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Oktoberfest - or 'Oktoberfortress'

Felicitas Wilke, Munich / jsSeptember 18, 2016

More police, as well as barriers and admittance controls - security is tighter than ever at this year's Oktoberfest in Munich. Yet visitors are relaxed, as Felicitas Wilke observes.

Oktoberfest München
Image: DW/F. Wilke

It is impossible to move this Saturday morning at the Theresienwiese subway station. Seeing that the Oktoberfest has just begun, that is no surprise. But this year it is not the masses of people clogging the escalator that give the impression that one will never reach the top. This year people cannot get to the festival grounds because the entrance here is closed. The comparatively few people exiting the subway are being forced to take a detour.

This is the first Oktoberfest since the terror attacks in Paris, Brussels, Nice, Würzburg and Ansbach. The first Oktoberfest since Islamic-inspired terror arrived in Germany. The Oktoberfest, which attracts some 6 million visitors from around the world each year, is a potential terror target. Now security is tighter than it has ever been before.

Seamless control

Sarah Schmidt and Siegfried Nürnberg are standing in a long line at the entrance to the Theresienwiese, or the "Wies'n," as the locals call the festival grounds and the festival itself. Even at 10 am, the baggage-check area is noticeably busier than it has ever been in the past. Schmidt would have liked to take her bag in, but it is too big. The rule of thumb is that any bag that can hold more than three cartons of milk is too large to be admitted. Backpacks are not allowed, either. "It is a little annoying," says Siegfried Nürnberg. "But understandable after all of the attacks," adds Sarah Schmidt.

Visitors to Oktoberfest Siegfried Nürnberg and Sarah Schmidt
Siegfried Nürnberg and Sarah Schmidt: "The strict security measures are understandable."Image: DW/F. Wilke

This year, for the first time in the history of the festival, there are extensive security controls at all the entrances. In another first, the grounds have been completely enclosed with fencing to ensure that visitors can gain access only via official entry points.

Entrance to Oktoberfest
Main entrance to the Oktoberfest: Waiting in line and handing over bags and backpacksImage: DW/F. Wilke

Memories of 1980

A latent sense of fear has always been a part of the Oktoberfest. Almost every Munich resident over the age of 50 remembers September 26, 1980: Back then, a right-wing radical named Gundolf Köhler planted a bomb at the entrance, killing 13 people. Inge, Karin and Carolin remember exactly what the mood was at the time: "It was a shock for the city," says Karin, "but a few days later we were back on the rides." The three ladies are all wearing traditional dirndl dresses and smoke a cigarette before they head in. It is something that they have been doing for forty years. They tell me that somehow the Oktoberfest has always carried on.

Three visitors to Oktoberfest: Inge, Carolin and Karin
They have been going to the Oktoberfest for 40 years: Inge, Carolin and KarinImage: DW/F. Wilke

There was an Oktoberfest after 1980, and one just a few days after September 11, 2001 - the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. The festival was also held in 2009 - albeit under tightened security - shortly after the terror organization al Qaeda released a video announcing that Germany would be the target of attacks. At that time, authorities set up three restricted zones around the grounds.

Police and surveillance cameras

There is nothing new about the fact that police guard the perimeter of the Theresienwiese, or that they patrol the festival grounds. This year, though, the number of officers has been increased from 500 to 600. Moreover, there are now 29 surveillance cameras installed throughout the grounds.

"It is surprising to see so many police here," says Denise Hefner, who traveled to Munich from the US state of Wyoming with her husband Mike just to come to the Oktoberfest. She thinks that the police presence is important because it gives her a sense of security. But now it's time to enjoy the festival, her husband Mike adds, as he gets in line at the entrance with his son and his daughter-in-law. "We can't give the terrorists what they want."

Visitors stretching out for a mug of beer
"It's tapped!": Visitors fight for free beerImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Schrader

That is something the festival hosts have also often emphasized. "We accept an individual's decision not to come to the Oktoberfest," says Siegfried Able, the proprietor of the Marstall beer tent. But he adds, "People should not let themselves be deprived of the joys of life." He says that if security gates or passport controls are necessary, that is fine with him.

Menacing firecrackers

Traudl Beck and Theresia Helgert are sitting at their pretzel stand outside the tent, waiting for customers. Things are still quiet because most visitors have just watched the arrival procession of the landlords and breweries, or are waiting for their first beer in the beer garden next door. "If someone is really intent, then a bag check won't deter them," says Traudl Beck. Nevertheless, she and her partner seem relaxed. Don't they have any uneasy feelings about this year's Oktoberfest? No, they say, and almost give a chuckle. "After all, even if something were to happen, we couldn't do anything about it," says Helgert. A pragmatic attitude, and one that seems to be shared by many visitors today.

Theresia Helgert and Traudl Beck at the Oktoberfest
Theresia Helgert (l.) and Traudl Beck (r.) are not fazed by the terrorist threatImage: DW/F. Wilke

It is just after 12 o'clock. Suddenly, explosions can be heard from near the crossbow shooting stand. A group of visitors beer garden flinches and looks around somewhat panicked. "Those are just firecrackers," says pretzel-seller Helgert. They are set off as soon as the mayor taps the first keg. This year, the sound is more menacing than usual.

But everything is fine. O'zapft is! (It's tapped!), as the Munich mayor says each year to open the festival. Waitresses in the beer garden begin carrying the first mugs to the tables. "So here's to a peaceful Oktoberfest," says Theresia Helgert.