Walhalla was conceived as a symbol of the German-speaking peoples at a time when many in Germany yearned for unification. Completed in 1842, its origins date back to the 1806 defeat and humiliation at the hands of the all-conquering Napoleon Bonaparte. The defeat of the German-dominated Holy Roman Empire was followed by that of Prussia. Napoleon marched into Vienna and Berlin as conqueror. In 1808, most German speaking lands were under French control.
The fluctuating fortunes of European nations in the 19th century meant that German’s only had to wait another twenty-nine years for much of the German speaking world to be united into the German Empire. Prussian diplomacy and military might made the dream of the man whose fanciful imaginings of German unity led him to build Walhalla come true.
That man was Ludwig I, whose romanticising of the German Middle Ages led to a nostalgic cultural renaissance in Bavaria. He was a passionate admirer of ancient Greece and fate dictated that, when Greece won its independence from the Ottoman Empire, Ludwig’s son would become King of Greece. It certainly explains why Walhalla looks like an Ancient Greek outpost stuck on a Bavarian hilltop overlooking the River Danube.
I’d like to say that it’s a classy addition to the architectural glories of Bavaria, but this faux Greek Temple to German-ness just seems overwrought and a little kitsch. Europe went through periods of infatuation with the Ancient World, but Walhalla seems to be trying too hard to impress. The sense of bemusement grew after we paid the €4.50 entrance fee to go inside Ludwig’s Parthenon-lite.
The trauma of defeat saw a flourishing of German mythology. The name Walhalla is plucked from Norse mythology, and was accompanied in literature by the reimagining of German folktales by the Brothers Grimm. A more straightforward time in which to find refuge. Its ultimate expression was Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and you’ll find Valkyries inside Walhalla as well. It’s no surprise that Ludwig built his Nordic-Greek fusion close to Regensburg, where the Holy Roman Empire had its parliament.
Ludwig’s vision was to showcase the most renowned German’s from the arts, sciences, military and politics – not to forget royalty. Men, for they are almost all men, who forged the very sense of what it meant to be German. They are bookended by the two greatest German victories over foreign invaders: the defeat of the Romans in the 9th century, and the liberation from French occupation.
Inside, it soon becomes clear that what Ludwig considered to be German seems, today, to be taking liberties. Here are Swiss, Flemish, Dutch, Danes, Poles and even Alfred the Great, Anglo-Saxon King of England. One of the few women in the ranks of great Germans is Catherine the Great, Tsarina of Russia. The French authorities had issues with Charlemagne’s inclusion.
In 1842 there were 96 busts and 64 tablets bearing names of those Ludwig honored. There have been few additions since, but the collection has grown to 130 busts and 65 tablets – Albert Einstein is one, but his bust looks like Groucho Marx impersonating Einstein. Another Marx, Karl, hasn’t been included. Which is odd given that with one exception, he and his mate Friedrich Engels, were the two Germans to make the greatest impact on world history.
The building and its location, especially seen from the Danube below, are imposing. The climb up the monumental staircase is impressively breathtaking, and the views from the top are glorious. Yet, it left me cold. Maybe times have just changed, and too much history has happened since 1842 to find this a completely comfortable place to visit? Or maybe it’s just too similar to the Hall of Faces, the spooky temple of the Faceless Men in Game of Thrones?