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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.

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."

Leading the Pack

It's crazy. And it's Oktoberfest. It's also Bavaria, a state that has become accustomed to living in a cliché, and to condescending jeers from the rest of Germany, where people have a hard time explaining how the supposedly rustic Bavarians have managed to nurture a state that is superior to other German states in almost every respect.

Bavaria leads the pack when it comes to future prospects and jobs, social cohesion, security, purchasing power, income and quality of life. The Max Planck Institute and the Fraunhofer Society have strong presences in Munich. The city has top-ranked universities, orchestras and opera houses, and even children in elementary school can read and do arithmetic better than pupils of the same age in Hamburg or Lower Saxony.

Anyone mulling the reasons for so much excellence encounters questions that chip away at some of the tenets of (northern) German society. It is quite possible, even likely, that Bavaria's deep traditions and customs keep society calm as a whole, thereby unleashing forces that are needed to structure the present and future.

The slogan "laptop and lederhosen," coined by former German President Roman Herzog and promptly hijacked by the CSU, may sound humorous, but it also describes Bavaria's Janus-faced character fairly well. The state always has one leg firmly planted in the past while striding forward with the other.

When the beer tent owners kick off Oktoberfest by driving through downtown Munich in their magnificently decorated calaches, following the breweries' six-horse carriages, their procession seems to be driving directly out of the 19th century and into the 21st, toward the breakneck rollercoasters built with Siemens technology.

Cabinet ministers and city officials, the mayor and the state governor wave from the carriages. From the street, it almost seems as if the people driving by were not ordinary bar owners and professional politicians elected for limited terms in office, but born regents graciously accepting the homage of a subservient people.

This year there were 100,000 people lining the procession route. Later, at noon, they waited anxiously to see what sort of a face Munich Mayor Christian Ude would make after ceremoniously tapping the first keg and presenting Bavaria's Governor Horst Seehofer with the traditional first mug of beer. Just a week before the festival, Seehofer recaptured an absolute majority for the CSU in the Bavarian state election against Ude, who happened to be the center-left Social Democratic Party's top candidate.

Both men rose to the occasion. They praised each other and then drank beer from stone mugs, which have long been banned from the tents for safety reasons, but look better on TV.

At such moments, broadcast live on the ARD television network, another old-fashioned trait of Bavarian society becomes apparent, one that still recognizes the position of the widely respected dignitary, the person who demands unquestioned authority. Despite being political rivals, the governor and the mayor are obligated to show respect for each other, and it would be perceived as a serious faux pas if either of them were to publicly snub the other.

That sort of thing isn't appropriate in Bavaria, particularly not in villages, where residents still greet the school principal and the district administrator in the street. And it's not welcome in the capital Munich either, where an upper class authenticated by offices, honors and media presence forms a conspiratorial power clique in which one hand washes the other.

A New Energy

The church is never far away in such cultures, as exhibited by Munich Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who celebrated his 60th birthday in one of the tents soon after the festival began. The first Sunday of Oktoberfest is also marked by the arrival of god-fearing hunters and brass players, traditionally-dressed groups and the Bavarian mountain troops, who once sent a contingency of 450 men to Castel Gandolfo for the celebration of former Pope Benedict XVI's 85th birthday, an event that turned into a festive Bavarian evening for the pontiff.

Even Bavarians find this sort of thing amusing, not to mention the entire bigoted, boozy costume extravaganza. Yet it remains a living tradition, passed from one generation to the next, successfully revitalized for centuries and not even destroyed by government exploitation in the Third Reich.

What was once nationalistic has become folksy once again, and the Oktoberfests of recent years, which have increasingly expanded into folkloristic fashion shows, mark a renaissance. It seems as if traditional Bavarian outfits, like German patriotism -- which was long taboo -- had to take a roughly 50-year break after the war, only to return with a vengeance today.

Until about 10 years ago, the typical Wiesn visitor wore jeans and perhaps a traditional cardigan known as a Janker. The only people wearing the complete Bavarian outfit were the elderly from the countryside and CSU politicians on the campaign stump. Today, three-quarters of all Oktoberfest visitors are dressed in lederhosen and dirndls. Children are dressed up in accordance with old customs, and girls wear their hair in braids, as if they had just come from working in the fields or milking a cow.

