Why, when and how began the Oktoberfest? The fact that the Wies’n (which is how people from Munich call the Oktoberfest) has a historical backstory is often forgotten in today’s collective binge drinking event. Now that the Oktoberfest has passed and everybody is more or less clear in their head again, we can take some time to look at the historical background of the (cultural) festival.
The original Oktoberfest
Did you ever stroll over the old Oktoberfest (Oide Wies’n)? Have you looked around the smaller tents and wondered at the old agricultural machines? Or you might even have watched the horse races?
If you know the old part of the Oktoberfest than you most likely will already know more about the origins of the Oktoberfest than the average Oktoberfest visitor. Because the horse race, but also the exhibition of agricultural equipment, are exactly the origins of the Oktoberfest.
In the year 1810, on the 17th of October 1810 to be exact, a first celebration was held on what later would come to be known as Theresienwiese. This celebration was the wedding of King Ludwig I. and Princess Therese of Sachsen-Hildburghausen. The whole country was invited. The actual wedding was already held, or to be exact again, began five days earlier.
On the 12th of October, crown prince Ludwig I. marries and organizes great festivities all over Munich. The young, cavalry major Dall’Armi, who is a rich banker and originally from Trient, proposes to the king to hold a horse race just outside the city gates at Sendling.
He not only pays for all expenses of the horse race, but is also responsible for the renaming of the field in Sendling to Theresienwiese in honor of the bride. The next year, the Agricultural association in Bavaria proposes to hold the festival every year from now on. A tradition is born and continues to this day.
Bavaria in times of the first Oktoberfest
In the year of 1810 Bavaria was still a very young kingdom. Just seven months before the wedding of the crown prince the territory had undergone its latest changes. In those days, Vorarlberg, Trient and Salzburg were still part of Bavaria and not, like today, of Austria or Italy.
Thanks to the alliance with Napoleon, Bavaria was on of the main beneficiaries of the Napoleonic wars. In the year 1806, it was elevated from an electorate to a constitutional kingdom.
The infantile kingdom is inhibited by a range of different cultures, and just a few months prior to the festivities in Munich a peasant uprising has bloodily been put down. The kingdom was everything but united. That was exactly what the Wittelsbach family wanted to address with the first Oktoberfest.
The festivities sported a wide arrangement of cultural exhibitions and displays from different regions of the kingdom. The main aim of the ruling Wittelsbach family was to present themselves as close to the public as possible and to unite the people behind the new kingdom and monarchy.
And what better to convince the people of a king than free beer?
You heard correctly! On the first Oktoberfest the beer was flowing extensively and was all paid by the state’s finances, the public didn’t spend anything on beer or food!
Lederhose and Dirndl, traditional Bavarian clothing? Wrong!
On the first Oktoberfest, and on the many following until the late 19th century, Lederhosen and Dirndl will most likely not have been seen in any great numbers. How can that be? Aren’t Lederhosen and Dirndl the traditional clothing of Bavarians? Not really.
What is today known as the traditional clothing of Bavarians only became really popular in the late 19th century, around 1880, made popular by the kings Maximilian II. and Luitpold of Bavaria. The Wittelsbacher family basically made the Lederhosen popular as a marketing stunt.
Neither were Lederhosen and Dirndl ever the clothing of the peasant population. Dirndl were first worn by rich Munich ladies going on summer holidays at the Chiemsee, while Lederhosen and hats were worn by rich Munich men to go hunting.
Here, again, the goal of the ruling Wittelsbach family was to unite the disunited and splintered Bavaria. They wanted to create an “Bavarian look” that will be recognized all around the world and with which Bavarians could recognize each other and say: This is how Bavaria looks.
Oktoberfest and the traditional costumes, today they seem inseparable. Originally, they didn’t have anything in common, except for a shared intention: Propaganda.