May Day, Bloody May Day

On Berlin’s May Day 1929, the latent hostility between Social Democrats and Communists finally spilled over into bloodshed. A day meant to demonstrate workers’ unity instead showed tragic divisions in the face of rising Nazism.

A police cycle patrol guarding one of Berlin's barricaded streets, 1929. Keystone / Getty

May 1 is a day to commemorate the socialist movement’s history, celebrate our victories, and mourn our defeats. This year it also marks the ninetieth anniversary of a self-inflicted wound on the German left that cemented divides between Social Democrats and Communists and helped pave the way for the Nazi takeover. The Blutmai, or “Bloody May” of 1929 serves as a reminder of what can go wrong when the stakes are high and the socialist movement loses its bearings.

The clash was part of an ongoing and increasingly violent rivalry between the Social Democratic (SPD) and Communist (KPD) parties of Germany, each a massive organization in its own right with hundreds of thousands of members and millions of supporters. The SPD had governed Berlin as the junior partner in a centrist coalition since 1921. Fearing political violence between Nazi stormtroopers and the Communists’ Roter Frontkämpferbund (RFB), the government declared a ban on public demonstrations in early 1929.

Social Democrats and bourgeois politicians alike feared that Berlin was becoming a battleground for the far right and the far left. The Communists in turn viewed the ban as an affront, further evidence of the SPD’s betrayal, and planned to march anyway. Their zeal, the SPD’s intransigence, and the police’s penchant for excessive force would ultimately cost thirty-three people their lives. Worse, the sharpening clashes between the workers’ parties would leave German democracy defenseless faced with the rise of Nazism.

No Unity

Already in the days prior to May Day, the antipathy between the two parties was more than clear. On April 27, 1929 the KPD’s newspaper Die Rote Fahne printed a resolution from the “May Committee of Greater Berlin” concerning preparations to mark the workers’ day the following week:

The workers of Berlin in all factories have decided to down their tools on May 1 and demonstrate no matter the circumstances. Berlin’s workers will stay true to the tradition of the militant parade on May 1 in this year as well, despite Zörgiebel …. The Berlin May Committee speaks in the name of the Berlin working class that should Zörgiebel dare spill workers’ blood on May 1, the factory workers will respond with the political mass strike …. Total work stoppage on May 1! Unfurl the red flags! Clear the street for the mass demonstration!

The dubious “Zörgiebel” in question was Karl Friedrich Zörgiebel, president of the Berlin police and a loyal member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) since joining as a cooper’s apprentice in 1901. Zörgiebel had worked his way up the ranks, first becoming a party staffer in 1907 before serving on the so-called Central Council of the German Socialist Republic during the November Revolution of 1918–19, and represented the SPD in parliament before his appointment to police president of Cologne in 1924 and the newly minted Greater Berlin in 1926.

Tasked with maintaining peace in the sprawling and polarized metropolis, Zörgiebel imposed his first ban on open-air political events in December 1928 on the pretext of preventing an Adolf Hitler rally. The Prussian government extended the prohibition across the state in March 1929, which Zörgiebel in turn cited to ban public May Day demonstrations entirely. The SPD and its allied trade unions accepted the decision and planned to mark the day with mass indoor rallies. The May Committee on the other hand was determined to march, and ordered its supporters to mobilize for the demonstration in working-class neighborhoods on Sunday, April 28. The rally on May 1 would be peaceful, they insisted, but they would not allow a bourgeois government to stop them from parading on their most sacred day.

The Tragedy of Division

Recently immortalized in the popular TV series Babylon Berlin, the plans for May Day represented wishful thinking at best and reckless delusions at worst. In reality most workers accepted the trade unions’ directive. Though certainly a mass force in the workers’ movement, the committee represented a radicalized minority loyal to the Communist Party and various left-wing splinter groups orbiting it, most prominently the “Lenin League” founded by expelled party functionaries. The far left did not command a majority in any of Berlin’s major industries, and had little chance of carrying out a general strike against the ban. Many SPD voters supported the Communists’ right to march on principle, but were not inclined to join a mass provocation.

If the likelihood of success was practically nil, why were Communists so keen to provoke a response? This choice had to do with recent shifts at the top of the party and in the Communist movement’s nerve center in the Soviet Union. The KPD under new leader Ernst Thälmann, installed with Moscow’s backing, had embraced the notion of the “Third Period” only a few months before. This term referred to the new historical phase that supposedly followed the revolutionary postwar upsurge and subsequent economic stabilization. In this Third Period, Moscow argued, revolutions were not only possible, but likely. United action with more conservative sections of the labor movement was out — revolutionary decisiveness was in.

