Louis II

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LOUIS II (in German, Ludwig II, 1845–1886; ruled 1864–1886), king of Bavaria.

Louis II, popularly known as "Mad King Ludwig," came to the throne of Bavaria upon the death of his father, Maximilian II, on 10 March 1864. Louis's ill-starred rule ended with his own controversial death on 13 June 1886.

"Max died too soon," wrote Louis's mother when her son inherited the throne at age eighteen. She meant by this that Crown Prince Louis was too innocent and unworldly for his royal duties. He had spent his childhood and early adolescence under the lax tutelage of his art-loving grandfather, King Louis I, who was forced to abdicate the throne over his infatuation with the self-proclaimed "Spanish dancer" Lola Montez in 1848. Louis learned nothing about statecraft from either Louis I or his cold and distant father, and his later problems as king were forecast by his childhood passions for dressing up as a nun and constructing elaborate edifices out of toy bricks. At age thirteen he became obsessed with the operas of Richard Wagner and devoted endless hours to acting them out.

Louis's first act as king was to invite Wagner, then fifty-three, to move to Munich as composer-inresidence. Like Lola Montez before him, Wagner soon incurred the wrath of the citizens of Munich by living grandly at state expense, engaging in sexual scandal, and meddling in royal affairs. Oblivious to popular sentiment, Louis promised to build the composer a magnificent new theater in Munich for the exclusive performance of Wagner's own works. Louis's ministers became convinced that the king might be forced to go the way of his grandfather if he did not rescind the theater plan and send the freeloading Wagner packing. In December 1865 Louis tearfully dismissed Wagner from his service, but he continued to subsidize the composer and eventually provided part of the funding for the creation of Wagner's festival theater at Bayreuth.

Louis never forgave the people of Munich for forcing him to jettison Wagner. He got his revenge by avoiding his capital for the rest of his life. He spent the bulk of his time in the nearby Alps, where he built, at enormous state expense, his spectacular rural retreats: Linderhof, Herrenchiemsee, and Neuschwanstein. Considered "holy places" by Louis, the castles were inaccessible to the public.

In 1866, when Prussian Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck coerced Austria into war in hopes of making Prussia the primary arbiter in German affairs, Louis, who despised Prussia, cast Bavaria's lot with Austria. (He refused, however, to march with his troops, insisting that wearing a helmet would ruin his coiffure.) The Bavarians were routed along with the Austrians after only seven weeks of fighting. Embittered, Louis retreated ever more thoroughly into his reclusive dream world in the Alps, where, rumor had it, he engaged in increasingly bizarre behavior—conversing with imaginary guests at dinner; forcing his valet to wear a bag over his head; and taking moonlit sleigh rides accompanied only by a retinue of young boys. In 1866 he became engaged to a cousin, Sophie, but as the wedding approached he insisted he would rather drown himself than marry, and the nuptials were called off.

Louis was in the mountains when France declared war on Prussia in 1870. He had no interest in the war, but this time he consented to Bavaria's joining the alliance of German states in their victory over France, which set the stage for the unification of Germany. Louis signed an "imperial letter" inviting King William I of Prussia to become Emperor William I of Germany. In return, Bismarck saw to it that Louis secretly received imperial funds to continue his building projects.

While Bismarck and Emperor William I presided over the consolidation and material growth of the new German state, Louis, secluded in the Alps, worked on the decoration of his châteaux and indulged his passions for historical drama, neo-medieval poetry, and romantic painting. He used imagery from Wagner's operas as the main themes in decorating his castles. He commissioned dozens of historical paintings based on his readings in medieval literature and poetry. Unlike his grandfather, however, whose collections enriched the museums of Munich, Louis bought paintings only for himself.

Increasingly, Louis refused to conduct any of the mundane duties expected of a king; he rarely held royal audiences, neglected to read state documents, and almost never let himself be seen by his people. In the mid-1880s, word had it that he was planning to build yet another mega-castle above Neuschwanstein. Concluding that the king was a dangerous liability to the Bavarian state and to the continuing rule of the Wittelsbach dynasty, Louis's ministers now decided to have him declared mentally unfit to carry on his royal duties. An "alienist" (psychiatrist), Dr. Bernhard von Gudden, was appointed to collect the data necessary to confirm the king's insanity. Von Gudden interviewed a number of court lackeys and household servants, but not the king himself, before duly drawing up a "medical report" stating that Louis suffered from an incurable mental disturbance. In June 1886 Louis's cabinet sent a delegation of medical men, accompanied by soldiers, to Neuschwanstein to seize the king and convey him to a smaller castle on Lake Starnberg near Munich, where he could be put away for life. Before locking him up in his gilded cage, however, his minders allowed him to go out for a walk along the lake with von Gudden. The two men never returned. Searchers eventually found the bodies of Louis and his doctor floating face down a few meters from the shore. To this day, nobody knows exactly what happened.

Was Louis indeed "mad," or just wildly eccentric? The question of the king's sanity continues to be debated, but even those who insist he was sane concede that he was not a very effective monarch. On the other hand, the Bavarian state can be thankful for the building mania that got Louis into so much trouble during his lifetime. These days, Neuschwanstein is the most heavily visited tourist site in Europe after the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris.

See alsoAustro-Prussian War; Franco-Prussian War; Germany; Romanticism; Wagner, Richard; Willam I.


Blunt, Wilfred. The Dream King: Ludwig II of Bavaria. New York, 1970.

Hüttl, Ludwig. Ludwig II, König von Bayern: Eine Biographie. Munich, 1986.

Prinz, Friedrich. Ludwig II: Ein königliches Doppelleben. Berlin, 1993.

David Clay Large