Many historians regard Ludwig II as a curious figure from a family with many eccentricities. As a number of personality traits tend to distort the essence of the case, let us begin by discussing and dismissing the best-known elephants from the room. At age twenty-one, Ludwig was engaged to his cousin Duchess Sophie Charlotte. Sophie was the favorite sister of Elisabeth (aka Sissi), Empress of Austria. Ludwig and Sophie were engaged for eight months in 1867. However, Ludwig cancelled the engagement. He never married and never had any known mistresses. From this chain of events, entries from his diary, private letters, and other surviving personal documents, many historians and muckrakers suggest that that the young king had “strong homosexual desires.” Since homosexuality had not been punishable in Bavaria since 1813, such claims did not have a great deal of bearing under Bavarian law. However, homosexuality was punishable under severe Prussian law.
Furthermore, let us keep in mind that marriages of state at that time did not require love between the couple. They merely demanded the production of a suitable heir and attendance together at required state functions. Couples were free to pursue whatever other personal life pleased them, as long as they remained suitably discrete. Nevertheless, Ludwig wrote to his former fiancée using a mutually understood quote from the opera Lohengrin by Richard Wagner: “My beloved Elsa! Your cruel father has torn us apart. Eternally yours, Heinrich.” As the marriage of Ludwig and Sophie would have been a cousin-marriage repeated for a second generation within a family that had challenges from inbreeding, one might suggest that Sophie’s father, Duke Maximilian Joseph, may have intervened to halt the marriage due to concerns over further inbreeding. With these matters laid out, let us set aside the assertions that Ludwig was murdered because of his sexuality.
His Finances & Bavaria’s Economy
King Ludwig has been characterized as a spendthrift who bankrupted both himself and the Bavarian treasury. However, Ludwig wanted Bavaria to become a cultural center of Europe. To do this, he built the Bayreuth Festival Theatre in Munich that opened in 1876. Ludwig built the theatre as the patron of composer Richard Wagner, whose works were performed there. After visiting Versailles and other major palaces that expressed the character of their respective countries, Ludwig drew the original sketches for and oversaw the construction of three “fairytale” castles in the southern Bavarian countryside and made additions to the Residenz Palace in Munich.
Today, we know that Ludwig paid for these “public-works” projects largely with his own inherited funds, supplemented through personal debt that increased to 14 million marks ($211 million in current U.S. dollars) by 1885. There is a lesser-known financial fact that may be relevant to this case. Ludwig, along with other heads of state throughout Europe, drew an income from the Welfenfonds (aka Guelph Funds). These funds came from the confiscation of property that concurred with the annexation of the Kingdom of Hanover in the German War of 1866. Ludwig drew 270,000 marks per year from 1873 to 1885 (about 3,375,000 marks in total–$50.9 million in current U.S.). This annual draw covered 10% of the cost of building the three castles.
Therefore, let us put the economics of Ludwig’s projects in perspective. The Neuschwanstein castle, built atop a mountain, is the most famous. However, it was the least expensive of the three castles built by King Ludwig. This castle took twenty years to construct and cost 6,180,047 marks ($93.2 million in current U.S.). Over the two decades, the Neuschwanstein project was the primary employer in its vicinity, with 200 to 300 craftspeople employed at any given time. These artisans used materials harvested and brought by lesser-skilled labor and local businesses from this region, which is located fifty miles southwest of Munich.
The other two castle projects, Linderhof (located ten miles east of Neuschwanstein) and Herrenchiemsee (located forty miles southeast of Munich), were the more expensive ones. Linderhof cost 5.8 million marks ($128 million in current U.S.). Herrenchiemsee came in at just under 16.6 million marks ($251 million in current U.S.). Together, these three projects cost $471 million, current U.S. In perspective, the cost of the Freedom Tower at the site of the World Trade Center cost $4 billion, paid for by an insurance settlement of a near-equal amount.
The three castles opened to the public shortly after the death of Ludwig. Since then, their number of annual visitors has grown into the millions. Neuschwanstein alone receives 1.3 million visitors per year. If we were to measure the economic impact of these projects to their local vicinities in terms of admission fees, food and lodging, and a multiplier for the value of increased employment and local spending, we would determine that the castles have recouped their cost many times over. Today, one could argue that Ludwig II was the father of modern tourism in Bavaria. Although, his contemporaries may not have shared the same foresight, the spending of public funds perceived as excessive was continually approved over the two decades of construction and could have been curtailed easily by means other than murder.
However, there remains one significant support to the assertion of an economic motive for murder. Historians have noted that Ludwig maintained the loyalty of the Bavarian people and the military, who voiced their desire for independence from the Reich; of course this loyalty was not shared by most of the government ministers. Also, given the past history of property confiscation that included the Welfenfonds by the Kaiserreich, Ludwig may have had the sense to empty both the Bavarian treasury and his own pockets as much as possible out of fear of the slow but eventual takeover by von Bismarck and the Reich. The castle projects broke ground in 1869, two years after the formation of the North German Federation of 1867 (the year of Ludwig’s engagement) but before Bavaria reluctantly joined the German Empire in 1871. If Ludwig stalled for time against the inevitable, a slow annual flow of marks to the people of Bavaria provided two decades of consistent employment as well as a wide disbursement of wealth among the populace.
In the end, this left the state of Bavaria with land, buildings, and people but not much in the way of portable wealth. After the death of Ludwig, the inevitable finally happened during the Regency Era. Prince Otto, the younger brother of Ludwig and the next in line for the throne, was in an asylum at the time of his brother’s death. Although he was technically the new king, Otto was deposed quickly by his paternal uncle, Prince Luitpold, who assumed the regency. Given this event on top of the actions of the Culture War, which came to a head at that time, one might ask if some interests decided to put an end to the subtle resistance promulgated by Ludwig and his loyalists once and for all.