, hear their stories and often, to their joyful surprise, would send generous gifts to them later. Despite all the rumors about the King, he always remained very popular.

For most of the reign of King Ludwig II the dominating issue was the unification of Germany and he had not been long on the throne when war broke out between Prussia and Austria in 1866. The Kingdom of Italy and some minor German states allied with Prussia while most of the major German states allied with Austria such as Saxony, Wurttemberg, Hannover and Hesse. Under Ludwig II, Bavaria joined alongside Austria against the Prussians as well. However, though Bavarian troops saw action in a victory against the Prussians at the Battle of Langensalza, it proved to be of no avail. In July, Prussian forces won the decisive Battle of Sadowa, virtually eliminating any Austrian opposition in the north while in the south, after winning the Battle of Bezzecca, Italian forces were poised to threaten the South Tyrol. Austria did win the last battle, against the Prussians at Lamacs, but it had no effect on the outcome. Austria was forced to make peace, the “Peace of Prague” that excluded Austria from German affairs and replaced the Austrian-led German Confederation with the Prussian-led North German Confederation.

The Kingdom of Bavaria was forced to pay an indemnity to Prussia and was, from that point, effectively dependent on Prussia. It had little choice to fall in and go to war with the French Second Empire alongside Prussia and the other German states in 1870. After the French were soundly defeated, Bavaria, having joined the North German Confederation, was to be the second most significant member state of the new German Empire that Bismarck was forming under Prussian King Wilhelm I (Ludwig II’s uncle). The King endorsed the idea of a united Germany but objected to the way it was done and boycotted the official proclamation of Wilhelm I as German Kaiser. Ludwig II gave his rather grudging consent to the union after the reception of a large payment from Bismarck which the King was sorely in need of because of his strained financial situation due to his lavish building programs and patronages. However, one blatant fact that is often overlooked in the King’s objections to how unification came was that it resulted in Bavaria being given a great deal more autonomy than other states. The Kingdom of Prussia was naturally going to be the leader of the new empire but the Kingdom of Bavaria was certainly “number two” in the hierarchy of Germany. If King Ludwig II had taken a different tone, this might not have been the case at all.

For most of the next decade there was not much that Ludwig II busied himself with policy-wise and in 1886 he was deposed by what amounted to a sort of coup from within the upper-echelons of power in Bavaria and the Royal Family. The justification for this was the accusation that King Ludwig II was insane. Was he then, and why did he come to be so controversial? I may not be capable of an entirely impartial opinion but, as with not a few cases of alleged royal insanity, the “evidence” produced does not seem all that convincing to me. What much of it came down to was his private life, his spending habits and his aspirations, what some have referred to as the King drifting away into a land of fantasy. In terms of his private life, he was engaged once but never married and from his private papers seems to have had homosexual inclinations. However, from these same private papers (letters, diaries etc) we can also see that he viewed such inclinations as a temptation toward sin that he had to struggle against. No one can say with any certainty that he ever gave in to these temptations and I would find it difficult to see how anyone could hold his inclinations against him, given his attitude, unless they are just simply a hateful person. That was probably the least of his “issues” though as it was something kept very private and which he obviously resisted.

The issue of his drifting away from reality is often tied to what is the most often cited “evidence” for his insanity which was the vast sums of money he spent building palaces, castles and theaters. He certainly built a great many and had plans to do even more. Suggestions that he wished to form a secret order of royalists and dreamed of taking over the Canary Islands may have been just a bit on the eccentric side but I am the last person who could criticize him for that. In terms of his spending on so many palaces, it is important to remember that while he did spend himself into enormous debt on these magnificent architectural works of art, it was *his* debt and not that of the Bavarian government. He was not using tax money taken from ordinary Bavarian farmers to pay for these things but was strictly doing it all from his own personal fortune. He also had some odd habits to be sure but so do many other people and there really is nothing concrete that can be pointed to as proof that he was out of touch with reality.

What seems to be the case is that his ministers were tired of trying to deal with a monarch who had little patience for their lectures about his finances and constant complaining that he was not acting like a monarch should. He threatened to dismiss them and so, fearing for their own power and position, decided to try to have him deposed on grounds of insanity before he could take action against them. They tried to enlist other members of the Royal Family to support them, particularly Prince Luitpold (son Ludwig I and the King’s uncle) but he was reluctant without real proof of debilitating mental illness. Accusations of insanity amongst the Wittelsbachs was becoming rather common and was not the sort of thing that was conducive to the stability and longevity of the monarchy as an institution. When the Prince demanded proof the ministers presented a letter signed by four doctors declaring the King unfit to rule though they were hand-picked by the opposition and none of them had ever even examined the King! Nonetheless, perhaps thinking about the Royal Family’s finances, Prince Luitpold ultimately went along with it as the government declared him regent and King Ludwig II deposed.

