Neuschwanstein Castle near Füssen in Bavaria is packed with myths and desires. Is it the work of a wasteful lunatic, or the wondrous conception of a genius who was never understood? Is it a medieval castle or modern construction? The castle is inseparable from the tragic fate of The Swan King, Bavarian King Ludwig II.
While many people who look at it may think it is a medieval castle it was actually in 1869 that the first stone was laid. Ingenious, divine, or absolute Kitsch. Schloss Neuschwanstein (“New Swanstone Castle”) is a dramatic Romanesque fortress with soaring fairy-tale towers. It’s a place with an allure that reaches around the world. And yet, it was built for one man alone: Ludwig the Second, or the Fairy Tale King, as he’s known to us today.
His legacy includes a castle and a myth. The man who built it never had the pleasure of living in his finished palace. The king died before it was completed, and the circumstances surrounding his death remain unclear to this day. His story has become a legend, and his legacy lives on. The stories of Neuschwanstein Castle and the man who built it, Ludwig the Second, are so closely entwined with each other as to make them almost unique in the history of Germany.
It all began in Hohenschwangau. Ludwig’s father, King Maximilian the second, rebuilt a late medieval castle here, turning it into a comfortable home. The family often spent summers here. Much to his father’s regret, Ludwig, the firstborn son, was wholly uninterested in politics. Instead, with his younger brother, Otto, he preferred to explore the area around the Alpsee and Schwansee lakes, as well as Hohenschwangau.
In Hohenschwangau Castle, is where the early childhood of Ludwig and his younger brother Otto unfolded. The walls are decorated with scenes from medieval legends — it’s all very cozy, very romantic. Ludwig grew up surrounded by fair maidens, dragons, and heroes. His relationship with his father was a distant one. Ludwig felt he was “treated with condescension”. And he found that his mother lacked a poetic sensibility. At the age of eighteen, Prince Ludwig felt more at home in the world of legends than in the mundane real world.
His father, Maximilian the Second, died suddenly in March 1864. Young Prince Ludwig was shocked by the fact that he was to ascend to the throne automatically and at once. We know that he left his father’s death bed in floods of tears, and he was even more shaken when a servant addressed him as “Your Majesty” immediately after his father passed away. No one had prepared him for this sudden accession to the throne. Three days after the funeral, he wrote in his diary just one word filling the entire page: “KING”. Ludwig the Second of Bavaria felt torn and unsure at first. He was someone who lacked stability, a man who was utterly unsuitable for his job as king, the representative of the Bavarian State. Germany as we know it today did not exist. That didn’t happen until 1871.
At least young Ludwig had been taught how to handle money. The records of Prince Ludwig’s pocket money can be found in the Archives of the House of Wittelsbach. In July 1862, he spent a total of 19 guilders and 48 crowns on the theater, donations for the poor, chocolate, and presents. The prince had to keep meticulous accounts of what he spent and present them to his father. It was meant to help the crown prince learn how to live frugally, of course. And you can see that, for example, when he wanted to go to the theater, he would have to pay for it himself.
His father’s lessons on what Ludwig considered to be excessive frugality had a big impact on him. He decreed after his father’s death, upon his coronation: “I want no more of this unnecessary miserliness!” This led to the excessiveness that later left him his legacy. Unfortunately, he didn’t understand that even a king’s resources are not endless. His Majesty didn’t learn from his father’s example.
Ludwig was intensely interested in the operas of Richard Wagner. This interest began when Ludwig first saw Lohengrin at the impressionable age of 15, followed by Tannhäuser ten months later. Wagner’s operas appealed to the king’s fantasy-filled imagination.
One of his first official acts was to invite the highly-indebted composer Richard Wagner to Munich and to finance him unconditionally. Wagner had a notorious reputation as a political radical and philanderer and was constantly on the run from creditors. He encountered Wagner’s musical dramas, based on themes that were very much inspired by the medieval fairy tale world, and became an ardent fan of that music. And so the Maestro, as he respectfully called the composer, became one of the first people to learn of the king’s somewhat unusual plan in the Allgäu area. He wrote to Wagner: I intend to build a new castle above the old castle ruins in Hohenschwangau by the Pöllat gorge, in the true style of the castles built for ancient German knights.
