The wild history of the Bavarian castle hosting this week’s G-7 summit
Special To The Washington Post June 26, 2022
BERLIN — Framed by the snow-capped peaks of Germany’s Bavarian alps, the castle set to host this year’s Group of Seven summit starting Sunday has a history almost as dramatic as its backdrop.
Built at the onset of World War I by philosopher and theologian Johannes Müller as a communal retreat for his followers, Schloss Elmau has served as a Nazi military vacation camp, a field hospital, a sanctuary for Holocaust survivors and the site of Germany’s last G-7 meeting.
The castle’s backstory tracks closely with Germany’s tumultuous 20th-century history. Now a luxury hotel, it is still owned by Müller’s family, despite falling out of the family’s hands temporarily during the denazification process following World War II because of the philosopher’s adulation of Adolf Hitler.
While intended as a mountain sanctuary, it has not always been so for all those associated with it. Dietmar Müller-Elmau, Müller’s grandson and the hotel’s current proprietor, was born in the hotel but said he had been “at war with it” for decades.
“My grandfather wanted to create a place of communal living where you could escape from yourself, from what he called self-interest, self-centeredness,” Müller-Elmau said. “The idea was to enable ‘freedom from oneself’ — which is contrary to what I want to enable: the freedom for oneself.”
Before Müller built the turreted Schloss Elmau between 1914 and 1916, he was already filling lecture halls across Germany. He’d attracted a following among Germany’s aristocracy, business elite and Jewish community.
Fans of Müller’s work — which criticized individualism, materialism and capitalism, as well as the Christian church — flocked to the castle, where they were immersed in dance and music. It hosted prominent politicians and cultural figures of the Weimar Republic, the German government between 1919 and 1933.
When the Third Reich began, Müller had what the Germany government described in 2014 as an “ambivalent attitude to the Nazi regime.”
While the philosopher had lauded Hitler as “the receiving organ for God’s government” and a “leader of a national revolution of the common good over self-interest,” he thought Hitler’s anti-Jewish policies were “a disgrace for Germany.”
“He marveled at the Jews,” said Müller-Elmau, pointing to his grandfather’s close network of Jewish academic friends. “He thought they were the ‘better Germans.’ “
Müller-Elmau said his grandfather justified his paradoxical stance with the argument that Hitler’s unexpected assumption of power could be interpreted only as a fate willed by God “and that one could recognize a God-sent leader precisely by the fact that he would not correspond to rational and wishful thinking.”
There was one particular Nazi slogan 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 Nazis’ collective nationalist ideology and his own emphasis on rebuffing self-interest.
His opposition to antisemitism and his ban on 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. Ultimately, his connections and following protected him.
Still, he was constantly interrogated by the Gestapo, Nazi Germany’s secret police, and eventually his works were banned — although that didn’t shake Müller’s faith in Hitler.
In 1942, in a bid to prevent confiscation of the castle by the SS, the Nazi paramilitary group, Müller rented the castle out to the Wehrmacht, Nazi Germany’s army, as a vacation resort for soldiers coming back from the front.
But two years later, Müller was placed under house arrest and Schloss Elmau was turned into a military hospital for German soldiers. The following year, as the Nazi’s surrendered, the U.S. Army took control of Elmau, and it briefly became a prison camp for the soldiers who were being treated there, then a military training school.
The war might 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 people and a Holocaust survivor, sued for a denazification trial to be brought against Müller on the grounds of his “glorification” of Hitler.
“My grandfather chose not to defend himself,” Müller-Elmau said. “He confessed to his political error, but not to the theological error on which it was based.” Given that Müller was neither a member of the Nazi party nor involved in acts of war, his conviction was controversial.
Auerbach, frustrated that 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 people.
Ernst Landauer, a Jewish journalist who survived several Nazi concentration camps including Auschwitz, wrote about marking the Jewish holiday of Purim in Elmau in a text published in 1946. Silence prevailed during the religious readings, “at times interrupted by sobbing,” he wrote.
“Purim used to be a joyous festival and those celebrating it had not suffered directly,” he wrote. “Those celebrating it now did suffer. That is why the rejoicing is subdued. For later generations Purim will be a joyous festival again. It will be difficult for us, however, to rejoice again in this life.”
Auerbach’s control of Elmau was short-lived. His vigorous pursuit of former Nazis irked parts of the political establishment, and he was arrested on allegations of corruption. In 1952, he was convicted of fraud and embezzlement. Days after the verdict, he took his own life.
The reason for his conviction was the antisemitism that was pervasive at the time, German historian and author Michael Brenner said. “Three judges of the court were former Nazi party members,” he said. In 1954, two years after Auerbach’s death, an inquiry cleared his name.
While Schloss Elmau reflects Germany’s complex history, it also reflects the country’s efforts to come to terms with it, said Brenner. In a country that loves compound nouns, there is, of course, a word for that process: “Vergangenheitsbewältigung,” or coming to terms with the past.
“Müller-Elmau and his family didn’t avoid this past, but confronted it,” Brenner said.
The castle didn’t stay out of family hands for long. Fearing claims for damages by Müller’s family due 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 annulled, 12 years after his death in 1949.
Müller-Elmau became proprietor in 1997 and set out to reestablish Schloss Elmau as a “cultural hideaway,” although he shunned his grandfather’s philosophy. Cutting up the communal dining tables, he said, was as symbolic as it was practical to the hotel’s new mantra: the freedom to choose.
“Previously, it had been 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 ripped through the building. Most of the hotel had to be demolished and reconstructed.
“Watching the hotel in flames — well, was a great relief,” Müller-Elmau said. “It was the best thing that could ever happen to me because before I was putting new wine into old bottles. And now I could make a new bottle for a new wine. I could design Elmau as a place for cosmopolitans and for individualists.”
Today, some 220 concerts are held at the castle every year, which continues to pull in the biggest names in classical music from the world over. 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 it was last held here, in 2015, it was the scene for one particularly iconic photograph.
On a wooden bench sat President Barack Obama, relaxed, arms outstretched. In front of him was German Chancellor Angela Merkel, gesticulating with open arms against the backdrop of the majestic mountains.
“Every politician, every guest that comes here wants to have their photo taken on that bench,” said Müller-Elmau.
The Washington Post’s Loveday Morris in Berlin contributed to this report.