Celebrating May Day in Berlin

By Marriette Rough

You may not have planned it, or at this point even know why, but if you have booked your holiday in Berlin on the 1st of May, you are one lucky cat.

May Day is arguably Berlin’s finest day of the year. The whole district of Kreuzberg, one of our coolest areas, becomes one huge street party. The day begins with Left and Extreme-Left groups protesting throughout the city against Capitalism, War and Social Injustices. The rally finishes in the SO36 Kreuzberg ‘Kiez’ where the streets are lined with food stands, make-shift cocktail bars and live music. It is basically a festival in the middle of the city. To qualify just how special of a day it is, at Fat Tire it is the most requested day off work by our Tour Guides. Of the whole year. I’d say that speaks for itself.

The tradition to celebrate and have public holidays on May 1st, originates from the Chicago Workers’ strike of 1886. Workers united and demonstrated with the hope of guaranteeing an eight-hour workday. Protests and street fights with police ensued. When an unidentified person threw a bomb at the police, they retaliated by firing on the workers, killing four. The first of May was chosen as International Workers’ Day in order to commemorate the 1886 Haymarket Demonstration.

Often quoted at this time of year are the famous words of Berlinerin Rosa Luxembourg, “As long as the struggles of the workers against the bourgeoisie and ruling class continues, as long as all demands are not met, May Day will be the yearly expression of these demands”.

Kreuzberg in the 80’s was a poor West Berlin neighbourhood. It’s population were immigrants, students, anarchists, feminists and anti-imperialists. On May Day they gathered and protested at Trade Unions’ Demonstrations. After these marches, they would return to Kreuzberg and enjoy a huge street festival. 

May Day 1987 is generally considered the most historically relevant May Day for Berlin. Firstly it was incredibly tense for a number of reasons: the perceived repression by Berlin’s senate, the boycott of the controversial nationwide census of 87 and the police having broken into one of the leftist groups’ headquarters very early in the morning on May 1st. The protest was peaceful until the police forced new social groups to leave the trade unions’ demonstration. Mid afternoon saw Autonome (one of the socialist groups) overturn an empty police car. The police reacted by breaking up the whole festival, using excessive force, predominately batons and tear gas. The counter reaction of the protesters was to build barricades in the surrounding streets and to riot until the early hours of the next day. More than 30 shops were looted and countless cars burnt in the streets. The Gorlitzer Bahnhof (train station) was also set alight. Police then brought in water cannons and special anti-barricade vehicles. By the end of the night more than 100 people were injured, 47 arrested, including one Norbert Kubat who later committed suicide in police custody. Later there was a funeral march in his honour with more than 1500 people. 

Over the next few years, May Day saw excessive police force in an attempt to quash rioting. This generally served to give the extreme left even more purpose in their demonstrations. Cut to a few years of trial and error in terms of policing the event. For the last 15 years May Day has been not completely without violence but overall relatively peaceful. 

What you can expect this May Day is delicious Turkish street food, home made caipirinhas, spring time sunshine and the feeling that in Berlin anything can happen. And it usually does.

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