It’s Oktoberfest time all over Germany now, and while the official, original Munich Oktoberfest started on the 16th and will last until the 3rd of October, Berlin is just beginning its versions around the city. Excited and anticipatory we all wait for the tents to open—but they bring something more than beer and pretzels.
While I love large mugs of beer and lederhosen and dirndls, what fascinates me most about Oktoberfest are the effects and deeper meaning behind its international reach. Oktoberfest is a beloved tradition—a beloved German tradition—but it’s not just for Germans; Oktoberfest brings 5 million people from around the world to Munich each September and some of the world’s largest Oktoberfest celebrations take place in Brazil, the US, and Hong Kong. It is a wonderful example of what sociologist Eric Hobsbawm calls ‘invented tradition” and it’s actually quite modern.
I have to admit, I was terribly ignorant about Oktoberfest up until a few weeks ago. It was my belief that Oktoberfest had been around, perhaps on a much smaller scale, for many centuries as a last great hoorah and celebration of the harvest before Germany’s harsh winters. I was sorely mistaken. It began in 1810 to celebrate the marriage of Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. It is, essentially, an anniversary party every year.
Things rarely derive their greatest power from their origins, but rather from the perception built around them. Oktoberfest is seen as a national tradition bonding Germans from all around the country. While Berlin and Munich often regard each other with mutual distaste (Berlin being the wild child of art and experimentalism and Munich being more conservative and traditional) they put aside the squabbling for two weeks of the year and unite over beer and mass-produced „traditional“ garb (in Berlin’s case). For a short period of time everyone is Bavarian.
Benedict Anderson called this sense of unity over a large area of land an “imagined community” which feeds into the identity of a nation. The idea that one is connected with wholly unknown people through various forms (language, religion, etc.) creates a sense of cohesion and affiliation, a “deep horizontal camaraderie”.
While Oktoberfest is in origin a German event—and perhaps a nation builder—it doesn’t stop there. It has spread across the globe via three of Arjun Appadurai’s five global cultural flows: ethnoscape (people); mediascape (media coverage and images); and technoscape (internet and form of fast-paced dissemination). Now people from Japan to Mexico are part of the action and part of a greater ‘imagined world’ where the geographic and origin story of the event have less weight than the performative interaction. We are all part of Oktoberfest, and by experiencing what we like or feel connected to in another culture’s tradition, we see ourselves as more intertwined with it and part of an overarching global community.
Oktoberfest is very much an invented tradition building into a national identity, but the imagined community which it forms is malleable and crosses national borders. In some ways it is quite German in nature, a strong symbol of German culture, but its blurred or non-existent lines of exclusivity build the sense of cultural inclusion and elasticity we need more of.
Berlin is steadily growing as a destination for foreigners to make their home and Angela Merkel’s welcome refugee policy has expanded that further for both Berlin and Germany, which is also in keeping with Berlin’s tradition of immigrant acceptance. With such an influx of disparate cultures, religions, and heritage practices, it’s important to have more awareness and connectivity with the people around us. If sipping back on grandpa’s old cough medicine in leather shorts is the way to create a breakdown of division and at least a temporary sense of community, then that’s the way to go; temporary content and the warmth of human connection (Geborgenheit) lead to further attempts to preserve and expand those moments of affinity. Like the Holi color festivals or St. Patrick’s Day, Oktoberfest is just one of the seemingly national traditions that are helping to create more global cameradie. Hopefully it will work out; it’s worth supporting with a litre of pils at the Kurt-Schmacher-Damm this year at least.
In collaboration with Black Label Properties
Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities, London, Verso, 1991.
Appadurai, Arjun, Modernity at Large, University of Minnesota Press. 1996.
Hobsbawm, Erik, The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1980.
The History of the Oktoberfest, Muenchen.de.