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The ludwig conspiracy, p.1
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       The Ludwig Conspiracy, p.1

           Oliver Pötzsch
The Ludwig Conspiracy

  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Table of Contents





  Dramatis Personae of the Historical Characters

  A Few Introductory Words

















































  A Little Glossary for Conspiracy Theorists

  About the Author

  Text copyright © 2011 by Ullstein Buchverlage GmbH, Berlin

  Maps copyright © Peter Balm, Berlin, Germany English translation copyright © 2013 Anthea Bell

  All rights reserved

  For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.

  The Ludwig Conspiracy was first published in 2011 by Ullstein Taschenbuch Verlag as Die Ludwig Verschwörung.

  Translated from German by Anthea Bell. First published in English by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2013.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available.

  ISBN 978-0-547-74010-2

  eISBN 978-0-547-74013-3


  For my father

  History is the lie that is commonly agreed upon.


  Dramatis Personae of the Historical Characters

  Ludwig II, king of Bavaria

  Professor Dr. Bernhard von Gudden, doctor specializing in insanity

  Dr. Max Schleiss von Loewenfeld, royal physician

  Theodor Marot, his medical assistant (not recorded in history)

  Alfred, Count Eckbrecht von Dürckheim-Montmartin, adjutant to the king

  Richard Hornig, equerry and constant companion of the king

  Hermann von Kaulbach, painter

  Maria, maidservant to Ludwig II (not recorded in history)

  Johann, Baron von Lutz, president of the Bavarian Council of Ministers

  Maximilian Karl Theodor, Count von Holnstein, Master of the Royal Stables

  Carl von Strelitz, Prussian agent (not recorded in history)


  King Maximilian II, father of Ludwig II

  Marie Friederike of Prussia, mother of Ludwig II

  Otto I, Ludwig’s deranged younger brother, later king

  Prince Luitpold, uncle of Ludwig II, later prince regent

  Empress Sisi (Elisabeth) of Austria, cousin and confidante of Ludwig II

  Prince Otto von Bismarck, chancellor of the German Empire

  Richard Wagner, composer

  A Few Introductory Words

  ON THE NIGHT BETWEEN 13 and 14 June 1886, the bodies of two men were found drifting in the shallows of Lake Starnberg. Both were among the most famous personages of their time: Dr. Bernhard von Gudden, a psychiatrist known all over Europe, and King Ludwig II of Bavaria, sometimes known today as the Fairy-tale King, or Swan King, or simply “Mad King Ludwig.” Ludwig was born in 1845 and ascended the throne in 1864. He commissioned two castles and a palace—Schloss Neuschwanstein (imitated by Walt Disney for his company’s logo and symbol of Disney World), Schloss Linderhof, and Herrenchiemsee (an imitation of Versailles). He was a crucial patron of the composer Richard Wagner, and a Roman Catholic who struggled with his homosexuality. His death remains a mystery.

  An investigating committee, convened at short notice, concluded that the king, who had been deposed only three days earlier on the grounds of insanity, had strangled his doctor and then committed suicide in the water.

  That is the official version.


  Somewhere near Munich, October 2010

  THE KING TOOK OUT a cell phone and stared at the text message, while Professor Paul Liebermann, lying at the royal feet, spat out blood and spruce needles.

  The message appeared to annoy The Royal Highness. The king raised an eyebrow and sighed regretfully, as if disappointed with a small child. Then the king dug the toe of one boot into the man on the ground, to make sure that he was not, at this very moment, choking to death. Paul Liebermann moaned, then coughed out a few more spruce needles. Everything around him was shrouded in fog, a mystic landscape where a few dead spruce trees rose to the overcast night sky.

  “I . . . I really don’t know what you want from me,” the professor gasped, turning over on his back with a groan. “There must be some mistake . . . a terrible mistake.”

  “Terrible. Yes, indeed,” the king murmured. “I am extremely displeased.”

  The Royal Highness was wearing a suit of the best English tweed, with a red silk cravat and a white fur coat. The hem of the coat was spattered with blood.

  My blood, Liebermann thought. And a lot of it. It makes that coat look like ermine. Could it actually be?

  He couldn’t tell for certain, because his left eye was swollen and completely closed while his right eye was encrusted with blood. His glasses lay twisted and broken somewhere in the undergrowth; he had lost his hat and walking stick already, in the car on the way here; and remains of moldering spruce needles still stuck to his gums. The two thugs had stuffed his mouth with them until he was almost choking on the stuff. In addition, the effects of the injection hadn’t worn off yet.

  They had seized him only a few steps from the secondhand bookshop. When he heard the car, he knew he had to act. He had hidden the book and hurried out so as not to give away the man in the shop. After only a little prick, he had collapsed into the arms of the two powerful men beside him. They pushed him into the car. He had lost consciousness after a few seconds, only to come back to his senses in this wood, among mushrooms and withered bramble bushes. In the distance, he could hear the faint droning of cars; otherwise, only the cawing of a few crows broke the silence of fall.

