If I had more self-discipline, I would wait and tell this story in chronological order, after several other stories from the Weimar Republic that already have a place in my blog post editorial calendar.* But I found this story absolutely amazing when I read it over the course of several days’ articles in the Chicago Tribune of 1929. Sometimes I’ve just got to share the story NOW. Pull up a seat.
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One of the recurring themes in Weimar Germany, as it appears in Sigrid Schultz’s Tribune articles, is street fighting between different political factions and police intervention in the battles. The combinations involved vary from day to day, but the pattern is clear: one group has something to celebrate, a second or sometimes third group objects, fisticuffs (or gun shots) ensue, the police come in. The article always includes the numbers dead, wounded, and arrested.
What was later described as the battle of May Day in 1929 didn’t follow that pattern.
Anticipating trouble, the Berlin police revoked the right to march on May Day that labor unions and the socialist and communist parties had won under the former kaiser’s regime.** (This is known as a self-fulfilling prophecy.)
Violent demonstrations broke out in several neighborhoods on the days leading up to May 1, which confirmed the wisdom of the order as far as the police were concerned. The socialist party accepted the police mandate and rented large halls in which to hold their May Day meetings—though I assume they grumbled about it. The communists were going to march, dang it.
On April 30, communist party members went from house to house, asking people to turn out for the parade and telling them not to carry weapons because this was going to be a peaceful demonstration. Meanwhile, the police mobilized all their reserves and armed them with machine guns, tear gas bombs, and armored cars. (You can see where this is going, right?)
On May 1, an estimated 80,000 communists and their allies turned out for a parade and open air meetings. After some fights with the police, the communists built a barricade using sewer piping that was stacked by the side of the road. The police stormed the barricades with machine guns and armored cars. The communists retaliated by throwing stones.
Despite the inequality of weapaons, the battle continued for four days, with a rising number of dead and wounded on both sides. On the last day, some of the policemen had had enough. To quote Miss Schultz: “The riot-swept district of Wedding was the scene of the first open outbreak of the policemen’s dissatisfaction at the way they have been driven by Junker officers in the last few days. Defying their superior officers’ orders, the men took off their steel helmets, laid aside their hand grenades and entire equipment, and proceeded to fraternize with the crowd by singing popular songs.” (Sound familiar?)
It’s a nice image, but the impact of the May Day battle didn’t end when the fighting stopped. Blutmai (Bloody May) is considered one of the events that contributed to the political instability of the Weimar Republic.
*A rather grand description of something that is basically a list of documents in a Scrivener file.
**I don’t know about you, but I grew up learning about May Day as a time when you made a basket,*** filled it with flowers, and gave it someone in the morning. (Usually your mother.) It was a nice craft project for an elementary school classroom or a Bluebird troop. No one mentioned a word about May Day as an international celebration of the labor movement.
***Often woven out of strips of construction paper. Though the crafty websites these days seem to be going with the much simpler paper cone.