• Politics
  • Red Wedding: The Communist history of Berlin’s reddest district


Red Wedding: The Communist history of Berlin’s reddest district

You’d never know it from from reading official historical markers, but Wedding was the site of the biggest police massacre in the city's history. Discover Berlin's own Red Wedding.

The banner reads: Clear the streets! Red Wedding is coming! Photo: Landesarchiv Berlin

The Walter-Röbe-Brücke is a small bridge over the Panke, named after a former mayor of Wedding. On one side stands a rock with an inscription: “In early May 1929, 19 people died here during street fighting. 250 were injured.”

Berlin’s most confoundingly vague monument: there was street fighting but who was fighting whom? And what were they fighting about? Who were the people who died? Imagine a monument to the First World War: “In 1914-18, a bunch of dudes died.”

This is an abashed reference to the Blutmai, the Bloody May Day of 1929. On that day, Berlin police massacred several dozen workers — the majority of them in Wedding.

If Wedding is the reddest district in Berlin, the Kösliner Straße is the reddest street in Wedding.

Berlin’s working class had first celebrated International Workers Day on May 1, 1890. Then August Bebel, the leader of the Social Democratic Party, spoke at an indoor rally at the Neue Welt in the Hasenheide. Over the next 40 years, workers staged strikes and protests on May 1, with only the briefest of interruptions during World War I. A proud tradition was to climb the highest church tower or smokestack and plant a red flag on top, where it would wave for hours while the authorities figured out how to get it down.

However, on May 1, 1929 the police decided to stop this tradition. It was a social democratic police chief, Karl Zörgiebel, who prohibited all public gatherings. This was an unheard of provocation — especially for the city’s red districts like Neukölln and Wedding. The party that had launched this holiday decades earlier was now trying to suppress it.

The Red Alley

Wedding was Berlin’s most proletarian district, known as Der Rote Wedding — even though today the ‘Red Wedding’ makes most people think of Game of Thrones.

Wedding was under police siege and there was no way to get out.

In the last free elections in the Weimar Republic, in November 1932, 47.1 percent of people in Wedding voted for the Communist Party — the highest number anywhere in Berlin. Combined with 23.4 percent support for the Social Democrats, over 70 percent supported the workers’ parties. The Nazis, with 18 percent, showed they were far from the “workers party” they claimed to be.

As the American journalist Hubert Renfro Knickerbocker put it in 1932: “If Wedding is the reddest district in Berlin, the Kösliner Straße is the reddest street in Wedding.” This tiny street between Reinickendorfer Straße and the Panke river is just a few hundred meters long — today it barely shows up on Google Maps. It was once known as the Rote Gasse (Red Alley). With tenement buildings towering over both sides of the street, the alley was home to thousands of proletarians. Whole families were crammed into single rooms, with no indoor plumbing or sunlight. In these conditions, many workers decided communism would bring salvation.

At the end of the alley, at Weddingstraße 9, was a bar known as the Sängerverein (Singers’ Association). This was a meeting point for Wedding’s most hardened communists — the uniformed brawlers of the Red Front Fighters League, or RFB.

In 1926, this same bar hosted a show by the painter Otto Nagel, who liked to paint the worn faces of the people who hung out in this kind of establishment. Now Wedding’s working class could see themselves on canvas. As the newspaper Weltbühne reported, “they see themselves on the walls, painted by one of their own: the letter carrier, the old woman in the hospital, the hooker from Nettelbeckplatz, the idiot ‘father’ from the security company, the barkeeper from the corner.”

In the Red Alley, no one was going to heed Zörgiebel’s ban on May Day events. The Communist Party’s cells prepared to take to the streets, as they had always done.

The Mayday Massacre

On the morning of May 1, several hundred workers gathered on Kösliner Straße. They formed tight rows, following a red flag, and headed toward the city centre. But at the first corner they were confronted by heavily armed police. Zörgiebel had brought in cops from across Prussia — not unlike more recent May Day celebrations — and told them their job was to prevent an armed communist insurrection. As the demonstration approached, police began shooting live ammunition. The demonstrators retreated into their tenements, and police shot at people in the windows.

Bloody May Day was documented in a 1931 novel Barrikaden am Wedding by the communist journalist Klaus Neukrantz. It has been republished many times, and an English translation from 1932, titled Barricades in Berlin, has also just appeared online. Neukrantz changed the names — he called the communist bar ‘the Red Nightingale’, for example — but the characters are all real people from Wedding. The style at times drifts into the Stalinist pathos of “socialist realism”. Communist workers are inevitably described as being both “good-natured” and “broad-shouldered”, while social democratic officials are just as inevitably overweight, cowardly and covered in sweat, even when sitting in their plush offices.