Put forward by the leaders of the Communist International, the perspective stipulated that Social Democrats constituted “social fascists” who, by holding the workers back, objectively abetted capital and fascism. Were it not for the conservatism and vacillation of Social Democracy, Germany would already be a socialist republic. SPD members were welcome and even encouraged to join KPD actions, but only in the form of a “united front from below” — that is to say, without their leaders. More often than not, the KPD’s vitriolic rhetoric alienated potential sympathizers and kept the two wings of the workers’ movement firmly divided.

This level of bravura may seem absurd in hindsight. Yet it aligned with the experiences of many left-wing workers who had seen an SPD government cooperate hand-in-glove with the military to crush popular uprisings around Germany in the early 1920s. Though perhaps crude, the reasoning was straightforward and plausible: the more workers realized their Social Democratic leaders were bankrupt, the closer the working class came to socialism. The May Day ban was not only a betrayal of socialist tradition, but also an excellent opportunity to expose the “revisionists” and win more workers over to Communism.

Social Democracy’s record in power gave the Communists more than enough reason to doubt that party’s commitment to socialism. After Berlin incorporated the surrounding suburbs in 1920, doubling in size and becoming the third-largest city in the world after London and New York, it found itself sharply divided between middle-class milieus in the west and south and proletarian, SPD- and KPD-dominated neighborhoods to the east and north.

The workers’ parties enjoyed a slim majority in city parliament from 1921 until the last free elections in March 1933, but the SPD preferred to govern with forces to its right than the unpredictable and militant Communists. Zörgiebel’s police regularly harassed and attacked the far left in the city governed by the centrist Gustav Böß with SPD support. Though far from the towering achievements of Red Vienna in neighboring Austria, Berlin’s center-left government did enact some positive reforms, built impressive new social housing like Bruno Taut’s Hufeisensiedlung and vastly expanded the city’s network of public parks. It was a far cry from socialism, but for many workers life generally stabilized and the crushing desperation that made revolution appear so necessary in 1919 faded away.

To achieve this modicum of progress, however, the SPD struck a deal with the devil. After cooperating with the old ruling class to smother the radically democratic and socialist impulses emanating from the German Revolution, it maintained order with the help of the old army and police and more often than not saw its main adversary not on the Right but on the Left. After all, the Nazi Party only truly became a mass force in the aftermath of the October 1929 financial crash. The KPD, on the other hand, commanded hundreds of thousands of members throughout the 1920s and had already tried to overthrow the government by force on several occasions.

Unable to recognize the mortal threat posed by Hitler’s men, both workers’ parties seemed more preoccupied with stopping one another from potentially sabotaging the working class’s ascent to socialism, which each identified with its own leadership. The internal logics of Third Period ultraleftism on the one hand and the SPD’s hyper-accommodating incrementalism on the other made any other outcome virtually impossible.

Not Quite a Hurricane

The months and weeks leading up to May Day 1929 witnessed a furious war of words between the SPD and KPD. The KPD appeared confident that May 1 would turn out in its favor, and printed enthusiastic stories of solidarity resolutions being passed in workplaces across the city. The SPD went into overdrive warning against Communist provocations and urged supporters to obey the government. In what could have either been a sign of overconfidence or its opposite, in late April the Communists falsely reported that the demonstration ban had been lifted. On the day itself, Die Rote Fahne proclaimed to its readers:

The Communist Party, which has defeated reformism in the most important positions and will defeat it ever more decisively in its further advance, is growing with the broadest proletarian masses towards an indissoluble, invincible proletarian unity. In the trough between two waves of the revolution, in the ebb that followed the first stormy years of struggle of the post-war period, there follows a new revolutionary tide. The first signals already announce the rumbling thunder of the future proletarian hurricane.

The trade union meetings held in the morning were well-attended. The KPD planned its events for the early afternoon, with a number of smaller demonstrations converging in the city center to display their symbolic defiance. Precise figures for the day are hard to come by. KPD sources tended to report a “mass response,” whereas SPD witnesses claimed that some feeder marches had scarcely fifty attendees. Most likely the party really only attracted a mass response in its traditional strongholds of Wedding and Neukölln, where vicious fighting would later ensue, but it seems that sympathizing nonmembers and left-wing Social Democrats also joined.

