Deceptive Clichés Oktoberfest and Bavaria's Recipe for Success

On the surface, Oktoberfest is all about booze and sex. But the world's most famous folk festival can also be seen as a microcosm of Bavarian culture, where tradition and conviviality have combined to create a special brand of prosperity.

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By Ullrich Fichtner

Shortly before the witching hour, Munich's police Commissioner Thomas Obermayer's task force goes into a defensive formation on the Oktoberfest grounds. The six patrol officers form a circle with their backs to each other on Budenstrasse, a wide street just beneath the monumental bronze Bavaria statue. It's the first Monday of the 180th Oktoberfest, and the beer tents are just closing. The last brawl involving beer mugs -- pitting a Swiss woman against a Munich native -- happened less than three hours ago.

In the pale light, Obermayer's officers look for a moment like beleaguered heroes in a horror film, humankind's last hope in a world invaded by zombies. Inebriated figures in lederhosen, women in dirndls with ruined hairdos, and bellowing tourists in Loden jackets stagger past the officers, coming from all directions.

Some verbally abuse the police officers, burping demonstratively, while others babble and try to give them the rest of their roasted almonds. Within the officers' view, men urinate next to garbage cans and wobbling couples lick each other's faces and necks. Others simply sit on the ground, staring into the fading carousel lights as though they are in the midst of some deep meditation.

Oktoberfest, also known by its Bavarian nickname, the Wiesn, can be described and experienced in many ways -- the police perspective being only the darkest. One of the young officers on Obermayer's team, who is here for the first time and is just finishing his second shift, calls it a cultural shock and, disparagingly, an "international booze fest." The others say that they have been to the folk festival in their free time, but never with children. And the commissioner himself, a Munich native and fastidious hulk of a man in his late thirties, likes working there but isn't fond of the festival itself. "I much prefer a quiet beer garden," says Obermayer. "This stand-up party isn't for me."

A "stand-up party" is exactly what the world's largest folk festival turns into around late afternoon on each of its 16 days. By the time the first revelers, after warming up with a few shots of schnapps, have emptied their first one-liter mugs of beer, hardly anyone is sitting down anymore. Year after year, the large tents built for the occasion, each accommodating from 7,000 to 10,000 people, turn into a living hell for anyone fearful of large groups and a paradise for those drunk enough to happily become one with the crowd.

Until the taps are shut off at 10:30 p.m., the goal for many is to drink strong beer as quickly as possible while still holding down their food and otherwise belting out the lyrics of popular songs.

A Touching Devotion to Tradition

Non-Bavarians and other foreigners tend to believe that the raucous festival amounts to nothing more than a collective drinking binge, a massive party with rollercoaster rides and erotic displays of tight dirndls and deerskin trousers set to the oompah-pah of brass bands. But there is something more refined going on beneath all the noise and clinking of beer mugs. Oktoberfest is actually a 35-hectare (86-acre) stage where performances of great importance play out simultaneously.

They are about the odd, prosperous southern German state of Bavaria, which at its heart has remained a small, proud nation. They are about the state party, the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), which, in the frenzy of costumes and successful election campaigns, portrays itself as the legitimate successor to the abdicated monarchy. They are about a society's touching devotion to tradition and local celebrities. And they are about a city where six global corporations listed on Germany's blue chip stock exchange, the DAX, compete for power and influence -- and thus as many seats as possible in Oktoberfest beer tents.

The latter may sound like a joke, but it's entirely serious. A political tremor passed through Munich last December when the festival's supervisor ruled that in 2013, only 65 percent of tables could be reserved after 3 p.m. on weekends. What would seem to be a tiny bit of local news triggered a panic in the executive suites of many large Munich companies, which like to treat their major international customers to an exclusive Oktoberfest visit, preferably in combination with tickets to a home match of the city's football club, FC Bayern, the other mainstay of Munich's worldwide reputation.

