May 1st is International Labour Day. In Germany, it is a bank holiday, all stores stay closed. The night before May 1st is Walpurgis Night, linked to witches and dancing. For the employees who wouldn’t normally go to clubs, and even some retirees, Walpurgis Night is probably the only night in the year when they will dance past midnight. It is a tradition to “dance into May”, i. e. to be dancing when midnight strikes and May 1st begins. Because of this, it is a good thing that people don’t have to work on May 1st.
May 1st is host to a lot of demonstrations on behalf of the working class, usually organized by the trade unions, which are quite powerful in Germany, and the socialist / communist parties. In most cities, demonstrations are quite small and don’t much concern other inhabitants, but Berlin is infamous for May Day riots, lovingly called demonstrations. (Some actually are demonstrations.) Together with the counter-events that are supposed to draw people away from violence, they take up much of the city and you’ll be hard pressed not to stumble into one or the other during this day. Nowadays, there are actually few extreme leftists in the city who would use violence, but Berlin has such a reputation for May Day that there are tourists and hooligans coming from other cities (even from nearby Poland!) specifically in order to have a tumble with the police, bash in shop windows and set fire to expensive cars. It is hip to be anti-establishment here and actual leftists are complaining bitterly that people just want to have fun at the demos rather than actually give some thought to the ideology.
The worst is always in the borough Kreuzberg. That’s where particularly severe riots happened on May 1, 1987. The Berlin police had to retreat entirely from district SO 36 (a part of Kreuzberg) for several hours. Since then, Autonome (socialists) and Anti-Fascist groups have been organizing one or more so-called “Revolutionary 1st of May Demonstrations” almost every year. Apart from May 1st itself, there can also be riots in the night before or after. Here’s the history of these Kreuzberg riots, which I personally translated / summarized from the German Wikipedia article:
Kreuzberg has always been a hotspot for street fights between squatters or socialist/anarchist groups and the police. District SO 36 in particular was a center of the Berlin house-squatting and punk movement. On Labour Day, Autonome, alternative people and socialists traditionally organized a street festival on Lausitzer Platz, which sometimes led to minor fights with the police, demonstrations or other political actions. These were however considered routine for Kreuzberg at the time and hardly recognized by the public.
Next to these, the Confederation of German Trade Unions organized the traditional big 1st of May Demonstration in West-Berlin. The Confederation of German Trade Unions and the new social movements (Autonome etc.) were at odds and sometimes the police had to prevent them crashing the demonstration.
1st of May 1987
The 1st of May 1987 was a historic event, which was covered by the worldwide press. At the time, the atmosphere in the leftist groups was tense for several reasons: the boycott of the census, the perceived repression by Berlin’s senate and the police’s breaking into one of the leftist groups’ headquarters at 4:45am on May 1st.
The street festival was peaceful until the police forced the new social groups to leave the trade union’s demonstration. Around 4pm, Autonome overturned an empty police car near the festival and pushed two construction cars onto the street. Most visitors of the festival didn’t know anything of this and were just having fun. The police reacted by breaking up the festival using batons and tear gas. Following that, the visitors of the festival built barricades on several adjacent streets. From 11pm till the early morning, the police retreated to the area around Skalitzer Straße.
Many people came to Kreuzberg that night, mostly sympathizers of the radical left, but also many spectators. The protesters used construction vehicles and parking cars to create barricades in the entire area, which were then set on fire. On every corner of Oranienstraße there were big burning barricades, which were defended by people throwing stones. Firefighter vehicles, which were sent to douse the fire, were attacked. More than 30 shops were looted, both shops belonging to big chains as well as small businesses. The subway station Görlitzer Bahnhof, in the center of the unrest, was also set on fire, and people spent hours drumming on the iron rails in order to make noise.
Between 2 and 3am on May 2nd, 1987, the police launched a counter-attack. Fortunately a lot of protesters had drunk a lot of alcohol from looted shops, they were also tired. Using water canons and special vehicles, they managed to overcome the barricades and resistance. More than 100 people were injured and 47 people were arrested, including one Norbert Kubat, who later committed suicide in police custody. There was later a funeral march of ca. 1500 people for him.
As a reaction to the riots, the Berlin police created a special unit for street fights. After some missions, this unit was critized for using excess force and it was disbanded in January 1989. Within the autonomous movement, there were several interpretations of events, from being happy to have resisted the police for so long, or to have mobilized so many people, to the opinion that these were completely apolitical actions that ought to be condemned for their excesses.
1st of May 1988
Because of the previous bad experiences with the trade unions’ 1st of May demonstrations, the autonomous movements organized a separate “Revolutionary 1st of May Demonstration” in 1988. Despite the police, more than 6000 people were mobilized. The demonstration was peaceful, but at the end of the street festival there were some fights between police and demonstrators on Lausitzer Platz.
Afterwards, the police was massively criticized for excessive use of force. The policemen even wound up injuring three police leaders, who had been watching the mission. Compared to 1987, there were said to be even more youths, tourists and drunk people rather than political groups participating.
