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25 June 2004

Was Mad King Ludwig II Really Mad?

Does a spectacular chapter of Bavarian history need to be rewritten? — Professor Heinz Häfner's study published by the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities

Ludwig II has achieved lasting legendary status. The circumstances of his death were just as intriguing as the oddities he displayed during his lifetime. His untrammelled mania for building extravagant castles led to a huge burden of debt on the civil list, the annuities from which Ludwig and his court were supported. The number of creditors (especially craftsmen) left unpaid after providing their services grew constantly. Today, however, his neo-romantic castles are part of the world cultural heritage, an attraction for never-ending hosts of tourists. As such they provide the state of Bavaria with a regular and handsome source of revenues. Though his homoerotic inclinations, his nocturnal sleigh-rides and his opulent orgies with cavalry soldiers in artificial grottoes were much frowned upon at the time, today many Bavarian inns commemorate the tormented king and his flamboyant escapades with prominently hung portraits in oils.

So how mad was the mad king really? Can he genuinely be said to have been insane? Was he a pathological egomaniac, was he schizophrenic, did he suffer from the delayed effects of syphilis? Or was he just misunderstood, a man born at the wrong time? Professor Heinz Häfner of the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities has re-examined the "Ludwig case" from a psychiatric and historical vantage. The results he comes up with are surprising. Häfner, founder and long-time director of the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, began his research by collecting material from published sources, records of the Bavarian parliament and the archives. "With the kind permission of Duke Franz of Bavaria to extend my study of the sources to the family's private archives," Häfner remarked, "I was able to gain access to hitherto unpublished documents. Now many of the events appear in a new light."

In a psychiatric report dated 8 June 1886, Ludwig II, king of Bavaria and the Palatinate from 1864 to 1886, was declared incurably insane and permanently incapable of handling the affairs of state. The initial plan, carried out on the night of 9 June, was to seize him, have him certified insane and placed under constant psychiatric supervision in an asylum. The plan miscarried because the king had the medical commission arrested and committed to jail. On the night of 11 June another attempt was made, this time successfully. It was headed by the psychiatrist Professor Bernhard von Gudden. One day later the king drowned himself in Lake Starnberg. The psychiatrist who sought to foil the suicide attempt paid for his intervention with his life.

The diagnosis leading to the seizure of the king and the subsequent escalation was incurable "paranoia" and mental debility. "From a present-day viewpoint," says Häfner, "this conclusion is untenable. The king was never placed under observation and never subjected to examination by any member of the medical commission. The sole basis for the diagnosis was the reports from government circles and the sometimes grotesque statements made by the courtiers. The king's achievements and capabilities were not taken into account. Before carrying out the nocturnal plan, Professor von Gudden had informed the chairman, the finance minister and his assistants of the results of the medical diagnosis. After the king's death one of the three surviving psychiatrists expressed doubts about the diagnosis and another of them was not convinced of the king's mental debility." Häfner draws on irrefutable evidence to prove that Ludwig II displayed neither any indications of mental debility nor of paranoid psychosis.

From a modern-day perspective Häfner arrives at an entirely different assessment of the king's problematic biography and accordingly to an entirely different diagnosis that takes account of the king's outstanding abilities and achievements. In an attempt to escape from his internal conflicts the young king developed an increasing form of addiction, albeit a very unusual one. He became addicted to building. His behaviour clearly displays all the features of a "non-substance-related" addiction of the kind also evidenced by gamblers. Ultimately he forfeited any kind of realistic relationship to money and was exclusively concerned with obtaining new financial resources. In addition he was plagued from early youth by the fear of other people. He developed a social phobia that was exacerbated in the course of the years by feelings of shame and guilt caused by his homoerotic inclinations. This affliction progressively prompted him to withdraw from society and politics.

"New and surprising as this verdict may be," says Häfner, "there are many details that give it substance. Incidentally, I must say how surprised I am at the keen public interest that this subject has aroused." Häfner will be making his study on Ludwig II available in the ongoing series of papers published by the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities (State Academy of Baden-Württemberg).

Please address any inquiries to
Dr. Johannes Schnurr
Public Relations Officer of the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities
phone: 06221/543400
fax: 06221/543355

Prof. Dr. Heinz Häfner
phone: 0621/1703726

Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

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