What could have ended as a peaceful manifestation turned fatal when Berlin’s police, riled up by the public controversy and still influenced by their memories of armed workers’ uprisings, began to fire on demonstrators and chase roughly one thousand of them through the city in running skirmishes. Police fired wildly through the streets, often targeting windows displaying red flags, which killed dozens and injured several hundred more. By early evening most of the marchers had retreated to the north and east of the city and began erecting improvised barricades — triggering renewed flashbacks of the revolution in the minds of police and socialists alike.

Bloody May’s first victim was Max Gemeinhardt, a resident of the “Red” Wedding district who had just returned from a large SPD rally when he leaned out his window to see what the fuss was about and was killed instantly by a policeman’s bullet to the head. News of his death spread through the city like wildfire, and fighting escalated on both sides. Pitched battles took place in the southeastern neighborhood of Neukölln, where police deployed armored cars to smash up workers’ defenses.

Still seething from the night before, on May 2 the KPD again tried to call a general strike against state repression. It failed. Even Die Rote Fahne admitted that only 25,000 workers took part, while the actual number was almost certainly lower. The impatient streetfighters of the RFB decided to take more drastic measures and began launching spontaneous raids against police. These continued for another day, but fighting died down on May 3. The Prussian government banned the RFB and police regained control of the city.

By all accounts but its own, the KPD definitively lost. Party leaders expressed public sympathy for the spontaneous acts of revenge but emphasized their own peaceful intentions. The demonstration ban was not lifted, but extended. A total of thirty-three people died, primarily in Wedding, of which only a handful belonged to a political party. Most appeared to be local sympathizers or innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire.

Weimar’s Last Days

In the weeks to follow it became evident that no uprising had ever been planned. Police never found any major weapons caches and no officers lost their lives. In order to justify the large number of civilian casualties, however, police inflated the danger the KPD posed and continued to depict Bloody May as a life-or-death battle. The German League for Human Rights investigated the events and concluded that the police had suffered from collective “civil war psychosis.” The SPD, as the political force at least nominally in charge of the cops, was more than happy to endorse this version of events. May Day had been ugly, but necessary to protect democratic Berlin.

The KPD leadership had its own reasons for interpreting Blutmai as an epic clash. Rather than an amateurish miscalculation, it was portrayed as an initial rising in a series of revolutionary waves. In the months to come the party dug in its heels and predicted further upsurges. May Day had only been a “partial” success, Thälmann conceded, but it sowed the seeds for the next social explosion. Berlin party secretary and later East German leader Walter Ulbricht explained to a KPD congress six weeks after the confrontation:

As a result of these struggles we see at the moment a general rise of the workers’ fighting capacity, even in those cases where no immediate victories for the struggling workers were achieved …. The May Uprising exhibits a higher form of struggle than the Ruhr Uprising. This finds its expression therein that the workers broke through the demonstration ban, that they went over to using weapons in the political mass strike for the first time since 1923, spontaneously built barricades to defend against police terror, and organized a solidarity movement across the Reich.

The economic crash in the fall of that year seemed to confirm Communist convictions that capitalist crisis and revolutionary uprisings were around the corner. The party needed a story to inspire its supporters, and May Day 1929 became a pivotal element in the KPD’s narrative of Social Democratic betrayal and coming Communist triumph. Popular author Klaus Neukrantz’s 1931 novel Barrikaden am Wedding, “dedicated to the indelible revolutionary memory of the 33 shot by police in the May days of 1929,” was a favorite among Berlin Communists, depicting Bloody May as a heroic uprising directly inspired by the party’s wise Leninist leadership.

The SPD cited events like Bloody May as justification for ostracizing the KPD and even working with the state against it, into the 1930s. The Nazi threat grew with each passing month, but neither party was willing to embrace the other in united antifascist action until it was too late. The disappointed hopes of the 1920s in many ways informed both sides’ strategic dead-end. The Social Democrats could not imagine a socialist order beyond their gradual modifications to the existing state, and the Communists could not entertain the notion that socialism would come from anything but their own revolutionary conquest. Blutmai reinforced those convictions.

Zörgiebel spent the Nazi period under Gestapo surveillance and had his passport revoked, but survived and spent his last years as a prominent and respected citizen of West Germany. Neukrantz was committed to a psychiatric ward against his will and presumed to have died there in 1941. Many of the workers who took to the streets on May 1, 1929 surely suffered much worse.

Given what was to come after it, Bloody May stands out not as a heroic battle for socialism nor a brave defense of democracy, but as a senseless, tragic waste of life and political potential. They could not have known it at the time, but the militants of the SPD and KPD in 1929 were probably closer to achieving socialism in an advanced capitalist country than any socialist movement before or since. The sheer horror that followed serves as a stark reminder of what our movement is all about, and why it matters that we win.