The Nazis Stole May Day, But Socialists Took It Back

To win over German workers and replace their socialist loyalties with fascism, the Third Reich made a Nazi version of May Day a national holiday. But the real International Workers’ Day is the one that lives on today.

It had always been the Nazis' practice to appeal to German workers by appropriating socialist imagery and rhetoric. But the intention of the Nazis' May Day appropriation was to transition away from socialist associations.

Today we celebrate May Day with red flags, raised fists, and songs of solidarity, much as socialists have for generations. These traditions have persevered since the holiday’s inception in the late nineteenth century — but not without interruption.

In 1930s Germany, May Day was celebrated in the shadow of the swastika. The holiday’s survival of this brazen attempt at fascist co-optation deepens the significance of its continuation into the present day.

A Day of Hate

On May 1, 1933, Adolf Hitler stood before a crowd of five hundred thousand gathered on Tempelhof Field in Berlin. It was warm and sunny, what the Nazis called “Hitler weather” because his public speeches often fell on pleasant days like these. In the crowd were workers, employers, trade union leaders, and general spectators who paid admission to attend the grand event. Behind Hitler hung six enormous Nazi flag banners, a theatrical and imposing set designed by Nazi architect Albert Speer.

View of Tempelhof Field in Berlin, Germany on May 1, 1933. (Keystone-France / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Two months prior Hitler had rammed through the Reichstag Fire Decree, suspending civil liberties as a pretext for neutralizing socialist opposition. The decree revoked the right of public assembly and rendered left-wing resistance virtually illegal. Members of the Social Democratic and Communist parties were already being sent to the newly constructed Dachau concentration camp, where they were forced to pose for humiliating photographs holding placards that read, “I am a class-conscious person.”

And yet here was a May Day celebration underway, orchestrated by Hitler himself.

In Germany as elsewhere, May Day had been a socialist and labor movement holiday since 1890. Celebrations emphasized the need for the working class of all nations to unite in common struggle against capitalists, and often took the form of mass work stoppages and rallies featuring agitational speakers. But this May Day, Hitler announced, would mark a permanent departure from that wrongheaded vision of the holiday.

For centuries, Hitler told a group of German youth during a pre-rally speech, the first day of May had marked the arrival of spring and had been celebrated with traditional folk festivals throughout Germany and the rest of Europe. But socialists had co-opted this wholesome occasion and put it toward divisive and nefarious ends. “The day of new life and hopeful joy was transformed into a day of quarrel and internal strife,” he said. He called May Day “a day of hate.”

Hitler expressed his intention to rescue the holiday from the clutches of radicals who had perverted its meaning, turning Germans against one another when they ought to be celebrating their shared heritage and traditions instead. “The symbol of class conflict,” he said, “of never-ending strife and discord, is now becoming once again the symbol of the great unity and uprising of the nation.”

With this, Hitler’s government proclaimed May Day a national holiday, something the Weimar government before it had never done. Renamed the Day of National Labor, the occasion was stripped of its class struggle associations and yoked to the fascist ideology of the Third Reich.

A new slogan was chosen for the holiday which appeared to elevate the working class without promoting class conflict: “Honor the work, and respect the worker.” Hitler stressed that the reimagined holiday would both celebrate German workers and represent cross-class German unity, saying, “It is necessary to teach each rank and class the significance of the other ranks and classes.”

Delegations of workers were present at the rally in Tempelhof Field, though they had not arrived in the spirit of resistance to the tyranny of their bosses as in May Days past. Their presence had instead been prearranged by the Nazi government, and they marched in divisions helmed by their own employers.

Present, too, were union leaders who had opportunistically aligned themselves with the Nazis when the left-wing parties’ fortunes began to fade. Hitler had flown them to Berlin from all over the country and personally greeted them with the assurance, “You will see how untrue and unjust is the statement that the revolution is directed against the German workers.”

