This Week in History: Oktoberfest
By Will Vega, Managing Editor
Today, on the first of October, we welcome in the best month of the year, and do you know what “October first” sounds like when it’s said with a bad German accent?
Oktoberfest began all the way back in 1810 when Crown Prince Ludwig I — who would later become a walking stereotype of mantle-wearing European kings — married a Thuringian princess named Therese, who was on Napoléon Bonaparte’s waiting list of possible brides but didn’t make the cut. Not to be discouraged having married the second choice of France’s “big” man on campus, Ludwig threw the biggest party ever seen this side of Germany (although another very prominent Party would pose some challenges to the festival, but we’ll hit on that later).
All of Munich’s citizens were invited to the festivities that began on Oct. 18 of that year. The wedding celebration was primarily centered around possibly rigged horse races (the outcome of which deserve their own article), but the really important part — the part that was culturally exported to America, at least — was the fact that wine and beer tastings were accessible to a huge swath of the city’s entire population. It rocked so hard that they ran it back the next year; 1811 had fewer weddings, but more horses and beer to take their place, and that one rocked just hard enough for the people of Bavaria to go ahead and declare Oktoberfest an annual tradition.
However, Oktoberfest was cancelled in 1813 when Ludwig switched sides and declared war on Napoleonic France (Bavaria and friends won; good choice, Therese). After that, the festival grew in scope and size almost yearly. Carnival booths and games entered the fun, making it so that just about anyone could show up and win prizes that would blow the average German provincial’s mind: nice plates, silver trinkets, that kind of thing.
Oktoberfest was eventually moved forward to make the most of September’s warmer weather, adjusting it to today’s observed date, by which the festival ends on the first Sunday of October. The fest was cancelled for a couple of pretty deadly cholera outbreaks (and yes, the last two years for COVID as well), and came to a grinding suspension for a few years due to the many, many troubles of World War I.
The historical festival still commemorates that royal marriage, broadly embracing song, dance and the celebration of German tradition. You know who really liked exploiting the aesthetic of German tradition? That’s right, the 1930s’ own Nazi Party spearheaded the fest’s planning, making a big deal of the event’s 125th anniversary and transporting (certain categories of) people en masse to the function celebrating Hitler’s 1938 Anschluss (read as “vibe checking the rest of Germany”). The worldwide conflict he plummeted the nation into immediately afterward left Oktoberfest suspended once more.
Since 1946, the festival in Munich had continued unabated up until the coronavirus outbreak last year. The party’s still cancelled, but the spirit lives on! Partly because of the American offshoot events, one of which is happening in Buffalo. With the fests ending this Sunday, here’s to the safe and socially responsible observation of Oktoberfest’s best and oldest parts — beer and wicked fast horses — in smaller circles than originally planned. Prost!