Gabriele Münter’s Murnau: a day trip from Munich to the birthplace of abstract art


The more frightening the world becomes, the more art becomes abstract.

– Wassily Kandinsky.


Gabriele Münter, one of the greatest German artists of the last century, was born 137 years ago today. She was a founding member of the Blue Rider group of artists that helped formulate the principles of German Expressionism that were so influential in the years before the outbreak of the First World War. In this centenary year of the great catastrophe of 1914, to visit to her home – preserved as a museum in Murnau, a beautiful Alpine town close to Munich – is to visit a lost world swept away by that terrible war.

Gabriele Münter was both partner and collaborator to Wassily Kandinksy, the Russian émigré who helped turn Bavaria into one of the world capitals of the new movements in art at the beginning of the 20th century. Sharing their life and work in Murnau in the years before the outbreak of war in 1914, they developed their ideas together in a beautiful place at a frightening time. Visit Murnau today – an hour from Munich in the direction of Garmisch – and what you will find is a Bavarian idyll where white church towers define the horizon between the waters of the Staffelsee and mountains fading into blue in the distance. The basic look of the place has not radically changed since the second decade of the 20th century when Münter and Kandinsky lived in the “Russian house” on Kottmüllerallee and, with others of their circle, shaped the direction of German art. Much of the town and surrounding landscape is still recognisable from Münter’s iconic paintings.

The "Russian House" in Murnau. The home of Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky, and the birthplace of abstract art.

The “Russian House” in Murnau. The home of Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky, and the birthplace of abstract art.

Walk through the rooms of their former home – open to the public as the Münter Haus Museum – and examine all around their remarkable attempts to turn every aspect of their daily lives and environment into an expression of their ideals, and it is difficult however not to feel a certain sadness. The British remember their “Edwardian” era of these years, albeit with more than a touch of romantic nostalgia, as a last golden summer of innocence before an entire generation disappeared into the fog of war and did not return. A similar aura of the fragile beauty of something lost pervades the Münter house, with its staircase and dressers decorated by Kandinsky, the bed painted by Münter, the sumptuous folk art wardrobe, and the glass paintings on the walls of rooms in which they sat with the doomed Franz Marc, soon to perish at Verdun, to write the Blaue Reiter Almanac, one of the greatest artistic manifestos of the 20th century, and introduce the principles of German Expressionism to the world.

The staircase in the Russian House, as decorated by Münter and Kandinsky.

The staircase in the Russian House, as decorated by Münter and Kandinsky.

Münter met Kandinsky in 1902 when she enrolled as a student in his art school shortly after moving to Munich from Berlin. As she later put it:

I decided to move to Munich, but still found very little encouragement as an artist. German painters refused to believe that a woman could have real talent, and I was even denied access, as a student, to the Munich Academy… …It is significant that the first Munich artist who took the trouble to encourage me was Kandinsky, himself no German but a recent arrival from Russia. 

Their relationship developed in trips to the Kochelsee that summer. After some years of travelling throughout Germany and Europe, they finally found a place to settle when they discovered the ancient market town of Murnau on the Staffelsee in 1908.

Here they found what they had been looking for: a place not only to live, but a place in which to see the world anew. What was distinct and inspirational to them is still visible today – a world divided into lakes, mountains and sky, vivid blocs of colour and form, and everything washed clean in vivid Alpine light. Kandinsky in particular was a theorist who believed that a changing world rendered old artistic forms obsolete, and that in order to give expression to the inner spirit, the artist had to discover different, more fundamental, forms. This was a generation of artists who were fascinated by the “primitivism” of art cultures from Japan to the South Seas. Münter and Kandinsky found their “primitives” in the Bavarian folk art of the Murnau region, and were particularly inspired by traditional devotional glass painting with its use of clear colours and bold outlines. This would remain an influence on Münter for the rest of her career as she produced a series of paintings of Murnau and its surroundings in which the composition is divided into flat blocs of light and colour and an almost childlike simplicity of form. She later said that her teachers were Kandinsky and Bavarian peasants.

View of Murnau from the Russian House.

View of Murnau from the Russian House.

The resort to simplicity of form was taken further by Kandinsky and Marc, finally arriving at complete abstraction. The Blaue Reiter Almanac which they produced in Münter’s house in Murnau as the manifesto of their new “Blue Rider” movement, along with the work they produced during this period, effectively marks the beginning of abstract art. It’s quite a feeling to climb Kandinsky’s decorated staircase to the upper rooms of their home and look out over their garden towards the church towers of the town and reflect that you are standing in the birthplace of one of the defining ideas of modern art.

