September 3, 2013

Oktoberfest, lederhosen, dirndls and Germany's cultural fault-line

The great civilizational fault-line in Europe slices right through Germany, carving it into hilly/mountain country in the west and south, and lowland plains in the north and east. People adapted to the Saxon-Prussian half show traits like farmers show elsewhere around the world, while people adapted to the Rhenish-Bavarian half show traits more typical of (agro-)pastoralist folk around the world.

Perhaps the most familiar example to us of Germans who know how to have a rollicking good time is Oktoberfest. That sure doesn't sound like a ritual created by dour, nose-to-the-grindstone martinets. Incurious foreigners might try to spin some baroque explanation for this "counter-intuitive" fact. I don't know why people have such a problem with common sense. Maybe it's not so counter-intuitive, and you're simply missing a big piece of the puzzle.

That's what's going on here -- Oktoberfest comes from one half of Germany, while those other stereotypes come from the other, opposite half. No contradiction to resolve. It would be like a clueless outsider trying to explain how Los Angeles stereotypes ultimately and tortuously derive from American Puritanism -- wrong part of the country.

I got to wondering, given how deep this divide runs in Germany, and given all you hear about Bavarian separatism (if you're tuned in to those kind of things), will the west/south of Germany begin to rally around symbols of their distinctly fun-loving half of the country? Even if they're not exactly near Munich, and their local culture might not include those symbols? It would be like Americans out west rallying around L.A. cultural symbols (back when it was worth rallying around), and those back east rallying around New York symbols. Or if you live in Maine, should you root for the Red Sox?

With clothing and appearances, the personal is often political. Around the world, people dress a certain way to show their membership in a certain ethnic group. The clothing items most identified with Oktoberfest are the lederhosen for men and the dirndl for women.

I used Google Trends to see where in Germany people search the web for these items. Below are maps showing the popularity of searches for "lederhosen" and "dirndl" (normalized for overall number of web searches), from January 2010 to August 2013. I chose more recent dates to allow for a trend to have caught on. German national pride seems to have really taken off after hosting and taking 3rd place in the 2006 World Cup, for instance. I looked at the level of cities to get fine-grained resolution.

No surprise that the epicenter of interest for Oktoberfest-related items is Munich, but it fans out into the rest of Bavaria and even into the Rhineland. The northern and eastern Germans couldn't care less about such alien clothing. (That tiny blip for "lederhosen" in Berlin is probably a weird fetish thing.)

Is this just showing interest in Oktoberfest in general? Apparently not. Here's how popular searches for "oktoberfest" are across the country:

Now we see much less concentration in the south, more in the west, and suddenly some interest up north and east. I take this to mean that northern/eastern Germans are interested in taking a trip down to Oktoberfest as tourists, but no deeper or more enduring connection to the culture down there. Whereas a Bavarian or Rhinelander might want a pair of lederhosen or a dirndl for other occasions throughout the year, or to wear once in awhile in normal situations -- as an expression of cultural pride and belonging. Kind of like how folks out west are into designs and patterns that come from the Southwest Indian tribes, or how folks back in New York, Boston, and D.C. wear black head-to-toe in honor of their severe, Puritan heritage.

Munich is seeing heavy immigration from across Germany, as people flock there in search of jobs. Evidently, though, they don't have any interest in looking the part before they leave their northern/eastern homeland. Akin to a Bostonian studying out in California who would rather die than buy (let alone wear) a Hawaiian shirt during warm weather.

It would be interesting to see if there are key cultural symbols from the Rhineland that their Bavarian neighbors are beginning to show interest in, as some of the former are interested in lederhosen and dirndls. Unfortunately I don't really know that much about what makes Cologne Cologne, but it's something that someone else could look into.

It also makes me wonder whether "Bavarian" secession will be broader and include the Rhineland, and whether the leftover half would cohere into a single Saxon-Prussian region rather than fragment even further. It seems like a single split along the fault-line is the most likely. Somewhat like a secession in America would preserve the two similar regions of the Mid-west and the Northeast, while another cluster would include both the Pacific and the Inter-mountain West.

The future promises to be interesting. Looking at trends within pop / folk culture would seem to have better forecast value than political trends, which are slower and more of a jumping-on-the-bandwagon kind of thing.


  1. The regional differences in Germany are fascinating. Well worth a trip to see the variations from place to place.

  2. Bavaria is really like the Texas of Germany, it is just as disliked and people make fun of them, it is not considered as "real Germany" inside. Yet they have the most robust economy, best scores when it comes to education, Munich, the state capital is the most expensive city in Germany and so on... and people throw the "why don't you just secede" all the time at them. And just like Texas, Bavaria is a conservative stronghold.