In 1867, he visited Eugène Viollet-le-Duc‘s work at Pierrefonds, and the Palace of Versailles in France, as well as the Wartburg near Eisenach in Thuringia, which largely influenced the style of his construction.
The first sketches show a fairly simple castle. For Neuschwanstein he commissioned a theatrical scene-painter, Christian Jank, to do the initial designs. And naturally, those designs were — quite literally — theatrical.
His design fused elements from Medieval Germany, Moorish Spain, and the mythical world of Richard Wagner’s works. It’s also an indirect challenge to his father’s cozy Hohenschwangau Castle, built in the Biedermeier aesthetic and with scenes from historical picture books on the walls. He wanted something grand, something divorced from the real world and on a monumental scale. And he was to achieve it. An architectural dream come true.
The man who commissioned it wanted to escape reality with constructed fantasy.
At the time of the construction, no one criticized the construction of Neuschwanstein. Due to its high altitude, this region of Bavaria is not very fertile, so people didn’t live a life of affluence there. And a giant construction project like Neuschwanstein fed approximately a third of the population in Füssen.
It was even possible to run into the king. There are some stories, like the one of him meeting a young cowherd who asked him the time. The boy had no clue who the stranger was. Then he said, “Why do you need to know what time it is?” And the boy replied precociously, “Well, I have to take my cows for milking, and I don’t know when.” He then told the boy the time and even asked for the name of the farm. Two days later, a king’s servant rode up on a horse and handed the boy a fob watch on a chain, so he could see the time himself and know when he should take the cows in. And there are a whole lot of stories at this personal level, painting a very different picture of the king than how he’s depicted now.
At the time, especially in Munich he was known as a spendthrift and a maverick, but in Southern Bavaria, his subjects admired him as a monarch with a personal touch.
The Construction of the Castle
First, the ancient ruins of a previous castle and the mountain top were removed from the site. A new steam crane was constantly at work during the building. Ludwig the Second was not just a dreamer, he was a visionary, too. He had the will, the imagination, and of course the power and the resources to make this dream come true. The blueprint for a mega-sized project. Ludwig was impatient and fastidious, and he wanted the building to progress as quickly as possible. When anything didn’t go the way he wanted, he would be extremely displeased. Those responsible would fall into the “greatest disgrace”. From the top of the tower to the cellar floor, everything was Ludwig the Second’s work. He dedicated himself to every detail.
He was in regular correspondence with the Royal Superintendent of Construction and the architects. He always inspected plans personally, so he could decide how to proceed or what to change. In matters of government, Ludwig mostly bowed to his ministers and accepted their advice. Bavaria was just a kingdom in which he was really just a figurehead with very little say. But when it came to his building projects, he ruled supreme. Ludwig was a difficult client. He was constantly scrapping plans, suddenly deciding rooms should be different. Newly built walls might have to be torn down. Most people are surprised to learn that the castle is built of bricks and clad with rocks from a nearby quarry. The cliff-face and the walls are made up of the same materials.
It’s a very sophisticated construction, built from materials that come from the local area. It really organically blends in with its surroundings. Not only the construction but also the restoration in the last few decades were a technical, logistical, and physical challenge. The king was always impatient. The work couldn’t progress fast enough for him. It’s understandable. Anyone who works in construction will get it. You always want to see progress, and it’s always too slow. It was a challenge for everyone involved including the local people at the time.
A chronicle written by the village teacher back then, whose name was Left, is still preserved in the Schwangau archive. The man recorded the ups and downs of the construction every day, right from the start. In 1875, he wrote: On the 23rd of April, at six o’clock in the morning, Mr. Herold, the foreman at the king’s castle who works in Hohenschwangau, took his own life with a bullet through his heart. He had suffered a mental breakdown and is buried in Weitenhofen. The foreman Heinrich Herold had laid the foundation stone of the castle on the 5th of September, 1869. Some people saw this as “the curse of Neuschwanstein”. The giant project on the mountain pushed those in charge to their limits. For Ludwig, the construction was an escape from reality. Ever since Germany has had a Kaiser, the Bavarian King had felt superfluous. But he still had his world of fantasy. We all like to dream. We all have ideas. But to also have the courage to realize them, and in his case to fight against all odds for them, shows he was plucky.
That’s what I like about him. Ludwig made his dream come true: The throne room takes you to the past, to the noble knights, the heroic battles, the hallowed kings, and everything under the watchful eye of divine guidance. The king rules by the grace of God.
