Oktoberfest went from a royal wedding celebration to a backdrop for Nazi propaganda to a globally-attended two-week party filled with beer, food, and German culture.
Oktoberfest is the largest folk festival in the world, with people from all over the world flocking to Munich’s famous gathering each year. In 2019, that meant 6.3 million visitors enjoying the historic Theresienwiese space — and consuming 7.3 million liters of beer.
While most people know that Germany celebrates its past with beer, bar maidens, and music, the history of Oktoberfest remains a mystery to many. For instance, the fact it began as a royal wedding celebration and was once a horse-centric event may come as a surprise.
The History Of Oktoberfest In 46 Vintage Images Of Beer, Bratwurst, And Debauchery
In modern-day Germany, the annual gathering serves as an opportunity for Bavarians to showcase their culture to visitors from more than 50 countries. From lederhosen to traditional dances to hearty food, Oktoberfest is a thriving socioeconomic powerhouse.
On the other hand, with a history as long as Oktoberfest — spanning more than 200 years since its 1810 debut — tragedies have tainted its legacy over the years. From drunken fights and stabbings to murder and bombings, the real history of Oktoberfest is truly one to behold.
The History Of Oktoberfest
Before he became King of Germany, Crown Prince Ludwig, known for both his great work ethic and his prolific output of bad poetry, married Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. The occasion fell on Oct. 12, 1810, and the citizens of Munich were invited to celebrate the newlyweds in front of the city gates.
The field where Munich's citizens gathered was named Theresienwiese (or Therese's Meadow) on that day, in honor of the Crown Princess. The expansive 4,500,000-square-foot space bears her name to this day.
The wedding celebration lasted several days. Less than a week after the marriage ceremony, horse races were held in the tradition of the culturally significant Scharlachrennen (or Scarlet Race at Karlstor). It's unclear whether it was Major Andreas Dall'Armi or Sergeant Franz Baumgartner of the National Guard who proposed this idea.
More horse races were later held to celebrate the royal couple's one-year anniversary, — marking the beginning of the festival's annual tradition of celebratory races. But it didn't take long for Oktoberfest to transition from its royal origins into a more lighthearted event — despite all the wars and epidemics on the horizon.
WiesnkiniPeter Hess' "Horse Race at the Wedding of Bavaria's Crown Prince," depicting the royal 1810 wedding.
The History Of Oktoberfest As A Public Festival
Bavaria's participation in the Napoleonic Wars forced the state to cancel the Oktoberfest of 1813. However, subsequent years attracted more and more visitors per year, with new events such as tree-climbing and bowling. In 1816, carnival booths entered the picture.
By 1819, the city of Munich assumed responsibility for organizing Oktoberfest and ensured that it would always be an annual event, though the exact dates of the festival often varied. In 1832, for instance, the fest was held weeks earlier, to take advantage of September's warmth and longer days.
Author August Lewald described the 1835 Oktoberfest: "The moon hanging in a cloudless sky, the mountain tops ringed with haze, forests lying nearby and the thousand city lights burning alongside a few from villages beyond."
Footage of the 1953 Oktoberfest, courtesy of British Pathé.
While the 1810 costume parade to honor Ludwig and Therese has been an annual event since 1850, the horse races have since fallen out of favor — the last one was run in 1960.
In 1854, tragedy struck when a cholera epidemic killed 3,000 residents, causing the event to be canceled. Continental conflicts from the Austro-Prussian War and the Franco-Prussian War, in 1866 and 1870, respectively, caused additional cancellations.
But despite the many ongoing crises, Oktoberfest continued to evolve into the signature celebration we know today.
By 1880, more than 400 booths at Oktoberfest were illuminated by electric lights. The following year, bratwursts became one of the main dishes offered at the event. And in 1892, beer was finally served in glass mugs.
Since the 1810 wedding ceremony, Munich's population had grown six times larger. With more guests came the need for more space, leading to booths becoming beer halls.
It was during this period of expansion that breweries took part in the opening day parades, with decorated horses and bands showcasing each participating company on the first Saturday of the 16-day festival. By the turn of the 20th century, Oktoberfest as we currently know it had finally emerged.
Oktoberfest In Modern History
An estimated 120,000 liters of beer were consumed during the 100th Oktoberfest in 1910.
In 1913, Oktoberfest's largest beer tent was pitched — the 59,000-square-foot Pschorr-Bräurosl tent, which could hold up to 12,000 guests. The tent was named after Rose, a legendary daughter in the Pschorr family who was said to drink beer every evening on horseback at her family's brewery.
While Germany was forced to cancel the event yet again during World War I, the darkest period in the festival's history came when the Nazis used Oktoberfest for propaganda purposes.
By 1933, Jews were forbidden from working within the Theresienwiese space. In 1938, Adolf Hitler ordered it to be renamed Grossdeutsches Volksfest, or the Greater German Folk Festival. For the next 10 years, however, Oktoberfest would be canceled.
Fortunately, modern-day Germany has reclaimed its history and forged ahead. In 1950, the mayor of Munich tapped the first keg, crying out, "O'zapft is!" and commenced Oktoberfest, a tradition that has continued ever since. The 1970s saw gay organizations implement "Gay Days" at Oktoberfest, with all creeds and races of people joyfully attending the gathering every year.
Footage of the 1962 Oktoberfest, courtesy of British Pathé.
But that's not to say the festival's troubles were over. Thirteen people were killed in a 1980 pipe bomb attack on Oktoberfest. At the time, it was the worst bombing in Germany since World War II.
As it stands, Oktoberfest makes the city of Munich $1.43 billion in tourism per year. It's no surprise, really, between flights, hotels, and the beer tents at the fest — some of which can fit up to 11,000 people. In total, around 1.98 million gallons of beer are consumed over the two-week period every year.
For those more interested in the food, more than 510,000 whole roast chickens and 60,000 sausages are consumed. The general cost for an American who wants to fly out for the festivities is around $5,000.
Over the past 210 years, Oktoberfest has been canceled because of World War II, World War I, hyperinflation after World War I, two cholera outbreaks, the Austro-Prussian War, the Franco-Prussian War, and the Napoleonic War.
Yet after every crisis subsides, the festival has rolled back into town to lighten the wallets and fill the bellies of locals and tourists alike.
The marriage of Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen and Ludwig I of Bavaria drew to its end in October of 1854 with Therese's death. But it's a safe bet that their wedding ceremony will continue to inspire festivity and happiness for centuries — and perhaps millennia — to come.
A staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Marco Margaritoff has also published work at outlets including People, VICE, and Complex, covering everything from film to finance to technology. He holds dual bachelor's degrees from Pace University and a master's degree from New York University.