Of the many German dynasties the Wittelsbachs must count among the most fascinating and attractive. The Wittelsbachs ruled Bavaria as dukes, electors and kings for 738 years and also produced a number of other monarchs, including two emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, three Swedish kings and one queen regnant, a Greek king, 22 Palatine electors and a king of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The strong and powerful position of this dynasty can also be read out of the fact that at one stage the Wittelsbachs held four out of the nine electoral hats of the Holy Roman Empire.
But it all ended in madness and revolution. Although one of the oldest and generally considered one of the most popular dynasties, the Bavarian monarchy was the first to be swept away in the revolutions which engulfed Germany in the autumn of 1918, an unexpected development which modern historians tend to ascribe to the gradual weakening of the Bavarian monarchy which began with the abdication of Ludwig I in 1848 and continued with the drama surrounding Ludwig II’s mysterious death in 1886 and the disregard for the principles of hereditary monarchy shown by Prince Regent Ludwig when he seized the throne from his insane cousin King Otto in 1913.
This dynasty has now been accorded its own volume in Verlag C. H. Beck’s series of short books on the history of nearly every conceivable subject. Die Wittelsbacher. Vom Mittelalter bis zur Gegenwart is written by Hans-Michael Körner, professor of history at the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich.
How to sum up the history of 738 years of rule in little more than a hundred pages? The author chooses to begin with what followed the end, namely the fate of the Wittelsbachs after 1918. Few of the former royal families enjoy such a high standing in the Federal Republic of Germany as the Wittelsbachs, which Körner to a great extent ascribes to the conduct of ex-Crown Prince Rupprecht – the respect enjoyed by this prince was perhaps best symbolised by the Social Democrat Minister President Wilhelm Hoegner arranging for the royal crown of Bavaria to be brought out of the Treasury and placed on the coffin when the former Crown Prince died in 1955.
The family can with certainty be traced to the 11th century, but the real starting point of the story is 16 September 1180. On that date Palatine Count Otto of Wittelsbach was given the Duchy of Bavaria, which was made hereditary in 1208 and to which Duke Ludwig I added the Palatine county by the Rhine in 1214. In 1253 the Wittelsbach lands were divided between Otto II’s two sons (Ludwig II and Heinrich XIII) and throughout the centuries numerous other divisions of territories followed.
This makes the history of the Wittelsbach dynasty fairly complicated and intricate. Thus the author cannot possibly go into great detail as he takes the story through the centuries, but must restrict himself to the major developments and some of the most significant and interesting personalities.
It was only towards the end of the 18th century that all the Wittelsbach lands were again reunited. The death of Elector Max III Joseph in 1777 saw the end of the senior branch, the Ludovician, and transferred the electoral dignity to Karl Theodor of the Neuburg-Sulzbach line of the Rudolfian branch. 22 years later his death at the age of 75, leaving a 23-year-old widow who readily admitted that her late husband was not the father of the child she was expecting, meant that the Birkenfeld-Zweibrücken line was left as the only extant branch of the house of Wittelsbach. In 1806 Napoléon I raised Elector Max IV Joseph to the status of King of Bavaria.
The author seems to have his heart more into it as we approach modern times and this might perhaps be explained by the fact that he is also the author of Geschichte des Königreichs Bayern, which was published when Bavaria celebrated the bicentenary of the kingdom in 2006 (apparently no-one bothered to spoil the party by pointing out that the kingdom came to an end 88 years earlier). From Max I Joseph onwards to Ludwig III the personalities come more alive and we learn more about not only their personalities, but also their politics. Körner sees the end of the monarchy in 1918 in light of “an authority crisis of the system” coupled with the prolonged state of war.
This book will serve both as a summary of the history of the Wittelsbachs, but also as an introduction to one of the most interesting dynasties ever to sit on a throne. Given the limited length of the book, Hans-Michael Körner has succeeded very well in giving an insightful overview of the house that ruled Bavaria for more than seven centuries.