The Throne Room
The combination of splendor and solitude is particularly stark in the throne room. In Neuschwanstein, not everything is how it seems at first sight. When you step into the throne room, you might think the columns are made of porphyry, but it’s actually stucco marble that was itself stuck onto cast-iron columns. That was necessary for construction reasons. Everything is for show. Neuschwanstein is the perfect symbiosis of the latest technology and medieval aesthetics.
The king’s wishes challenged the architects’ creativity. The throne room is a modern construction. A masterpiece of engineering.
Above the throne room, there is a dome, a self- supporting construction. This technique was innovative at the time. Building with iron, with these large iron girders that we also see downstairs in the throne room. It was the modern construction of iron T-beams that can be seen today beneath the throne room. When it came to technology, Ludwig the Second was mainly interested in what you could do with it. And his very high demands spurred on science, driving it forward. The king was fascinated with technology, and aware of the latest innovations in construction. Sophisticated technology from the age of industrialization can be found throughout the castle.
If you have ever visited a castle you have probably noticed they aren’t that comfortable. The castle had a warm-air heating system, which was cutting-edge back then. It was still extremely uncommon in buildings used mainly for private purposes or a castle like this. It was included here to meet the king’s special demands for luxury. Ludwig the Second wanted a comfortable version of the Middle Ages. From his childhood on, he had always had a low tolerance to cold, and so a warm-air heating system was ideal. The boiler for the unfinished Knights’ Bath was installed but has never been in service. Everything was of the finest quality for the king. The water closet, battery-operated bells, warm-air heating, and a brand-new item in the collection: a telephone was added later. The entire construction is tailor-made for one man alone. Was that ingenious, or simply crazy? We think of a mad man as someone who has no idea what he’s doing. And Ludwig the Second knew what he was doing, all the way.
The Rest Of The Castle
His bed-chamber carries you away to the tragic love story of Tristan and Isolde. His washbasin reminds you of a baptismal font – the cup for his toothbrush, a communion chalice. His bed is as imposing as the choir stalls in a Gothic church. When you walk around Neuschwanstein, you realize very quickly that it was not built for practical purposes — there are no guest rooms. You notice straight away that this is a fantasy made real. It’s more like walking through a film set. You realize: you’re not in a house, you’re in a dream house searching for the Holy Grail alongside the Knight of the Swan.
Ludwig’s buildings are unique in that they are not about showing off prestigious, dynastic functions. Rather, they were spaces where he turned his poetic world, his world imbued with literary and theatrical influences into architectural reality. There’s nothing like this anywhere else. A stalactite grotto in the middle of the castle belongs in that world too. A secret door leads to a staircase which is normally hidden from view. It was built especially for the servants to use. These stairs take you from the access road all the way to below the rafters. That means they run through the whole building. The stairs are relatively wide and well equipped so the servants could do their work properly. This was because the king insisted on fast and discrete service. The monarch’s behavior was starting to become increasingly odd. He withdrew into himself. The entire castle is laced with staircases big and small, riddled with hidden doors.
The Singers’ Hall
This is where the first extensive restoration work since it was built has been done. Experts in wood, stone, and paintings have been at work throughout the castle for several years. What’s so special about the paintings here is their incredibly high quality of execution. You can see that from the fact that they’ve scarcely been damaged despite the exposed location and the high volume of visitors. Ludwig knew several artists personally. Exquisite craftsmanship was always more important to him than an artist’s unique signature or style. It was only for a total of about 200 days that he really lived in the castle. At a time when the artists were still working up there. And he would show up now and then. He’d have a chat with the foreman, for example, and hand out cigars. It was standard back then, when the monarch was satisfied with your work, you’d get a cigar as a reward.
The king must have needed a lot of cigars, because he had other construction projects, too: Herrenchiemsee New Palace is modeled on Versailles in France. Linderhof Palace in the mountains near Ettal is built in the style of a French summer residence and was the only completed palace built during his lifetime. It is also a palace worth visiting and does not have as many tourists as Neuschwanstein.