Gabriele Münter.

Gabriele Münter.

Münter herself never embraced full abstraction, but, not entirely unlike the American artist Georgia O’Keefe, managed to find a distinctive style that lay somewhere between representation and abstraction. She continued to live, and paint, in the house in Murnau until her death in 1962. Most of that time was passed without Kandinsky. The outbreak of war tore the Blue Rider group apart. Kandinsky, now a citizen of an enemy nation, had to flee back to Russia, and never renewed his relationship with Münter. Like Marc, August Macke was also killed in the war. Münter survived all of them, and preserved the house and a large collection of their works throughout the turmoil of the 20th century. Today it is fully restored and represents, both for itself and also its content, one of the most fascinating museums that can be visited in Bavaria today, in one of the most beautiful parts of the country.

Münter Haus Museum

Kottmüllerallee 6

82418 Murnau

Open daily 2pm-5pm (closed on Mondays)

Entrance: €3

Works by Münter, Kandinsky and other members of the Blaue Reiter group can also be seen in Munich’s Lenbachhaus Museum.

Lenbachhaus Museum

Luisenstrasse 33 (U-Bahn: Königsplatz).

Opening hours:

Tuesday 10am–9pm 
Wednesday through Sunday 10am–6pm
closed on Monday 
Entrance: €10 (concessions: €5).

Munich in 2014

Like the Bundesliga, the Radius blog took a short winter break. Now both are back, and we’re hoping that in 2014 we’ll be to Munich tourism blogging what FC Bayern is to football – full of silky moves and followed by millions of adoring fans. Or, failing that, at least managed by someone with a sun tan.

For anyone planning a visit to Munich in 2014, here’s a brief selection of some of the highlights coming our way this year …

Starkbierzeit – the “strong beer season.”


Triumphator, Maximator and Animator are not the bad guys from the last Fantastic Four movie. They’re examples of Munich Starkbier – strong beer with an alcohol content in the region of 8%. That’s almost twice the level of a normal beer. In a practice dating back to their origins in monastic breweries, Munich’s big brewery names produce special strong beers during the season of Lent, and some of the major beer halls have Starkbier festivals. The most famous is that held in the cavernous Nockherberg beer hall. Get there early if you want a seat. And leave early if you want to find your way back to your hotel.

Nockherberg Starkbier Festival: March 1st – March 17th 2014.

U2: Silberhornstrasse; Tram 17: Ostfriedhof.

Frühlingsfest – Spring Festival

A smaller version of Oktoberfest, but on the same grounds used for the more famous festival – and with beer glasses every bit as large.

April 25th – May 11th 2014.

U4 and U5: Theresienwiese; S_Bahn: Hackerbrücke.

Auer Dult

“Dult” is an old Bavarian term for a church fete or fair. The Auer Dult (Au is an historic district of central Munich located on the southern bank of the river Isar) is a popular old folk fair that traces its origins back to the middle ages. It is a beautifully atmospheric blend of circus, car-boot sale, and beer and food festival. It also claims to be Europe’s largest market for tableware and all kinds of pots and pans. But it is actually a lot more fun than that sounds.

The Auer Dult will happen three times in 2014.

April 26th – May 5th 2014.

July 26th – August 3rd 2014.

October 18th – October 26th 2014.

Tram 17 (get off at Mariahilfsplatz); Bus 52 (leaving from Marienplatz).


A great Munich institution, and actually quite hard to describe. Think music festival meets arts and crafts fair meets the bar scene from Star Wars. Or maybe Auer Dult with woolly jumpers. I don’t know. Just go. You’ll be glad you did.

There are two Tollwood festivals in 2014.

Tollwood Summer Festival:  July 2nd – July 27th 2014.

Olympia Park South.

U3: Olympiazentrum.

Tollwood Winter Festival: November 25th – December 31st 2014.


U4 and U5: Theresienwiese; S_Bahn: Hackerbrücke

Christoper Street Gay Pride Festival

Chris St

Munich’s annual gay pride festival takes place over two days on the weekend of 19th and 20th July 2014. A pride parade, concerts, open-air parties, the works. The absolute highlight, however, is the “pumps race” competition in high heels.

“Summer Night’s Dream” festival and fireworks display, Olympic Park


The vast Olymic Centre (built for the 1972 Olympic Games) is the perfect setting for a joyous open air summer festival, culminating in a spectacular fireworks display.

