May Day Tourism in Berlin

Two young Turkish men pass by. "Hello, dear tourists!" they call out. Bill lights up a cigarette, and moves on to the events of May 1, 1987. He says it was just a peaceful street party until the police turned up with teargas. This triggered a spontaneous "Kiezaufstand," says Bill, switching for a moment into German -- a "neighborhood uprising." Angry citizens looted and burned down a supermarket, he explains. "That's the version I believe." At any rate, there have been demonstrations every year since 1988.

"What exactly are they demonstrating about these days?" someone asks.

"That always kind of depends on the political context," Bill replies. There are all sorts of grounds for revolutionary protest, he explains: repression, exploitation, war, etc. Or, to put it more bluntly: "It's all about the fact that capitalism is bullshit, and we're against the system."

Everyone looks at him, but no-one says anything. It's Marxism against capitalism, the people against the police. NATO and the Warsaw Pact may no longer be at loggerheads, but in every other way Germany seems to once again be a country in which the world can be reduced to the same simplistic dichotomy of a quarter-century ago: the battle between good and evil.

Political Project

Bill, together with his fellow students, came up with the idea for the tour when he took part in a business start-up competition run by the university. He participated in the contest in order to subvert it, he says. His critical stance was based on the fact that the university was cutting costs, yet still had enough money to turn students into entrepreneurs.

Bill sees the tours themselves primarily as a political project, a way of explaining and promoting the revolutionary Labor Day protests. Some left-wingers were thrilled about the idea, though others complained that it was stupid bringing even more rubberneckers to Kreuzberg, which attracts so-called "riot tourists" on May 1 every year.

Bill takes a more pragmatic point of view. Tourists are going to come to the neighborhood whether he likes it or not, so it's better if they go around with him.

At Least Once in Your Life

The group reaches the far end of Mariannenplatz square as Bill reaches the end of his history of the May 1 protests. In his version, the pattern is basically the same, year after year: People demonstrate, the police attack the demonstrators, and violence breaks out. For the past few years, he says, the state has been staging large street festivals disguised as anti-violence demonstrations in an attempt to distract radical left-wingers from their political activism.

The tour group has seen the mosque that now stands where the supermarket was burnt down, as well as a left-wing café that was recently forced to close when the rent went up. The only question left is how this year's May 1 will turn out. Bill invites everyone to come to the demonstration. His advice for when things liven up: Stay cool and use your head.

Two British au-pairs start planning right away. They live with middle-class families in southwestern Berlin, and they're not certainly left wing. But as they put it, you need to have been to a May Day demonstration in Kreuzberg at least once in your life.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt

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