In the middle of the castle courtyard, the outlines of some foundation walls tell us about Ludwig’s original vision for the construction. The plan was to build a castle keep which would be Neuschwanstein’s tallest tower by far. It was to be modeled in the medieval fashion. It would have housed the castle chapel on the ground floor, and above it would be a keep about forty-five meters high. That would make a total height of 90 meters. The last bastion for the king. His inspiration came from a set design for Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin. A fortified tower, rising above everything else: Ideal in the Middle Ages for spotting approaching enemies. But somewhat obsolete after the invention of the telephone. There’s no other way to put it: Neuschwanstein Castle is like a torso rather than a whole body. It doesn’t look the way Ludwig the Second planned it. That’s especially because the central keep is missing.
It would’ve completely changed the entire look of the castle. Ludwig’s vision remained an unfulfilled dream.
The Downfall of King Ludwig II
Neuschwanstein Castle is Ludwig’s homage to the German Middle Ages and the world of Germanic legend. Expensive dreams of a king who loved to build. A rumor that will probably never die is that Ludwig the Second bankrupted the state treasury by building Neuschwanstein. That is completely wrong. By law, he received a sum of money annually which he used to pay for the court, the maintenance of other castles — Würzburg, Nymphenburg, and many others. The staff had to be paid, the court theater had to be paid for.
And at the very bottom of the list, whatever was left, he used that for his own building projects. Ludwig’s debts were private. From 1871 onwards, he received a yearly sum of 300,000 Marks from the Prussian Minister-President Bismarck, taken from so-called, “slush funds”. It was a little thank-you gift for handing over the title of Kaiser to Wilhelm of Prussia. What’s incorrect is to call it a bribe. I prefer to call it a gift. When he had already given up some of his sovereignty and accepted a personal restriction of his powers, then he could well be given a little financial benefit. Tit for Tat as we would say. And yet, even with this financial allowance from the north, the king was still very short of money. By 1885, the king was 14 million marks in debt
His ministers asked him to limit his building projects. Ludwig clearly said, and also wrote: “I can’t. Building is my greatest joy in life.” That’s how he put it. Undeterred, he continued to order “chandeliers with exquisite nickel plating”, furniture and sculptures. The bills show his obsession with details. Neuschwanstein cost approximately 6 million Marks, that’s the equivalent of about 42 million Euros today. He’d also taken loans from foreign banks, which was a big mistake. Those foreign banks were not obliged to be loyal subjects to him and so they insistently pressed for repayment. They even threatened to seize his properties. The building works had to be halted from time and time again, much to the king’s chagrin.
By this time, the first lawsuits had begun to be filed against him, by craftsmen who hadn’t been payed in 1885, it finally became clear to Ludwig’s ministers that something had to be done. His Majesty simply refused to take their advice. The claims for payment were overwhelming. The king was bankrupt. Painters, bricklayers, and gilders no longer received their money. The debts soon totaled 100 million Euros in today’s money. He’d got himself into a very difficult position. Because a king in debt is also a problem for the state. A monarch is supposed to hold office for life, unless he is certified as insane. Views on Ludwig the Second’s state of mental health still differ greatly to this day. He was certainly very unusual, you can certainly say he was eccentric, and in his later years he did suffer from, let’s say, mental abnormalities.
Living in a world of his own, closed off from anyone, is a different story. Ludwig the Second created a world for himself that had a logic of its own, that was coherent in itself. But that world was not meant to be open to others. The price was loneliness.
A more recent theory speculates that he might even have had a neurological disorder, some early signs of dementia.
On Thursday, June 10th, 1886. A government commission from Munich arrived at the castle to remove the king from power. But instead, the monarch took the men into custody. Two days later, Ludwig the second finally accepted his fate.
The last act of the tragedy. The king was taken away. He would never set eyes on his castle again. Declaring him of unsound mind was a legal gray area, and that was clear to everyone. There was no constitutional provision for the ruler to be declared legally insane and dethroned. (Somewhat echos the end of Trump’s Presidency.)
