April 30 is known as Walpurgisnacht or Witch’s Night. It’s a pagan night of bonfires and fertility rites, like American Halloween, and celebrated with giant parties all over Europe. They call May 1 Germany’s Labor Day. Back in 1889 Karl Marx called it International Worker’s Day.
Historically these were two different events. But in Berlin on May 1, 1987, a peaceful street festival went sideways when the leftist groups got into it with the cops who started throwing elbows and tear gas. The festival goers were pretty lit up at this point so they started flipping cars, throwing rocks, setting fires and creating a barricade around the Kreuzberg neighborhood, which they then proceeded to thoroughly loot. By the time the cops broke through the barricade and dragged the rioters off the jail, the Kreuzberg was trashed and a bunch of people were hurt. Everything eventually settled down but May 1 has never been the same since.
I didn’t know much of the history of May 1 before I got here but the Meetup group of Berlin Expats that I joined were throwing a barbq. Everyone else in Berlin had the same idea, of course, because it’s a holiday, so we all congregated in Gorlitzer Park in the Kreuzberg neighborhood, still the heart of the party/riot.
One small part of the park looked like this
The streets around Kreuzberg were completely shut down and most looked like this
However, despite the massive groups of people and the ability to drink alcohol anywhere you like, the entirety of the park was a relatively peaceful place. Lots of music and barbq, a fair amount of sun, beer for days and absolutely no public bathrooms for the approximately 7,000 people. I spent 2 hours of my life standing in line for the bathroom and finally stopped drinking liquids all together.
The Berlin Expats are a diverse group from Israel, Palestine, Australia, Thailand, India, South Africa and the UK. And those were just the ones I met. They were all cool and I had a great afternoon just hanging out and meeting some new people. However, around 8pm I hit my social limit and started to head back to the subway only to find that all the stations around Kreuzberg were shut down and surrounded by polizei
After 1987, the Berlin police force formed a special task force for street fights, mostly in an effort to keep the May 1 drama under control. Despite this heavy police presence, even the crowded streets were pretty chill. I kept saying “where are the riots? I thought there would be riots!” and one of the guys said “Kaitlyn, the sun is still up. No one riots in the daytime.”
I’m not sure that’s true since all the pictures I’ve seen from previous years include marches
Rallies against capitalism
A few kicked in windows
And general mayhem. I suspect that this year was no different but I didn’t see any of it. I’m slightly disappointed… but I’ll get over it.
Instead we watched the sun set over Alexanderplatz
And finally got home after a lot of walking, several closed subway stations and lots of redirection.
Berlin’s survived another May Day. Congratulations! Now let’s see what the rest of the month has to offer.