July 26th 2014.

U3: Olympiazentrum

Dachau Folk Festival

Happening for one week every August in the old historic town of Dachau (just 20 minutes by S-Bahn from Munich), the “Dachauer Volksfest” is an excellent alternative for those who will not be here for the world famous Oktoberfest later in the year. It’s basically a smaller version of Oktoberfest – and therefore more relaxed, with a better chance of getting a seat and with excellent (and cheaper!) beer. A hidden gem that many visitors miss.

August 9th – August 18th 2014

S2 to Dachau


Oktoberfest 2014.

The world’s greatest popular festival … what more can be said?  If you want guaranteed seats, book places on our tour.

September 20th – October 5th 2014

U4 and U5: Theresienweise; S_Bahn: Hackerbrücke

A Rose in Winter

Continuing our brief series of posts on Germany’s best Christmas carols …

Es ist ein Ros entsprungen

Rose in snow

One of the most melodically beautiful carols from Germany or anywhere, this haunting composition is also known in English as Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming. The original German text was written by an unknown author sometime in the 16th century, and the version we know and love today was set to music by the composer Michael Praetorius in 1609.

Click here for a wonderful video of a choral flashmob from Munich University bringing Munich Central Train Station (home of the Radius sales office) to a halt last year with a splendid rendition.

And here is the English version, as performed by Sting.

Dances with Angels

Germany is responsible for many of out most beloved Christmas traditions – Christmas markets, the Christmas tree, and Santa Claus (see previous post). One it did not invent is the Christmas carol – the French and Italians have a better claim to that. The German-speaking world has given us some of our most beautiful carols, however. Over the next few days, we’ll blog on a personal selection of our favourite German carols.

In Dulci Jubilo.

"Five Dancing Angels", by Giovanni Di Paolo, 1436.

“Five Dancing Angels”, by Giovanni Di Paolo, 1436.

Meaning “In Sweet Rejoicing”, the original text was written by the medieval German mystic, Heinrich Seuse (known as Henry Suso in English), who spent his life preaching in southern Germany and Switzerland before dying in Ulm in Bavaria in 1366. It alternates between German and Latin, and recounts a supernatural encounter.

Heinrich Seuse.

Heinrich Seuse.

Seuse claimed that, alone in his room one night in 1328, he was visited by angels, who dragged him from his bed and … er … insisted that he party with them. Maybe they were freshman angels. As they danced, the angels taught him the song that we know as In Dulci Jubilo.

Now this same angel came up to the Servant (Seuse) brightly, and said that God had sent him down to him, to bring him heavenly joys amid his sufferings; adding that he must cast off all his sorrows from his mind and bear them company, and that he must also dance with them in heavenly fashion.

Which suggests that, in addition all their other Christmas innovations, Germans should also be given credit for staging the first office Christmas party. Considering that Seuse demonstrated his devotion by “mortifying his flesh” (wearing undergarments studded with nails), sleeping on stone floors in winter and not taking a bath for 25 years, it’s possible that the angels were trying to get him to relax a little.

In any case, six hundred years later, this angelic party led to a top ten Christmas hit for Mike Oldfield. And it’s as danceable as ever.

The Mike Oldfield version is here.

You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why … Wotan, Lord of Asgard, is coming to town

Munich and Christmas, part two … the German origins of Santa Claus

Forget Lapland or the North Pole. Santa Claus is German. To be precise, a Turkish-German emigrant to the US. But definitely German. Here’s how …


1. St. Nicholas’s Day

St. Nicholas Day 2013. St. Nick visits Radius to greet his little helpers ...

St. Nicholas Day 2013. St. Nick visits Radius to greet his little helpers …

Today, 6th December, Munich celebrates the feast day of St. Nicholas, who is known in German as Sankt Nikolaus and Dutch as Sinterklaas. German and Dutch migrants to America in centuries past brought with them to the new world their traditional celebration of the saint, marked by the giving of presents to children. Their English-speaking fellow settlers adapted the practice, but struggled with the pronunciation of the name. It came out as “Santa Claus”. Later, the dates got mixed up and some of the rituals got shifted from St. Nicholas Day on 6th December to Christmas Day on the 25th, and Nicholas himself, like other successful emigrants to the States, put on a bit of weight, had his teeth fixed, jazzed up his dress sense and started bellowing “Ho! Ho! Ho!”

