The last Bavarian King
Dr. Georg Eckert / History
Photo: UniService Transfer

From "Millibauer" to Bavarian King

In 1921, the last Bavarian king, Ludwig III, died. A Jahr100Wissen interview with historian Dr. Georg Eckert

On October 18, 1921, the Bavarian King Ludwig III died. How would you describe the last ruling Wittelsbach?

Eckert: Ludwig III is one of the lesser-known rulers in Bavarian history: which was partly because he largely let his ministers rule. Without the First World War, he might therefore have become a king who, in retrospect, would be credited with the transition to a parliamentary system of government and some reform measures. He knew how to keep a low profile and act as a wise mediator between the conservative rural population and the liberal civil service elite: The prelude with a Bavarian constitutional reform in 1913 was promising; the new king posed as a modernizer, like so many contemporary monarchs. And he even cultivated an early form of "laptop and lederhosen," his open-mindedness for technical innovations combined with a traditional Catholic piety. But just a year and a half into his reign, the war broke out that ultimately shattered Louis III's rule. This perspective obstructs a different view of a king who, with a great sense of duty, saw himself as a king close to the people and, under different circumstances, might well have become a good facilitator of change.

He was one of the first members of a ruling dynasty to attend public courses at Ludwig Maximilian University during his studies, rather than being taught privately by professors. Was that more a matter of closeness to the people or political calculation?

Eckert: When Ludwig began his (admittedly rather short) studies, it was not at all to be expected that he could one day become King of Bavaria: rather King of Greece, because until 1862 there was a candidacy. One should not read too much calculation into the rather brief university visit in the years 1864-1865, nor too much closeness to the people, because the universities in the middle of the 19th century were quite elitist institutions. Something else is perhaps more important: members of ruling dynasties were also looking for new roles at the time beyond the military, in which Ludwig III never quite settled. Incidentally, the future Emperor Wilhelm II also studied quite publicly at a university a few years later, only in Bonn and not in Munich.

He turned his Leutstetten estate near Starnberg into a model economic estate. What did that look like?

Eckert: This estate is also part of the dynastic search for new roles. Promoting agriculture and forestry with modern, agronomic methods was a political program for the benefit of what was then the most important sector of the Bavarian economy. Leutstetten served as a model estate where new, higher-yielding ways of cultivating crops and keeping livestock were systematically tested. Contemporaries appreciated Ludwig's activities as an agricultural reformer - the fact that they called him the "Millibauer" (milli farmer) admittedly also included a slight mockery of the sometimes coarse monarch. However, his commitment to technical modernization extended far beyond agriculture. Among other things, Ludwig also promoted the construction of hydroelectric power plants and the expansion of the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal.

Ludwig was also very active politically. What did his involvement look like?

Eckert: When a later succession to the throne was by no means foreseeable, Ludwig even ran for the Bavarian Patriots' Party (later: Bavarian Center Party) in the election of the first Reichstag in the Empire, albeit unsuccessfully. He abstained from further political activities afterwards, at the latest since a succession to the throne became probable in 1886, such activities would not have been quite possible anymore. As the future king, Ludwig had to be careful not to become too closely associated with any one party, even if it was the majority faction in the Bavarian House of Representatives. He succeeded quite well in this during his long "waiting period"; after all, he did not become ruler until he was 67 years old.

He campaigned for the Bavarian electoral law reform in 1906. August Bebel praised him, saying: "If we had an imperial constitution according to which the emperor was elected by the people [...], I give you my word, Prince Ludwig would have the greatest chance of becoming German emperor." Was he a respected aristocrat?

Eckert: Bebel's praise was not written in the irrealis for nothing. If it had been up to him, there would have been no emperor at all - not even the later Ludwig III of Bavaria, whom he praised here. Bebel was thinking, among other things, of the liberal Bavarian electoral law reform supported by the then prince in 1906, which could be used as argumentative leverage, for example, for the abolition of the three-class electoral law, which at the time prevented mandates for the SPD in the Prussian House of Representatives. Although Ludwig III made great efforts to promote the welfare of his people, including through a combination of modernization and welfare policies, he was not able to become a truly popular ruler, despite a very modest, almost peasant lifestyle: Contemporaries experienced him - quite differently from his ancestors - more as a citizen than as an aristocrat, and he consistently refrained from monarchical pomp (admittedly to the displeasure of many). However, the World War soon cast a dark shadow over his reign. To put it pointedly, in the end, the man who had presented himself as a contemporary agrarian ruler failed to satiate his people.

From 1913 to 1918, Ludwig III was the last reigning Bavarian king. However, there were officially two Bavarian kings from 1913 to 1916. Why?

