For members


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

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

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.

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. 

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Düsseldorf Helau! How I embraced the Rhineland’s carnival celebrations

To celebrate carnival season, The Local visited Düsseldorf and found the spirits of revellers could not be dampened by stormy weather.

Düsseldorf Helau! How I embraced the Rhineland's carnival celebrations
Two 'Jecken', or carnival revellers, in Düsseldorf on Monday. Photo: DPA

It was at about 2pm on a stormy Sunday as I sat next to a group of people dressed as pirates downing mini bottles of Schnapps when I wondered if I was destined to live in Duisburg. 

I had been stuck in the train station of the western German city for over an hour as I tried to travel from Berlin to Düsseldorf. 

Heading west to celebrate Karneval for the first time, I had no idea what to expect. It turned out to be a very wet and windy experience – but one I’ll never forget thanks to the enthusiasm of the locals whose spirits could not be dampened by any amount of rain. 

READ ALSO: The calls you'll hear at Carnival – and what they mean

After being kicked off the high speed train in Duisburg because of the storms, I wandered around aimlessly, pondering how I’d get to my final destination. Eventually, I followed the pirates onto another train.

“The carnival celebrations in Duisburg have been cancelled because of the weather so we are going to Cologne,” said one of the revellers dressed as a Victorian gentleman. 

There were plenty of people getting into the festival atmosphere. One thing I’d been warned about in advance of carnival was the music – and, dear reader, it was so, so bad.  Think Schlager but even worse if that’s possible. And the same songs are repeated over and over and over and over…

But it’s strange – the more I listened to it, the more I began to warm to it. Carnival fever was catching on.

'What's your costume?'

It was only when I was actually in the Rhineland, far away from grey Berlin, that I realised just how serious a business carnival is. People love it and embrace it completely.

It’s a huge event in Germany’s Catholic regions where the so-called “fifth season” brings out millions of revellers every year. 

READ ALSO: 'It's absolute chaos': Does Düsseldorf host Germany's best carnival celebration?

Traditions differ depending where you live: people say Cologne has the biggest party, while Düsseldorf has long been known for putting on the most controversial satirical displays.

One thing that’s certain: you need to wear a fancy dress costume. I’d already failed at the first hurdle, believing that adding a bit of colour – my yellow raincoat – was enough. 

“What’s your costume?” one of the pirates asked me. I told him I didn’t have one, that I was an amateuer. 

“Are you Greta Thunberg?” shouted a friendly Ghostbuster, as if there was no way that I could have come without a costume. Apparently, some people spend a whole year planning what they're going to wear for the street festivals during Karneval.

“I guess I am,” I said, pointing to my raincoat and hat which had a vague Thunberg vibe. 

They thrust a beer in my hand and turned up the music. 

We stopped on the tracks and, after a long wait, the train conductor said a tree had blocked the line and we had to go back to Duisburg. 

The stormy weather was getting worse and it looked like I’d never make it to Düsseldorf. I should probably make an appointment at the Bürgeramt and register in Duisburg, one person joked on Twitter after I shared some tweets about the journey.

Back at Duisburg I had no idea what to do, but eventually followed some people to the S-Bahn. I found one that went to Düsseldorf and hopped on along with what felt like the rest of the city. 

The carnival music played for the whole hour-long journey, cementing it in my mind forever. 

After nine hours of travelling I arrived in Düsseldorf, four hours later than expected.

On Monday I was ready for the big event – the Rosenmontag parade. I had been invited to join the Düsseldorf Tourism Board float where I would throw Kamelle (sweets) to the crowds lining the streets.

Taking inspiration from my Duisburg train friends I braided my hair and decided I would attend Karneval as climate activist Thunberg.

READ ALSO: IN PICS: Trump, Brexit and AfD all targeted at Düsseldorf's Rosenmontag parade

However, I didn’t really need to bother: there were colourful clown wigs waiting for us on the float.

I spent the first part of the day checking out the floats and speaking to locals. 

Sonja Weyers and her friend Katharina Pitzer, who both looked amazing in clown make-up told me how important it is to get dressed up. 

“You have to have a costume, it’s part of carnival,” said Sonja.

“That’s what the fun is all about. If you don’t wear one you’re the odd one out,” added Katharina. 

Katharina Pitzer and Sonja Weyers. Photo: Rachel Loxton

From babies who'd been transformed into bees to men dressed up as pregnant women and all other types of outfits in between, the Düsseldorfers went all out. 

Ultimately, the spirit of carnival is about community. 

“Rosenmontag is the highlight of our carnival session, everyone comes together and celebrates together, it doesn't matter where you’re from,” Sonja said.

If there’s one thing you have to be ready for at the carnival, it’s to shout the war cry “Helau!” possibly a million times during the course of one day. 

“In Düsseldorf we say Helau!” said Sonja and Katharina. 

Düsseldorf is known for its biting political floats, made by creative genius Jacques Tilly. No topics are off limits, from the coronavirus to the far-right, Brexit and Trump.

A sculpture depicting Thuringia's AfD leader Björn Höcke and the election debacle in the German state. Photo: DPA

One float was dedicated to the victims of the Hanau shooting attacks with the strong message that words can become actions emblazoned across it.

Ole Friedrich, managing director at the Düsseldorf Tourism Board, said: “There are so many people in a good mood, everybody is happy and we have these special wagons.  We are proud of it because these will go out to the entire world.

“We are the only Rose Monday with such satirical, strong political wagons.”

Melvin Böcher and Ole Friedrich. Photo: Rachel Loxton

After a few hours, our float began moving through the crowds and the sweet-throwing started. Children (along with quite a few adults) got really excited to catch some treats.

We travelled through the city and I was able to see some of the sights, such as the old town hall, while listening to carnival music and shouting Helau!

We finished the route just as it was beginning to get dark. The sun didn't come out the entire day but that didn't bother anyone in Düsseldorf one bit. 

Melvin Böcher, of the online community Travel Dudes, summed it up: “The weather’s shit but it’s an amazing atmosphere.”

Rachel stayed at Hotel Friends Düsseldorf during her visit.