In the evening of June 13, 1886, two men were found dead in the shallow waters of the idyllic Lake Starnberg outside Munich. One was King Ludwig II, creator of a castle fantastic enough to inspire Walt Disney, and the last king of independent Bavaria, a throne he had been removed from four days earlier on the grounds of mental incapacity. The other was Bernhard von Gudden, one of the psychiatrists who had signed the report declaring the king too "paranoid" to rule.
Exactly how they died has still not been cleared up - the official version is that Ludwig, seized with a suicidal melancholy, rushed into the water, the physician tried to stop him, and the king ended up strangling, or drowning, von Gudden in the struggle. Then he either drowned himself deliberately or suffered a heart attack.
But that isn't what the Guglmänner think. This fearsome group of Ludwig loyalists - who wear pointy black hoods to preserve their anonymity and carry flaming torches to look even more menacing - are convinced that Ludwig was murdered by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck's secret agents, using a primitive air-rifle (which is why no one heard the shots). Not only that, they think the king knew that the Prussian agents were after him and was killed in a desperate attempt to flee across the lake in a fishing boat.
To commemorate the 128th anniversary of Ludwig's death this Friday (13.06.2014), the secret Guglmänner organization has released a new documentary that "reveals the truth" about what they call the "biggest crime in history."
The 16-minute film is like the denouement of an old-school detective TV show. It is based on a contemporary crime-scene sketch that minutely maps out the final footprints of the two dead men and the route the fishing boat took. Columbo-style, the Guglmann narrator - aided by a slightly awkward re-enactment - patiently explains to viewers why the official explanation for these deaths couldn't possibly be true.
How come the doctor's watch stopped 72 minutes after Ludwig's? Why were the two men's hats only found later - and nowhere near their bodies? Why did the fisherman rowing the boat, Jakob Lidl, leave guilt-stricken notes following his death in 1933 that claimed that Ludwig had indeed been shot?
The barbaric German Reich
It's easy to file these oddities away with history's other conspiracy theories, especially when they come from a group of middle-aged Bavarians who dress up as medieval mourners and consider themselves "symbols of death." But it's true that King Ludwig's untimely death suited the powers around him - his disgruntled ministers, his uncle and successor Prince Regent Luitpold, and above all Bismarck, who had cause to doubt Ludwig's loyalty to the German empire he had forged in 1871.
"The ones around Ludwig, they were all very Reich-friendly," senior Guglmann Richard H. told DW. "But Ludwig was always against it, and the uncertainty factor was always a danger for Bismarck - he didn't want to lose what he had put together so painstakingly."
In other words, Bavaria should never have been absorbed into the German Empire, and Ludwig, who rather prophetically wrote that "this wretched German empire is gradually but surely moving towards barbarism," was the last thorn in its flesh. For the tiny band of Guglmänner, his murky death raises issues about Bavaria's national identity.
"The king was wronged, even by the laws of the time," Richard H. says. "Of course you can't turn back the wheel of history - especially since there have been two world wars in the meantime. But it would be good to ask if Bavaria really does suit being in the Federal Republic."
As their film showcases, the Guglmänner have a taste for the theatrical, but despite many PR stunts - sinking balloons with "It Was Murder!" printed on them into Lake Starnberg, photographing the underside of Ludwig's sarcophagus in an attempt to prove that the corpse has been secretly removed - Bavarian separatism remains niche.
Even so, the Guglmänner are really just a bizarre extension of the special status that Bavaria has always had inside Germany. The state's dominant political party, the Christian Social Union, is officially affiliated with Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union and gets its own federal cabinet ministers, but at the same time puts Bavaria's interests at the center of its platform.
CSU MP Peter Gauweiler once claimed, in a 2005 article entitled "What if Bavaria became independent?" that Bavaria was "historically the oldest state in Europe" as it predated all the nations. "The Bavarians are loyal to Germany as to a father and mother," he added. "But sometimes you have to leave father and mother."
Separatists love the EU
This makes it a little odd that in the recent European election, the CSU - and Gauweiler himself - took a euroskeptic stance so as to counter the threat from the anti-European Alternative für Deutschland, whose success was part of the rightward lurch. But if there's one thing that regional separatists should believe in, it's the European Union. "Wherever there are separatists, you get pro-Europeans," said Josef Janning, political analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, pointing to the examples of Scotland and Catalonia.
"EU integration has one big advantage to separatists," he told DW. "It means they can say, 'if we split, the EU would make it so much easier, because we would not have to erect borders. We would not have to introduce our own currency, we would not have any economic difficulties, because we would still be part of the single market.' "
In other words, closer EU integration makes the 19th century nation state obsolete, and frees up Europe's ancient patchwork of identities. "Most people believe that the nation-state movement of the 19th century created homogeneous identities - which was not the case. The nation is not in our genes, it is a construct - it includes ethnic groups and historic identities that are different. In France, for example, you still have Corsica and Brittany - two regions with a very distinctive identity that could easily be grounds for separatists."
Back on the shores of Lake Starnberg, it's a balmy summer night, and Richard H. puts on his pointy black hood once again (he says they need to wear it because of the death threats). He says he feels a lot of empathy with other separatist movements across Europe: "These regions, take South Tyrol for example, that's a similar one, they all ended up as part of places they didn't want to be." Then he lights his torch, and goes out to mourn the death of his old king, who may or may not have been mad. "Europe thrives on diversity," he observes.