The history of the castle closely follows the tumultuous history of Germany in the 20th century. Now a luxury hotel, it is still owned by Müller’s family, although it temporarily fell out of family hands during the post-WWII denazification process due to the philosopher’s adulation of Adolf Hitler .
Although intended as a mountain sanctuary, it was not always so for all those associated with it. Dietmar Müller-Elmau, Müller’s grandson and current owner of the hotel, was born in the hotel but said he had been “at war with it” for decades.
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“My grandfather wanted to create a place of community life where you could escape from yourself, from what he called self-interest, self-centeredness,” Müller-Elmau said. “The idea was to allow ‘self-liberation’ – which is contrary to what I want to allow: freedom for oneself.”
Before Müller built the turreted Schloss Elmau between 1914 and 1916, he was already filling lecture halls across Germany. He had attracted a clientele among the German aristocracy, the business elite and the Jewish community.
Fans of Müller’s work – who were critical of individualism, materialism and capitalism, as well as the Christian church – flocked to the castle, where they were immersed in dancing and music. It hosted prominent politicians and cultural figures from the Weimar Republic, the German government between 1919 and 1933.
When the Third Reich began, Müller had what the German government described in 2014 as an “ambivalent attitude toward the Nazi regime.”
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While the philosopher had praised Hitler as “the receiving organ of God’s government” and a “leader of a national revolution for the common good rather than self-interest”, he believed that Hitler’s anti-Jewish policies were “a disgrace to Germany”.
“He marveled at the Jews,” Müller-Elmau said, pointing to his grandfather’s close network of Jewish academic friends. “He thought they were the ‘best Germans’. ”
Müller-Elmau said his grandfather justified his paradoxical position with the argument that Hitler’s unexpected seizure of power could only be interpreted as a destiny willed by God “and that one could recognize a leader sent by God precisely to the fact that it would not correspond to a rational wish and a wishful thinking.
There was one Nazi slogan in particular that struck a chord with Müller: “Du bist nichts; dein Volk ist alles. (“You are nothing, your people are everything.”) Müller drew similarities between the collective nationalist ideology of the Nazis and his own emphasis on the rejection of self-interest.
His opposition to anti-Semitism and his banning of the Nazi salute at Schloss Elmau would have landed most people in a concentration camp – but Müller’s unwavering support for Hitler left Nazi officials with a dilemma. In the end, his connections and supporters protected him.
Yet he was constantly interrogated by the Gestapo, Nazi Germany’s secret police, and eventually his works were banned – although this did not shake Müller’s faith in Hitler.
In 1942, in an effort to prevent the confiscation of the castle by the SS, the Nazi paramilitary group, Müller rented the castle to the Wehrmacht, the army of Nazi Germany, as a vacation spot for soldiers returning from the front.
But two years later, Müller was placed under house arrest and Elmau Castle was turned into a military hospital for German soldiers. The following year, as the Nazis surrendered, the United States military took control of Elmau, which briefly became a prison camp for the soldiers who were treated there, and then a military training school.
The war may have been over, but in its aftermath Müller’s contradictory stance toward the Third Reich remained problematic.
In 1946, Philipp Auerbach, the Bavarian State Commissioner for Persecuted Persons and a Holocaust survivor, filed a denazification lawsuit against Müller on the grounds of his “glorification” of Hitler.
“My grandfather chose not to defend himself,” Müller-Elmau said. “He admitted his political error, but not the theological error on which it was based.” Since Müller was neither a member of the Nazi Party nor involved in acts of war, his conviction was controversial.
Auerbach, frustrated that the legal appropriation of the castle was taking too long, took possession of it without legal title. Between 1947 and 1951, the castle served as a sanatorium for Holocaust survivors and displaced persons.
Ernst Landauer, a Jewish journalist who survived several Nazi concentration camps including Auschwitz, wrote about the celebration of the Jewish holiday of Purim at Elmau in a text published in 1946. Silence reigned during religious readings, “sometimes interrupted by sobs,” he wrote.
“Before, Purim was a joyous holiday and those celebrating it did not suffer directly,” he wrote. “Those who celebrate it now have suffered. That is why the joy is moderate. For future generations, Purim will again be a joyful holiday. It will be difficult for us to rejoice again in this life, however.
Auerbach’s control over Elmau was short-lived. His vigorous pursuit of former Nazis angered parts of the political establishment, and he was arrested on corruption allegations. In 1952, he was found guilty of fraud and embezzlement. A few days after the verdict, he committed suicide.
The reason for his conviction was the anti-Semitism that was rampant at the time, said German historian and author Michael Brenner. “Three judges on the court were former Nazi Party members,” he said. In 1954, two years after Auerbach’s death, an inquest cleared his name.
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While Schloss Elmau reflects Germany’s complex history, it also reflects the country’s efforts to come to terms with it, Brenner said. In a country that loves compound names, there is of course a word for this process: “Vergangenheitsbewältigung”, or coming to terms with the past.
“Müller-Elmau and her family did not avoid this past, but confronted it,” Brenner said.
The castle did not stay out of family hands for long. Fearing claims for damages by Müller’s family due to the expected appeal of his conviction, the Bavarian state government leased the castle to Müller’s children in 1951. A decade later they became the legal owners – the same year Müller’s sentence was overturned, 12 years after his death in 1949.
Müller-Elmau took over ownership in 1997 and set out to re-establish Elmau Castle as a “cultural refuge”, although he eschewed his grandfather’s philosophy. Cutting communal dining tables, he said, was as symbolic as it was practical for the hotel’s new mantra: freedom to choose.
“It used to be a forced community,” he said, adding, “For me, it’s all about individualism.”
The opportunity to make the biggest changes came in 2005, when a fire tore through the building. Most of the hotel had to be torn down and rebuilt.
“Watching the hotel in flames – well, that was a big relief,” Müller-Elmau said. “It was the best thing that could happen to me, because before, I used to put new wine in old bottles. And now I could make a new bottle for a new wine. I could conceive of Elmau as a place for cosmopolitans and for individualists.
Today, some 220 concerts take place each year at the castle, which continues to attract the biggest names in classical music from around the world. None of them expect a paycheck. They play to stay.
The isolated location makes Elmau a prime spot to host world leaders at this week’s G-7 summit. When last held here, in 2015, it was the scene of a particularly iconic photograph.
On a wooden bench sat President Barack Obama, relaxed, arms outstretched. In front of him was German Chancellor Angela Merkel, gesturing with open arms against the backdrop of majestic mountains.
“Every politician, every guest who comes here wants to have their picture taken on this bench,” Müller-Elmau said.
Loveday Morris in Berlin contributed reporting.