Despite the presence of Japanese tourists in Tyrolean hats and the binge-drinking visitors from New Zealand, Italy or the United States, Oktoberfest has remained a Bavarian festival. Some 70 percent of visitors are from Munich and the surrounding area. It's their festival, a quintessentially Bavarian expression of a quasi-national pride. Politically speaking, this mélange especially suits the CSU, particularly after its triumphant showing  in the recent state election.

Over the decades, the party has managed to reclaim the public festivals and old customs and infuse them with symbolism. The center-left SPD may be in the majority in the Munich city council and other Bavarian city councils, but when it comes to Bavaria as a whole, the conservatives are the dominant force. As writer Peter Bichsel once wrote maliciously about the Swiss, the party has taught voters to believe the lies in their own tourism brochures -- which, objectively speaking, wasn't that difficult in Bavaria.

Change isn't the first thing that crosses a person's mind while riding a Ferris wheel on a warm fall day above the Wiesn, with a view of Munich's church towers below and, on a clear day, the majestic Alps in the distance. In fact, that person is more likely to want things to remain exactly as they are, and isn't about to believe the SPD or the Greens or anyone else claiming that Bavaria needs a restart.

The Cult of Bavaria

Perhaps the most insane Bavarian idiosyncrasy is that the state government, embroiled in embarrassing and sometimes costly scandals, wasn't punished on Election Day, but in fact is rewarded with an absolute majority. The corruption scandals and nepotism that editors at major newspapers and magazines in faraway Hamburg and Berlin are always so quick to uncover never cause much indignation in Bavaria itself. Instead, the culprits are promptly characterized as sly politicians, as if absolution were always provided immediately for political sins. "He's a real dog" is among the highest Bavarian compliments, and it's used to excuse practically any offence, from mendacity to corruption. That's not just a stereotype.

Bavaria is permeated by an Italian element, a slightly mafia-like attitude, which is perhaps why Munich likes to call itself the "northernmost city in Italy." There is always a touch of Berlusconi in everything, allowing the Bavarians to believe that too much corruption is certainly harmful in the long term, whereas a little corruption ultimately makes things more bearable than a rigid, Protestant sense of order.

Oktoberfest is the High Mass of this spirit. It may have suffered a little from its brutal marketing, and from the fact that, thanks to TV shows and the tabloid Bild, all things Bavarian have become a cult of sorts. It may also seem grotesquely distorted at times, especially when B-list celebrities and athletes drink pink champagne from mugs in the wine tents. And yet the magic of this festival seems indestructible, even after 200 years.

It also seems as though their consumption of 7.4 million liters of beer, 509,000 roast chickens, 59,000 pork knuckles, 116 oxen and 85 calves -- last year's tally -- fortifies Bavarians and Munich natives for the rest of the year.

This doesn't apply to the police officers, though, who are doing their best to keep things running smoothly. On the first Monday of Oktoberfest last week, the officers were headed toward the grassy stretch of land running along the western end of the festival grounds, between the Bavaria statue and the Schwanthalerhöhe subway station. It used to be called the Schweinehügel (Pigs' Hill), probably because during the festival it's often covered with passed-out drunks and an occasional display of uninhibited open-air sex.

The lawn also becomes the scene of crimes, when, for example, date rapists have their way with intoxicated women. The best thing, says Commissioner Obermayer, would be to stretch a giant sign over the entire hill that reads: "Human dignity is not inviolable."

His team is running diagonally up the hill after video surveillance helped them spot a thief emptying the pockets of a drunk person lying on the grass. After checking a tent, they corner a shy young man with an Ecuadorian passport in the dark between puddles of vomit. He has an unusually large number of mobile phones in his pockets, and his face turns pale when the officers surround him. Music wafts over from a nearby beer garden, where one of the many "After Wiesn" parties is beginning.

Everything is gradually shutting down on the festival grounds. Obermayer's officers make their way up to the Wiesn police station with the Ecuadorian in tow.

The first guests will be back soon, and everything will start all over again in nine hours, when the fourth day of the festival begins. Many guests will drink vodka and Jägermeister with breakfast so they can arrive at the beer tents with a decent buzz. Then they'll drink beer. And then more beer. And then they'll dive headlong into the night, into the frenzy of Bavarian conviviality.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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