If you are in Berlin on May Day, you’ll realize that this day is no ordinary day. The streets are packed with people, everybody is drinking beer already in the morning, there is music everywhere and people are demonstrating – there’s a real festival atmosphere in Berlin. But why are people demonstrating and celebrating? This week, we tell you about the origins and history of the May Day celebrations.
WHAT IS MAY DAY?
Originally, the tradition to celebrate May Day on the 1st May derived from the North American workers movement in 1886. On 1st May 1886, workers wanted to enforce the eight-hour day with a general strike. Back then, it was normal for employees to work 12 hours a day for an average daily wage of only three US dollars. These terrible working conditions lead to an uproar of the working class and consequently, demonstrations and street fights with the police occurred. In Chicago, August Spies – the chief editor of the German-language newspaper “Arbeiter Zeitung” – held a critical speech on May the 1st 1886 at Haymarket and motivated a number of strikes and demonstrations. He and seven other anarchists were arrested for plotting the uproar and Spies was hanged shortly after. To remember the victims of the Haymarket riot, 1stMay became the “International Workers Day” in 1889 and was celebrated from that year on all around the world.
WHAT IS MAY DAY IN BERLIN?
1st May also became a public holiday in Germany. This day is to celebrate and think of the rights of the simple working class. Because of this, there are many demonstrations taking place on 1st May which fight for the social rights and values of the lower middle class. Since 1987, there is a city festival taking place every year at Lausitzer Platz in Berlin on this occasion. In 1987, the celebrations on 1st May reached a different level. In the districts “Kreuzberg 36” and “Kreuzberg 61”, left-wing extremists and left demonstrators went on the streets to join the “1st of May demonstrations” and great unrests and conflicts with the police occurred. Squatters, autonomous people and antifascists demonstrated against war, capitalism and for social rights, partly attacking the police and robbing supermarkets and small shops. In return, the police answered with bats and tear gas. The excesses got so extreme that the police backed out of Kreuzberg at 11p.m. for the whole night.
We’ll take a look at the history of Kreuzberg 36 so that you can understand the special role of the district regarding the 1st May celebrations.
WHAT IS „KREUZBERG 36“?
Before 1993, Kreuzberg consisted of two parts: Kreuzberg 36 and Kreuzberg 61 which were also called SO36 (south-east 36) and SW61 (south-west 61). That’s where the famous club “SO36” on the Oranienstraße, at the heart of former Kreuzberg 36, got its name from. The names derive from the times when Berlin was not divided in postal codes but in postal districts, like for instance “1000 Berlin 61” and “1000 Berlin 36”. Kreuzberg 61 was always a bit richer and more middle-class than Kreuzberg 36 which was seen as poorer, more rebellious and culturally diverse. That’s why the saying “36 brennt, 61 pennt” (=36 burns, 61 sleeps)was developed.
Between 1966 and 1977, Berlin developed the plan to tear down the district SO36 in order to build a brand new motorway as well as a huge motorway junction at Oranienplatz. Due to that, renters were kicked out of their apartments and buildings were left to decay. At Kottbusser Tor, beautiful old buildings were demolished in order to make space for a huge new building which served as a noise protection from the future motorway. During this time, the district attracted especially less wealthy and alternative groups of people, like guest workers, unemployed, students and artists. Many houses were occupied and there were extremely cheap rental apartments of poor quality available which were soon to be torn down. Many Turkish immigrants came to Kreuzberg 36 because of the cheap housing and as a consequence of all these events, long-term Berliners left the district if they could afford it. Thanks to the many squats that developed during this time (e.g. at Oranienstraße), a great number of old buildings were protected from demolition and still shape the beautiful image of the attractive downtown area around Oranienstraße.
The motorway was never realized but the planning was a reason for a vibrant mix of people from different cultures to move to the area which created a huge alternative and creative scene. Also, the student protests from 1968 in SO36 stimulated squats and street battles with the police and attracted many students, artists and left wing people. Due to that, a meeting point of the alternative scene was created.
If you are visiting Berlin, it’s definitely worth visiting the hip district around Oranienstraße during day-and night time as there is a lively mix of intercultural restaurants, homey bars, crazy clubs and cute shops. The huge new block at “Kotti” now contains trendy bars and pubs like for instance the “Café Kotti” . From Industriepalast Hostel, it’s only five minutes by Underground to the stop “Kottbusser Tor” which is situated right in the middle of Kreuzberg 36. If you’re traveling by bicycle, you should do a nice tour around the district of Kreuzberg which will also lead you to Kottbusser Tor. For more information about this neighborhood-tour, which was party developed by us, just follow this link.
Now that you know why the former Kreuzberg 36 is a special area, we’ll go back to the topic around 1st May and to the question:
HOW DID MAY DAY DEVELOP AFTER 1987?
Since May 1987, the 1st of May demonstrations continued to take place every year addressing current topics and social problems. In 1989, protestors threw stones at policemen during the city festival at Lausitzer Platz and the police used tear gas, water cannons and stones against the demonstrators. That year, the excesses got even more serious than in `87. In 1990, the demonstrations were held under the slogan: „It’s better to go on the streets than to stay home at the Reich!” which addressed the growing nationalism in Germany. In the following years, the demonstrations focused on the East-West relations and violent conflicts occurred due to differences of opinion.
Since 2000, the demonstrations got more peaceful and the police supported alternative events for the 1st May. Consequently, the “Myfest” was developed in 2003 to fight the violence and unrest which often occurred on 1st May. Indeed, excesses and street battles got less and less with the time. The event especially addresses children and young people and represents a peaceful celebration with peaceful visitors. The “Myfest” takes place around Oranienstraße which used to be the center of former street battles. It attracts visitors with live music, cultural programs and all sorts of food and drinks.
May the 1st will always be a historically important day for Berlin Kreuzberg. If you feel like music, people and festival atmosphere with a bit of riot in spring time, you should definitely visit us here on 1st May.
See you soon!
Blogger and receptionist at Industriepalast
is Berliner by choice and a passionate backpacker himself. As a receptionist he knows the real hostel life; as a blogger he's been writing for Industriepalast Hostel's Berlin blog since 2014.