Octoberfest: Tradition with A Dark Side

Masses of beer cause many to stagger across the fine line between good fun and a bad time

A peek into the Schuetzenfesthalle on an unusually quiet night: no dancing on the tables, no spilled beer…. | Courtesy of Andreas Steinhoff

On Sept. 16, at 12 o’clock sharp, Munich’s Mayor Christian Ude swung his huge wooden mallet in a sidewinder: Once! Twice! Three times! And the spigot bored into the giant beer keg on the platform in the Schottenhamel Festival Tent.

“Tap’s op’n ” he shouted out. A roar went up from the crowd as the beer flooded all over, soaking our mayor’s feet.

The 173rd Otkoberfest was formally open.

The next day, the trouble had already started. On Sunday evening, Sept. 17, four teenage boys, one 18-year-old from Munich and three 19 and 20-year-olds from nearby Bad Tölz, clashed in an argument that turned into a fight. One of the ‘Bad Tölzers’ tried to cut the 18-year-old’s neck with a piece of broken glass, according to the police, but the youth was able to fend him off, leaving cuts all over his hands. He was diagnosed with a nasal fracture and a bruised cranium. The assailants were booked and released after several hours.

Still, it’s a great event, and the next Saturday, I got ready to make my yearly visit to the Oktoberfest. As the U-Bahn by my house is the first stop on the route to the Theresienwiese site of the Oktoberfest, I can always find a seat. At each of the six stops of the U4 it got more and more crowded. Most of the people were in Trachten- traditional country clothes and some were already cheerfully singing Wiesn Evergreens. The mood was fantastic, at least in the car I sat in.

“Theresienwiese. Careful as you get out! Don’t rush!“ the U-Bahn driver called through the loudspeakers. Actually people don’t have to worry about getting through the mob, as it simply carries you along in a human wave. When I arrived on top of the escalator, aromas of smoked almonds and cotton candy tickled my nose and I could almost taste the smell of the first Würstlbude strategically located on the right of the U-Bahn exit. Thousands of sounds envelope me, voices in a Babel of accents and languages, children screaming, the music from the fun rides and hawkers pumping the crowd.

I met some friends at The Well – a well-known meeting point.  We slowly made our way in the direction of the tents constantly trapped by new rides, new shooting stands, new sweets. People seemed to be having a great time-a scene of smiling faces and happy vibes. However, the closer we got to the beer tents the more drunk people we saw – especially men. We weren’t scared; it was only noon. But in the dark, we instinctively knew to avoid the shady areas behind the tents. Annually, there are a number of violent acts and multiple injuries. In 2004, according to the monthly Stern, a man lost one eye during a quarrel over a litre of beer.

The Oktoberfest is sadly the scene of countless sexual offences, 11 reported in 2004, along with 15 defamations based on a sexual background. So security precautions are getting stricter and more encompassing. There are more police, more security guards within the tents and more medical staff for the 16 days the Oktoberfest is running. A special security point has been set up for women and girls who have been threatened or even assaulted, giving shelter to many, daily.

Of course most people who visit the Oktoberfest come with the intention of having a good time. Too many, though, come to get drunk. Particularly the teenagers who are often unable to moderate their alcohol intake. Small incidents evolve into fights, many of the young men, and even women, lose control and suddenly become aggressive.

The famous Schützenzelt was already jam-packed, but we had reservations, which quickly got us into the tent. Many more were less lucky. Regularly people stand in front of a tent for hours, hoping that the securities and bouncers will have pity on them. But usually, they wait for nothing. This control does however serve a purpose. Last year, it was so crowded inside that I almost panicked, and had to escape.

Prepared this time, we had reserved places in a booth with a friend celebrating his birthday. The energized band played the traditional Wiesn-Hits, we danced on the tables and enjoyed the delicious fried chicken with a frothy Bavarian Wiesn–Maß. The long, intense hours in the overheated tent and the uncontrollable amounts of alcohol create a dangerous atmosphere where situations can suddenly get out of hand. This Saturday was pretty mild with only one Maß pitcher breaking as it toppled from the crowded beer-bench. At 22:00, one hour before the tents closed, a friend and I quietly slipped out. Seven hours of Oktoberfest action had taken their toll; I needed fresh air and most of all a shower.

We headed towards the taxis but suddenly found ourselves in the middle of the notorious back tent area. We were glad to see police and security guards everywhere. As we passed, a young stranger, totally drunk and without warning, threw his arms around me! My friend helped to push him away gently, as he wasn’t aggressive. He just wanted a hug, and I happened to be there. He invited us for a drink, but we declined.

As we made our way to the taxi stand, an ambulance squad passed carrying a young man on a gurney. Another guy lay on the ground, slumbering in his own vomit. No one really annoyed or molested us, but I was thankful not to be alone.

We decided to take one last ride, and then slipped safely into a cab.

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