“Out to the First of May!” – Celebrating Socialism in the GDR

Poster celebrating May Day 1989, taken from my collection (photo: editor).

Poster celebrating May Day 1989 “the Day of Struggle and Celebration of the Working Class”, taken from my collection (photo: editor).

One of the highlights of the annual calendar of the GDR leadership, and many of its loyal followers, was that traditional holiday of the working class, May Day. In the GDR, The May First holiday was known officially as “The International Day of Struggle and Celebration of the Workers for Peace and Socialism”. As was the case elsewhere in the East Bloc, May Day was typically marked by a huge parade of workers who paid tribute to representatives of the “vanguard of the proletariat”, that is, the Party leadership, by filing past them en masse.

Technically attendance at the parade was optional, but if you didn’t want to invite questions, or potentially worse, from the state’s representatives at your work or school, you were well advised to show up.

First of May parade in East Berlin in 1978 with workers filing past the Palace of the Republic (photo: Bundesarchiv 183-R0501-0025)

First of May parade in East Berlin in 1978 with workers filing past the Palace of the Republic (photo: Bundesarchiv 183-R0501-0025)

 

But it wasn’t all bad. By the 1980s, GDR authorities had begun to reward their charges for showing up. Frequently they put on a sort of parade “after party” where bumper cars and beer were on offer along with cotton candy and other hard-to-come-by delicacies. In addition, efforts were made to ensure that shops were well stocked in advance of the holiday, so if you were looking for a pair of Western jeans, it wasn’t a bad idea to camp out at the Centrum department store on the Alexanderplatz at the end of April.

West German historian Lutz Niethammer summed up the reality of the May Day parade in late period GDR perfectly by describing it as “a traditional that had become a duty and a duty that had become a tradition.” (Niethammer, The People’s Own Experience (Rowohlt Berlin, 1991), pg 41) Indeed, Niethammer’s account of a May Day parade he witnessed in the late 1980s in Eisenhüttenstadt, a socialist planned city that was a key East German industrial centre, provides a wonderful glimpse into the way the May Day parade, a once vital expression of working class solidarity, had been emptied of its original meaning in the GDR by the system of state socialism:

“Usually E. was rather dead, a function in large part of the rhythm of shift work at the steel mills which dictated the lives of many of the town’s residents. On May 1st, however, it was packed to the gills and a cheerful, formal atmosphere was the order of the day. On the main street, the Leninallee, a grandstand had been set up in front of the Friedrich-Wolf Theatre for a few dozen local luminaries. From a podium set up here, Party leaders and a few of the chosen faithful gave speeches into a PA system that was wired to speakers set up throughout the entire town. The contents of these official speeches were fairly rote and no one seemed to pay they much mind at all. Crowds lined both sides of the main street and cheered as the city’s workers, organized by workplace, paraded down Leninallee, past the grandstand before quickly dissolving into a peaceful sort of chaos only ten metres beyond where the local luminaries sat . . . .” (quote continued below)

Photo Series of Eisenhüttenstadt’s May Day Parade Route, Leninallee 

(Niethammer quote continued)
“The discovery of the day for me was the mass of workers from the large steel mill who casually marched past in their thousands. They appeared to be in a fine mood and were in animated discussion with one other, largely ignoring the speeches droning from the loudspeakers. If you got into the midst of the mass of workers, one quickly discerned what made up the people’s response to the podium speakers pronouncements on subjects such “the armed struggle for peace” and “the successful construction of socialism”: here the discussion largely took the form of a sort of improvised swap meet with individuals trying to find takers for used goods they were looking to trade or exchanging tips on where to find hard-to-get items. . . Here the “International Day of Struggle and Celebration of the Workers for Peace and Socialism” had become a Market Day of Blocked Consumerism. At no point did a call arise out of this “moving classified ad” [ed note for younger readers: like Craigslist] in the direction of the podium and at no point did anyone on the podium attempt to address the issues that were of interest to the workers.” (Niethammer, pgs. 41-42)

May Day: Schwedt Style

Schwedt's erstwhile Leninallee, parade route for May Day (photo: author).

Schwedt’s erstwhile Leninallee, parade route for May Day (photo: author).

During a recent trip to Germany I had a chance to visit the socialist planned city of Schwedt and while there heard the lovely story that one May Day the local school for the disabled was decorated, to the amusement of some, with a banner lauding then leader with the words:

“Erich Honecker: One of Us!”.

One of Us!: Schwedt's School of Music, previously home to its School for the Learning Disabled (photo: author).

“One of Us!”: Schwedt’s School of Music, previously home to its School for the Learning Disabled (photo: author).

 

 

 

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