Saturday, 25 January 2014
I take the motorway towards the Austrian border and Salzburg, but turn off towards the village of Prien and the Chiemsee, a large lake. The land is covered in a thin layer of snow that fell over night as the temperature dropped towards zero. Driving on the right-hand side of the road with a British car is not a problem, but the lack of winter tyres may soon turn out to be one. So far, luckily, the roads are clear.
How to take a ticket from the machine at the large parking lot near the piers? With the steering wheel on the wrong side of the car, one must lunge through the passenger window to reach the button, taking care not to slip off the pedals in the process.
The next ship tour around the lake begins at noon, leaving ample time to wander along the promenade. There is a lovely winter mood, with gulls perching on snowy piers and the light reflected on the cold, grey water.
Then the tour ship Berta arrives and gathers up a surprising number of people braving the cold on this bleak day. She delivers us to the Herreninsel, the largest island in the lake.
A twenty-minute walk along a smoothly tarmacked path through the woods leads to the hidden castle of Herrenchiemsee, a pet project of Ludwig II of Bavaria. This sensitive, creative and introverted king used extravagant building projects to escape from the sordid reality of political intrigue and power games.
Ludwig II felt much more at home in an ideal world of legend, music, art and architecture. In 1873 he acquired the island as a setting for this impressive castle. It was built in homage to Versailles as a miniature copy of that grand chateau and its gardens and was designed to be a temple of glory, dedicated to Ludwig’s idol Louis XIV. Every imaginable luxury was lavished on the building, and King Ludwig paid for everything from his own coffers, thus amassing a huge personal debt.
Work began in 1878 and continued for seven years, yet castle and gardens remain unfinished. King Ludwig’s exhausted funds and sudden, unexplained death (days after his deposition because of alleged insanity) put an end to his dream.
Even so, the completed parts are impressive. The guided tour of about thirty minutes takes us through extensive state rooms, clad in many-coloured marble panels and furnished with massive lead-crystal chandeliers reflected endlessly in huge, gilded mirrors, parquet floors inlaid in intricate patterns with costly, scented tropical woods, colourful frescoes and priceless embroidered draperies, as well as a collection of precious clocks and a table designed to be set near the kitchen below stairs and then hauled up by mechanical magic.
But King Ludwig II also integrated the newest technology in his building projects, like cleverly disguised central heating and running hot and cold water. Furthermore, he was a pioneer of the beginnings of social security. The workers on his castle projects could join a society that would pay a certain sum per day of illness, and carry the costs of the wake and a mass in case of death.
These days, the castles that led to Ludwig’s financial ruin are Bavaria’s main attractions and have paid for themselves many times over, drawing millions of visitors each year from all over the world …
Intrigued by this king’s tragic story, I decide to learn more about his life and visit the museum in one of the castle’s wings. Apparently, Ludwig II envisioned flying machines from an early age and later ordered various engineers to work on this idea, unaware that such a feat was not yet technically possible. Unfortunately, this dream of his was later used as one of the most damning arguments in the report ordered by his ministers to prove Ludwig’s unsound mind. However, when Bismarck was approached by the conspirators, he dismissed the report with the verdict that “the Ministers wish to sacrifice the King, otherwise they have no chance of saving themselves.”
Indeed, Ludwig II was considering replacing them all, for their constant opposition to his projects irritated and frustrated him. So the ministers, preferring to act quickly, commissioned a panel of four eminent psychiatrists with an investigation; and although not one of these doctors had met the king, nor ever examined him, their findings were that the king suffered from paranoia and was no longer fit to rule.
“Suffering from such a disorder, freedom of action can no longer be allowed and Your Majesty is declared incapable of ruling, which incapacity will be not only for a year’s duration, but for the length of Your Majesty’s life.”
The detailed files of the king’s personal physician, who strove to show that there could be no question of mental illness, were dismissed unread.
It all makes the words of Richard Wagner, who met with Ludwig II in May 1864, seem prophetic:
“Heute wurde ich zu ihm geführt. Er ist leider so schön und geistvoll, seelenvoll und herrlich, dass ich fürchte, sein Leben müsse wie ein flüchtiger Göttertraum in dieser gemeinen Welt zerrinnen … Von dem Zauber seines Auges können Sie sich keinen Begriff machen: wenn er nur leben bleibt; es ist ein zu unerhörtes Wunder!”
(“Today I met with him. Alas, he is so handsome and ingenious, soulful and magnificent, that I fear his life must melt away like an ephemeral divine dream in this vulgar world … You cannot imagine the magic of his eye: if only he remains alive; it is too great a miracle!”)
Ludwig II had found in Wagner’s operatic work the kind of fantasy world that appealed to his imagination, and he became Wagner’s generous patron and the saviour of this obstinate, rebellious and debt-ridden composer’s career. Reports about King Ludwig’s peculiar habits observe reproachfully that the king shunned public shows at the theatre and instead ordered private performances for his solitary enjoyment. But the king himself confided that he could not possibly enjoy a performance and immerse himself in the story while being stared at by the crowds who followed his every expression through their opera glasses – surely perfectly understandable and a sign of normality rather than eccentricity.
That this king was too sensitive to withstand the expectations and duties his role placed upon him is further illustrated by his aversion to war. Nevertheless, he was forced by a treaty with Prussia to do battle against France in 1870. After the victory, Wilhelm the First was proclaimed German Emperor – in Versailles, of all places – and Ludwig considered this an insult to the French people. He refused to take part in the celebration, thus making himself more enemies at home.
He was critically aware of his situation, as shown by another quote where he reflects on the fact that he acceded to the throne at the age of eighteen.
“I became king much too early. I had not learned enough. I had made such a good beginning (…) with the learning of state laws. Suddenly I was snatched away from my books and set on the throne. Well, I am still trying to learn …”
Today it is widely believed that Ludwig was an innocent victim of political intrigue. His cousin Sissy, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, knew him closely and held the view that “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.”