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„It's tapped!“ The tapping of the keg is traditionally performed by the mayor of Munich, who then passes the first mug of beer to the Premier of Bavaria, kicking off a major media event. Virtually no TV or radio station, newspaper or journal abstains from issuing reports, features or articles about Oktoberfest. Whether theme-park rides, celebrity news, the newest festival hit songs, or simply the annual laments about the rising prices of beer, roast chicken or bread rolls with fish – there is hardly any aspect of Oktoberfest that is not taken up by the media and readily consumed.

Oktoberfest, which begins in September, has long since become a brand of its own. This developed through a natural historical evolution. By constantly changing its form and meaning since 1810, the event that takes place on the grounds of the Theresienwiese (it was originally situated at some distance from Munich, and then through the growth of the city became nearby and finally, right in the middle of Munich) has become what it is today.



The wedding of the Crown Prince in 1810
The royal festivities



The wedding of the Crown Prince in 1810

If Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria (1786-1868) had had his way his marriage festivities, which mark the birth of Oktoberfest, would not have taken place in autumn, but earlier in the year. He feared that Napoleon I. (1769-1821), whom he abhorred, might at the very last minute marry him to a french princess, or even worse, to a lady closely related to the emperor himself.

His bride, Therese from Sachsen-Hildburghausen (1792-1854), was in many respects an ideal match for  the political climate of those days. The small duchy of Sachsen-Hildburghausen was part of the "Napoleonic Rhine Confederation", thus the liaison could hardly cause a political stir. Consequently, an intervention by the emperor, which had occurred with Ludwig’s first fiancée (a russian princess), would not be a problem. At the same time, the duchy was too small (and much too indebted) to agitate Napoleon’s enemies in Europe. Even the fact that Therese was a protestant and unwilling to convert was not a major barrier.

In December 1809 Ludwig met Therese and her sister Luise (1794-1825), who also was a potential marriage candidate, for the first time. The engagement was celebrated on February 12, 1810, after consultation with Ludwig’s father, who was staying in Paris and had asked Napoleon for permission.

Maximilian I Joseph (1756-1825), however, did not fully yield to the wishes of his son. For organisational reasons, the wedding was scheduled for October, where the name days of the father-in-law (October 12) and the bride (October 15) could serve as perfect focal points for the festivities. The marriage ceremony took place on October 12.

The days before and after the actual ceremony were filled with balls, operas and a variety of other courtly amusements. The capital’s inhabitants were also included in the largesse: A festive illumination at night delighted Munich residents, and the banquet with an abundance of bread, meat, sausages and beer was probably even more favourably received. Wealthy citizens and nobles decorated their palaces and houses opulently. Especially impressive were the floral ornaments that decorated the palace of Count Montgelas, and the house of the wealthy financier Dall’Armi was also mentioned favourably in contemporary descriptions.

Despite the multitude of events that were situated in the city, the government of Munich was not involved in the organisation of festivities. The Bavarian Community Edict of 1808 had abrogated the communities’ right of self-administration. As a consequence, there was no opportunity for Bavaria’s capital to contribute to the wedding festivities of the Crown Prince.

In lieu of the commune, it was the 3rd class of the National Guard, a militia, which took responsibility. In 1809, the powerful bavarian secretary, Count Maximilian of Montgelas (1759-1838), had integrated the hitherto voluntary militia into the National Guard, and had divided the guard into three classes: In the event of war, the first class was part of the standing army, the second class was given defensive tasks within the territory of Bavaria, and the 3rd class was meant to remain behind and assume police duties. The members of the old-established Munich merchantmen, who had the financial means to guarantee a respectable appearance of the militia, were responsible for forming the third class of the National Guard.

The initiative to contribute to the royal wedding festivities was advanced by Andreas Michael of Dall’Armi (1765-1842), a major in the cavalry of the Munich National Guard, 3rd Class. Dall'Armi was the son of a merchant from Trent, he had married into the banking family Nockher, and, together with his brother-in-law Jacob Nockher, became the most important banker in Munich.

Dall’Armi followed the suggestion of one of his subordinates, Franz Baumgartner, who had proposed that the militia’s cavalry organise a horse race to celebrate the royal wedding. Dall’Armi received the necessary permission for the event, organised it, and published programs as well as a detailed description. The description of the race literally dictated the form of the celebration.