St. Nicholas was a 4th century Greek Orthodox bishop of Myrna (in modern day Turkey) who, according to tradition, saved a poor family from destitution and the terrible possibility of having to sell their children into slavery and prostitution, by dropping nuggets of gold down their chimney in wintertime (he wished to remain anonymous). The gold fell into stockings drying by the fire – hence the tradition of Christmas stockings. For this reason, he is the patron saint of both children and prostitutes. Traditionally, he was represented holding three nuggets, or apples, of gold, as in the statue to him in a side chapel of Munich’s Frauenkirche cathedral.

The statue of St. Nicholas in Munich's Frauenkirche cathedral depicts the saint with his traditional symbols, three golden apples.

The statue of St. Nicholas in Munich’s Frauenkirche cathedral depicts the saint with his traditional symbols, three golden apples.

The feast day of St. Nicholas remains very important in Germany today. Children go to bed on the evening of the 5th in anticipation of the gifts awaiting them the next day … and in dread of the Krampus, Nicholas’s demonic sidekick who torments the bad kids as Nicholas rewards the good (He keeps a list. He checks it twice). The Krampus is the German forerunner of later sinister figures of Christmas chaos, from the Grinch to the Gremlins.

2. Wotan’s Day

St. Nicholas is not the only precursor to today’s Father Christmas, who is an amalgam of various figures stretching into the dim and mythic past. One of the most important is Odin, chief deity of the pagan pantheon of gods worshipped in pre-Christian Germany and Scandinavia, lord of Asgard and father of the thunder god, Thor. He was known in German and Saxon lands as Wotan, and has given his name to the middle day of the week in English (Wednesday – “Wotan’s Day”). His son gets the following day (Thursday – “Thor’s Day”; in German, Donnerstag – “Thunder Day”). Also known as the “Old Man of Winter”, Wotan was believed by ancient Germans to ride through the sky on a magical chariot at this time of year in order to distribute gifts and rewards to those who had been virtuous. Viewed in this light, the story of St. Nicholas is a Christian upgrade of concepts that had long existed in German cultural software.

Wotan, chief god of Asgard, with his ravens, Huginn and Muninn. He later traded them in for Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer.

Wotan, chief god of Asgard, with his ravens, Huginn and Muninn. He later traded them in for Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer.

3. Yankee Doodle Santy

Wotan, being an ancient Norse god who later re-trained as a saint after Christianity started running things, had always displayed a talent for re-invention. And, like many who like to move with the times, he eventually crossed the Atlantic in the great wave of German emigration to the USA in the 19th century. His travelling companion was the young Thomas Nast, born in Landau in Rheinland-Pfalz to a musician in the Bavarian army. Nast would become perhaps the most famous caricaturist and cartoonist in American history – the artist who created the elephant as a symbol of the Republican Party, and popularised the donkey as a symbol of the Democrats, and also the iconic image of Uncle Sam.

Like many German-Americans, he was passionately opposed to slavery (German-Americans were a major source of electoral support for Abraham Lincoln) and a strong advocate of the northern cause in the civil war. His contribution to the war effort was a series of propaganda images published in such magazines as Harper’s Weekly. Beginning at Christmas 1862 – a low point in the fortunes of war for the North – he sought to raise morale with a series of dramatic illustrations showing a distinctly Wotan-esque Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas) distributing presents to Union troops – the virtuous who deserved to be rewarded, as Nast’s German cultural background had it. In these illustrations, Nast created the iconic image of Santa Claus we know today: a rotund and jolly man dressed in red and white and with a flowing white beard.

The Santa we know today, visualised by German-American artist Thomas Nast.

The Santa we know today, visualised by German-American artist Thomas Nast.

In other words, the image of Santa Claus that is fixed in the world’s imagination today began as American civil war propaganda from the pen of a southern German artist. Nast’s re-imagining of Santa Claus later went global after a hugely successful Coca Cola advertising campaign in the early 20th century – the red and white colour scheme was perfect for the purpose.

So that’s the story of Santa Claus. He’s German, he has changed his image more times than Madonna, and he probably doesn’t drink Pepsi.

Happy St. Nicholas’s Day

You can learn more about St. Nicholas and other German Christmas traditions on our Munich Christmas Markets tour – for details, click here.

Munich: Monet di Baviera

The Italians refer to Munich as Monaco di Baviera, the Monaco of Bavaria. At this time of year, with the setting December sun burnishing the Gothic facade of the city hall in glowing copper-gold, it could also be called Monet di Baviera, for it feels as if one has wandered into a painting by the great master of Impressionism.

