The history of Germany is so different from that of most of Western Europe. While countries like Spain, France, and the Netherlands have existed for centuries, in some cases even with relatively unchanged borders, Germany as a country didn’t really exist until 1871, when the German Empire was born, led by the northern kingdom of Prussia. Other previously independent – or quasi-independent – kingdoms joined, keeping their hereditary rulers as more local governors, until the end of World War One, when the Weimar Republic replaced the empire.
If you are a regular reader of The Royal Tour, we have spoken about Prussia twice (click here for a history of early Prussia and here for the story of Frederick the Great) as well as Saxony from its capital in Dresden (click here for a history of Saxony). Today, we will talk about Bavaria.
Southern and western Germany were dominated by a single family from the time of Otto I in the eleventh century: the Wittelsbach family. During the Holy Roman Empire, the family had two “main” branches. One, the Palatine branch, was based out of the Rhine Valley. The other was the Bavarian branch, considered the lesser, as the Palatine Wittelsbachs possessed one of the empire’s electoral seats, meaning a vote over who would become Holy Roman Emperor.
The Bavarian branch was based here in Munich, still the most important city in southern Germany. Their principal palace, the Munich Residenz, was begun in the fourteenth century, and enlarged over the subsequent years as the family gained importance. Today, both the Residenz and the family’s out-of-town Nymphenburg Palace (built much later) can be toured. The Residenz is, by European standards, modest, containing only about 150 rooms, with a nice public garden behind.
Until 1623, the Wittelsbach rulers in Munich were mere dukes. However, that would change under the rule of Maximilian I. He became Duke of Bavaria in 1597, and during the Thirty Years’ War, Maximilian, a devout Catholic, would come out on top, along with the emperor, over the Protestant German kingdoms, including that of the Palatine branch of the family. In gratitude, the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II bestowed the title of Prince-Elector on Maximilian, elevating both Bavaria and the Wittelsbach dynasty.
To try to learn more about these early periods of Bavaria, I visit the Bavarian National Museum, an impressive edifice built in 1855. While it is mostly dedicated to the decorative arts and vast collection owned by the Wittelsbach family, the shockingly difficult to navigate audio tour still has some great information about some of the most important dukes, electors, and kings (as the years progressed), most notably Maximilian I.
When Maximilian came to power, the duchy was bankrupt. His reign was marked by some extreme austerity measures designed to restore economic balance. On the flip side, to add to his income, he petitioned for and was granted the monopoly in the whole of the Holy Roman Empire for wheat beer.
That love of beer in Bavaria continues to this day, and a visit to the Hofbrauhaus, literally the royal brewery, is a way to both celebrate that tradition and engage in a loud evening of music, food, and heavy liter mugs of beer. (Alternatively, you can peek in, take a few photos, and opt for a better, quieter, and cheaper traditional dinner at any number of other restaurants in the area.)
In 1777, Maximilian Joseph, the Elector of Bavaria, died of smallpox, with no heir. After a brief war, the Palatinate branch of the family emerged on top, and reunited the Wittelsbach lands.
In 1806, with the end of the Holy Roman Empire, Bavaria became a kingdom. The next sixty years were years of almost constant war, as Bavaria found itself caught between first France and Austria, and then between Austria and Prussia. The Kingdom lost territory, gained territory, saw shifting alliances and borders, and generally was a minor power. Finally, in 1866, Prussia decisively defeated the Bavarian army at Uettingen, and Bavaria became part of the German Empire (though not officially until 1871 when the empire was declared). The Wittelsbachs remained kings, but were subservient to the Prussian Kaisers.
In November of 1918, following Germany’s defeat in World War One, Bavarian King Ludwig III fled Munich, officially ending the Wittelsbach dynasty. However, the family continued to exist, and still exists, bearing the hereditary title Duke of Bavaria and living at Nymphenburg Palace. So it was a softer landing than that of other European royal families.
The Wittelsbach period can be seen all throughout Munich. A walk down Maximilianstrasse takes one past huge palatial building projects that today house hotels, upscale apartments, and luxury shopping. The many art museums in the city got their beginnings from the royal collections, and church towers commissioned by the Wittelsbach family dominate the city skyline. It is truly impossible to separate Munich from the family.
The history can also be seen in the religious makeup of Bavaria, where roughly 70% of the population is Catholic, compared to just over a quarter of Germany as a whole. (Prussia, for instance, is more than 60% Protestant.) That is also a legacy of the Bavarian loyalty to the Holy Roman Empire, and the Wittelsbach Catholic heritage.
One of the highlights of traveling through Germany is the ability to visit several historical kingdoms within one modern nation. Bavaria is one of the most interesting of them, and here in Munich, one you can truly experience.
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