The programs and the report (published later, in 1811) about the horse race reveal that Dall’Armi had higher goals than merely the simple the enjoyment of his fellow citizens of Munich and the royal house. Superficially, the horse race served to revive older traditions, like the Scharlachrennen, which had taken place between 1780 and 1786 on the occasion of the Jacobidult. Ultimately, however, the race was designed to represent the city and its upper class to the royal house, and to contribute to the status of Dall’Armi.

For King Max I Joseph, this initiative must have been quite convenient and timely. In 1810, Bavaria was a country that resembled a patchwork quilt, consisting of old and new territories. It was unclear whether it would be able to retain its current boundaries. The frontiers of the young kingdom had just been redefined a couple of months before. As king ‘by the grace of Napoleon’, he furthermore reigned over people who very often were not born as Bavarians, and who had not yet assumed a Bavarian identity. Every opportunity that served to symbolically unify the new state was welcome.

The open meadows outside the city’s gates served as a location for the race, which took place on October 17, 1810. The hillside at the Sendlinger Höhe (today called Schwanthalerhöhe) provided an ideal natural grandstand. The meadows were mostly owned by the Munich merchantmen, among others by Dall’Armi. A huge Ottoman tent, which had been taken as plunder during the war against the Ottomans by the elector Max Emanuel (1662-1726), was used as a royal pavilion. Situated on top of the hill, it provided ample space for court society. On the day of the festivity, after church services, the National Guard and the population ceremoniously marched to the meadows, arriving shortly before the court's appraoch in a stately fashion. The offspring of Munich families (among them the children of Dall’Armi) were dressed up to personify Bavaria and its administrative districts. They showed their reverence to the king, the Crown Prince and his bride. A group of singers from Sunday schools performed a self-composed song, while the royal family ate breakfast. For all other guests, several innkeepers provided refreshments on the Sendlinger Höhe. The race itself was won by  Sergeant Franz Baumgartner, who, according to Dall’Armi, had given the idea to stage the race.

The event was a great success for all parties involved. Especially Dall’Armi, who  was able to develop far-reaching plans. He intended to transform the location of the race into a grand venue for festivities and events, comparable to Milan, where Napoleon I. himself had ordered the construction of an arena in the manner of  antique models. Dall’Armi also had the brilliant idea, making the meadows at the Sendlinger Höhe a permanent place of remembrance: Even on the day of the race, he proposed to rename the location after the Crown Princess. The hitherto nameless land was now called Theresienwiese (‘Therese’s Meadow’).


The Royal festivities

There had been plans to repeat the race again in 1811; however, the 3rd Class of the National Guard could not provide the necessary funds. Presumably, it was Dall’Armi who founded a new supporting organisation: the “Landschaftlicher Verein in Bayern” (‘Agricultural Society of Bavaria’). This society had been founded in 1810, with the express purpose of modernising the agricultural methods of the agrarian kingdom. The proposal to combine an annual horse race with an agricultural fair, to award exceptionally outstanding results in animal breeding, was received enthusiastically. This event was the first of its type in the german-speaking area. The horse race became the Oktoberfest; a singular event transformed into a tradition.

In 1813, the Oktoberfest was cancelled for the first time in its short history, due to the war against Napoleon. To the present day, 18 further cancellations have been registered – owing to cholera epidemics (1854, 1873), wars (1866, 1870, 1914-1918, 1939-1945), or inflation (1923 and 1924). For economic reasons, smaller substitute festivals, so-called “Herbstfeste” (‘autumn festivities’) took place five times, in place of Oktoberfest (1919, 1920, 1946, 1948).

Eventually, Oktoberfest proved to be too great a financial burden for the agricultural society of bavaria. On several occasions, the state had to subsidise the festivities. When, in 1818, the city of Munich regained its administrative autonomy through the second community edict, the responsibility for the Oktoberfest was passed on to the magistrate. The agricultural society remained in charge of only the agricultural fair.

King Max I Joseph made use of the annual Oktoberfest as a platform for royal representation. Primarily for the horse race, but sometimes for other occasions, the royal family came to the Theresienwiese in a pompous procession. Even when the sovereigns were not personally attending, the centrally placed royal pavilion remained the visible hub of the festival area. Very often, prizes and signs of honour were bestowed by high-ranking officials, princes, or the sovereign himself, thus fostering his appearance as the father of the nation.

