Bavaria, the deeply Catholic land of mountains, fairytale castles, beer and oompah bands has arguably shaped Germany's image abroad like no other of the country's 16 Länder, or states.
From Munich's massive Oktoberfest to local village festivals decked out in lederhosen and dirndl dresses, Bavarians are set apart from other Germans by their unique heritage, dialect and identity. Some proudly distinct residents of the “Free State of Bavaria” even question whether the formerly independent kingdom is even part of Germany.
So perhaps it's no surprise that Bavaria has been home to a separatist movement for decades. The Bavaria Party advocates independence from Germany within the European Union. Under the BP's proposal, Bavaria would become a fully-fledged member of the bloc, mirroring the aims of similar separatist movements in Spain's Catalonia and Britain's Scotland.
The party argues that independence would free Bavaria from shouldering an inflated tax burden – more than a quarter of Germany's budget is derived from the state's tax revenues and Bavarians pay more than €16 billion annually to poorer German states.
“Germany is financially dependent on Bavaria, not the other way around. We don't need Germany financially or politically,” Bavaria Party spokesman Richard Schöps told The Local. “It makes sense for Bavaria to become independent.”
An economic powerhouse
Certainly it would have the means to stand alone. Its GDP in 2007 totalled €434 billion, making Bavaria one of the biggest economies in Europe and the 18th largest in the world.
Though the Bavaria Party has enjoyed some popularity since it was founded in 1946, the separatists failed to win a single seat in the European parliamentary election last summer.
And in a recent survey carried out by the Hanns Seidel Foundation and the GMS institute, 56 percent of the 1,853 people surveyed said they didn't want Bavaria to become independent. Another 37 percent even said they didn't want more autonomy for the state.
Still staunchly conservative culturally and politically, there seems to be a slight breeze of change blowing in Germany's deep south.
In October 2008, the Christian Social Union (CSU) – the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats – lost its absolute majority in the state legislature for the first time in 46 years. Forced to govern with a coalition partner, this was tantamount to a revolution to Bavarian voters.
“My impression is that outside of Bavaria it is not the Bavarians per se but rather the CSU and their personnel who are perceived as potential separatists always bringing forward this idea of ‘mir san mir',” said Bernd Goers from Berlin, referring to the Bavarian expression meaning roughly: “Take us or leave us as we are.”
The younger generation also appears to be a little less engrossed with Bavarian tradition and, in turn, is becoming more open to the wider world. Dirndls, beer, and Gemütlichkeit, or “cosiness”, are becoming less important, according to the the Hanns Seidel Foundation survey. Only 23 percent associate “culture and tradition” with the concept of “life in Bavaria,” less than half the number than in the last survey in 2003.
“The modern Bavarian is much more cosmopolitan than before. The classical Bavarian attitude towards life is over,” said the 41-year-old sales manager Manfred Bauer from Munich.
Taking off the leather trousers
And though other Germans like to mock Bavaria as a nest of country bumpkins, the region is actually a prosperous industrial powerhouse and Germany's high-tech hub.
Bavaria was first transformed from a pastoral backwater after World War II when Berlin-based titans such as Siemens and Allianz left the rubble and insecurity of the capital for a safe base in American-occupied Bavaria. Nowadays, the self-sustaining Bavarian locomotive powers on, fuelled by global players such as carmakers BMW and Audi, strong media and publishing interests, and healthy fashion and finance sectors.
Indeed, Bavaria boasts Germany's lowest rate of unemployment, the highest salaries and its lowest debt per capita. With 12.5 million people and almost 20 percent of Germany's total land area, the state looms as large here as Texas does in the United States. But instead of Stetson-wearing cowboys, in Bavaria it's men in spiffy leather trousers.
“Laptops and Lederhosen,” the state's slogan for the successful combination of tradition and economic progress, still applies. Increasingly though, Bavarians are more focused on their computers.