May is full of festivals and the first day of the month starts it all off with a bang. Labor Day (Tag der Arbeit) is a big deal in Berlin with its working class roots and eternal struggle against gentrification. Though I had little idea of what to expect from May Day when I first arrived in Berlin, I now eagerly anticipate this holiday as the official kick-off to a summer of drinking outdoors, meeting with friends and connecting with this crazy, vibrant city after the long winter season.
History of May Day in Berlin
Labor issues have whipped Berliners into a frenzied Erster Mai (May 1st) since the 1920s. Open demonstrations were banned in 1924, but the 1929 May 1st riots between communists and police resulted in the injury or death of around 100 people. The event came to be known as Blutmai (Bloody May), and was only a prelim of the conflicts to come.
In the 1980s, the poor, immigrant West Berlin neighborhood of Kreuzberg was at the epicenter of the development challenges facing the city. Leftists groups gathered to confront trade union leaders with marches that ended in a street festival.
The relative peace ended on May 1, 1987 when violence broke out between the police (Polizei) and protesters. Anger at the political situation in the country boiled over and activists overturned police cars and destroyed property with the police overreacting to the chaos by attacking the festival crowds.
The Kreuzberg district of SO 36 was barricaded and some of the festival goers turned to looting, with fire and mayhem keeping police and firefighters temporarily at bay. By the early morning hours of May 2nd, the police formed a counter-attack and were able to calm the district – but not before over 30 shops had been broken into and any trust between authority and the people had been broken.
A Turkish Bölle supermarket was burned to the ground across from Görlitzer Bahnhof and its ruins stood as a stark reminder of the event for years, until recently being replaced by an enormous mosque.
Far from being a one-off, this event led to years of violent clashes. In 1988, around 10,000 people rallied at nearby Oranienplatz, chanting “No liberation without revolution” and again ended in riots. While there are many true believers that show up to protest injustice, there are other "rebels without cause" who appear on May Day to just make trouble with many others appearing to watch the spectacle.
MyFest in Berlin
Understandably, many citizens (and Berlin’s government agencies) have been working to make the celebration an altogether more peaceful event. Since 2003, MyFest has embraced the cultural eclecticism of the area with international food stands and stages providing musical acts ranging from hip-hop to Turkish folk to heavy metal.
If you prefer something more relaxing, the area’s parks are littered with groups of people enjoying the sun. Grab a späti (convenience store) beer, try an exotic dish you’ve never had before and find a place on the grass.
Safety on Berlin’s May Day
MyFest has been largely successful in bringing together the groups of people for May Day without the threat of violence, but there are a few things to be aware of.
If you are planning to visit around this time, it is probably best not to stay near Kottbusser Tor as there will be periodic shut-downs of U-Bahn stops and streets, as well as crowds. Try to stay nearby, or in the other popular districts of Friedrichshain and Neukölln. And if you are driving into town, avoid parking your car anywhere on the street in Kreuzberg. Though incidents of car fire are significantly lower than in the past, random property damage does occur and it is best to avoid tempting fate.
The day-time events are monitored by a heavy police presence, but don’t be put off. There is little chance of an interaction between rioters and police until after dark. If you ask nice, they may even allow you to take a picture with them in riot gear.
Do be aware that the sun and crowds can be overwhelming for some people.
Moving through the busy streets often means pushing your way through streams of other hot, sticky bodies. If that isn’t your idea of a good time, stay on the outskirts or go early. Also, stay hydrated and sun screened as this first sign of summer can leave people feeling a little beat up the next day.
If you like a little danger, nightfall brings out trouble. Kreuzberg SO 36 is still the center of unrest late into the night as residents gather on the balconies and call out to the police. Bottle throwing from above usually follows, with masked youth throwing rocks and bottles and smashing bank storefronts around Kottbusser Tor. Police have been thoroughly coached not to provoke or react so if you don’t want to be part of the madness, just stay away and don’t participate. Note that there are many police cameras recording events so if you’re tempted to get rowdy; there is a good chance you’ll be caught on film.