The Third Reich’s minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, was even more candid than Hitler about the Nazis’ intention to substitute a fascist vision of May Day for a socialist one, saying:

On a day when in former times we heard the rattle of machine-guns and the hate-inspired songs of the class struggle and the Internationale, in this first year of Hitler’s government the German people is assembled in unanimous, unswerving loyalty to the state, the race (Volk), and the German nation to which we all belong.

That evening, Goebbels went home and wrote in his diary, “Tomorrow we will occupy the union houses. Resistance is not to be expected anywhere.”

On May 2, 1933, the day following the first Nazi May Day, brownshirts stormed the offices of the country’s trade unions, confiscated their funds, and arrested their officials. Independent trade unions were thereafter banned in the Third Reich. They were replaced by the German Labour Front, whose flag depicted an industrial symbol encircling a swastika.

Maypoles and Swastikas

It had always been the Nazis’ practice to appeal to German workers by appropriating socialist imagery and rhetoric. This strategy was precisely how, despite being fundamentally anti-socialist and viciously anti-union, they ended up calling themselves the National Socialist German Workers’ Party to begin with.

At first, May Day was no different. The fascist government created posters and postcards depicting workers holding tools and standing before factory silos, paired of course with Nazi symbols. In 1934, the Third Reich even issued ideologically confused commemorative coins bearing the swastika and Reichsadler eagle alongside the hammer and sickle.

But the intention of the Nazis’ May Day appropriation was always to transition away from socialist associations. In 1934, the name of the holiday was changed to the National Holiday of the German People. Increasingly, official holiday materials depicted imagery of Germans dancing around maypoles topped with swastikas, wearing dirndls and other folk dress. These traditional Germanic spring scenes were also replicated in practice, May Queens crowned alongside elaborate military marches and martial displays.

Maypoles and other arboreal imagery have long been associated with revolutionary left-wing politics, going back to at least the French Revolution and appearing often in British socialist art, including May Day art. In this case, however, the maypoles, wreaths, and garlands — like Nazi runes and other neo-pagan imagery — were meant to evoke ethnically pure Germans’ distinct connection to German history and German land, a romantic ethno-nationalism that bound together mystical notions of race and nature, blood and soil. Paired with Nazi insignia, folk became Volk.

In “Festivals and the Third Reich” William Wilson observes that there were three official events that “provided the regime with its annual national context of celebration”: the party rallies in Nuremberg, the May 1st celebrations around the country with the largest of them held annually in Berlin at Tempelhof Field, and the harvest festival in Lower Saxony around Thanksgiving.

The harvest festival was to German farmers what the new May Day celebration was to German workers. The goal in both cases was to win key segments of the population to the Nazi program and integrate them into what Nazis called the “national community” — or reintegrate them in the case of workers, as Nazis tended to suggest that socialists had wrongfully cleaved them off.

Nazi May Day celebrations featured a “profuse display of flags, bunting and greenery, as well as speeches, parades and radio broadcasts from Berlin.” They also featured grand public banquets of free food and drink, which drew the masses, even those not particularly enchanted by Nazi ideology. That included workers, who were still theoretically being honored by these Völkisch festivities but who were not exactly brimming with fascist enthusiasm.

The new May Day was popular with the German petty bourgeoisie, but by 1935 Reich officials had grown frustrated with the failure of their strategy to use the holiday to integrate workers into the national community. “Despite significant participation of the population in May Day cele­brations,” Wilson summarizes, “in their view workers were falling to grasp the National Socialist ‘meaning’ of the festival.”

As the years wore on, workers increasingly had to be compelled by their employers to participate in May Day proceedings. The ones who showed up voluntarily seemed to be primarily interested in eating and drinking, not rapturously heiling Hilter or listening intently to the führer’s speeches broadcast from Berlin. Wilson writes:

According to several Stapo reports, the abundant show of flags and public decorations and the high level of participation masked the reality that in many places, particu­larly where the Party apparatus was still insufficiently developed, the significance of the holiday had not yet been instilled in the people’s consciousness. Workers regarded the celebration as a festival ‘by command’ rather than as a communal celebration drawing ‘Führer and followers’ closer together.

