Chapter 1 – October 1885
…he lets the ministers and the Chambers govern without interference – Prince Hohenlohe, former Prime Minister and Ambassador to France
Prime Minister Johann Lutz was standing at a window of his house overlooking the Odeonsplatz in the heart of Munich when a carriage drawn by four white horses pulled up outside. The crested door opened and out stepped Prince Luitpold, the king’s uncle, the second Prince of the Blood Royal after Prince Otto, Councillor of State, and Inspector-General of the army. With a straight, soldierly carriage, he strode to the front door. It was precisely 11:25. The prince was punctual.
Lutz had worked in government jobs since the early years of Ludwig’s reign, clawing his way up the ladder until he had reached its eminence. He was ambitious, and could not understand anyone who did not want to better himself in his chosen role in life. It hadn’t taken him long to realise that the king wasn’t interested in government, and he had seized upon the opportunity to accrue more power to himself, making decisions that should have been in the king’s purview and assuming many of his responsibilities. But when Ludwig threatened his power, Lutz decided it was time for him to go.
Within minutes, the prince entered Lutz’s study, having been relieved of his hat and coat by a footman. He was sixty-four years old, with pale blue eyes and hair still predominantly blond, although sprinkled with silver. The two men shook hands and exchanged polite enquiries after each other’s health.
“Please, make yourself comfortable, Your Highness.” Lutz indicated the two chairs placed on either side of a small table. “Sherry? Or would you prefer something a little stronger?”
“Sherry will be fine.” Luitpold took a seat and gazed around the study, his eyes dwelling on the portrait of a youthful King Ludwig that hung behind the imposing desk. “Thank you for seeing me so promptly. I know how busy you are.”
“Always a pleasure, Your Highness. If I may be permitted the liberty of asking: How is The Family?”
The Family was the Wittelsbachs, which had provided all three generations of Bavaria’s kings, and before that electors and dukes and landgraves. It was an ancient and much-beloved family. Although Ludwig was the king, Luitpold was the senior member and was regarded as the head. Lutz didn’t know him very well, but a brief acquaintance had shown him a quiet, retiring man who abhorred above anything controversy connected to the good name of The Family. He lived a quiet existence on his country estate and did not involve himself in his nephew’s affairs except to stand in for Ludwig on some ceremonial occasions.
“That is precisely the reason I wanted to see you, Prime Minister. I will come straight to the point. The Family is concerned at the king’s gross mismanagement of his finances.”
Lutz handed his guest a glass of sherry and took his own seat. “Yes, I see,” he said, carefully neutral, and sipped his sherry.
“I have met with other members of The Family and we have concluded that he has damaged the Wittelsbach name by squandering what once was an impressive fortune and by his aberrant behaviour.”
“Those castles of his are the cause. Everything is done at enormous cost. Have you seen Neuschwanstein, Your Highness?”
“Only from a distance.”
“Then you know how bizarre it is. Like something out of a fairytale, like something only a febrile imagination could dream up. Inside, one realises it is a monument to Wagner. There are Wagnerian motifs and murals on every surface. At Linderhof, he has created a representation of the grotto in the first act of Wagner’s Tannhӓuser. Now it is said he will build a swan-boat and sail upon the lake. But he also wants a ‘blue grotto’ of his own, so he will install dynamos to change the colour of the illumination and the water. He has already purchased the site for another castle and had plans drawn up. It will be bigger and more expensive than all the others. Where does he expect the money to come from?” The Prime Minister shook his head.
“Even as a boy he loved to build. I think that was the influence of my father whose monuments have enriched our fair city. I remember an occasion when Ludwig took me by the hand and led me to the little brook in the grounds of Hohenschwangau. There he had built a pile of rocks with a hose running through it. When he poured water into the hose, it came out the other side and looked like a spring bubbling out of the rocks. He explained that it represented the water Moses struck out of the rock with the rod of Horeb. He was such a bright and charming boy.” A lift of the mouth indicated a brief smile. “We are not close now, however.”
Unwilling to allow the conversation to digress along paths of the past, Lutz rose to refill his glass, noting that the prince hadn’t touched his. “What may I do for Your Highness?”
“I came to you, Prime Minister, in the hope of curbing my nephew’s excesses and restoring The Family’s good name.”
Lutz kept his back turned as a smile blossomed under his bushy moustache. He wasn’t interested in curbing the king, or in the reputation of The Family. What he wanted was to be rid of Ludwig before Ludwig made good on his threat to dismiss his entire ministerial council. In Prince Luitpold he saw a possible collaborator.
Adjusting his features into a thoughtful mien, he returned to his seat and heaved a deep sigh. “I’m grateful for Your Highness’s candour, and I am, of course, entirely at your disposal. I share your concerns. The king poses a problem that my colleagues and I have struggled with on occasions too numerous to count.” He glanced at the prince to see his reaction to the king being described as a problem, but there was none. “The difficulty lies in restraining a man who exercises kingly power. Early last year his debts were seven and a half million marks. To spare Bavaria the ignominy of having the royal treasury sued by the king’s creditors, Finance Minister Riedel negotiated a loan with a consortium of German banks. This money cleared the king’s debts, but now, a little over a year later, we find they have risen again by six million, bringing the total to almost fourteen million! Without shame, the king wrote to Riedel demanding that he raise another loan.”
