To believe the boulevard rags, it would be a day of revolutionary riot, bloody battles with the police, and violent standoffs between extremists of the left and right.
Of course, being May Day, there were the usual union rallies in most major cities, including Berlin, where union leaders spoke rather more militantly than on the other 364 days of the year. Pressures from the membership were building up; there was a dip in unemployment figures, but the numbers of those with temp jobs, short-term jobs, and hunger wage jobs, which improved the statistics, only increased poverty and uncertainty. Many feared what the right-wing government of Angela Merkel was preparing for the months after the key May 9th elections in the big state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
But a basic question for many Berliners was: will the Nazis march in force through a key district of eastern Berlin? They had been roundly defeated in Dresden in February, when human blockades prevented them from leaving the train station. Their Internet sites seethed with anger and hatred and now they boasted that 10,000 would achieve revenge in Berlin and elsewhere.
They were due at the city rail station Bornholmer Strasse. The neo-Nazi party had official standing, so their right to march would be guaranteed and their ranks protected by the police. But a wide range of anti-fascist groups saw things differently. Berlin must never again be a Nazi center. The area was plastered in advance with slogans; “Berlin bleibt Nazi-frei” (“Berlin stays free of Nazis”) or simply “Nazis raus” (“Nazis Out!”) on placards, banners on balconies, even pasted on trees or chalked on sidewalks.
And other preparations had been made. Since the police refused to say which march routes were planned, all routes were to blocked off, as in Dresden, by human barriers with thousands of people.
The groups, meeting at 9 AM at central stations of the city subway or elevated systems, were given maps and the planned program. They jammed the trains for the five or six stations to a street near the site of the planned march. The main groups were in East Berlin, where the Nazis were expected, but one group went to the western side, to block any surprise attempt to move through West Berlin.
They soon found their path barred by police. Only a press pass permitted a walk along Bornholmer, a wide boulevard, now almost devoid of normal pedestrians but full of countless police vehicles and thousands of visored, helmeted police in full wartime anti-bullet, anti-missile regalia, with clubs and pistols, marching or running from one site to another. It was an odd atmosphere: lilacs, fruit trees, and shrubs in full blossom, blackbirds caroling joyfully from their branches, and below them a feeling of almost wartime tension and menace.
A small earlier sit-down near the station, the site of the planned major blockade, had been broken up earlier by the police, peacefully, even politely, and not before a well-known political figure in Berlin, the bumbling, red bearded Wolfgang Thierse, had been filmed and photographed sufficiently for the more staid newspapers and TV news shows. But after this seemingly orchestrated demonstration of reasonable determination by the city authorities, the street was blocked off and every further attempt by anti-fascists to move into the Bornholmer from the side streets was immediately blocked by those menacing police squads.
But the anti-fascist organizers had planned many alternatives. At the main one a huge crowd had gathered, certainly over 4-5000. Similar groups waited at all possible crossings where the Nazis might be expected. And they waited. Despite the tension in the air, as the expected 12 o’clock arrival time of the Nazis approached and then passed, it remained a determined but very friendly, easy-going crowd. About 90 percent were young people between 17 and 25, many with the odd clothes, hairdos and piercings still in fashion in their groups, which included people from The Left, the Greens, the left-wing Social Democratic Falcons, the Pirates, a young party for internet “misusers,” anti-fascist youth and anarchist groups. As they settled down, sitting and often stretching out on the grass, the now unused streetcar tracks, or the asphalt streets, they mixed, chatted, and listened to the occasional loudspeaker announcements, waiting for news about the Nazis, ready to sit or lie down to stop them. Those in front were eye in eye with the police, fortified with a water cannon, ubiquitous photographers, and nervous police dogs barking away, mostly at each other.
The hours dragged on, but the crowd remained stubbornly where it was. News arrived that similar blockades had stopped Nazi marches in Rostock to the north and Erfurt to the south of what had once been East Germany, while a small group of Nazis who tried to make an unregistered show in the center of West Berlin were stopped — either by anti-fascists or by the police. The news was patchy; it was rumored that the Nazi arrival at Bornholmer Strasse was delayed by a fire on the tracks somewhere along the route.
The scene was full of ironies. Governing the city-state of Berlin was a coalition of Social Democrats and The Left; this prevented — to a point — any violence against the anti-fascists in the blockades, especially since a statement against the Nazis had been signed by most city dignitaries, including the Social Democratic mayor, union leaders, and heads of the main religions, Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish. On the other hand, most of the media were waiting breathlessly for any sign of what they could call undue toleration of the hoodlums on the left, and the city government is currently shaky and nervous, with elections coming next year.
And another irony: Bornholmer Strasse, right on the former border, was the street where in November 1989 crowds of East Berliners had jammed through the first opening in the Wall. The very name of the street is weighted with symbolism, and the scenes of that crossing have been shown at least as often as those with people dancing on top of the Wall. And it was on this street that the Nazis wanted to march and that the police had cleared of all organized groups opposing them.
Finally, after eight hours, it all came to an end, an anti-climax, no doubt, but a happy one. There had been no ten thousand Nazis; evidently the expected resistance kept their number down to 600 or 700. And the blockades had their effect. The bunch who had finally arrived waved their flags, shouted their “Germany for Germans” slogans, walked a block or two under the protection of the police, then gave up and retreated to the station! There were no confrontations.
Though perhaps an anti-climax, this was undoubtedly a true victory. Although the menace from the Nazis remains as they keep burrowing away, playing on economic despair and chauvinist emotions in many a small town and some urban areas, these demons from the past are now meeting stronger resistance, especially in the cities. And this May Day they suffered a smashing defeat.
Most of the media reported only briefly on this. Some showed a photo of Wolfgang Thierse. Most headlined the small but violent clashes between a few wilder, black-clothed “anti-capitalist,” anti-establishment groups in another part of Berlin or in Hamburg, mostly with hoods and scarves covering their faces, some alcoholized and some most certainly provocateurs, who threw bottles and firecrackers at the “bulls” in uniform, providing the customary headlines for the media.
Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).