By 1938, war was on the horizon, and morale was flagging, the national mood edgy and mercurial. Popular participation in Nazi May Day celebrations had started to dwindle. Official reports noted that many Germans found the times “too grave for such festivals.” It wasn’t just apolitical workers losing interest in Nazi May Day, to the extent that they’d been interested to begin with. After five years of swastikas and maypoles, the novelty had worn off for even the regime’s most ardent devotees, who by now were distracted by the complexities of life in the Third Reich and the worsening international situation.

Hitler’s government continued to encourage May Day celebrations throughout the early years of the war, but their scale was drastically reduced. In many cases, the proceedings were pushed off the streets into the factories, becoming occasions merely for employers to furnish a keg of beer for workers. Even then, workers often had to be pressured to attend.

The death knell for Nazi May Day tolled when, in 1942, the regime postponed the May 1 work holiday so as not to interrupt wartime production. It was moved to a weekend, and passed by relatively unnoticed. The swastika-topped maypoles had already started to disappear. Now the bleak factory keggers were on their way out too.

This Day Belongs to Us

Left-wing opposition to the Third Reich was repressed almost to the point of nonexistence. Dachau lay in wait for political prisoners. Dissenters voiced their opinions at their peril.

In the first few years after Hitler took power, however, there remained in Germany some disheveled and decentralized underground socialist networks. Isolated cells of Marxists occasionally took it upon themselves to remind workers, through the limited means at their disposal, of the Marxist origins of May Day.

They were boldest in Berlin, where in the early years of the Reich socialists hung anti-Nazi posters in the streets and passed out pamphlets in the factories which explained the true meaning of the holiday. Unable to hold rallies and demonstrations, they commemorated the holiday by hosting “get­ togethers disguised as coffee klatsches,” Wilson observes. Afraid of being overheard singing the Internationale, they sang apolitical songs to keep their spirits up.

As the Hitler years wore on, funerals for comrades killed by Nazis remained one of the only forms of open assembly available to socialists, their political speeches delivered now only in the form of eulogies. At one funeral in Hamburg, a former Social Democratic Party leader gave a rousing eulogy that ended in three hundred socialist attendees raising their fists and shouting, “Freedom!” The Gestapo caught onto the practice and began arresting socialists at funerals.

By the end of 1936, a year when eleven thousand Germans were arrested for “illegal socialist activity,” there was no longer much internal left-wing opposition to speak of. But May Day is an international affair. It had been bastardized and festooned in swastika bunting in Germany, but throughout the rest of the world, it was still marked as a socialist occasion, a day of mass resistance to exploitation and oppression.

That remained true on the periphery of the Reich’s expanded territory, beyond original German borders. In 1944, Jewish socialists celebrated it in the Warsaw ghetto. One participant remembered:

Never yet had the Internationale been sung in conditions so different, so tragic, in a place where an entire nation had been and was still perishing. The words and the song echoed from the charred ruins and were, at that particular time, an indication that socialist youth [were] still fighting in the ghetto, and that even in the face of death they were not abandoning their ideals.

This May Day celebration transpired amid the Warsaw ghetto uprising, in which young Jewish militants took up arms and waged a bloody campaign of reprisal against the Wehrmacht and SS soldiers who had imprisoned and terrorized them and murdered their friends and family. Here the original spirit of May Day was alive and well, as oppressed people rose up against their oppressors — as if to say, “This day belongs to us, not you.”

In 1945, the Third Reich came to an end, and so did all its efforts to appropriate and exterminate socialism. May Day had outlived the Nazi regime. Today, as we participate in May Day activities, let’s mourn those socialists whose lives were lost to Nazi repression. Let’s also celebrate the fact that the socialist version of May Day outlasted the fascist one.