Spot the difference. Rouen Cathedral, by Claude Monet; and the Munich Rathaus, by December sunlight.

Spot the difference. Rouen Cathedral, by Claude Monet; and the Munich Rathaus, by December sunlight.

Munich. It makes an impression.

Munich and Christmas, part one

With impeccable timing, the first snow of the season fell on Munich this week just as the Christkindlmärkte were opening. In the words of Dean Martin, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Anyone who wants to experience the best of Munich’s famous Christmas traditions really needs to go on our Christmas Markets tour. For those unfortunates not able to do so, we offer a series of blog posts on Munich and all things Christmassy, beginning here …

King Ludwig’s Winter Wonderland.

Ludwig II is at the heart of so many stories of Munich and Bavaria that it is unsurprising that the fairytale king should feature prominently in the most fairytale time of year. His moonlight winter rides are the stuff of legend, with the eccentric king to be seen dashing through the snow in a one horse open sleigh as his desperate ceremonial guards puffed behind him, jingling all the way.

O'er the fields we go, laughing all the way (maybe not).

O’er the fields we go, laughing all the way (maybe not).

It’s equally unsurprising that the King of Bling should also rise to the occasion in the season of glitz and giving. On one Christmas alone he gave away close to 400 gold watches as presents.

Above all, however, Ludwig left the world a fairytale castle that, glistening impossibly amid snow-capped peaks, seems to belong more to a Disney holiday movie than to real life.

The fairytale Neuschwanstein Castle, one of Europe's greatest winter sights.

The fairytale Neuschwanstein Castle, one of Europe’s greatest winter sights.

Does Ludwig’s magnificent castle in the sky owe its origins to his childhood Christmas memories? One of my favourite Ludwig stories is from the Christmas of 1852, when the 7 year old who would later become mad King Ludwig II received as a fateful present from his grandfather, mad King Ludwig I.

A set of building blocks.

This fired the childish imagination of young Luddi, and may have unlocked something deep within. “He loves to build,”  wrote the impressed grandfather to his son, the child’s father Otto: “I witnessed him construct buildings that were exquisite, astonishing, and realised with excellent taste.”

“I recognise a real affinity between this future King Ludwig II and myself,” added the wistful grandad Ludwig I, the dreamy fantasist recently deposed after depleting the kingdom’s coffers on a building spree and alienating his government.

Well, indeed.

The future King Ludwig II poses happily with his toys - and his future?

The future King Ludwig II poses happily with his toys – and his future?

Could this have been the most consequential childhood present since the young Nero was given a scale model of Rome and a box of matches to play with? Look at the image above of the royal cherub posing happily with his Christmas toys. Look in particular to his left, where the result of his efforts with grandad’s building blocks can be seen, towering majestically to the heavens in the nursery room. Behold the fantasia in white; behold the tapering spires; behold the castle made by and for a fairytale king.

Does it not look … familiar?

To borrow from Christopher Marlowe: was this the Christmas game that launched a thousand tour guides, and built the topless towers of Neuschwanstein?

For details of the Radius Christmas Markets tour, click here.

For details of the Radius Neuschwanstein Castle tour, click here.

Pale and interesting

Munich City Hall. More interesting that other city halls.

Munich City Hall. More interesting than other city halls.

If the Munich Rathaus was in a band, it would be Siouxsie And the Banshees.

If the Munich Rathaus had fingernails, they would be painted black.

If the Munich Rathaus wrote a novel, it would be Dracula.

If the Munich Rathaus went to school, it would be a little shy and prefer writing poetry to sports. All the other city halls would tease it and call it a freak. But they would grow up to be uninspiring municipal spaces in boring small towns, whereas it would get to be mysterious and cool in Munich.

The lead singer of Siouxie and the Banshees.

The lead singer of Siouxie and the Banshees.

If the Munich Rathaus could talk, it wouldn’t.

Holy Bones

This Sunday, 17th November, is the feast day of Saint Mundita, a fourth century Christian martyr thought to have been beheaded in Rome on that date in the year 310 AD. Seventeen hundred years after her death, Mundita’s remains are enjoying an extended afterlife in Munich’s oldest and most beloved church, Peterskirche, near Marienplatz. Anyone who wants to encounter a dramatic example of the Catholic cult of saints’ relics is advised to visit.

