Oktoberfest 2.0: Germany then and now

By Matt Watson

Traditional “oompah” bands of tubas and accordions pump away in the background while crowds swarm the enormous beer tent in Munich, Germany every September. Dirndl-clad beer maids pass out oversized steins of the city’s purest brews, and tourists and Bavarians alike stuff their faces with bratwurst covered in sauerkraut and giant pretzels, or “brezn.” At noon on the first day of the three-week festival, the mayor of Munich uses a hammer to drive the tap into the first keg, proclaiming, “O-zapft is!” or, “It is tapped,” beginning the celebration at the world’s largest festival.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, many American cities, especially in the Midwest, celebrate their own version of Oktoberfest. Chicago, with its large German-American population, is no exception, offering an array of neighborhood fests where frothy mugs of beer abound. While smaller Midwestern cities such as Cincinnati and Milwaukee hold larger, more centralized Oktoberfest celebrations, Chicago is offering a new take on the traditional Bavarian festival this year.

German American Services, Inc., the host of the popular Christkindlmarket at Daley Plaza in December, is hosting “Germany’s Best and Oktoberfest” at Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand Ave., from Sept. 23 – Oct. 10. This event—while sticking to the tradition of lederhosen, beer and sausage that epitomizes German culture in many Americans’ minds—will also showcase contemporary Germany with exhibits of the country’s leading innovation in green technology and industry. Many Chicago establishments host their own Oktoberfest celebrations, but by choosing the city’s biggest tourist destination as their location, German American Services, Inc. hopes to create a more centralized festival to bring awareness of German culture.

“We want to show the U.S. and Chicago a little bit more about modern Germany and their innovations,” said Ray Lotter, vice president of German American Services, Inc. “We’ve got exhibits of German companies displaying their products, and thought it would be great to combine with Oktoberfest. It combines the exhibit with new and old German culture.”

Traditionally, Oktoberfest has been a purely Bavarian celebration, centered on the state’s capital, Munich. According to Caroline Blank, language coordinator at the Goethe Institute, which is a partner in “Germany’s Best and Oktoberfest,” people from the other German states generally don’t give much attention to the festival. Many have their own autumn festivals, albeit smaller ones, that highlight Germany’s regional diversity. However, as the tradition traveled to the U.S. and was submerged in the American melting pot, it has come to represent Germany as a whole for many Americans, Blank said.

Today, many German-Americans embrace Oktoberfest, whether they’re of Bavarian ancestry or not, as a way to raise awareness about Germany’s culture and keep it alive, said Nicholle Dombrowski, executive director at DANK Haus, 4740 N. Western Ave.

“Oktoberfest is a great introduction and a great means to get people involved,” Dombrowski said. “But Bavaria is a small part of Germany. [Oktoberfest] is almost a frat-boy nightmare of Germany,” she added, referring to the emphasis on beer at the fest. “It gets a

little touristy.”

The crowds are exactly what German American Services, Inc. hopes for. According to Blank, Germany is Illinois’ No. 2 international business partner, and both have a stake in bringing publicity to companies such as Robert Bosch GmbH, which have exhibit tents at the Navy Pier event. In a sour economy, Lotter said, a festival can be a great way to expand economic awareness.

Germany is the world’s No. 2 exporting nation, after China and ahead of the United States, and specializes in heavy industrial production. In recent years, according to the German American Chamber of Commerce, Germany has led the world in green technology, producing wind turbines and clean-energy engines, among other products.

Lotter wants to present this image of Germany to Chicago—one of solar panels and cutting-edge research. “Germany’s Best and Oktoberfest” still keeps with tradition, though. It will be the only fest in Chicagoland to have beer that follows the Oktoberfest purity law of being brewed within Munich’s city limits, from Spaten Brewery, Lotter said. There will still be schweinebraten, or pork roast, and potato dumpling “knodel,” along with traditional Bavarian outfits, lederhosen and dirndl.

“Beer and brats might be traditional, but we’re still eating a lot of that in Germany,” Blank said. “That’s all contemporary, too.”

Oktoberfest has evolved over the past two centuries. According to the German American Chamber of Commerce, the fest began on Oct. 12, 1810 in Munich to celebrate the wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. The citizens of the city were invited to a lavish fest that ended in horse races. The next year, an agricultural show was added to the autumn festival. The horse races ended in 1960, but the agriculture show is still held every third year of Oktoberfest. In the 1850s, carnival-style rides were introduced, and in 1880, electric lights illuminated the fair’s tents for the first time.

Today, Munich’s Oktoberfest is the world’s largest festival, drawing approximately 6 million visitors annually, and more than 7 million liters of beer are consumed, according to the German American Chamber of Commerce. Approximately 75 percent of the festival-goers come from Bavaria, with the majority of the rest traveling from abroad.

According to Peter Alter, archivist at the Chicago History Museum, Oktoberfest celebrations began to pop up in Chicago around 1850 with the first wave of German immigration to the city.

At the turn of the century, one in two Chicagoans were German, making it by far the largest immigrant group, and the city’s many German establishments started to hold their own separate Oktoberfest events, with no centralized fest, Dombrowski said.

“That speaks to the diversity of the German community,” Alter said. “You have Catholics from Bavaria and Protestants from Northern Germany, and they have much different perspectives and [traditions].”

The last wave of German immigration came after World War II, Dombrowski said, and most of them were from eastern Germany, which did not celebrate Oktoberfest. After this, Polish immigration eclipsed that of German and became the city’s defining European immigrant community, Alter said. These factors could be why Chicago doesn’t have a comparable Oktoberfest celebration to smaller Midwest cities, he added.

Among the most well-known Oktoberfest celebrations in Chicago are The Berghoff’s along Dearborn and Adams streets in the Loop, and St. Alphonsus Catholic Church’s fest along Lincoln and Southport Avenues. Blank hopes a big name location like Navy Pier will draw additional crowds from around the Chicagoland region without intruding on those local fests.

“We really want to attract young crowds who come for the beer but are also interested in German business and German industry,” Blank said. “We work with a lot of German enterprises, and they’re becoming widespread here in Chicago.”

Other ethnic celebrations, such as the Polish Constitution Day Parade or the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, both get more institutional attention in Chicago, Alter noted. He attributed the success of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade to the prominence of the Daleys, an Irish-American family, and that of the Polish Day Parade to that group’s more recent immigration to Chicago.

Alter compared Oktoberfest in America to St. Patrick’s Day because it is an American version of the celebration. He said many other smaller German festivals in Chicago are a better representation of Germany’s diverse culture.

“I think in the way that everyone is Irish for one day, everyone [who] wants to celebrate Oktoberfest is German for a day,” Alter said.