  3. Yes, Bavarian take increasingly interest in Cologne Carniva, Kölner Karneval

  4. My latest blog post is partly in response to this:

    Germania’s Seed? | JayMan's Blog

  5. My sister is engaged to a Bavarian and contra the second anonymous, he makes a good case for Bavaria being the real Germany. He asks rhetorically what gets conjured up in people's minds when they think of Germany and points out they come from Bavaria: cuckoo clocks, Oktoberfest, beer, lederhosen, etc.

    My people are from Baden, just north of the Swiss border. He likes Baden well enough; at least they're not the lowland Germans in his eyes.

    I did have a friend from low, or northern, Germany and they're so different. The absolute weirdest woman, sexually, I've ever met in my life. She also told me my relatives were German hillbillies, based on accent (even though one cousin is a physicist).

  6. Social Pathologist nails it, at least in part. Find a map of Catholic vs Protestant areas of Germany and compare to your maps.

    However, now you have a chicken/egg problem - did the North of Germany become/remain dour because they became Protestant, or vice-versa? The religious settlement had some complications along the border areas, but the general trend seems to follow a pre-existing divide, and became the expression of that divide.

  7. In an earlier post, I put up a map showing early-and-eager vs. late-and-reluctant conversion to Christianity, and it maps onto the fault-line. I'll be getting to the Reformation sometime soon.

    The parts of Germany that broke on in Lutheranism were converted the most recently, and only had it imposed by bloody conquest (e.g., the Saxon Wars of Charlemagne). And they're the least religious parts of Germany today (along with their Scandinavian relatives, also former Lutherans).

    So I don't think they were ever all that Christianized to begin with.

    "The religious settlement had some complications along the border areas, but the general trend seems to follow a pre-existing divide, and became the expression of that divide."

    Right, give people a choice to express themselves, and the long existing fault-line emerges. It seems to be one of those sedentary farmer vs. wandering herder differences, and each one chose their own religion to mark their differences.

    Although it's not random, like we'll flip a coin and we'll be red and you'll be blue. They're going to choose a religion that best fits their way of life.

  8. Berlin here...

    More likely than Bavarian secession would be an association with Switzerland, together with Baden-Württemberg, possibly with industrious Saxonia, too, the most successful and conservative of former communist Germany. A Bavarian succession is a mainstay of political jokes and reciprocal ribbing since after WWII, but til the shit hits the fan breaking it to pieces, no one really wishes for it. Then again, the southern states where assisted economically by the north and west after WII, now it's the other way round, and then some, no end in sight.

    The association with Switzerland is a new exotic idea by some, seems the more realistic option to me. The Rhineland won't be included, it's mostly piss poor nowadays (for German standards) because of de-industrialisation, immigration, (no, no Chinese or Japanese, thanks for asking...) and -most of the times- social democrat. Culturally, it leans south and west, true. Immigration is heavy in the south, too, but the conservatives down there have more of a no-nonsense approach--swift and harsher justice, no truancy tolerated, much harsher grading. It's still bad with them, though (Allahu Akbar...), but not as bad as with the lefties. The Turks down there tend to speak German, for a change, and if so they speak Bavarian German, they even know how to curse--Kruzifix Sakrament Hallelujah!

    So far, nobody asked the Swiss about a Bavarian association, though. They're quite pissed because of the rapidly rising number of German immigrants. Almost all well educated and industrious, but they don't speak Swiss German, and that's -rightly- considered a menace for Swiss German's identity, though Bavarian and Alemannic dialects are probably more tolerable to them then more northern stuff.

    There's historical debate about Celtic influence (pots *and* people) in Bavaria, making them so different. (darker complexion, more outgoing, rambunctious) Razib or Wikipedia should know about recent genetic discoveries. About the same with Austria, though rambunctiousness is replaced by melancholy and a certain tendency to sleaze--or Italian-like charm, depends where you stand. Dialects merge at the Bavarian-Austrian frontier.

    Historically, what's called Baden-Württemberg now (post-war new fangled southern state) is related to the Alemanni, so it's related to Alsacia, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and parts of Bavaria. Alemannic,* Bavarian, and Austrian dialects are quite distinct and hard to understand for other Germans, unless their speakers decide to play nice.

    As for lederhosen, they're popular during Cologne carnival. That's a big deal over there going on for days, with a week long pre-season, clothing stores catering to carnival sell them. If you're into drinking and, well, getting to know people, Cologne Carnival is an alternative for the Munich Oktoberfest.

    * includes Swiss German, too, but don't tell them. To them it's a language of its own, some don't play nice with those who disagree.


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