It was a very troubling time for Bavaria and crowds of peasants and ordinary townsfolk had to be dispersed by the police when they rallied in favor of their King. The ministers tried to enlist the support of Bismarck in Berlin, but the “Iron Chancellor” wanted no part of it and refused to get involved. In the early hours of June 12, 1886 Ludwig II was taken into custody and placed under house arrest. The next day he went for a walk with a doctor of his and the two were later found dead in a nearby lake. The official cause of death was suicide by drowning but the autopsy clearly showed that he had not drowned. How exactly the King met his end may never be determined for certain, instead, it remains one last mystery in the life of a very mysterious sort of monarch. He was succeeded by his brother Otto, who was in turn declared unfit to rule on grounds of insanity and so Prince Luitpold went on being King of Bavaria in all but name until his death in 1912 when all pretense was dropped and his son was declared King Ludwig III, the last King of Bavaria to date. On the whole, Bavaria did not suffer because of any of this and the country prospered during the regency, undergoing what many have called something of a “golden age” which is certainly preferable to the alternative and shows that Prince Luitpold was an able man even if some never forgave him for his part in deposing his nephew.

In closing, it is impossible to think of King Ludwig II without thinking of the many palaces and architectural masterpieces he left behind. His buildings are probably more well known around the world than the man himself and even if one considers the King to have been a horrible monarch and mentally ill, I think any would have to admit that his reign was ultimately to the benefit of Bavaria. Those famous buildings he left behind, so controversial at the time because of their cost, have proven to priceless works of art. They are a legacy in the same way as the Pyramids of Giza are to Egypt or the Great Wall is to China. They have benefited Bavaria immensely and not just in the cultural sense but even in a plain and dirty monetary sense; they are still drawing in massive amounts of money for the local economy and the usurper government by attracting tourists from all over the world. King Ludwig II may not have been the ideal monarch and I would never say he was but I don’t think he was insane nor do I think his reign was detrimental. On the contrary, I look at what he left behind and am quite convinced that Bavaria would have been less without him.


  1. Bavaria would certainly be less but for him. I hope to look upon his wonderful castles with my own eyes someday.

  2. I have been to that castle. It's even more impressive in person.

  3. Thank you very much for this excellent article! Honestly, I didn't expect you to come up with it so quickly after I made the suggestion. A few years ago Duke Franz told an interesting story in an interview. When his aunt, Princess Pilar, for the first time visited one of Ludwig's castles (the Königshaus on Mt Schachen), she looked around and said: "Well, now I know he was crazy..."
    Maybe at least one of Ludwig's wishes has become true - he wanted to be an eternal enigma. There are thousands of books about almost every aspect of his life and reign, and yet he certainly is the most mysterious monarch of our country. And perhaps this is the greatest legacy of Ludwig, since it keeps many people interested in monarchy. Nobody, not even the most ignorant person, will ever forget, that there once was a time, Bavaria had a king.

    Just one remark, though. I would call Dr Gudden, the man who died together with the king, anything but his close friend! In fact, Gudden was one of the doctors that had helped to depose Ludwig.

    1. It worked out well, having already covered Ludwig III and Otto, he was next on my list anyway. Someone also recently requested a profile on King Louis XVIII, who also happens to be next on my list of French monarchs to cover. Thanks for the tip about von Gudden, I had thought he was with someone else but you are right. I'll adjust that part directly.

  4. A fascinating figure, if nothing else. I'd heard of him, of course, and Neuschwanstein Castle is near the top of my list of places to see before I leave this good Earth, but I never knew a great deal about Ludwig II's life until now. Your royal biographies are always enlightening. I wonder if you could tell me- is there any truth to the story that the King had to be discouraged by his ministers from a plan to rob the banks of England and France to pay off his debts, or is it another invention?

    1. I hadn't heard that one. It wouldn't surprise me if he said something like that but I doubt he was serious. Much of what is said about him, it must be kept in mind, comes from people who were trying to justify his removal, so you have to keep a little skepticism.

  5. Today we would say that Ludwig had 'issues' and urge therapy and/or medication, options that simply were not available in the 1880s. In fairness to the government of Bavaria Ludwig was not doing his job, in justice to the royal family he was endangering the financial security of them all. Dr. Gudden is generally condemned yet he seems to have been the one man who genuinely believed that Ludwig could be helped. He seems to have been attempting a form of activity therapy and was certainly doing his best to win the King's confidence and cooperation. Ludwig murdered the one man who wanted to help him rather than just lock him away.


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