From 1825 onward, Ludwig I. exploited the festivities to represent his dynasty to an even greater extent. He scheduled important events to take place during Oktoberfest, and sometimes even staged them directly on the Theresienwiese. In 1826, for example, the great tributes to the young king took place during the festival. Similarly, in 1832, Ludwig had a Greek delegation pay their tributes to his son Otto (1815-1867) on the Theresienwiese. Expressly for this purpose, Oktoberfest was postponed for a week. In 1835, the silver wedding anniversary of the royal couple was celebrated at the Oktoberfest with unprecedented pomp. It included a great historical festive procession, in some respects a precursor for today’s costume processions. Likewise, in 1842, the wedding of Ludwig's heir, Maximilian (1811-1864) and Princess Marie of Prussia (1825-1889) was celebrated during the festival week. Only in 1847, when the political storms of the following year were already looming, did  Ludwig I. not attend Oktoberfest.

Although the number of visitors increased continuously until 1840, relatively few festival guests came from great distances. The duration of Oktoberfest was continuously extended, more athletic events were introduced, and a ever greater number of beer carts provided additional distractions. However, not until the opening of the railway line Augsburg-Munich in 1840, did the number of visitors sky rocket. The regional festival of the capital city quickly became an event that attracted visitors from all over the kingdom.

Under King Maximilian II, who succeeded his father to the throne in 1848, the Oktoberfest continued to expand along the same lines. The king was present on numerous occasions, however  without exerting the same influence as the charismatic Ludwig. The pivotal monarchic event of those days, the presentation of the monumental Statue of Bavaria in 1850, thus was dedicated more to the abdicated king than to his son.

Maximilian’s unexpected death in 1864 constituted a symbolic disruption for the Oktoberfest, as King Ludwig II (1845-1886) took no pleasure in the hustle and bustle of the Theresienwiese. Consequently, he attended the festival very rarely – out of the 18 Oktoberfests that occurred in his reign, he visited only five.

This may be part of the reason why the Oktoberfest, during the years of Ludwig’s reign (1864-1886), slowly began to change. The agricultural fair and awards remained; there were shooting matches, horse races and all sorts of other athletic events. Moreover, the appearances of the royal court on the Theresienwiese still offered the means to stabilise the liaison between the people and the dynastic rulers. At the same time these classic components were augmented by an alluring world of show booths, beer halls, ox roasting and freak shows. Admission for exhibitors and tradesmen was made easier in 1861; not quite two decades later, in 1880, already more than 400 booths were attracting visitors. New buildings were continuously designed, there was a permanent search for the newest and most spectacular attractions or rides. The number of visitors rose correspondingly: In 1861, a total of 80,000 people visited the Oktoberfest, while in 1882, this number was attained in a single day. The royal tent was still situated in the centre of the fairground, but amidst the great number of tents, wood constructions, flags and people, it had lost much of its aura. In 1879, the energetic innkeeper Hans Steyrer (1848-1906), whose demeanour has permanently shaped our idea of the Oktoberfest’s ideal host, made his first appearance on the festival grounds. The first great beer hall was erected by Michael Schottenhammel (1838-1912) in 1896, thus creating a prototype for the tents that dominate the Oktoberfest even today. In the same year, the Oberbayerische Zimmerstutzen-Schützenverband [Upper Bavarian an Association of Marksmen] organised the first procession of marksmen to Theresienwiese, celebrating the start of the festivities.

The time of the prince regent, when “Munich glowed”, as Thomas Mann (1875-1955) said, saw a renaissance of the royal family’s presence at the Oktoberfest. Already in 1886, shortly after the death of King Ludwig II, the Prince Regent Luitpold (1821-1912) averted a possible cancellation of the festivities. As a space for self-legitimation and self-representation, the Oktoberfest was simply too valuable. To some degree, the popularity of the prince regent was also based on his appearances at the Oktoberfest.

By 1886, the city of Munich had managed to buy all parcels of land belonging to the Theresienwiese, and thus protected the area against an impending development. Subsequently, well laid-out, macadamised pathways were constructed. Water pipes followed in 1890, and an electric power supply for the whole meadow was established between 1885 and 1901.

