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Germans Counter Right-Wing Extremists With Their Own Protests on May Day

Maikundgebung des Deutschen Gewerkschaftsbunds in Essen, Foto von Anne Hemeda am 1. Mai 2014.     Maikundgebung des Deutschen Gewerkschaftsbunds in Essen, Foto von Anne Hemeda am 1. Mai 2014.

German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) May Day Rally in Essen, photo by Anne Hemeda, 1 May 2014.

In Germany as in many other countries, May Day is “International Workers’ Day”, a public holiday that often sees demonstrations in support of labour rights. On this day, however, it's not only trade unions and employee representatives who hold events. Right-wing extremists hijack the holiday to hold rallies in support of racist propaganda. 

In the German region of Ruhr, coalitions such as “Essen stellt sich quer” (Essen will not tolerate this) fought back this year. They organised protests against the “exploitation of May Day” by the “right-wing populist, racist and xenophobic Pro NRW party” and the extreme right-wing National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) and led resistance to the “hate campaigns against refugees”.

Extreme-right parties such as the NPD or Die Rechte represent nationalistic, revanchist, and völkisch ideologies and their party programs are similar to the one of the former fascist Nazi Party NSDAP. But empirical studies conducted by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation reveal that radical-right thinking is no longer just a problem of extremist parts of society, but resonates within society and is widespread throughout the German population. Right-wing populist “Pro” parties — such as Pro NRW or Pro Köln — which stir up hatred against Muslim migrants serve as an example for this alarming trend.

The “Duisburg stellt sich quer” (Duisburg will not tolerate this) coalition explained why people should take to the streets against right-wing extremism on May Day in particular:

Traditionell ist der 1. Mai der Tag, an dem weltweit Millionen Menschen auf die Straße gehen, um für eine solidarische Gesellschaft, für internationale Solidarität, gleiche Rechte für Alle und gegen Krieg zu demonstrieren – unabhängig von ihrer Herkunft, ihrem Geschlecht, der Hautfarbe oder der Religion. Gerade an diesem Tag sind die rechten Aufmärsche eine ganz besondere Provokation. Unter dem Nazi-Regime wurde die organisierte Arbeiterbewegung zerschlagen, zehntausende GewerkschafterInnen, SozialdemokratInnen und KommunistInnen in Konzentrationslager verschleppt, gefoltert und ermordet.

Traditionally speaking, May Day is the day on which millions of people across the world take to the streets to demonstrate for a cohesive society, for international solidarity and against war, regardless of their origins, their sex, the colour of their skin or their religion. For this reason, right-wing demonstrations on this day are intended as a particular provocation. Under the Nazi regime, the organised labour movement was crushed, while tens of thousands of trade unionists, social democrats and communists were deported to concentration camps, tortured and murdered.

In the Ruhr region, Facebook pages, Twitter users and blogs such as Braun Raus collected information on counter-demonstrations. A live feed for the Dortmund Twitter account BlockaDo, the weekly newspaper for the University of Duisburg-Essen student union akduell and the Ruhrbarone blog kept all those interested up to date using the hashtag #1MaiNazifrei (1 May without Nazis).

Essen: The protest against Pro NRW is ongoing.

When an attempt by protesters to inhibit right-wing demonstrators from finishing their march descended into violent clashes with the police in Dortmund, a number of photos appeared on Twitter. The protesters wanted to break through to the right-wing demonstrators to set up a blockade. Though the police used batons and teargas, no serious injuries were reported.

The police on the attack by now.

Social media was not only used in the Ruhr region to report on the course and ultimately the success of counter-demonstrations, but in other cities as well. In Rostock, a festival organized by a pro-democracy coalition was prohibited in the beginning and only when the coalition filed a suit against the ban, the festival was approved. Counter-demonstrations in Rostock turned out to be successful in the end:

May Day in #Rostock was a success in terms of numbers: 300 Nazis against 2,000 demonstrators; the city's behaviour, however, remains an important issue.

May Day has had a wealth of meanings throughout Germany's history. Under Hitler it was declared the “Holiday of National Labour,” and during the era of the Third Reich, May Day was the backdrop for marches and parades. At the same time, trade unions were banned in Germany, while trade union offices were ransacked and officials were arrested.

The first mass demonstration on May Day took place in Australia in 1856. Following the “Haymarket Riot” of 1886, a strike that took place over several days in Chicago, which had been organised by the trade unions and ended in bloody conflict with the police, the International Workers’ Movement declared May Day as the “Day of Action” for the working class. More specifically, German May Day traditions can be traced back to the International Workers Congress, which took place in Paris in 1889 and at which it was agreed to campaign for an eight hour working day.

On 1 May 2014 in Germany, particular attention was paid to demands for a minimum wage:

No exceptions to a minimum wage.

With European elections due at the end of May, positive cooperation across a social Europe was another popular theme, including the creation of apprenticeships:

Die Arbeitsgemeinschaft der Jungsozialistinnen und Jungsozialisten in der Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (Jusos) verteilen "Ausbildungsplätzchen" bei der Maikundgebung in Essen, Foto von Anne Hemeda am 1. Mai 2014.

The Association of Young Socialist and Socialist Youth in the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Jusos) hands out “Apprenticeship cookies” at the May Day rally in Essen, photo by Anne Hemeda on 1 May 2014.

In many cities, May Day ended with an upbeat, colourful and family-friendly atmosphere and featured street festivals, as it did here in Essen at the International Culture Festival:

Internationales Kulturfest auf der Zeche Carl, Foto von Anne Hemeda am 1. Mai 2014.     Internationales Kulturfest auf der Zeche Carl in Essen, Foto von Anne Hemeda am 1. Mai 2014.

International Culture Festival at the Carl Coal Mine Centre, photo by Anne Hemeda on 1 May 2014.

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