Murder most foul

Doubts grow over 'suicide' of Bavaria’s fairytale king

Not crazy, just eccentric. Source: DPA / Picture Alliance / Heritage Images

Fresh evidence is emerging of an alleged Bavarian intrigue to depose a ruler – not Angela Merkel this time – but “mad” King Ludwig II, the eccentric monarch who was declared insane and dethroned in 1886, and whose status as a tragic hero is growing by the year.

A Munich film-director and a Berlin historian are convinced that the king, famed for building the fairytale palace of Neuschwanstein in the Bavarian Alps, fell victim to a coup and was murdered.

Their findings have fueled lingering doubts about the official version of events: that the monarch murdered his psychiatrist and then committed suicide by drowning himself in Lake Starnberg near Munich. The new leads suggest that there was nothing wrong with the king’s mind, and that he was shot in the back on the fateful night of June 13, 1886.

The new evidence is circumstantial and includes witness testimony about bullet holes in the king’s coat and a deathbed confession from the doctor who examined his body.

“This is about freeing Ludwig II from the stigma of being a suicidal murderer,” said Peter Glowasz, who has been researching Ludwig for 40 years. “He was a pious, decent man, not a violent man, and he did so much for Bavaria.”

Neuschwanstein castle surrounded by coloured fir trees at sunset. Schwangau, Schwaben, Bavaria, Germany.
Castles don't come cheap. Source: DPA

That’s undeniable. Ludwig’s creations, including the massive baroque palace of Herrenchiemsee and the smaller Rococo palace of Linderhof, are the work of a reclusive romantic trapped in the industrial age – and the world loves him for it. His castle in Neuschwanstein is probably best known in popular cuture as the inspiration for the Disneyland castle.

Some 1.4 million people from around the world visit Neuschwanstein each year and during the high season 6,000 visitors a day file through its chambers, admiring the oak carvings, the vaulted ceilings, the mosaics, marble columns and gilded bronze chandeliers of a palace built for one.

“I couldn’t believe my ears”

The latest revelation pointing to a cover-up has come in a documentary being shown in selected Bavarian cinemas this summer. Made by Klaus Bichlmeier, it contains an intriguing interview with a 97-year-old man, Willy Beyhl, who recounts how his father was ordered to burn the remaining belongings of the monarch in 1961.

“I couldn’t believe my ears at what he told me,” Mr. Bichlmeier said. “His testimony was utterly convincing and I asked him lots of trick questions but I couldn’t catch him out. His family used to live in a service apartment on the grounds of Nymphenburg Palace where his father was a handyman. One day the chauffeur came round and told his father to burn some belongings of Ludwig’s. A coat and documents. His father immediately spotted two bullet holes in the coat. He was sure they were bullet holes because he was a medic in the First World War.”

Mr. Bichlmeier has also uncovered an official document granting lifelong free accommodation in Nymphenburg, a residence of the royal Wittelsbach dynasty in Munich, to Leonhard Huber, a palace employee who found Ludwig’s dead body. “That was a bribe to keep him quiet,” claimed Mr Bichlmeier.

Mr. Bichlmeier, who has won awards for his documentaries, said he had decided to investigate Ludwig’s death after the last letter believed to have been written by the king became public in 2016. Dated June 10, 1886, one day after he was declared mad and deposed, the letter addressed to his cousin Prince Ludwig Ferdinand appears to show him quite sane and aware of his predicament, calling it a “disgraceful conspiracy.”

Mr. Bichlmeier said: “He wasn’t crazy. He was a bit strange but so is everybody in their own way. That letter he wrote was a cry for help and proves he was wide awake. It prompted me to resume my research into this.”

Surprisingly, the psychiatrist who declared him insane, Bernhard von Gudden, did so without ever examining him. Mr. Glowasz, the historian, said that suggests he was acting on the orders of Bavarian prime minister Johann Freiherr von Lutz, who wanted to get rid of the king because of the debts he was running up with his elaborate building projects which included a Chinese summer palace, sadly never built.

“Terrible bullet wounds”

“The report on his mental health was a concoction of misunderstandings, half-truths and complete lies,” said Mr. Glowasz. “It remains an absolute scandal to this day.”

One of the most compelling pieces of testimony has long been known. It is from the daughter of Rudolf Magg, the doctor who performed the initial autopsy on Ludwig, who apparently confessed to her on his death bed in 1921 that he had falsified his report on the orders of government officials. Magg said he had seen “terrible bullet wounds” in the king’s back but made no mention of them in the autopsy.

After his dethronement, Ludwig was taken to Berg Palace on the shore of Lake Starnberg. Three days after his arrest, he died. “He was shot while trying to escape across the lake in a rowing boat,” said Mr. Glowasz. “Orders had been given to open fire if he made an escape attempt. He didn’t kill Gudden. It’s likely that Gudden committed suicide or was shot to remove a witness.”

That’s one theory. There are many more: that he was poisoned, or suffered a heart attack. Even the official verdict still has many backers who find it inconceivable that anyone in arch-conservative Bavaria, least of all the government, would ever contemplate killing a king.

Mr. Glowasz, though, said he had even found out who the shooter was — but won’t reveal his identity yet because he’s keeping that nugget for an upcoming lecture tour. To provide final proof, he wants the Wittelsbach family to agree to a new autopsy of Ludwig’s body, entombed in a grand casket in crypt of St. Michael’s church in Munich.

But so far, the Wittelsbachs have refused because they do not want the body disturbed. “They wouldn’t even need to open the coffin,” said Mr. Glowasz. A virtual post mortem could be carried out using magnetic resonance imaging.

The historians have a prominent backer, Peter Gauweiler, a former CSU party stalwart, ex-minister in Bavarian governments and lawmaker in the national parliament until 2015. “A great drama in Bavaria’s history is increasingly coming to light,” he declared in 2016 when the Ludwig letter surfaced. “This was clearly a state coup.”

Whether the mystery is ever solved or not, Ludwig’s palaces have enriched Germany, and his memory still bedazzles millions of visitors. He was his own sort of romantic hero: a lonely monarch, who lived by night and slept by day, and hosted dinners with imaginary guests including French King Louis XIV; a dreamer who built a grotto inspired by Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser, complete with an artificial lake around which he had himself rowed in a shell-shaped boat on undulations made by a wave machine.

“The world will never forget him,” said Mr. Bichlmeier.

David Crossland is an editor for Handelsblatt Global.

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