In 1910, the city of Munich celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Crown Prince’s wedding, with a degree of pomp and grandeur that was unique to the history of the Theresienwiese. The talented Ernst von Destouches (1843-1916) – an archivist, annalist of the city, historian and initiator of the Stadtmuseum (Munich City Museum), organised a jubilee exhibition and produced no less than three grand anniversary books. Splendid stage buildings on the Theresienwiese, countless costumes, a historic festival procession (which even outshone the procession of 1835), and a variety of celebrations, festive receptions, and historical sports events characterised the festivities. It was one of the last great public self-representations of bavaria as a kingdom, and of royal Munich in particular. Ludwig III (1845-1921) visited the Oktoberfest only once, in 1913, when he was still prince regent – just before the "Great War" ended the era of royal Oktoberfests forever.

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The "Free State of Bavaria" and National Socialism

The greatest challenge for Oktoberfest was brought about by the end of the "Great War" and the downfall of King Ludwig III in the year 1918. With the end of monarchy, one of the most important symbolic aspects of the Oktoberfest ceased to exist:, the self-representation and celebration of the royal family. Moreover, the connection between the Oktoberfest and horse racing was no longer as close as before: Equestrian sports had become professionalized. Even before the World War, well-constructed racing tracks had been built, making the improvised tracks on the Theresienwiese much less attractive.

The impetus for the resurrection of the festivities came from the associations of marksmen. Already in 1919, a gala display of marksmanship was held on the Theresienwiese, accompanied by a rather unassuming ‘Herbstfest’ [autumn festival]; the year 1920 saw a repetition of these proceedings. In 1921 and 1922, the Oktoberfest was officially revived, before galloping inflation brought about a two-year cessation. In 1925, for the first time since 1913, the Oktoberfest included a central agricultural fair. The beer and food stand owners organised the first concerted entrance of the ‘Wiesn-Wirte’ (barkeepers of Oktoberfest). On the whole, the Oktoberfests during the "Weimar Republic" were characterised by hardship and poverty. The visitors were looking for enjoyment but had very little money to spend; as a result the expenses of booth operators and beer stand owners very often exceeded their revenues.

The old road system from the days of the monarchy, which had been arranged around the roundel with the former royal pavilion in the center, was abandoned. A new grid street pattern was laid out, including the beer tents and funfair lanes, the streets that the visitor still sees today.

With the National Socialists’ assumption of power, the character of the Oktoberfest gradually changed. The last central agricultural fair took place in 1933, before the associations of agriculturists were dissolved. People with Jewish faith were no longer allowed to work on Theresienwiese, and the – up to that point well-beloved – ‘abnormalities’, e.g. Siamese twins or malformed people, were not wanted any more. In 1934, the fanatic National Socialist, city councilman, and horse dealer Christian Webber (1883-1945), initiated horse races and additional horse shows by the SS.

The Oktoberfest’s 125-year anniversary, which was celebrated extensively in the year 1935, was clearly dominated by National Socialist ideology. Ideological speeches attested to the fraternisation of farmer and city dweller, and the festival procession consisted not only of local costume groups and marksmen, but also contained substantial delegations wearing NS-uniforms. Contemporary publications, which are quite discreet about showing National Socialist imagery, partly veil the fact that the Theresienwiese was actually littered with swastika flags. One year later, in 1936, the colours of Bavaria and Munich were completely prohibited, the processions of the marksmen and costume groups were merged, and the breweries were pledged to guarantee the concerted entrance of the barkeeps. The gravel paths that led to the festival ground were paved.

When the war broke out in 1939, the Oktoberfest was suspended for the longest time in its history. Only in 1940 did a small substitute event take place on the fairground at Martin-Greif-Street.

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The World’s Largest Fair

After the misery of the war years, a regular Oktoberfest was not re-instated until 1949. In the years 1946-1948 smaller ´Herbstfests´ (autumn festivals) were celebrated, visitors could exchange their food stamps for small (‘thin’) beer. On September 16, 1950, Mayor Thomas Wimmer (1887-1964), while opening the Oktoberfest in the Schottenhamel Festzelt, coined the expression “O’zapft is!” (“It's tapped!”), it has since become a traditional phrase used by the mayor at every Oktoberfest.

Since those days, the bavarian Oktoberfest has developed into a truly international event. It has become a brand that is being exported with great success, and it has turned into an important economic factor for Munich. Not even the devastating terror attack on September 26, 1980, which resulted in 13 casualties and over 200 injuries, caused the end of the Oktoberfest.

