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EXPLAINED: Why is May 1st significant in Germany?

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Shelley Pascual - [email protected]
EXPLAINED: Why is May 1st significant in Germany?
A May 1st sign outside of a Berlin cafe in 2014. Photo: DPA

May 1st to Germans welcomes the start of spring. But it also marks an annual public holiday called Labour Day which is observed nationwide and dates back over 130 years.

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In Germany, May 1st is usually marked with a range of festivals, including everything from dancing around poles to chasing away evil spirits.

READ ALSO: Are you ready for Walpurgisnacht, Germany's night of witches?

But the reason why banks, post offices, supermarkets and most other businesses are closed on this day has to do with the fact that it’s an occasion to celebrate workers’ rights. 

In 2022, however, May 1st falls on a Sunday which means most people will not get the day off work. Unlike some other countries, such as the UK and the USA, public holidays that fall on the weekend are not moved to a weekday so they will benefit more people (although some politicians are calling for that). 

Germany’s observance of Tag der Arbeit dates back to 1886 America, when a strike involving thousands of workers at Haymarket Square in Chicago began over calls for the legal establishment of an eight-hour work day.

Two days later, when the situation escalated, the police killed several picketers.

A depiction of the Haymarket riot in 1886 in Chicago. Image: Wikimedia Commons

At a protest rally the following day, an unknown person threw a bomb at the police as they tried to disperse the crowds, resulting in the deaths of several police officers and some civilians.

In memory of this event, hundreds of thousands of people in Europe celebrated the first Labour Day on May 1st, 1890 in demand for better working conditions and the implementation of the eight-hour day.

Around 100,000 people in Germany took part in strikes and demonstrations that year, according to the German Federation of Unions (DGB). An especially large number of workers demonstrated in Hamburg, with companies reacting by issuing redundancies and lockouts.

About 40 years later at the beginning of the Weimar Republic, the eight-hour day was agreed upon and the trade unions were recognised as appointed representatives of the working class.

But the economic crisis, mass unemployment and political unrest on the streets in Germany formed the background of Labour Day celebrations at the end of the 1920s.

May 1st, 1927 in Berlin. Photo: DPA

Fearing riots, police chief of Berlin at the time, Karl Zörgiebel, banned demonstrations on May 1st, 1929, and the German Communist Party resisted, calling for peaceful mass rallies. There were street fights and the police shot into the crowd. By the third of May that year more than 30 people had died and hundreds more were injured.

A few years later in 1933, the Nazis declared the first day in May a paid national holiday for German workers, staging a propagandistic mass spectacle in Berlin. Just one day later, Nazi party members stormed into trade union buildings and destroyed the free trade unions.

Almost one year after the end of the Second World War, in April 1946, the Allied Control Council confirmed the first of May as a public holiday. Every year in the German Democratic Republic from 1949 to 1990, the day was celebrated with parades as an "International Workers’ Day for Peace and Socialism".

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In 1990, the year of German reunification, trade unions celebrated the 100th anniversary of Tag der Arbeit.

Marches for workers' rights

Nowadays the number of people who participate in rallies or demonstrations in Germany has waned. Many employees use the day off (if there is one) to go on a short trip or simply to relax or barbecue in a park.

In Berlin, one of the largest marches campaigning for workers’ rights nationwide typically occurs on May 1st in the Kreuzberg district.

As most Covid restrictions have eased, some rallies will still take place on Sunday. Throughout the pandemic, trade unions and alliances partly moved their actions online.

Loads of people at Myfest in Berlin's Kreuzberg district in 2017. Photo: DPA

Mass riots first took place in Kreuzberg just over 30 years ago.

Through a combination of gentrification along with changed tactics from the local council and police, violence on May Day has gone the same way as cheap rents and nightclub squats.

In normal years, May Days, such as the Berlin Myfest, are cultural celebrations, with police content to play a lower profile to the musicians and artists which entertain the crowds throughout the day and into the evening. 

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Though set on varying dates, Labour Day is today observed as a national public holiday in many other countries worldwide such as in France, Australia and Canada. On the whole the Haymarket riot in Chicago is considered significant as the origin of global Labour Day observances for workers.

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