1st of May 1989
In 1989, the new Berlin senate, which included SPD and Greens, tried to de-escalate the 1st of May by having politics and police show restraint. The much-criticized special police task force for street fights had been disbanded in advance. However, the radical left was upset by the Red Army Fraction’s prisoners’ hunger strike and by the arrest of two Berliners for supposedly being members of the militant women’s rights group “The Amazons”. They also wanted to emphasize their rejection of an SPD-Green government. Already in the night before the 1st of May a building in Oranienstraße was occupied and two shops were looted. The police used water cannons and arrested 16 people, but declared that they would not immediately clear the occupied building. The next day, ca. 10,000 people participated in the “Revolutionary 1st of May Demonstration”. The police showed a lot of restraint. Even after demonstrators had destroyed several sex shops, looted a supermarket and a department store and set a trash can on fire, the police only reacted by making a cordon.
After the demonstration, when large numbers of participants moved to the street festival, there were violent encounters there, too. Initially the police only made a loudspeaker announcement to stop throwing stones, but then disbanded the festival using tear gas and water cannons. After that, the intensity of vandalism was greater than the one in 1987. Estimates claim more than 1,500 people participated. At times even larger police units were surrounded and forced to throw stones, since (according to them) the only other option was to shoot. In contrast to previous years, the violence was not against shops but specifically against the police. Of 1,600 policemen 346 were injured. Damages were estimated at 1.5 million marks. 154 police cars were damaged for a cost of 530,000 marks. The next day, a Berlin newspaper ran the headline “Beirut??? No, this is Berlin!”. Within the autonomous movement, the events were discussed, particularly whether the riots were still politically motivated and what their purpose is. The police union demonstrated against the policy of de-escalation.
1st of May 1990
In this year, May Day was marked by the Reunification, which inspired Nationalism. Accordingly, the “Revolutionary 1st of May Demonstration”‘s motto was “Prefer to go out on the street than home to the Reich!”. Approximately 12,000 people participated in the demonstration and additionally there was a demonstration in East Berlin with 2,000 participants. In contrast to 1989, the demonstration was mostly peaceful. The street festival had been forbidden, but it took place anyway and peacefully so. 3,800 policemen were on duty.
In 1991, 1992 and 1993 there were conflicts regarding the route (through East or West Berlin) and also sometimes violent conflicts between different leftist groups over their attitude to Stalinism or Marxism-Leninism. The Revolutionary International Movement (RIM) was part of the demonstration in 1991 and 1992, but in 1993 they were expelled from the demonstration. Despite the conflicts, between 10,000 and 15,000 people participated in the Revolutionary 1st of May Demonstration in each of the years. In 1994, this demonstration no longer took place: the RIM has since organized their own demonstration with 1-2,000 partipants every year, while the undogmatic groups didn’t have a demonstration in 1994 and 1995. In 1994, there was however a satirical “Demonstration against disturbance of the peace by night and against senseless violence”, which 2,500 people attended.
In 1996, anti-fascist groups tried to resurrect the Revolutionary 1st of May. In that year and the following ones, there was an undogmatic “Revolutionary 1st of May Demonstration” attracting 8,000 to 15,000 people, next to the RIM’s demonstration that continued to take place. The Berlin police’s new tactic is to counter violence by supporting alternative events, such as the new Kreuzberg street festival Myfest, which takes place in district SO 36, the traditional center of the riots. By having tens of thousands of peaceful attendees, this festival is supposed to stop the violence in its tracks. It has had some success in that the intensity of violence has decreased considerably, though there are smaller conflicts in the surroundings of the Myfest. The organizers of the “Revolutionary 1st of May Demonstrations” criticize the Myfest as a way to pacify social conflicts and ban radical left demonstrations. The Myfest enables authorities to forbid registered demonstrations to take certain routes. In 2005 and 2006, the official demonstrations were therefore cancelled by the organizers and spontaneous demonstrations took place after that. 2008 was the largest “Revolutionary 1st of May Demonstration” in 8 years, with 11,000 or 12,000 participants. There were minor clashes with the police, 162 arrests and 103 injured policemen.
In 2009, 6000 policemen were on duty in Berlin for the 1st of May. This was the first year that the police was attacked again during the “Revolutionary 1st of May Demonstrations”. 273 policemen were injured, 289 people were arrested and 44 arrest warrants were issued, including 4 for attempted murder of policemen by throwing Molotow cocktails. One case drew particular attention: a federal policeman from Frankfurt, who participated as a private person and had thrown 3 bricks at police forces. He was sentenced to 16 months probation.
This year, the city sponsored the Myfest again, which had live music on 20 stages. 40,000 visitors were lured to that festival while 19,000 participated in the Revolutionary 1st of May Demonstration. This is nearly double last year’s number and surprised both police and organizers. The final count is 68 people arrested, 61 policeman injured, five of them seriously. Yet another indication that the majority of people nowadays are not looking to cause trouble, not looking to advance a radical political ideology either, but very interested in taking selfies with a backdrop of such events. Photos from this year.
Photos from historic May Days
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