Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A May Day Memory--East Germany

Not the May-Day-my-plane-is-going-down kind of May Day.

Mai Tag. May first. That's what filters through my mind every year I flip my daily calendar. I think of the most memorable May Day I've ever had.

May 1, 1988.  East Germany. It was my cultural term to study abroad in college--the year before the wall came down in East Berlin. I lived there for three months.

We had just arrived through the check point several days before Mai Tag, and found our final destination of Jena, DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik--East Germany). Our passports had been checked and stamped, and our bus had been searched in, out, and underneath with mirrors. We had settled into our student dorm and been assigned our English speaking student guides. Other than guards with machine guns, soldiers from occupying Russia (U.S.S.R.), and drab gray buildings, everything looked nearly like the West.

Until Mai Tag. That was the first day I got a taste of what it felt like for the East Germans to live under socialism. We were invited, no told, that we would march in the Mai Tag parade. I had in my mind beautiful May poles, children frolicking with flowers, and happy families holding hands.

(used with permission from SmugMug)

Well, it was only somewhat like that, but underneath was the current of forced tension. 

May Day actually has it's roots in 1886 America. That year in Chicago, four labor demonstrators were shot by police after a bomb was thrown causing the tension between the classes to mount for many years to follow. The demands of the common worker for a legalized eight hour work day spread around the world over the next several years, until it was recognized as International Worker's Day. Worker's rights were demonstrated for, but often riots occurred.

Jena, East Germany May1,1988

Fast forward nearly 100 years and around the globe to East Germany 1988.

I had no idea of the history of May Day.

We were given American flags and East German flags to carry. Families did come out for it. There was a May Pole. But no dancing. Only a large platform with big DDR flags and a large show of political and military power, as socialist countries often sought to repress the freedom of workers and pushed a forced solidarity propaganda.

We piled off the bus in the Stadtcentrum and walked with our flags. I was proud to carry my American flag. I knew the freedom it represented. But I'd only begun to recognize the hunger for freedom in the eyes of the East Germans and the resentment toward their occupying socialist forces. What an odd sight we must have been to them.

At the time, I'd felt so sad that they might never taste the freedom I marched for.

Yet, that Mai Tag was to become one of their last socialist-imposed worker's holiday. I remember jumping up and down, cheering in our apartment on November 9th the following year as I watched on our little black and white T.V., as the East Berlin Wall fell.

Today, there are still many disenfranchised workers around the world.
I pray one day they will find freedom.


  1. Very interesting! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it Liz! Thanks for stopping by. :)

  3. WOW!! What an honour to carry your flag in East Germany!!! I remember the day the wall came down, watching people dance on top of it. Pure joy!

    1. Yep. Something to tell the grandchildren some day....(a long time in future...) :)

  4. All over Germany, May 1st is an official holiday with celebrations and parades ... of course I only know the West German version! In our region, boys would also sometimes anonymously erect a Maypole (Maibaum) during the night at the house of the girl they liked. If you found one in the morning of May 1st, you knew you have a suitor!


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