But they took Ludwig away anyway. Ludwig was placed under house arrest at Lake Starnberg. No one knows what really happened. Conspiracy theories abound. One plausible sequence of events is that Ludwig went into the water, Doctor von Gudden tried to help, and they both drowned when the desperate former king began to struggle with his would-be rescuer. King Ludwig II was just forty years old when he died. It was a shock to everyone. Was it an accident, suicide or murder? A urban myth was born, because any attempt to explain the death invites a new theory. He often used to swim there, across the Alpsee. It’s 4 kilometers long. The king was a very, very good swimmer. It was curious that he drowned in a few feet of water. Ludwig’s death was officially ruled a suicide by drowning, but the official autopsy report indicated that no water was found in his lungs. And, Dr. Gudden’s body showed blows to the head and neck and signs of strangulation, leading to the suspicion that he was strangled, although no other evidence was found to prove this. Did the king simply drown? We will never know. In Allgäu, hardly anyone can, or wants to, believe the king died of natural causes. There’s an old legend that the body in his coffin was a wax dummy. A very popular opinion throughout Bavaria at the time. In fact, everyone believed he had withdrawn to a mountain hut somewhere, perhaps becoming the Elvis sightings of the day.
Because King Ludwig II was just forty years old when he died. It was unimaginable that a man so young would just die. Going into the lake was an escape for Ludwig, an escape from an unbearable situation. By that, I mean his detainment in Berg Castle, and the fact that he, the monarch, who was incredibly conscious of his majesty, suddenly had to obey the orders of doctors and nurses. And the life of a mentally ill person, even under absolutely the best care, was not unfamiliar to him.
Due to the fate of his brother, who was clearly mentally ill. Ludwig’s younger brother Otto displayed abnormal behavior from early childhood and was diagnosed as mentally ill. Otto was locked up from the age of twenty-three. Today it’s assumed that he suffered from psychosis resulting from schizophrenia. Such a life was certainly unbearable for Ludwig and he wanted to escape it. Whether he consciously intended to do so by means of suicide, or he simply wanted to flee this place? I’d say that’s open to interpretation. He left behind both a puzzle and a dream, memorialized in bricks and mortar.
The Rise of Tourism
In the following decades, tourism flourished at Neuschwanstein. Adolf Hitler visited Neuschwanstein Castle in early 1933, on the fiftieth anniversary of Richard Wagner’s death. Quite by chance, Ludwig II had something in common with Hitler — a great admiration for Wagner.
This naturally led to Hitler’s own interest in this castle. But Hitler wanted to be the greatest master builder of all times himself, rather than standing in the king’s shadow. He only visited the castle once.
Neuschwanstein was in fact a problem for the Nazis because of the man who commissioned it. In the 1930s and 40s Ludwig II was still known as a mad king, with a not-so-great reputation involving homoeroticism et cetera. That didn’t exactly fit in with the Nazis’ ideology. But something they did realize before the end of the Second World War is Neuschwanstein’s remote location. This made it safe from air raids. No one was living there, and the castle had a lot of space. Perfect for hiding looted art. The whole of Southern Germany was famous for its hiding places for looted art, in particular objects stolen by the Nazis from France. And Neuschwanstein was the largest storehouse of them all.
It’s well-known that the so-called Rothschild treasures were kept in Neuschwanstein. In April 1945 American troops reached Neuschwanstein Castle. The so-called Monuments Men confiscated the loot taken from France by the Nazis during the occupation. Crates of sculptures, jewelry and paintings. These are only a few of the 23,000 pieces of art found by the American troops here. 600 crates of irreplaceable works were sent back to Paris alone. It’s lucky the castle wasn’t misused by the Nazis for ideological purposes. That means that after the end of the Nazi dictatorship and the Second World War, Neuschwanstein was able to present itself as an untouched treasure. That gave a boost to tourism. Neuschwanstein became the symbol of a different Germany. Walt Disney took inspiration here for his famous fairy-tale castle.
Soon, the castle was on the list of must-see attractions for U.S.military stationed in Germany. Until thirty or forty years ago, Neuschwanstein was dismissed as Kitsch. Actually, no one from this area visited Neuschwanstein. It was just Kitsch and at most, you’d go when a relative was visiting and you’d have to pay a courtesy visit. For locals, it still is somewhat still that way. It is only located about 40 miles from where I live but when I have guests I try to direct them to Linderhof Palace instead as I hate crowds. In 1878, construction was completed on Ludwig’s Schloss Linderhof, is an ornate palace in neo-French Rococo style, with handsome formal gardens. Still, Neuschwanstein’s guest list for such courtesy visits includes the former U.S. First Lady Barbara Bush, the Queen of Thailand, and former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Every year, one and a half million visitors from all around the world come here to be enchanted by the castle’s magic. Those who do are rewarded with breathtaking images from another world. If you would like to visit go on a tour or have a reservation in advance.
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