Next to football, the annual festival is the most effective weapon available to Munich PR strategists. Oktoberfest has become one of the world's most dazzling "love brands," with spin-offs everywhere, as famous as Carnival in Rio, the running of the bulls in Pamplona or the St. Patrick's Day parade in New York. BMW and Munich Re, Allianz, Linde AG, Siemens, Burda and Random House Germany, all headquartered in Munich, attempt to bask in as much of the festival's glow as possible.

Event managers and "society ladies" invite their guests to private parties in the beer tents, car rental entrepreneur Regine Sixt hosts a women's party and BMW organizes a crossbow shooting event. The latter took place last Monday, with the head of the automaker's Munich office wearing knee breeches and a vest. A closer look at the guest list reveals that this isn't just a shooting contest, but also an opportunity to rub shoulders with prominent individuals. Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann appeared at the event, as did the Paulaner brewery head Andreas Steinfatt, along with developers and heart surgeons, actors, a few models and a few leftover aristocrats.

Forgetting Social Limits

It goes on like this for over two weeks. No self-respecting Munich company can avoid hosting a Wiesn party. The companies need space in the tents, from 900 to 4,000 seats, depending on their size and requirements, and as many VIP boxes as possible, even though every centimeter of bench space is precious and table reservations for 10 are sold for up to €3,000 on the black market.

There are often hand-painted signs above the entrances to the beer tents that read, "Closed due to overcrowding," particularly on weekends. That's when the festival sees up to 500,000 guests, among the 6.5 million who come over the course of the event. But together all the tents can accommodate just 114,000 party animals, which means that even though they operate in two shifts, around 200,000 people remain dangerously undersupplied with beer and brass music.

Because of their frustrations, police are frequently called to the scene. At the time of the "table change" in the late afternoon, fights break out between those determined to remain in the tent and those eager to get in. That's when Commissioner Obermayer's officers appear, guided by the operations center to crime scenes that often look as though something went terribly wrong in the production of a traditional play.

Some 300 police officers work around the clock at the Wiesn, forming the largest police station in Bavaria for just over two weeks. Their mission is to ensure that Munich residents, their fellow German citizens and guests can drink to their hearts' content, undisturbed by hooligans, and can even run amok a little themselves. It's a tough job that can feel pretty absurd.

The first passed-out drunk of the 2013 season was picked up just minutes after the kegs were tapped on the first Saturday. By closing time seven beer-mug brawls had erupted, some involving serious head injuries, with Dutchmen battling Americans and Italians tangling with Munich natives. A Turkish engineer had to be prevented from walking through the Hofbräu tent while masturbating; beggars, pickpockets, con artists and gropers had to be pursued. On that day alone, the Wiesn police responded to 201 incidents, 20 more than in the previous year, signaling the start of a lively Oktoberfest.

It's crazy at times, says Peter Hartwich, head of the Wiesn police station, "because people no longer recognize any social limits to their efforts at self-realization." Nowadays, he adds, there are people who stick their mobile phones under women's skirts and post the results on porn sites. And some guests, says Hartwich, "when they have finally finished drinking, simply toss their empty mugs high up into the air behind them. And those things are heavy."


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danm 10/01/2013
1. optional
I think the German people are wonderful. The Bavarians are my favorites. And attending Oktoberfest is on my bucket list.
spon-facebook-1828915740 10/03/2013
2. Long live Oktoberfest
I've specifically planned next years vacation to include at least part of a day drinking beer and consuming meat.
Fritz Oz 10/03/2013
3. Oktoberfest
To claim that it smacks of Nationalism is truly a RED HERRING! Bavarians are a proud people who have a strong moral code and cannot be swayed by whatever is currently fashionable in a moral sense. Germany enjoys a lot of its prosperity due to these values.
cyanotic 09/17/2015
Oktoberfest, held in Kitchener-Waterloo, Canada, is the largest such event in North America. Many entertainers and bands come from Bavaria. Wonderful. K-W has a large German population.
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