BERLIN // The fate of "Mad" King Ludwig, the eccentric Bavarian monarch who built Germany's world-famous fairytale castles, has been shrouded in mystery since he was found floating dead in a lake on June 13 1886, four days after he was declared insane, deposed and placed under house arrest. Now a German historian has challenged the official verdict that the king killed his psychiatrist during an evening walk and then committed suicide by drowning himself in Starnberg Lake near Munich. His research, published in a book last month, casts fresh doubt on the original investigation and post mortem.
Peter Glowasz, who has researched the death of Ludwig II for 25 years, claims that the king was shot dead by a guard while trying to flee from the grounds of the palace where he was being held. He said it is time to set the record straight for a man whose enigmatic nature and legacy of spectacular palaces has turned him into a folk hero in the mountainous southern German state of Bavaria. Ludwig, a reclusive dreamer, had fallen foul of the Bavarian government because he ran up millions in debts constructing such stunning palaces as the Alpine castle of Neuschwanstein, the inspiration for Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty Castle, in a quest to create an idealised, romantic world for himself. More than 50 million people have visited Ludwig's three palaces to date.
"I'm utterly convinced that he was killed," Mr Glowasz said. "There was a cover-up because it would have been a disaster for the government if that had come out at the time. The verdict that he committed murder and then suicide is the lie of the century." Historians have long suspected that Ludwig was just a little weird rather than clinically insane, and that the government had him declared mad to rid itself of this extravagant, unworldly monarch.
Like the morning mist that envelops the turrets of magical Neuschwanstein, speculation has swirled around Ludwig's fate for more than a century, enhancing the legend of this shy ruler who once said: "I want to remain an eternal mystery to myself and others." Mr Glowasz's book The Death on Starnberg Lake cites several people who claim that in the 1950s a countess from Ludwig's royal Wittelsbach dynasty had shown them the coat and shirt he had worn on the night he died. The garments were blood-soaked and had two bullet holes in the chest area. Unfortunately, the countess died in a fire in 1973 and the clothes have vanished.
The book also contains testimony from a witness citing the daughter of Rudolf Magg, the doctor who performed the autopsy on Ludwig and who apparently confessed on his death bed that he had falsified his report on the orders of government officials. Magg said he had in fact seen "terrible bullet wounds" in the king's back. Mr Glowasz said an examination of Ludwig's body, entombed in the crypt of St Michael's church in Munich, would provide final proof. But the Wittelsbachs have steadfastly refused to permit an exhumation because they do not want the body disturbed. However, these days a "virtual post mortem" could be conducted without touching the body, through magnetic resonance imaging.
"The family has its reasons, maybe they don't want to cause an uproar," Mr Glowasz said. "The Bavarian government says it's up to the Wittelsbachs whether to allow an examination or not, that it's a private matter. But I think this is a public matter. People from all over the world come to see Ludwig's palaces these days, and they have a right to know how the architect died." Last year alone 2.3 million people visited Ludwig's three castles, with Neuschwanstein, an idealised replica of a medieval castle, by far the most popular of them, attracting 1.4 million.
Ludwig's massive baroque palace of Herrenchiemsee, inspired by Versailles, reflected his admiration for Louis XIV and his yearning for an absolutist monarchy. He spent little time in those two palaces though, preferring to live in the smaller Rococo villa of Linderhof, where he resided for about eight years in total. The king was virtually not seen in public after 1875 and led a nocturnal existence for much of his last decade, preferring to sleep during the day. Civil servants often struggled to get hold of him to sign government papers because he liked to spend time in remote mountain huts.
Nevertheless, many historians doubt that he was truly insane, and that view has been backed up by research from an eminent German psychiatrist who studied the original report on Ludwig's mental health. Professor Heinz Häfner is due to publish a book in the autumn concluding that Ludwig suffered from a form of agoraphobia, which may explain his reclusive nature, and that he was not mad even by the definitions of insanity that applied at the time.
Declaring him mad was merely a means to a political end, Mr Häfner said. "He was not insane." Christof Botzenhart, a Munich-based historian, doubts Ludwig was murdered, though. "I can't imagine who would have given the order to kill him," he said. "It just doesn't fit in with the style of the 19th century to murder a king." "Besides, he did have suicidal tendencies. When he was deposed he asked a servant for the key to a tower so that he could hurl himself from it, and he had previously made comments that he would rather die than lose his kingdom."
The desire to live in the past was not uncommon among Europe's royal families in the late 19th century as the continent was rapidly industrialising and their political powers were evaporating, Mr Botzenhart said. Other kings, princes and dukes also built themselves monumental palaces at the time. Ludwig, though, took things a little far. "The term Mad King Ludwig is justified to an extent because he lost his sense of reality," Mr Botzenhart said. "His palace building was excessive and totally incompatible with good budget governance. He went off the rails a bit, but it's exaggerated to say he was completely crazy."
Yet amid all his romantic reverie Ludwig did not completely neglect his government responsibilities. He defended Bavaria's status within the German empire and instigated legislation to protect historical monuments and buildings, Mr Botzenhart said. He was also a patron of his favourite composer, Richard Wagner, whom he rescued from financial ruin and whose grand operas based on European legends and myths struck a chord with the ever-dreaming king. It was the link between Ludwig and Wagner that led to the annual Bayreuth opera festival.
Even though he shunned his subjects, Bavarians are proud of King Ludwig to this day. "Ludwig has turned into a mythical figure divorced from history," Mr Botzenhart said. "The interest in him stems from his eccentricity, his castles and the mystery surrounding his death." Today Ludwig, like strong beer, Lederhosen and Alpine cowbells, is a symbol of Bavaria and his image is ubiquitous on postcards, chocolate boxes and beer glasses around this spectacular part of Germany. There is a King Ludwig beer brand and his portrait features on blue-and-white Bavarian national flags.
Part of this popularity stems from a sense of gratitude, Mr Glowasz said. "His palaces are a huge economic factor. No Bavarian politician has ever managed to bring so much money to Bavaria." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org