Oktoberfest - ein Fest der Landeshauptstadt München
Photo: Sebastian Lehner

The history of Oktoberfest

With this knowledge you can shine in the tent

It’s the world’s largest folk festival — and the most popular. Every year, Oktoberfest attracts millions of visitors. Once an Oktoberfest goer, always an Oktoberfest goer. But yet very few of us know how it all began or even who we have to thank for Oktoberfest as it is known today. It’s time to change that.

Oktoberfest: originally a horse race

One rule still applies in the beer tents at Oktoberfest: the customer is king. Yet we have a civil officer to thank for the annual get-together of approximately six million visitors in such a cozy setting. Andreas Michael Dall’Armi, Member of the Bavarian National Guard, had the idea of celebrating a wedding a little differently for a change. Prince Regent Ludwig of Bavaria, the later King Ludwig I, and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen were to be honored with a huge horse race. The financier and cavalry major shared his idea with King Max I Joseph of Bavaria who was impressed from the get-go. The couple were married on 12 October 1810 with the festivities taking place on 17 October on the grounds of Theresienwiese, to be later named after the bride, and featuring the exact horse race suggested. And even though there weren’t any beer tents or fairground rides at the time, it marked the birth of Oktoberfest. In 1824, Munich city awarded Andreas Michael Dall’Armi the first gold citizens medal for ‘inventing’ Oktoberfest. He is buried at Alter Südfriedhof cemetery and a street has been named after him in the neighborhood of Neuhausen-Nymphenburg.

1819: Oktoberfest becomes top priority

In 1810, a year after the wedding celebrations, everyone was in agreement: We want more! Without the royal wedding, the festival naturally needed a new organizer and that became the ‘Landwirtschaftlicher Verein in Bayern’ [Bavarian agricultural association]. The newfound festivities created the perfect opportunity for the association to shine a spotlight on their own wares. As was notorious at the time, one big historical event followed after the other, which is why by 1813 the newly established Oktoberfest already had to be cancelled for the first time on account of the Napoleonic wars. After the war, Oktoberfest was financed privately until the city’s forefathers made the event a top priority in 1819. Even in the uppermost circles, the news had arrived that the Oktoberfest was guaranteed to draw a crowd, and that it would generate a wealth of revenue and should therefore be celebrated annually.

Bavaria, milestones and challenging years

In 1850, there was another event that was really worth celebrating: The statue of Bavaria, guardian of Oktoberfest and symbolic figure of Bavaria state, was unveiled and dedicated a place in the hall of fame. But this historical highlight gave way to some challenging years. War and cholera provided many things, but festival spirit was not one of them. It was another couple of decades until the time came for the Oktoberfest institution as we now know it. In 1881, the first roasted chicken outlet opened and traditional chicken continues to be served to hungry Oktoberfest visitors to this day. In the late 19th century, Oktoberfest continued to develop into the festival we now know it. Booths and carousels with electrical lighting appeared, performers came, and due to increased demand the breweries set up huge beer tents with musicians, instead of the usual small beer stalls.

1980: An attack shakes Oktoberfest

On 26 September 1980, a bomb exploded at the main entrance to Oktoberfest killing 13 people and injuring over 200 more. The victims included the assailant himself, Gundolf Köhler. The Oktoberfest attack was one of the worst in Germany’s history. Investigations into the case reopened in 2014.

O’zapft is, brass band music, Oide Wiesn: that’s how we celebrate today

It took a while for the historical Oktoberfest to become the festival we now recognize today. In 1910, to mark the 100th anniversary of Oktoberfest, 12,000 hectoliters of beer were poured at the Pschorr-Bräurosl, the huge festival tent that seated 12,000 people at the time. Each year, new and more exciting rides appeared at Oktoberfest. In 1950, Mayor of Munich Thomas Wimmer tapped the first keg in the Schottenhamel tent for the first time. Ever since, it has been customary for the mayor to kick off Oktoberfest. The famous words ‘O'zapft is’ have gained cult status over time.

Today, the Oktoberfest is the world’s largest folk festival and it draws around six million visitors annually. Each year, it continues to break new records from the quantity of beer consumed through to the amount of chicken devoured. In 2005, a ‘quiet Oktoberfest’ was introduced to make the world’s largest folk festival more attractive to families. Business owners are only allowed to play party music after 6 p.m. and can only play Bavarian brass band music prior to that time.

The history of Oktoberfest also continues to be reborn in the most wonderful ways. In 2010, to mark the 200th anniversary, in addition to the ‘regular’ Oktoberfest, a historical festival took place in the south part of Theresienwiese which was to remind festival-goers of the festival’s history. In addition to a family-friendly program, a wealth of cultural activities and horseracing, from which the festival originated, were on offer. The ‘Oide Wiesn’ was so successful that it has taken place every year since — the inhabitants of Munich in particular immediately fell in love with their ‘Oide’. It only takes a year off if the Bavarian agricultural fair, which takes place every four years, happens to be on at the same time. The next time will be in 2024.