The Evolution of Labour Day in Germany, a Tale of Two Celebrations

The Evolution of Labour Day in Germany, a Tale of Two Celebrations

Labour Day in Germany has long been a date marked by the contrast between the East and West during the country's division. Delve into the history of this symbolic day and explore the evolution of festivities pre- and post-fall of the Berlin Wall.

International Working Day, known as Erste Mai in Germany, has changed over the years, especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Before the Berlin Wall broke down in 1989, East Germany was a socialist state, and Labour Day was an important event. The government used it as an opportunity to promote socialist ideology and highlight the working class’s achievements. Workers would participate in parades and rallies, often carrying banners and posters. The day was also known as “International Fighting Day of the Labour Class” in the GDR, which some individuals interpreted differently. Clashes between police and demonstrators often marked the day, as some groups used the occasion to protest against the system.

In contrast, in West Germany, Labour Day was celebrated in a different way, it  was not a national holiday, and there was no official government celebration. Instead, it was a day for workers to gather together and demonstrate their rights. Trade unions organized marches and rallies, and workers would gather in public squares to hear speeches, issuing common problems and struggles of the labour class, usually ending on a fireworks display in the evening.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Germany was reunited, and Labour Day became a national holiday in both East and West Germany. However, the way it was celebrated still differed between the two regions. In the East, the socialist ideology had lost much of its appeal, and the focus of the day shifted to celebrating the achievements of the working class. Workers still participated in parades and rallies, but the slogans and banners were less political, and the speeches were less ideological.

In the West, Labour Day continued to be a day of protest for some workers, but for many, it became a day of leisure. The holiday fell on the first of May, which is the traditional start of the summer season, and people began to celebrate by taking trips to the countryside or having picnics with friends and family. Many cities organized festivals and events featuring music, food, and games, and the day became less political and more festive.

Delve into the history of this symbolic day through the lenses of IMAGO photographers. 


The Evolution of Labour Day in Germany, a Tale of Two Celebrations
IMAGO / Marco Bertram | Celebration of Labour Day in East Berlin. 1 May 1951, Berlin.

IMAGO/Heinz Gebhardt
IMAGO / Heinz Gebhardt | Student demonstrations in May. München 1968.

IMAGO/Ray van Zeschau
IMAGO / Ray van Zeschau | Celebration of the first of May in Dresden. 1 May 1969.

imago images/Sven Simon
IMAGO / Sven Simon | Erich Honecker (left) and Walter Ulbricht (right) wave from the stands to people in the first of May parade in Berlin. 1 May 1972, Berlin.

The Evolution of Labour Day in Germany, a Tale of Two Celebrations
IMAGO / Sven Simon | Boy with a balloon and GDR flagsin the May Day demonstration in East Berlin. 1 May 1972, Berlin.

imago images/Klaus Rose
IMAGO / Klaus Rose | The first of May Demonstrations. 1 May 1978, Dortmund.

The Evolution of Labour Day in Germany, a Tale of Two Celebrations
IMAGO / Stana | Erich Honecker in the 1. May celebration in Palace of the Republic, Berlin. 1 May 1982.

IMAGO/Rolf Zöllner
IMAGO / Rolf Zöllner | The first of May Demonstration in Karl Marx Avenue. 1 May 1987, Berlin.

IMAGO/Rolf Zöllner
IMAGO / Rolf Zöllner | The first of May Demonstration in Karl Marx Avenue. 1 May 1988, Berlin.

IMAGO/Rolf Zöllner
IMAGO / Rolf Zöllner | The first of May Demonstration in Berlin. 1 May 1988, Berlin.

imago/Harald Lange
IMAGO / Harald Lange | On May 1st, the GDR flag with the red workers’ flag in the tower of the Old Town Hall in Leipzig. 1 May 1992, Leipzig.

The Evolution of Labour Day in Germany, a Tale of Two Celebrations
IMAGO / Seeliger | Demonstration in Prenzlauer Berg. 1 May 1992, Berlin.

The Evolution of Labour Day in Germany, a Tale of Two Celebrations
IMAGO / Seeliger | Demonstration and police in Prenzlauer Berg. 1 May 1996, Berlin.

The Evolution of Labour Day in Germany, a Tale of Two Celebrations
IMAGO / Seeliger | demonstration in Prenzlauer Berg. 1 May 1997, Berlin.

The Evolution of Labour Day in Germany, a Tale of Two Celebrations
IMAGO / Seeliger | Demonstrator plays guitar surrounded by police officers. 1 May 1997, Berlin.

The Evolution of Labour Day in Germany, a Tale of Two Celebrations
IMAGO / HMS | Police officers from the anti-conflict team talk to the young demonstrators in Kreuzberg. 1 May 2005, Berlin.

IMAGO/Zoonar
IMAGO / Zoonar | The first of May Demonstrations in Kreuzberg. 1 May 2018, Berlin.

IMAGO/Zoonar
IMAGO / Zoonar | The first of May Demonstrations in Berlin. 1 May 2018.
Photo selection by Fatemeh Roshan.
See the collection here:
The First of May in Germany, Two Different Festivals