Oktoberfest opens as migrant crisis brews

  • 20/09/2015
A waitress carries beer during the first day of Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany (Reuters)
A waitress carries beer during the first day of Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany (Reuters)

Munich has tapped the keg on the world's biggest beer festival, Oktoberfest, with six million revellers expected just as the German city is grappling with a record refugee influx.

The celebration of Bavarian culture with its traditional music and beloved frothy beverage kicked off on Saturday when Mayor Dieter Reiter cracked the first beer barrel with two mallet blows and offered a toast to a "peaceful" Oktoberfest.

While the mood in town in the run-up to the 16-day event remained undauntedly festive, Munich had to plan its huge annual party just as it became a flashpoint of Europe's migrant crisis.

More than 20,000 people, many of them Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis fleeing war, poverty and persecution, have descended on the city of 1.4 million on each of the last two weekends.

They met with an overwhelmingly positive reception from the public, including an outpouring of donations.

But the number of arrivals dropped markedly in the last week to a few hundred per day due to border controls implemented from Sunday at the request of Bavarian's conservative authorities, who had described themselves as overwhelmed by developments.

Migrants are now being picked up at the Austrian border and put on buses and trains to other German regions, most now bypassing Munich, where some 6000 asylum-seekers are housed in temporary shelters.

"The situation is more relaxed than it was in recent days," federal police spokesman Wolfgang Hauner said.

Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann, who had warned of a potential culture clash between Muslim refugees and beer-swilling merrymakers, appointed a migration crisis team on the eve of the event.

Police have deployed 500 officers at the sprawling Wiesn fairgrounds, and mounted a security operation at the main railway station to keep drunken party-goers apart from arriving migrants.

Visitors from around the world wear the traditional Tracht, sometimes hastily bought at a vendor's stand: lederhosen (leather shorts) and embroidered braces for men and dirndls, pleated smocks worn with low-cut blouses, for women.

Both are designed to expand to accommodate an expanding beer belly.

Although Oktoberfest began 205 years ago, this year marks the 182nd edition as the party was cancelled during two world wars, two cholera outbreaks, Napoleon's invasion of Bavaria and the hyperinflation of the 1920s.

The event was originally held in October as the name suggests to celebrate a royal wedding but was brought forward by one month to take advantage of better weather.