Letter from Europe

On the march

Issue no. 2013/12

Summary

It was one hundred years ago tomorrow that Rosa Luxemburg published some thoughts on May Day in the Leipziger Volkszeitung. Writing, as she put it, "amid the wildest orgies of imperialism," Luxemburg extolled "the brilliant basic idea of May Day" and rejoiced in the autonomous rise of proletarian masses which each year erupted on 1 May on the streets of Germany. Fast forward 20 years to 1 May 1933, and the Nazis found another use for May Day.

Dear fellow travellers

It was one hundred years ago tomorrow that Rosa Luxemburg published some thoughts on May Day in the Leipziger Volkszeitung. Writing, as she put it, "amid the wildest orgies of imperialism," Luxemburg extolled "the brilliant basic idea of May Day" and rejoiced in the autonomous rise of proletarian masses which each year erupted on 1 May on the streets of Germany. Rosa Luxemburg's article was called "The idea of May Day on the march."

Fast forward 20 years to 1 May 1933, and the Nazis found another use for May Day. It was a Monday and Joseph Goebbels was up bright and early. "It looked like rain yesterday," he wrote in his diary. "But today the sun shines. Perfect Hitler weather."

The Nazis staged a huge rally at Tempelhof in Berlin on 1 May 1933 and the workers duly turned out in their thousands. Albert Speer came up with the idea that the gathering should dramatically symbolise Nazi iconography - remember this was the biggest mass event staged by the Nazis since the constitutional amendments of 23 March 1933 effectively handed unqualified power to Adolf Hitler.

Speer's setting for the Tempelhof rally established his reputation for monumental design. The stage was backed by six huge banners decorated with Nazi swastikas. Each banner was more than twenty metres high. With this rally, May Day in Germany was utterly appropriated into the Nazi narrative in a manner that would have been unimaginable to Rosa Luxemburg just 20 years earlier.

The Nazi grip on May Day lasted a dozen years. It was on May Day 1945 that the German people heard in radio broadcasts that Hitler had died. The death was described as a heroic one. No mention that he had in fact taken his own life.

Today, huge May Day rallies in Berlin are a thing of the past. There is a tradition of anarchists throwing stones at police in the Kreuzberg district of the city, though nowadays it seems to have become more a time-honoured ritual than a serious insurrection. The ghost of Rosa Luxemburg still stalks the streets of Berlin, and a few trade unions take to the streets.

But "the brilliant basic idea of May Day," as Luxemburg put it, seems to have been sidelined. Sidetracked by history in Germany. Elsewhere in Europe, of course, it has been hijacked by Morris dancers and May Day canticles. Sweet though the latter may be, they do nothing to keep the red flag flying.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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