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Visiting Haut-Koenigsbourg Castle, Orschwiller, France: burned by Swedish troops, restored by the Emperor of Germany

Updated on October 17, 2012
Flag of France
Flag of France | Source
Haut-Kœnigsbourg Castle, Bas-Rhin, France
Haut-Kœnigsbourg Castle, Bas-Rhin, France | Source
Flag of Sweden
Flag of Sweden | Source
Haut-Koenigsburg in 1851 photographed by Le Seq
Haut-Koenigsburg in 1851 photographed by Le Seq | Source
Kaiser Wilhelm II, by Max Koner
Kaiser Wilhelm II, by Max Koner | Source
Haut-Koenigsbourg Castle was built in the 12th century by the Hohenstaufens
Haut-Koenigsbourg Castle was built in the 12th century by the Hohenstaufens | Source
Map location of Bas-Rhin department, France
Map location of Bas-Rhin department, France | Source

Craggy heights, Medieval origins, an Emperor's fantasy and vaguely sinister vibrations

The very existence of this castle in its present form at a height of 800 metres in Orschwiller, France — with its history of having been burned by Swedish troops and restored by Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany — begs all sorts of questions.

"For a start, what was Sweden's army doing here in France? it's not anywhere remotely near Sweden."

Well, stranger things have happened, but this occurred in the 17th century's Thirty Years' War, and at this time Sweden was a major European power. North Americans are used to the image of Sweden as a benevolent country present in all sorts of international institutions, and with what is pleased to be known as its humanitarian foreign policy. However, when Haut-Koenigsbourg Castle was on the receiving end of Swedish fire-power (quite literally), its purported diplomatic benevolence had not yet hatched, so to speak.

"But what was the Emperor of Germany doing in this part of France?"

Actually, after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, which led to the Unification of Germany under Emperor Wilhelm I, the French province of Alsace and part of Lorraine were annexed to Germany, so, when, two German Emperors later, William II wanted to restore ruined Haut-Koenigsbourg Castle, he regarded it as being on his own territory.

"But once the long derelict castle ruins were restored, what did the Emperor think he was going to do with it?"

Well, the Emperor received it as gift from the nearby town of Sélestat. Except that he didn't call the town by this name; he and all the other Germans called it Schlettstadt . (Unless, that is, they peferred to call it Schlestadt .) Anyway, Emperor Wilhelm II wanted to use the Castle to prove how German Alsace was, as he thought. But it's a good question, especially since by the end of World War One, the Emperor and Imperial Germany were gone, Alsace was back in France again, Schlettstadt was called Sélestat again, and Hauptkoenigsburg (as the Germans insisted on calling it) was referred to officially as Haut-Koenigsbourg once more.

"So only 19 years after the Emperor painstakingly restored the Castle, supposedly to the greater glory of Imperial Germany, the French government took it over?"

You got it in one!

And the French government, in its different branches, have managed it ever since (except for during the painful interlude of World War Two), hosting half a million visitors annually.

Much of the restoration of the Castle was led by German architect Bodo Ebhardt (1865-1945), who is widely held to have been more desirous of following Emperor Wilhelm II's Medieval fantasies than to restore the building with historical accuracy. The original Castle is reckoned to have been founded in the 12th century by the Hohenstaufens. A sumptuous edifice on an enormous scale, the Castle leaves one feeling that not a little of its romanticized furnishings were merely two or three decades too early for Hollywood. In the architect's efforts to recreate a Medieval ideal of a Castle, one wonders if such an ideal ever really existed. One of the Castle's principal features is its tower, which is acknowledged to be exaggeratedly taller than any predecessor that the architect was supposedly seeking to emulate.

But its situation in the Vosges mountains, in the Bas-Rhin (Lower Rhine) department of eastern France, overlooking the Rhine Valley is outstandingly striking!

October 16, 2012

Also worth seeing

In Orschwiller itself, there are several ancient houses and a fine town hall.

Sélestat (distance from Orschwiller: 8.9 kilometres); its many architectural and cultural treasures include distinguished church architecture, its 18th century town hall and the library of Renaissance scholar Beatus Rhenanus, associate of Erasmus.

Strasbourg (distance from Orschwiller: 57 kilometres); its fine Cathedral was once the tallest building in the world; Petite France is a picturesque, old suburb.


How to get there: United Airlines flies from New York Newark to Paris (Aéroport Paris-Charles de Gaulle ), from where car rental is available (distance from Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport to Orschwiller : 465 kilometres). In addition, via stopovers, Air France, Delta and KLM , which have a code-sharing agreement, operate flights from New York to EuroAirport Basel Mulhouse Freiburg, from where car rental is available (distance from EuroAirport Basel Mulhouse Freiburg to Orschwiller : 78 kilometres). Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.


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    • MJFenn profile image

      MJFenn 5 years ago

      Cat R: Yes, there are many castles in Europe, and, indeed, France, but you are right, their histories are often very interesting. Thank-you for your comment.

    • Cat R profile image

      Cat R 5 years ago from North Carolina, U.S.

      The European castles and history are/is amazing.

      There is the story about the German castle 'Weibertreu' (Women's Faith!). They were surrounded and had to give up. The women were told they could take their children and what they could carry. So they carried their husbands on their back. Thus the name 'Women's Faith'!