Another May Day

May Day, the international feast of the working class, was first declared an official feast day in the Soviet Union, although, out of prudence, not as “Workers’ Day”, but as “Labor Day”. And for the second time – as we read on Wikipedia – after WWII, in the countries of the Socialist Eastern Bloc.

However, something is omitted here.

Because it was in Germany that May Day became an official feast for the second time. More specifically, in 1933.

And if we want to be more accurate, then the Soviet Union and Germany are tied for the first place. Because in 1919, when in Soviet Russia they celebrated the first official May Day, revolutionary Germany also decreed it a public holiday. However, the subsequent social democratic governments abandoned it. German workers, if they wanted to celebrate their international feast, had to take an unpaid leave day, at least where it was granted, because in many places they explicitly prevented the celebration of May Day.

Munich, 1st May 1931

This is why it was a brilliant move on behalf of propaganda minister Goebbels, when, immediately after the Nazi takeover, he proposed to Hitler to satisfy the demand, refused since 1889, of the international workers’ movement, and declare May Day an official national holiday. It is just natural from a national socialist workers’ party. After all, work makes you free.

Berlin, 1 May 1933 in front of the ministries

For the national socialist regimes, which were consolidating from the 1920s onwards, writes Michael Maurer in his Festkulturen im Vergleich (2010),  a fundamental question was what to do with the first of May. After all, their basis of legitimacy was the reference to the working class, but after the establishment of their dictatorship they could not let pass such an important symbolic space to the uncontrolled actions of the workers. This is why Mussolini’s socialism declared 21 April, the birthday of Rome, the chief national holiday, at the same time banning the celebration of 1 May. As a result, May Day became the most important secret, and later public feast of the Italian workers. Nazi Germany, however, took into its own hands the organization of the May Day celebrations, thus monopolizing from its rivals – such as the Communist party, banned just a month earlier – the representation of the working class.

The law passed on 10 April 1933 declared May Day the feast of national work, and Goebbels immediately began to get the leaders of German trade unions into convoking enough workers for the May Day of 1933, just like János Kádár did on 1 May 1957, after the suppression of the Hungarian revolution. And not without results. The leaders of the ADGB, the general federation of German trade unions, who wanted to survive in the new system, started to organize with all their might the participation of the trade unions in the parade, and they declared in the preamble of their decision adopted on 28 April:

“The national revolution has created a new state. This state vigorously embraces and puts forward the strength of all the German people. Due to this will of the people’s unity and power, it does not recognize either class differentiation, or internationalism, which is alien to the people. This situation recalls the whole German people, everyone according to his/her state, to consolidate his/her unity with the new government.”

True, the radical wing of the working class had called upon a general strike since the Nazi takeover, but the ADGB refused it by saying that “a general strike is a terrible weapon, which can be set free and responsibility can be taken for it only when nothing else can be done in the life-or-death issue of the working class.”

Thus, on 19 April 1933 the general federation of German trade unions still saw so many chances in the life-or-death issues of the working class, that on 19 April they invited all their members to “the festive participation – in full awareness and respect of the Thought of May, of creative work, and of the integration of the working class into the state – in the festivities initiated in every settlement by the government.”

And the result did not fail. To the call issued by the trade unions’ federation, 200 thousand workers gathered on 1 May in the central place of the celebrations, Tempelhof airport in Berlin – which later did become a life-or-death issue for the West Berlin airlift, and nowadays for the Left in Berlin – to listen to the first public radio speech of Hitler, to view a demonstration of modern Zeppelins, and, once they were there, to eat sausage and drink beer, too.

The first free 1st of May in Berlin, 1933. Source

“If we succeed, we will have won an unparalleled victory!” wrote Goebbels in his diary on 30 April. In the previous three weeks the propaganda minister had been incessantly preoccupied with the great attraction planned for 1 May. “Grandiose!” “Masterpiece!” “A unique mass action!” he recorded, among others, in ponderating the expected results. On the night of 1 May, returning from the event, he wrote: “Stunning! Absolutely incomprehensible, even in its sizes! Life is so beautiful!”

The stunning beauty of life was also enhanced by a supremely talented artist. A young architect, Albert Speer, who joined the Nazi party in 1931 under the impact of a suggestive speech by Hitler, and who was recommended to the attention of Goebbels by the party leader of Berlin’s West End, criticized the conventional stage design by the Berlin city administration. “It looks like the decoration of some shooters’ society”, he said. “Well, if you can do better, go ahead”, replied Goebbels. And Speer was not reluctant. In one night he outlined a magnificent stage plan, whose central element, the incredibly stretched flags with swastika towering above the three-part stage, will feature in many of his later plans, including the Paris world exposition of 1937, already presented in detail. Hitler was enthusiastic with the plans.

1mai 1mai 1mai 1mai 1mai 1mai 1mai 1mai 1mai 1mai 1mai 1mai 1mai 1mai 1mai 1mai 1mai 1mai 1mai 1mai 1mai 1mai 1mai

On 30 April – the Nazi Walpurgisnacht, the night of witches – Goebbels noted in his diary: “May Day will be fantastic. And on 2 May we will go ahead to the trade unions. Gleichschaltung. They will cry for a couple of days, then they will be ours again.” During the celebrations, the NSDAP started to organize the next step in total secrecy. On the 1st of May the following message arrived to each Gauleiter of the empire: “On 2 May 1933, Tuesday, at 10 a.m. Gleichschalten-action against all trade unions.”

The Tempelhof airport on the morning after the mass event

On 1 May, at about 11 p.m., more or less when I am writing this, Hitler and Goebbels met once more, and enthusiastically discussed the events of the day. The next morning, at ten o’clock, when they were still asleep, the SA invaded all the trade union centers, appropriated the workers’ funds, and arrested all the trade union leaders, including all the leaders who approved the decisions of the previous month. They were deported to Dachau. None of them survived to the end of the war.