Munich’s annual “state of emergency” (Oktoberfest as seen by the Munich locals) is now over and the new statistics have been released: Almost half a million fewer visitors than in 2014 and, in addition, less beer?! This leaves us with one pressing, inevitable question: Is Oktoberfest on the decline?
This hypothesis can be immediately rejected because, fortunately, there are several countries in the world that continue to hail Oktoberfest’s success. This year, Oktoberfest was celebrated in Italy, China, Brazil, the U.S., the U.A.E., Spain and Malaysia amongst others. This celebration of German beer, gastronomy and culture actually originates from the State of Bavaria, but it has become Germany’s most popular export and massively contributes to how the country is perceived globally, particularly in terms of soft power influence. It can be argued that Oktoberfest’s international success is due to its promotion the uniquely German concept of Gemütlichkeit, for which there is no real translation (although ‘comfortableness’ is about as close as you can get). However, what is it that makes Gemütlichkeit so popular across the globe?
Looking at Europe, Germany’s soft power influence can clearly be seen in the UK. Oktoberfest thrives as Germans and the British share an affinity for having a beer and singing with friends, but Britain has also seen a recent rise in the popularity of German gastronomy. It can be argued that this comes as a result of a change of atmosphere in the UK towards Germany. World War and Nazi clichés are simply uncalled for, at least since 2006 when Germany hosted the World Cup. Now thousands of Britons see Germany in a new light, brought about by positive imports of German culture, such as Oktoberfest.
Oktoberfest has also been praised by some of the world’s biggest names across the Atlantic. Ernest Hemingway, in his typically concise and direct fashion, stated: “Don’t bother to visit anything else. Munich is the best place. Everything else in Germany is a waste of time.” Barack Obama came to a similar conclusion in June 2015 when he first said that he was disappointed by the fact that the G7-meeting at Schloss Elmau didn’t take place at the same time as Oktoberfest, but on the other hand knows that there is “no wrong time for beer and Bavarian veal sausage” and hence enjoyed a traditional Bavarian meal with Angela Merkel anyhow.
Having convinced the great power America of the joys and benefits of Oktoberfest, Germany has moved on to conquer its former rival, neighbouring France. Before this year there has been no Oktoberfest in Paris because the cultural distance between the German Hofbräuhaus (the traditional brewery in Munich) and the Académie française appeared to be too big to overcome – Paris, the capital of style and culture, seemed too sophisticated to indulge in the Bavarian tradition of collective beer drinking in stuffy marquees. Well, this seems to be a thing of the past: this year Paris celebrated its very own Oktoberfest with Dirndls and Lederhosen as well as Brezeln (pretzels) and veal sausages, although typical German sayings such as “Die Krüge hoch!” (with the exception of the uniquely German Gemütlichkeit of course) were translated into French, as a sort of compromise. Overall, the organizers were overwhelmed by its success, and one could argue that these ordinary citizens have done more for the German-French friendship than Angela Merkel und François Hollande could ever accomplish. In other words, Paris has been conquered by the soft power of Germany as well.
Further afield in Palestine, the Oktoberfest in Taybeh is one of the very few occasions for which Palestinians, foreigners and Israelis (Arab Israelis as well as some Jewish Israelis) come together to have an enjoyable drink in a relaxed atmosphere a world away from the hostilities happening at the very same time only ten kilometers away in Jerusalem. The daughter of the Taybeh brewery’s owner states: “This fest is wonderful and not only about drinking beer and listening to music. Our event is cozy and conveys a Palestinian flair through its music and the visitors from all parts of Palestine. It is important for us to show the world a different part of Palestine. What is communicated through the media is a completely different Palestine than what is happening in real life.” It seems that Taybeh’s Oktoberfest manages to retain the essence of Gemütlichkeit that Munich’s has almost lost, having been replaced by images of vomit-covered streets, sexual assaults, brawls, blocked roads, traffic accidents and overcrowded trains that lead to a massive exodus of Munich inhabitants during the period. The Oktoberfest on the West Bank on the other hand is a place of cultural encounter, dominated by a rollicking cheerfulness which, refreshingly, is not measured by how much beer someone drank. This diverse and joyful get-together inspired by Germany, which is well known for its Israel-friendly policy, underlines the existence of soft power even in this conflict torn region.
Looking at the political sphere, Germany can only hope that the soft power exerted by Oktoberfest will yield positive results. For example, should Oktoberfest become more successful in Greece, perhaps this could subtly persuade Greece to obtain the results Germany wants rather than through coercion or payment. Maybe this new way of celebrating German Gemütlichkeit will lead to a better acceptance of the current political and economic strength. If the image of Germany would not have been changed over the past years, as described, there would not be such a support or even call for a more active role on the international stage; whether during the European debt crisis, the Ukrainian conflict or elsewhere. In light of that, one can argue that the worldwide popularity of the Oktoberfest strengthens Germany’s soft power and the ability to make use of it.
All in all, one must not underestimate the importance of the Oktoberfest as it has played a crucial role in helping to present and spread a friendly picture of Germany. The cultural attractiveness thereby created, contributes to a higher acceptance of Germany in the international political arena and thus moulds a new kind of soft power. Obviously, the German government also makes use of these soft power resources gained in the last years: we just have to look at the involvements in the Ukrainian conflict, the Iran nuclear talks, the hegemonic role in the EU financial crisis etc. Nonetheless, one must not forget that Oktoberfest is about having fun and spend some hours in Gemütlichkeit. In this sense, people around the world will experience Oktoberfest just like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart did when he summed up his Oktoberfest experience in the simple sentence: “I like being here”, and will focus on the joys and good times they have while enjoying this redefined Bavarian tradition. Furthermore, the question remains of why people around the world are attracted to Oktoberfest? Is it a spreading affinity to Germany or is the longing of citizens in the modern world to leave behind the pressures of individualism and engage in a truly collective experience where they know how to dress and immediately fit in? But that’s enough for another article, so for the moment let´s lay aside this observation (and the German criticism of the commercialization of the Oktoberfest) and say….Die Krüge hoch!
Soft power understood here as defined by Joseph Nye in Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. New York: Public Affairs, 2004.