Yet it’s not that far from the historical record, which was full of pathos as well. When the shooting began, a 52-year-old plumber named Max Gmeinhardt from Kösliner Straße went to his window and yelled at the cops. Without warning, they shot him, and he bled to death on the floor of his apartment. Gmeinhardt, it turns out, was an SPD member — he had just returned from the party’s indoor May Day rally. It sounds a little unbelievable, but it turns out that is exactly what happened in real life: the first worker murdered by the SPD that day was in fact one of their comrades.

On that day, Wedding was under police siege and there was no way to get out. So the residents of the Red Alley barricaded themselves in. For two nights they held their Kiez. Police came with armoured cars and machine guns — the workers shot back with small pistols. They knocked out the gaslights to envelop the street in darkness. Neukrantz wrote from the perspective of the cops: “The whole alley seemed like a grey, motionless monster whose gigantic body had to be pierced thousands of times, before it would stop breathing.”

The same thing happened in Neukölln’s Rollbergviertel, where barricades stayed up for two days. When the smoke began to clear on May 3, police tallied that they had shot 11,000 rounds of ammunition. Between 32 and 38 people had been killed — a number of them shot in their homes.

The story was that the Communists had attempted a violent insurrection. The reds had supposedly shot first. But the number of injured police? Zero. Eventually one police officer with a bullet wound was presented. But the press soon discovered that he had shot himself with his own gun days before May 1. Of the more than 1,200 people arrested, less than a tenth were connected to the KPD. These were Berlin workers going about their day, like they had done every year for a generation.

Nothing Left

No one – neither police officers nor politicians – was ever charged with a crime. Trials were reserved for a few dozen workers. There was no parliamentary, criminal or civil investigation. The journalist Carl von Ossietzky led an unofficial committee of inquiry with members including Heinrich Mann and other intellectuals. He confirmed that this had been a one-sided massacre:

“You can bet a thousand to one that the communists would have reached an understanding with any non-socialist police chief about how to proceed on this difficult day. But you can bet with even greater certainty that the idea of banning the workers’ May Day procession would never have even occurred to any Wilhelmine Jagow [Berlin’s conservative police chief from 1909 to 1916] or to the most aggressive lieutenant of [far-right capitalist and politician Alfred] Hugenberg. To simply ban a procession that has become almost sacred through decades of tradition, a last reminder of the world socialist fellowship, is something no bourgeois could pull off — that requires one of those well-tailored party socialists [like Zörgiebel] whose energy is devoted exclusively to tearing up old socialist values and rights.”

The reds had supposedly shot first. But the number of injured police? Zero.

The closest we have gotten to an official reckoning with Bloody May Day, besides the extremely vague rock, is the first season of the TV show Babylon Berlin, which was partially sponsored by German public TV. Unfortunately, the beautiful communist demonstration they staged on Hermannplatz is not historically accurate. There was far too much police violence for thousands of workers to gather with banners and flags like that. But the show displayed the massacre exactly as it happened.

The SPD’s massacre created an unbridgeable divide between the two workers parties. Just six weeks later, the KPD held a party congress in Wedding, and leader Ernst Thälmann proclaimed that the social democrats were “social fascists”. They responded that the communists were in fact “red-painted fascists”. This made any type of joint working-class resistance against the actual fascists near impossible, and instead of resisting the Nazis together, both parties were crushed separately.

The tenements of Kösliner Straße, damaged in the war, were completely demolished in the 1950s and 1960s and replaced with modern housing. But the old residents of the Red Alley did not benefit from the upgrade. They were dispersed across the city – some were even pushed into Berlin’s Soviet sector – and their places were taken by SPD supporters. Wedding’s red traditions faded as it became a poor West Berlin neighbourhood pushed up against the wall — kind of like Kreuzberg but without the culture.

Yet there remains a deep mistrust of capitalism. In the 2021 vote on the expropriation of big housing companies, 65 percent of voters in Mitte (which has swallowed up Wedding) voted “Ja!”, well above the city’s average. In the area around Gesundbrunnen, it was up to 82 percent. Wedding doesn’t have a big communist party anymore, but initiatives like Hände Weg von Wedding (Hands off Wedding) are doing their best to resist gentrification and keep the district red.