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The 'freedom of fools:' How did Germany's Karneval become a political event?

Kate Brady
Kate Brady - [email protected]
The 'freedom of fools:' How did Germany's Karneval become a political event?
A man dressed as climate activist Greta Thunberg in Mainz. Photo: DPA.

Karneval in Germany's Rhineland could be described as a political party indeed.


Known as Karneval, Fasching, or Fastnacht depending on the region, Germany’s carnival occurs each year in anticipation of Lent. 

The annual carnival season is a Catholic tradition and occurs in many countries. Some of the most famous carnivals are Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, Carnevale in Venice, and the annual celebrations across Germany. 

The fun begins in Cologne for Karneval 2020. Photo: DPA.

In Germany, some celebrate the beginning of Karneval at 11:11 am on November 11th, while others mark the beginning of the season on January 6th (Epiphany). 

The end of the season is midnight on Shrove Tuesday (February 25th this year), the day before Ash Wednesday when the 40-day Lent season begins.

READ ALSO: Karneval: the glossary

A political event, now and then 

Karneval, though rooted in religious traditions, has political elements as well. 

From its origins in the medieval period, Germany’s so-called Fifth Season of Karneval has been a stage for political demonstrations. 

Karneval was an opportunity for individuals to take a break from the rigid class structures that were a hallmark of the time. The costumes meant that they had an opportunity to hide their social background and even mock those above them in status. 

For example, peasants would use the festival to dress up as knights, damsels, or priests. 

Such political and social satire is a key feature of Karneval, particularly in the Rhineland cities of Düsseldorf, Cologne, and Mainz. 

Children dressed in exaggerated old-fashioned military attire for Karneval. Photo: DPA.

This pattern is largely due to the fact that the Rhineland was occupied by the French in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The festival had been well-established since the medieval period, but the occupation added a new element: mocking the French and later Prussian military authority in the region.

Revelers in these cities would often wear silly costumes modeled on the uniforms of the occupying forces in an attempt to make fun of their authority. 

The tradition of wearing these exaggerated costumes in the style of the 19th century continues today, along with a mock salute and flowers in the barrels of rifles during the annual parade, all of which represent an aversion to various forms of authority. 

CDU politician Julia Klöckner joins in on the fun in Mainz in 2019. Photo: DPA.

Even though Karneval is a time for criticizing the political establishment, it is also a popular stage for local politicians and leaders to make appearances. This gives them the opportunity to connect with their constituents and show that they are capable of taking a joke. 

Political parades 

The opportunity for political (or anti-political) expression at Karneval continues to this day. 

A Büttenrede is a satirical or critical speech full of humour and sometimes song that makes a statement about the state of politics or society.

This tradition also originated in the medieval period when ‘common’ people had the right to publicly criticize their leaders without fear of punishment. These speeches are still an important part of Karneval in the present.  

The various Karneval societies, especially in Düsseldorf, Cologne, and Mainz, are responsible for producing floats for the Rosenmontag parade, a number of which are political satire. 

These floats often poke fun at German and international politicians and provide the opportunity for an often crude critique of current political and social issues. 

READ ALSO: Karneval satirical floats in Rhine region ready to make debut

Some examples of political floats in previous years: 

Chancellor Merkel is portrayed as Buzz Lightyear in Cologne in 2014. Photo: DPA.

US President Trump's rejection of the Paris Climate Accords (and love of golf) is mocked in Mainz in 2018. Photo: DPA.

Former British Prime Minister Theresa May and Brexit were mocked in Düsseldorf in 2019. Photo: DPA.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg was portrayed holding the "Parent Generation" by their ears in Düsseldorf in 2019. Photo: DPA.

AfD politician Björn Höcke is portrayed as the child of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels in Düsseldorf in 2019. Photo: DPA. 

Fastnacht and Fasching in the southern parts of Germany tend to highlight more elements of their religious and even pagan histories, featuring more costumes of devils, fools, and wild beasts from nature. The celebrations are seen as a chance to ward off evil spirits.

 A stage for women 

Despite its reputation as an opportunity to break societal norms, Karneval was long reserved for men. 

Legend has it that a group of women in Bonn in 1824 made up their minds to change that and stormed the town hall in the days before Rosenmontag. 

A woman is ready to cut ties on Weiberfastnacht in Bonn. Photo: DPA.

Today in carnival celebrations across the country, the Thursday before Rosenmontag is traditionally Weiberfastnacht, or “women’s carnival.” On this day, women are known to go around cutting men’s ties and giving kisses. 

The Dance of the Market Women is a beloved part of Fasching in Munich. Photo: DPA.

In Munich, a group of women who normally operate the booths at the city’s open-air food market take the stage at a local Biergarten and perform what is known as the Tanz der Marktfrauen, or the “Dance of the Market Women.” 

This has become one of the most beloved parts of Munich’s Fasching celebrations. 

READ ALSO: Fasching: Tracing the roots of south Germany's 'dark carnival' 

Karneval under the Nazis 

While Karneval has returned to its political roots, it was not as free under Hitler and the Nazis. 

As Spiegel Online explains, the National Socialists used Karneval’s popularity as an opportunity to reinforce their visions of German nationalism. 

A 1938 parade float in Cologne under the Nazis mocks Joseph Stalin of the USSR. Photo: DPA.

Despite what one might expect, the Nazis did not initially use Karneval as an opportunity to showcase images of Hitler, the swastika, or other party symbols. In fact, they prohibited such propaganda at the event out of fear that revelers might deface them. 

Instead, they encouraged the production of political floats which propagated their own messages and mocked Jews, enemy nations, and international peace groups such as the League of Nations. 

READ ALSO: Jews seek to heal wounds of past with first ever Karneval float

The Nazis later used Karneval as a stage for promoting their party, as this photo illustrates. Photo: DPA.

Later, in an attempt to gain respect from abroad, the National Socialists invited international visitors to Karneval, limiting such displays and using the event as a way to portray Germans as peaceful and fun. 

Karneval 2020 

This year’s Karneval will likely have floats mocking Brexit, US President Trump, and Chancellor Merkel, as has been the case for the last few years. Other popular targets are authoritarian regimes in the European Union and Turkey, Russian meddling in elections, and other global conflicts. 

Cologne’s parade float manager has already revealed that floats about the recent political crisis in Thuringia will be a topic of this year’s floats. 

An initial sketch reveals how the Thuringia crisis of the past few weeks might be portrayed in this year's Rosenmontag parade in Cologne. Photo: DPA.

Floats have been notoriously provocative in the past, featuring exaggerated caricatures of world leaders. 

In an interview with Deutsche Kulturrat, Düsseldorf’s famous float manager Jacques Tilly said that he, like all those involved with organizing the carnival, are officially political-party neutral, but “a satirist who wants to please everyone is not doing his job properly.” 

The Narrenfreiheit, or “freedom of fools,” is an utmost priority for Tilly. 

The floats often have global resonance. Last year Düsseldorf’s political floats were featured in over 1500 publications around the world. 

The floats are completed at the very last minute, meaning that it is possible to make changes even up to the Sunday before the parades. 

If the last few weeks of headlines in Germany and abroad are any indication, this year is likely to be particularly scathing.

We'll have to wait and see. 


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