Oktoberfest history

When Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig chose to wed Princess Therese in 1810 it’s unlikely he knew the size of the beast he was about to unleash.

To celebrate the October 12 nuptials he organised a public horserace five days later on the site of today’s Oktoberfest, then a humble meadow outside the city of Munich.

oktoberfest-history-horseracingRACE DAY: A painting showing a horserace in the early days of the festival.

Ludwig was a classical history freak and so modelled the day on the ancient Olympic Games.

There were other sporting events held too and, to a degree, the event inspired the modern Olympics we know today. Everyone had such a great time they decided to do it again the following year and a tradition was born.

Princess Therese lives on in the name of the Oktoberfest field, Theresienwiese, although it’s usually abbreviated by Munich locals to Wiesn.
As Munich grew so did the festival, with carousels and stands selling lottery stands joining the fray over the decades.

The party gets bigger

Two indelible Munich landmarks, the Bavaria Statue and the Ruhmeshalle (Hall of Fame) were added to the Wiesn about 1850.
The suds didn’t start flowing until 1881 when the city council opened the door to beer sales and the first grilled chicken stand. Stalls and booths, some thrown up around trees which you climb for a pint, spread across the meadow like wildfire.

The first Oktoberfest opening procession took place in 1887. Towards the end of the 19th century someone had the great idea of bringing the fest forward a little to take advantage of the friendlier weather.

oktoberfest-history-fishBARBECUE: A man tends to grilled fish over an outdoor fireplace at the 1928 Oktoberfest.

But it’s still known as Oktoberfest, of course, even though most of it takes place in September. The maze of small stands gave way to large beer tents in 1896.
The tents were set up by wealthy landlords with the backing of Munich’s breweries and contained room for bandstands.
Carousels and stalls took up the remaining space and the Oktoberfest as we know it today really started to take shape.

Twentieth century

1951-aug-storm-100kmrWIPEOUT: A storm reaching speeds of 100kph knocked
the just-built Oktoberfest tents flat in August, 1951.

The biggest beer tent that’s ever been, the
, opened in 1913 with enough space to fit 12,000 guests.

The Bräurosl’s still there but now has about half that capacity.

Today’s biggest tent is the Hofbräu-Festzelt which seats about 10,000.

The traditional opening ceremony started in 1950. Munich’s Lord Mayor got festivities underway by banging a tap into the first keg and yelling "O'zapft is!" (It’s tapped).
Though the horse races ended in 1960, an agricultural show is still held every three years. It’s called the Bayerisches Zentral-Landwirtschaftsfest. About 7.1 million visitors came in 1985, making it the busiest Oktoberfest ever.

Bomb attack

September 26, 1980 must be the saddest day in Oktoberfest history. A bomb attack near the main entrance killed 13 people and left over 200 injured. Some victims needed both legs amputated.
It was one of the two deadliest terror attacks on German soil since the World War Two. Right-wing extremist Gundolf Köhler, who died in the attack, was named as the only culprit. But a debate has raged for decades over whether or not he really acted alone.
The Oktoberfest wasn’t cancelled that year after the bombing, a move for which the organisers coped a lot of stick for. A small memorial was unveiled at the site of the attack in 2008.

oktoberfest-terrorism-memorialREMEMBER SEPTEMBER: The memorial where the attack happened in 1980.
Possibly the darkest day in Oktoberfest history. Pic: CC Wikimedia

Oktoberfest today

The Munich Oktoberfest kicks on strong as a hippo on Red Bull. An average Wiesn pumps about €1 billion through Munich’s cash registers and money belts.

oktoberfest-waitresses-1928BEER HERE: Oktoberfest waitresses outside the Hofbräu-Festzelt in 1928.

Storm in an ashtray

Another hot potato has been the debate whether or not to ban smoking in the tents. Bavaria passed a law in 2008 that banned smoking in all closed spaces open to the public – this should have included the Oktoberfest tents.

Fierce opposition followed. The law was whittled back and many pubs and clubs were allowed to become smoking venues again.
Opponents of the ban claimed making thousands of smokers leave a tent for a quick puff every half hour constituted more of a fire hazard than letting them smoke inside. After a couple of years of toing and froing the non-smokers won out and smoking has been banned inside the Oktoberfest tents since 2010.

Trouble in beer paradise

oktoberfest-historyBACK: A magazine made for Oktoberfest
in 1949. It was the first one for 11 years
following the Second World War.
A Maß of beer cost 2 Deutschmarks,
about 1€ in today's money.

There have been 24 cancellations in Oktoberfest history – here’s why:

▪1813 – First cancellation due to war against Napoleon

▪1854 –
Cholera epidemic

▪1866 –
Bavaria fought alongside Austria in a war against Prussia (now Northern Germany and parts of Poland)

▪1873 –
Another cholera epidemic

▪1914 to 1918 –
World War One

▪1919 to 1920 –
Recovery from the war, a small "autumn festival" with only (Doh!) two percent beer, was held instead

▪1923 to 1924 –
Hyperinflation strikes Germany, no-one could afford it

▪1939 to 1945 –
World War Two

▪1946 to 1948 –
Recovery from the war, more piss-weak autumn festivals held instead

And let's hope it's never cancelled again. Prost!

Do you like this site? Get the guidebook!

Destination-munich-ebookDestination Munich and Bavaria is the best, most up-to-date and entertaining travel guide to the region - guaranteed.
It gives you full-colour maps, practical information and top tips on how to get the most out of your visit.
It's 227 pages of up-to-the-minute travel intelligence and it can be yours as an eBook for less than the price of an Oktoberfest beer. (read on)

Pass it onshare-me

Share this page:

Or follow us on Facebook:

Still after more on the Munich Oktoberfest?

Jump from Oktoberfest History to the Munich Oktoberfest index - all stories and descriptions listed here.

Or you could just...

• Return from Oktoberfest History to the Munich Festivals main page.
Jump from Oktoberfest History back to Destination Munich Home.