  They had been hitting Liebermann over and over again for the last two hours, in the stomach, in the face, between the legs. Meanwhile, twilight had fallen over the wood. The king and the thugs were only dark shadows against an even darker background.

  Looking at it now, it really does seem to have something to do with Ludwig. What irony! Who could have guessed?

  The fact that Liebermann had not said anything yet was due partly to his inborn obstinacy, but also partly to his history. During his tenure as a professor at Jena University, Paul Liebermann had been an outspoken critic of the East German system. When that landed him in Bautzen prison for two years, things happened that still made him cry out in his sleep. He had learned how to take a beating. And he would sooner bite off his tongue than tell these people where the hiding place was.

  The secret of the book had been kept for more than a hundred years. He mustn’t give it away. Not now, when their goal was finally within reach.

  The injection had felled him like a hammer blow. He
could still remember the deserted street in the Westend district, and the car that had looked so like an old Wartburg. But the hours after that were a nightmarish blur. Even events before the injection seemed curiously vague. Liebermann’s last concrete memory was of his breakfast muesli, the last of which he had brought up some time ago on the woodland floor.

  “Want us to work him over some more?” asked one of the two thugs, whom Liebermann saw through the mist, along with the king. “I know a few more tricks from the camp. They’d be sure to make him talk.”

  “I suppose it’s pointless.” Shrugging, the king put the cell phone away somewhere in the folds of the ermine fur coat and stared at Liebermann. “This man is stubborn as a mule. And I do so hate violence. Apparently the search of his hotel room didn’t turn up anything either. Gawain and Tristan turned the whole place upside down. If only I knew . . .”

  The king fell silent, eyes wandering over the woodland floor, which was covered with leaves and countless scraps of paper. In the middle of them, Liebermann lay like a broken doll, twisted and bound, a piece of paper smeared with soil tickling his nose. The letters on it swam before his eyes. Only after some time did they begin to make sense. It seemed to be a line of poetry.

  Don’t you see the Erl-King, father dear?

  In spite of his condition, the former professor of modern history smiled. The Romantic period had always been his hobbyhorse, and Goethe’s “The Erl-King,” a ballad in the form of a dialogue between a father and his dying son, who is about to be taken from earthly life by the Erl-King, was his favorite poem. Nothing from any other ballad, he thought, so expressed the longing to die and dissolve into the natural world as those lines. Now Liebermann himself was facing the Erl-King.

  O lovely child, come play with me . . .

  “Mon Dieu!”

  The king kicked the damp woodland floor with the toe of a boot, sending foliage and scraps of paper flying into the air. The white fur coat flapped in the cold October wind, making the king look like a fat monstrous swan.

  “Where the hell is the bloody book?” the king hissed. “We were so close, and now this. Nothing but damn poems!” The king grimaced and slowly breathed in and out. “Still, I shouldn’t have torn it up. If anything in this world lasts, it’s art. Only art is timeless. Why didn’t you stop me?”

  This last remark was for the two thugs, who awkwardly rubbed their bloodstained fingers.

  “It . . . it all happened so fast, Excellency,” one of them muttered. “You were holding that book of poetry, and . . .”

  “Ah, arrêtez!”

  The king made a dismissive gesture, and then winced, as if afflicted with a terrible migraine. After a long moment, and with no advance warning, the king kicked the professor in the stomach.

  “What did you do with the book?” the royal shouted. “What did you do with it? It’s mine. All mine!”

  Liebermann spat blood and needles, and a few scraps of paper. Groaning, he curled up in the fetal position to protect himself from further kicks, but luckily none came.

  Liebermann wasn’t sure whether he could take any more pain. Maybe he would give the secret away after all?

  Stand fast! The royal line is at stake.

  Humming quietly, The Royal Highness knelt down in front of Liebermann and let soil and scraps of paper run through those aristocratic fingers.

  “Nature and art,” the king murmured. “What could be more beautiful? We must remember the old myths when those two things were still one. A twilight of the gods lies ahead. Away with false idols . . .”

  Suddenly the king stopped, staring at a scrap of paper. Then the royal began to giggle.

  “Of course,” the king spluttered, hand over mouth like a little girl. “The same wrapping paper, it’s only the book that’s different. You . . . you idiot halfwits!” The king had shouted those last words, waving the scrap of paper in front of the noses of the two thugs. “This is where you ought to have been looking. Merde. I’ll have your eyes put out, all of you!”

  The king stopped, eyes glazing over. Walking over to Liebermann and leaning over him, The Royal Highness leisurely took out a small, old-fashioned pistol from beneath the fur coat. Its butt looked like a bird’s head.

  “Crafty old man,” the king whispered. “You bourgeois are all the same—you just love to intrigue. And your plan almost worked. But this gave you away.”