Today, despite the attendance of prominent political leaders and VIPs, the Oktoberfest is no longer a means of representation for a dynasty or the city’s elite. The bavarian agriculturists probably no longer gain inspiration from the agricultural festivities. Furthermore, while the competitive marksmen are still participating, they would hardly be distinguishable from the regular visitors, were it not for the costume parade. Nowadays, the ‘normal’ visitors are at the heart of the festivities, those who are looking for collective relaxation; enjoyment in the beer tent; fun on an amusement park ride; or fun with one of the manifold other attractions. In this respect, Oktoberfest has finally become what it was named for in the earliest of documents: a festival of the people.

Friedrich Ulf Röhrer-Ertl

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  • Richard Bauer, Fritz Fenzl [Hrsgg.], 175 Jahre Oktoberfest 1810 - 1985, München 1985.
  • Florian Dering [Hrsg.], Das Oktoberfest. Einhundertfünfundsiebzig Jahre bayerischer National-Rausch. [Katalog zur] Jubiläumsausstellung im Münchner Stadtmuseum 25. Juli bis 3. November 1985, veranstaltet vom Münchner Stadtmuseum, Stadtarchiv München und Verein Münchner Oktoberfestmuseum, München 1985.
  • Florian Dering, Ursula Eymold [Hrsgg.], Das Oktoberfest 1810 - 2010. Offizielle Festschrift der Landeshauptstadt München, München 2010.
  • Ernst von Destouches, Säkular-Chronik des Münchener Oktoberfestes (Zentral-Landwirtschafts-Festes) 1810 - 1910. Festschrift zur Hundertjahrfeier, München 1910.
  • Anne Dreesbach, "Neu! Grösste Sehenswürdigkeit! Neu! Zum ersten Male in München!" Exotisches auf dem Münchner Oktoberfest zwischen 1890 und 1911, in: Anne Dreesbach, Helmut Zedelmaier [Hrsgg.], "Gleich hinterm Hofbräuhaus waschechte Amazonen". Exotik in München um 1900, München, Hamburg 2003, S. 9 - 33.
  • Gerda Möhler, Das Münchner Oktoberfest. Vom bayerischen Ladwirtschaftsfest zum größten Volksfest der Welt, München, Wien, Zürich 1981.
  • Brigitte Veiz, Das Oktoberfest. Masse, Rausch und Ritual. Sozialpsychologische Betrachtungen eines Phänomens, Gießen 2006.

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Hints for usage

All works are provided as digital versions. They are mostly accessable through the table of contents. A download of the digitized works in PDF-format is usually possible.

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Information on the project

The "Bavarian State Library", a universal library located in Munich, holds numerous works on the history of the Oktoberfest. The beginning years of the festival are particularly well covered, with an almost complete collection of publications. Many works, among them most of the the poems dedicated to the king, come from the property of King Ludwig I. He gave more than 5,000 printed works to the library in 1846 (more about the ‘Donation Ludovici’ [King Ludwig's Donation]).

A variety of other publications from and about the Oktoberfest, which are considered ‘grey literature’ (programs, leaflets, billets, posters) were collected rather unsystematically by libraries in the 19th and early 20th century. Individual items show that library staff donated material, which they had bought and collected privately, to the library holdings. Since World War II, the "Bavarian State Library", in its function as the regional and archival library of Bavaria, methodically collected material pertaining to Oktoberfest.

The Oktoberfest holdings of the "Bavarian State Library" complement the extensive collections about the city of Munich; they cover a broad range of topics. Given the amount of available material, only an exemplary selection could be presented. Each type of source available is represented by at least one digitalisation. The limits for the age of the selection of material is determined by German Copyright Law.

The digital exhibit "Sources and Descriptions of the history of the Munich Oktoberfest" is a presentation of the "Bayerische Regional Library Online" (BLO), the central cultural and scientific information portal for Bavaria. Selection and digitisation were accomplished in collaboration with the relevant departments, the Institute of Book and Manuscript Conservation (IBR), and the Munich Digitisation Centre (MDZ), of the Bavarian State Library. In cooperation with the Munich City Museum, the famous series of pictures of the two parades from 1835 and 1842 have been provided. The Monacensia Literary Archive and Library of Munich have also presented rich text material, at a separate web address.

The project has been online since September 2010. At the moment, the addition of further digital objects is in planning.