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.


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