  Giggling again, the king held a grubby piece of paper in front of the eye that wasn’t swollen shut. Once more, it was some time before the letters came together to make any sense. They seemed to be the imprint from a stamp, a kind of ex libris, using old-fashioned script. On the paper, the professor made out a name and address.


  Rare and valuable books of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries

  Prices on application

  Suddenly a shrill bell rang in Liebermann’s mind. He must not endanger the man in the bookshop. If he did, then all was lost.

  “Listen,” he stammered. “I . . . I can get the book for you. Give me an hour, and then I’ll . . .”

  But the king suddenly seemed to have lost all interest in him.

  “My dear Professor,” the king said softly, “thank you for your readiness to cooperate. But you will understand that your survival would stand in the way of my noble aims. At least you are dying in a good cause.”

  The Excellency held the pistol against the forehead of the distinguished Professor Paul Liebermann and pulled the trigger. White matter from Liebermann’s brain spurted out over the woodland floor, covering spruce needles and parts of Goethe’s “Erl-King” poem.

  “And now to go and pick up my property at last,” the king hissed, stalking away through the wood, bearing erect as if inspecting an invisible parade.

  The professor’s empty eyes stared up at a nocturnal October sky where a few crows were circling.


  STEVEN LUKAS SAT AT THE scratched old mahogany desk in his antiquarian bookshop in Munich’s Westend district and watched the water in his teapot slowly turn brown. The aromatic fragrance of bergamot and orange peel rose to his nostrils. He gave the tea infuser another minute, then took it out and placed it carefully on a saucer beside a couple of large disintegrating tomes.

  As a small cloud of vapor rose from the teacup, the bookseller let his eyes wander around his small domain. He very much hoped not to be disturbed for the next few hours. Outside, the dull gray of an October afternoon reigned, plunging the little shop, which was full of nooks and crannies, into dim twilight. The bookshelves up to the ceiling cast shadows like mighty trees; in the back part of the shop, beside the door leading to the stockroom and the large archive in the cellar, stood a 1950s brass lamp, casting warm yellow light on the desk. The place smelled of tea, leather, and old paper. The only sound was the ticking of an old nineteenth-century grandfather clock that Steven had bought in better times at a Munich antiques fair.

  Steven sighed with pleasure and turned to the book on top of the stack to his right. This leather-bound folio volume was his latest acquisition. Carefully, he opened the discolored brown cover and began reverently leafing through it. Before him lay one of the early editions of the Grimms’ Tales, dating from 1837. The illustrations of giants, dwarves, bold princes and soulful princesses were smudged here and there, and some of the pages had been torn, but even so, the folio volume was in very good condition. Steven guessed that it would be worth five thousand euros, if not more. He had found it at an estate sale in the upmarket Bogenhausen district of Munich, along with a few crates of other books from the attic of an old lady who had recently died, and he had pressed three hundred-euro bills into the hand of her startled nephew. A Philistine—the nephew had taken the money, not even wondering what was special about the book. Obviously paper meant something to him only when it had denominations printed on it.

  Steven smiled as he spooned brown sugar into his tea. Buying that book had been a real stroke of luck. In theory,
it would allow him to pay the rent on the shop for the next six months. In reality, he knew he wouldn’t be able to part with the Grimm. Old books were like a drug to Steven; the mere smell of yellowing paper made him feel weak. He loved the rustle of the pages, the firm feel of painted parchment or printed handmade paper between his fingertips. It was a sense of happiness that had accompanied him since childhood, and the feeling couldn’t be compared to anything else.

  Dreamily, the bookseller leafed through the Grimm, admiring the hand-colored engravings. How many generations had held this book in their hands? How many grandfathers had read its stories to their grandchildren? Steven stirred his tea and immersed himself in a world of castles, wolves, witches, and good fairies. He had been born in the United States, in Massachusetts, where people still thought of Germany as a country of dark forests, castles, and the romantic banks of the Rhine. As a child, little Steven had liked the idea of that, but grown-up Steven had discovered that the Germans cared more about expressways and shopping malls than dark, mysterious legends. The old, fairy-tale Germany existed only in the dreams of American and Japanese tourists these days.

  And in books.

  The shrill sound of the doorbell stirred him from his thoughts. Annoyed, Steven looked up and then sighed. Obviously it wasn’t going to be as peaceful a weekend as he’d hoped.

  “Frau Schultheiss,” he murmured, sipping his tea. “To what do I owe the honor?”

  An elderly lady with a pinched expression and combed-back hair had marched into the shop as if she owned it. Now she took off the sunglasses that she wore in spite of the fall rain outside. Small, icy gray eyes flashed at the bookseller, but she at least tried to produce a smile.

  “You know exactly what I’m here about, Herr Lukas. I thought we could talk about your price. My husband can come up with another two thousand euros if you—”

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