She is auld but she is beautiful, and her colours they are fine.

She is auld but she is beautiful, and her colours they are fine.

Just walk along the side aisle to the left of the main altar, and about half way down you’ll see Mundita reclining in a decorative glass case. The years have been something of a mixed blessing. She is a little on the gaunt side, but, bejewelled in gold and silver, retains one of the most glamorous looks in a fashion-conscious city. Her head-dress is to die for, and tapers into an ornate neck collar that subtly covers the spot where the headsman’s axe helped her do precisely that. In her hand she grasps a vial of dried blood, symbol of her martyrdom.

Is it really Mundita?

In a recently published book, Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs, Paul Koudounaris documents the history of the strange and darkly beautiful decorated relics from the Roman catacombs of which Mundita is a striking example.

Dead gorgeous.

Dead gorgeous.

A labyrinth of underground tombs was discovered in Rome in 1578, and was immediately declared to be a treasure trove of holy relics. Whether this was true, or the catacombs merely contained the remains of ordinary Romans, is open to question. The Reformation had just rocked the Catholic church to its core, however, and the Counter-Reformation needed weapons of mass instruction to wield against what it saw as the destructive iconoclasm of Protestantism. The bones of what were declared to be “catacomb saints” were carefully reassembled, adorned in spectacular costumes, jewels, wigs, crowns and armour and sent throughout Europe to inspire the faithful in the great religious struggles of the age.

Mundita’s relics – if it is Mundita – arrived in Munich from Rome in 1675, a few decades after Munich had distinguished itself on the Catholic side in the epic and terrible Thirty Years War, and have been on public display in the current location since 1883. She is the patron saint of single women, and also has her own dedicated Facebook site.

More disturbing and disturbingly beautiful images of haute couture death can be found here.

St. Peter’s Church can be seen on our daily Priceless Munich city walking tour.

The Hidden Oktoberfest, part three … Apocalypse Then

The great Olympiad of beer and leather shorts continues apace on Munich’s Theresienwiese, as does our occasional series on the lesser known Oktoberfest – the stories you don’t know: the bizarre, the surprising, and the slightly disturbing. Sort of like The Twilight Zone, only with Rod Serling in a dirndl. Did I just type “Rod Serling in a dirndl”? Dear Lord.

Number Three: More dead mice than dead chickens.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse get into trouble with the organisers of the annual Oktoberfest parade for not wearing the proper traditional Trachten attire.

Older people in Munich still talk of the year the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse caused great controversy when they turned up for the annual Oktoberfest parade not wearing the proper traditional Bavarian attire.

Oktoberfest in the past often presented an apocalyptic vision to the visitor, more akin to a scene from Mad Max than today’s image of festive joviality.

The festival has never been kind to the animal world. Half a million roast chickens are consumed at the festival every year, and the horses pulling the beer carts in the opening parade are dressed up like Liberace. In the early years of the festival in the 19th century, however, it seems that the main victims were mice. These were in the days when the Wiesn festival ground was literally what its name suggests – an open meadow, located on the outskirts of Munich. A meadow that for 50 weeks of the year was the quiet and untroubled home of vast numbers of field mice.

Anna Mary Howitt was an English art student in Munich who recorded the following description of Oktoberfest in her diary of 1850:

This morning, Clare and I started for the meadow early in the forenoon. The day was cold, grey and damp; the ground wet, trampled and muddy. Thousands and thousands of dead bodies covered the field – the bodies of little mice, which abound in most German land, and which live by myriads in the Theresien Wiese, darting away ever and anon from before your feet into their holes. It had been a great slaughter-field for them.

(Anna Mary Howitt, An Art Student in Munich, published in 1853).

A truly horrible image, and one that is hard to reconcile with the image of fun and frivolity we have of the festival today. Anna Mary Howitt also describes the constant sound of gunfire punctuating the peace of the beer tents. Shooting competitions were a major feature of Oktoberfest in the 19th century.

Gunfire resounding across a corpse-strewn field of mud. It seems more like an image from a war movie than from the world’s greatest festival. In the oft quoted words of L. P.  Hartley: “The past is a foreign country: they do thing differently there.”

The people shouted, and gradually dispersed themselves over the meadow for social drinking, smoking, love-making, and gossip, beneath the garlanded and fir tree shadowed drinking booths and sheds.

(Anna Mary Howitt, An Art Student in Munich, published in 1853).

Well, maybe not always that differently.