“Disgraceful!” the prince interjected.
“Riedel wrote back advising the king of the urgent necessity of introducing strict economies in his financial affairs, which had become the subject of adverse comment in the press, both at home and abroad. The finance minister has done his best to accommodate the king, and his reward was a threat of dismissal. When the other ministers and I remonstrated with the king, he threatened to dismiss us all and find more amenable replacements. Nothing ensued from that contretemps except, of course, his efforts to raise loans became more and more outrageous.”
“Is it a threat you take seriously?”
“Indeed I do. I fear His Majesty is capable of any mischief to get what he wants. It is a sad but undeniable fact that his barber has more influence with him than his entire cabinet. In fact, things have come to such a pass that he refuses to meet with us.”
The prince’s eyebrows rose at this. “How on earth is he able to conduct the kingdom’s business?”
“He signs whatever we send him and writes letters, and he uses menials as go-betweens – persons who have no right to knowledge about state affairs. Kingly power in the wrong hands can be disastrous. Your Highness’s concern, naturally enough, is for The Family’s good name. Mine is for our dear Bavaria. The people resent his lavish spending, his bizarre lifestyle and, above all, that he holds himself aloof from them and spends so much time away from the capital. I speak of the politically savvy of Munich. He has few friends left here.”
“Something must be done, Prime Minister.”
“Quite.” Lutz waited. Only the ticking of the clock disturbed the silence. It was desirable that the prince first speaks the word – the word that had been uttered so softly and secretly by some of the ministers. But Lutz waited in vain. It seemed the prince had come to lay a burden on him, not with a solution.
Not being a timid man, Lutz finally said, “I fear if matters progress parliament, or the people themselves, will call for His Majesty’s deposition.” The eyes of the two men met. Lutz saw a small nod from the other man and knew his instincts had been correct. Luitpold would not hinder Ludwig’s deposition.
Turning his gaze away, the prince made a business of adjusting each cuff before he asked, “How could such a thing be achieved?”
There had been voluntary abdications within living memory. Ludwig’s grandfather had been persuaded to abdicate after the Lola Montez scandal, and Ferdinand I had abdicated and his brother had stepped aside to make way for young Franz Josef to become Emperor of Austria. But an involuntary abdication was almost unheard of and a more complex matter.
“He has threatened to abdicate and may be persuaded. If he resists, we must be ready with reasons why he is unfit to rule.”
“I should think squandering a fortune on these ridiculous castles is reason enough,” the prince said huffily. “He’s never going to be able to pay off those loans.”
“His profligacy, his refusal to meet with his cabinet, spending so much of his time away from Munich – these are not reason enough to remove him, and none of them violates articles of the constitution. No, something more is needed.”
Prince Luitpold narrowed his eyes. “What have you in mind?”
“It is my belief that His Majesty, like his brother, is insane. Only insanity can account for his bizarre habits, his unhealthy lifestyle and his spending of vast fortunes without thought of the consequences…”
“Oh, come, Prime Minister, is it not bad enough for The Family that we have one acknowledged lunatic? The world has all but forgotten about Otto. Think of the scandal. Have you no better solution?”
“I’m sorry, Your Highness. I know how distressing this must be for you. I have given the matter a great deal of thought, and I can think of nothing better. We need a reason His Majesty cannot wriggle out of. After all, faced with the prospect of deposition, he could sell the castles. He could come to Munich tomorrow, show himself to the people and meet with his ministers. The constitution states if a sovereign becomes incapable of exercising his proper functions for a year he may be set aside and a regency established.”
“And does the constitution advise how to do this?”
“Unfortunately not.” Lutz shrugged and played what he thought would be his trump card. “As the closest mentally stable person to the throne, Your Highness is the natural choice as successor.”
If possible, the prince sat even straighter. “Let me be clear on one thing. I have neither the desire nor the temperament to rule.”
The Prime Minister, to whom power was a sort of aphrodisiac, could never understand such a point of view. A deeply cynical nature informed him that the prince would change his mind once he’d had a taste of that heady brew.
“If we should manage to bring about the king’s deposition,” Lutz said gravely, “may I be assured of Your Highness’s intent to keep me and the other ministers in our present positions?”
You are putting the cart before the horse. But I can assure you that if I am in a position to influence such matters, I will certainly keep any man who is doing his job effectively. As to the rest…” Prince Luitpold rubbed his brow. His head went down, his eyes on an oblong of sunshine on the parquet floor. “Very well, as a last resort, the very last,” he said, after a while. Drinking his sherry down in two quick gulps, he rose to his feet. “Keep me informed, Prime Minister. Good-day to you.”
He went to the door and stood aside, waiting for Lutz to open it for him. Lutz bowed him out and then went to the window to watch as the man he expected to be the next King of Bavaria climbed unaided into his carriage.