Friday, 5 December 2014

Holiday destination, Walhalla

Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, I’m told by my brother who tends to know about these things, was perhaps not really as mad as his reputation suggests.

Ludwig II of Bavaria
Not mad I'm assured. Despite the eyes
This is good news, if only because one feels such a man deserves to be more kindly remembered. Without him, millions of children, and one key man, Walt Disney, would have been deprived of a most enchanting dream. It was Ludwig who built Neuschwanstein, beating Disney to the idea of the perfect fairytale castle, by well over a century.

Neuschwanstein. Looking particularly magical
But I’ve decided where I’m going if I ever I return to Bavaria. 

I’m going to Walhalla. Not the fabled banqueting hall of the Gods and dead heroes of Norse myth. To be frank, I have over the years developed a certain cynicism concerning the existence of mythical places, and growing suspicions that I might in any case not be regarded as entirely fitting the hero mould (I don’t have long blonde whiskers, and I can’t find a horned helmet that goes with my complexion).

No, this is the really existing building called after the Norse original, built by King Ludwig, to honour the most outstanding figures of Germany. I’d never heard of it until I listened to a podcast in the Germany: memories of a nation series made for the BBC by Neil McGregor, curator of the British museum. Now I want to see it.

It seems Ludwig made his wishes entirely clear:

“No condition, not even the female sex, is excluded. Equality exists in Walhalla. There are the busts only of illustrious Germans, executed by German artists or, if there are no contemporary likenesses, their names in bronze on plaques.”

Inside the real Walhalla.
Less carousing than in the mythical one
Ludwig applied a definition of “German” that can only be regarded as generous. As well as quite a few Dutch and Swiss figures, we have the Russian Tsarina Catherine, the English King Egbert of Wessex and even Charlemagne, which must be a delight to French visitors. Still, I suppose it’s enough to extend the definition of “German” a bit, to make it non-exclusive of people who have a link to the German world even if it’s a bit tenuous (Charlemagne, by the way, probably isn’t one of them: it’s likely that he spoke a Germanic language).

In any case, if not even being a member of the female persuasion is enough to bar one, this must be a pretty remarkable place. However, there aren’t many women among those honoured. And there are other gaps.

Not even Luther got in at the start: the super-Catholic Bavarians didn’t want to honour the founding figure of the Reformation. Even if he more or less created the German language single-handed. Eventually, they added him in 1848, just six years after the place opened, and right next to Goethe, so they made amends.

There’s still no one with a Turkish name. And I doubt very much that if we had photographs alongside the busts, we’d see many dark complexions. Ah well, you have to be dead twenty years before you can get in, so maybe in a while the inhabitants will start to be a little more ethnically diverse.

The process may already be under way. One rather important community in German history was excluded from Walhalla for nearly 150 years. The first Jew, Einstein, only appeared among its residents in 1990. Even more amazing is that there was controversy over the inclusion of the next Jew. Most Germans can quote the first few lines of what has practically the status of a folk poem, the Lorelei. Its author, Heinrich Heine even converted to Christianity but, even so, getting him into Walhalla was a matter of anguished debate.

There’s one Jewish woman, Edith Stein, though she’s there as a Catholic martyr and Saint: she was another convert, but that didn’t stop the Nazis killing her. A German Jewish woman who had rather more impact on the world, Hannah Arendt, isn’t there. Nor are quite few Jewish men we might consider reasonably significant, such as Kafka or Freud.

So it must be a curious place. I can’t wait to get there. That old Ludwig: he’s certainly left us a lot to wonder at.

Mad or not.

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