What explains the global appeal of the Oktoberfest? LMU ethnologist Simone Egger and economist Manfred Schwaiger explore the grounds for the unique status of the Wiesn, as the event is known locally.
Can the Wiesn be seen as a paradigm for successful marketing?
Manfred Schwaiger: The Oktoberfest is a superb piece of marketing machinery. It is a prime example of how one can respond to a perceived need, even an unconscious need, in a way that provides a substantial level of added value for large numbers of people. The demand is there, and people are willing to pay to have it met. Everyone complains that it’s all too expensive, and the beer costs too much. From an economist’s point of view, however, the beer is actually too cheap. Otherwise, people wouldn‘t start queueing up for it at seven in the morning!
What kind of demand does the Wiesn then satisfy?
Schwaiger: For a start, it fills the gap between the end of one carnival season and the beginning of the next. Indeed, there are many parallels between Cologne’s Carnival and Munich’s Oktoberfest. Each offers a kind of general amnesty for a fortnight. You can let your hair down and don’t have to justify extravagant behavior. Obviously, people feel a need to break out of their everyday routines and experience a sense of adventure and togetherness. I believe the increasing use of digital media has a lot to do with it. When individuals spend so much time sitting alone at a keyboard and so much communication takes place at second hand, there is a growing desire for immediate social interaction and immersion in a group.
And where does the Dirndl trend come from?
Simone Egger: The Dirndl is one of those invented “traditions”. It first appeared at the end of the 19th century as a light and airy dress for city-dwellers who moved to the country in the summer. That it should stage such a comeback on the threshold of our post-modern age is an interesting phenomenon.
But years ago the Dirndl was far less prominent among the attendance at the Wiesn than it is today.
Egger: The reawakening of enthusiasm for Dirndl and Lederhosen is relatively recent. It dates from around the year 2000, and this was also the time when the Oktoberfest really started to expand. For the young, in particular, an interest in everything viewed as Bavarian suddenly became trendy. So this renewed interest in one’s local and cultural roots began to emerge at the onset of the 21st century.
Why did that happen?
Egger: This is a young generation that does not feel any urgent need to disown the world their parents knew. Today’s young men have no qualms in combining a traditional Lodenjanker with a pair of sneakers. And the even younger ones see the Oktoberfest as a non-stop party.
What message is the Dirndl meant to convey? A sense of belonging?
Egger: I can of course don a Dirndl to express a feeling of belonging, of being at home here. It‘s the perfect outfit for the part! But an attachment to one’s native environment need not go hand in hand with a devotion to folklore and tradition. It can also be understood in a modern, contemporary sense. The feeling of being rooted in a particular place is not a static emotion; it changes with time and experience. Nearly one-third of Munich’s present population comes from quite different cultural backgrounds. These people also live in and identify with the city, and are part of the whole trend.
Does this sense of identification with a locality bring people together or does it not tend to divide them?
Egger: One often forgets that the concept of home is common to all of humanity. The idea that home is where the heart is, where one feels most secure and at ease, is a feeling everyone can understand. But as soon as one says: ‘This is my home, not yours’, this shared understanding is shattered. Virtually everyone nowadays has more than one home. One can be ‘at home’ in different places over the course of a lifetime.
In that case, the Oktoberfest has become part of what ‘home’ means for lots of people around the world, and has even been exported. But is this necessarily a good thing for the original?
Schwaiger: The US has had its own local Oktoberfeste for decades, and China and Taiwan have now jumped on the bandwagon. But I don’t think that’s a cause for alarm. These version are ‘me toos’, designed to meet regional demand. I don’t believe they represent a threat to the Munich original, though I doubt that they will do the Wiesn any good.
Is the current hype surrounding the Oktoberfest likely to continue or will it sooner or later die down?
Schwaiger: I can’t pretend to be a prophet, but at the moment there are no signs that the hype will diminish any time soon. And ‘hype’ is the right expression. Indeed, when one considers the last few years, one must say that the hype has become more, rather than less, intense. But the past is seldom a reliable guide to future developments. ‘Be prepared for surprises’ is always a good motto.
The latest contribution to the new Cooks on Campus series also nods in the direction of the Oktoberfest: In it Antonia shares her recipes for scrumptious Bavarian dishes with us - from Sausage Salad and Obazda to Zwetschgendatschi.