Eckert: Ludwig III was ultimately the winner of a dynastic double crisis of the Wittelsbach dynasty. After the scandalous death of the newly incapacitated King Ludwig II, the crown passed to his younger brother Otto I, but not the regency, because Otto was considered unfit to rule due to a mental illness. Since then, the government has been exercised by Prince Regent Luitpold, Ludwig III's father. Ludwig succeeded him in December 1912, initially as Prince Regent, but after a constitutional amendment in 1913 as King. Now Otto I finally renounced his rule, but was allowed to keep the royal title until his death in 1916.

After the outbreak of war in 1914, Ludwig repeatedly drew attention to himself with demands for territorial expansion. In which directions did he want to see Bavaria expanded?

Eckert: Ludwig III did not expect a major war during the July crisis, nor did he in any way seek one. But when it began, the Wittelsbachers felt that the moment had come when they could demand something in return for Bavarian loyalty - also as compensation for having put their own ambitions behind those of Prussia and the Hohenzollerns when the empire was founded. Ludwig III now fell back on older territorial claims that had been proven to be historical. His maximum demand, to obtain direct Bavarian access to the sea by gaining parts of Belgium up to Antwerp, was more tactically motivated. He quickly reduced it to Alsace or a part of it. Admittedly, this was not personal expansionism. Ludwig III was allowed to know that a large part of his subjects were behind him in such demands; moreover, he was concerned with strengthening Bavaria's role in a German empire that had changed one way or another after the war.

During the war, Ludwig became increasingly unpopular in Bavaria. What was the reason for this?

Eckert: In short, it was the war itself and the rapidly diminishing prospects at the end of it of ending it victoriously or at least without defeat. First, the military was not his profession, but rather that of his son, Crown Prince Rupprecht, who commanded his own army group. Second, the start of the war set political priorities that the Bavarian king alone could do little to change. Thirdly, the massive strengthening of imperial power was accompanied by an enormous weakening of the states' ability to act politically. Thus, even the Bavarian king, who had rather let his ministry act in peace, soon lacked possibilities to alleviate the rapidly growing need of his population. Even extremely generous donations of money and food were no longer effective in an increasingly poor supply situation; instead, some even accused the king of exploiting his people with extortionate prices for products from Leutstetten. The fact that Ludwig III had proved to be extremely loyal to Prussia, and from the point of view of some Bavarians even loyal to Prussia, and was thus held more responsible than other rulers in the empire for the lack of the longed-for victory in the world war, also diminished his reputation. After all, by the end of the war, some 199,000 Bavarian soldiers had fallen.

He was the first German federal prince to fall victim to the revolution. He himself seemed completely surprised by this. How did that come about?

Eckert: Neither in Bavaria nor in the other federal states was a revolution really foreseeable; almost all contemporaries were surprised at the beginning by the dynamics and drama of the November Revolution(s) - and at the end by the comparatively peaceful transformation of the German monarchies into democracies. In Bavaria, a constitutional reform had succeeded as late as November 2, finally sealing the transition from a constitutional to a parliamentary monarchy. Ludwig III thus believed he could avert discontent among the population. Even if he had underestimated it, there was no apparent reason for him to expect a coup or even to prepare countermeasures. The fact that a demonstration marched into the city center after a mass rally on November 7 must have surprised even the socialist politician Kurt Eisner, who now proclaimed the Bavarian "Free State.

He fled with his family to Salzburg. The Anif Declaration played an important role in his abdication. Why?

Eckert: Ludwig III had left Munich late in the evening of November 7 on the advice of his ministers; only Anif Castle near Salzburg appeared to be a safe place. It was here that Ludwig III signed the aforementioned declaration on November 12, 1918. It did not contain an abdication at all, contrary to the revolutionary government in Munich. But Ludwig III did release the Bavarian civil servants, officers and soldiers from their oath of allegiance to the monarch. The Anif Declaration thus kept open the return to the monarchy, while initially allowing a non-violent path to the republic.

What merits are attributed to it?

Eckert: In the Anif Declaration, Ludwig III once again made clear how he saw himself and his reign. It read: "Throughout my life, I have worked with the people and for the people. Beyond all propaganda calculations, it becomes apparent how much Ludwig wanted to be a "modern" ruler - which he certainly was, in that he approached a parliamentary way of government even before the World War and sought to give a specifically Bavarian answer to the burning problems of his time, including and especially the social question. It was not King Ludwig III who failed, but a system whose successful reform would have required more fortunate circumstances.

Uwe Blass (conversation from 07.10.2021)

Dr. Georg Eckert studied history and philosophy in Tübingen, where he received his doctorate with a study of the early Enlightenment around 1700 with a British focus, and habilitated in Wuppertal. In 2009, he started as a research assistant in history and now teaches as a private lecturer in modern history.

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