KREUZBERG ON FIRE or WHERE IT ALL BEGAN: MAY 1 RIOTS
Scene of destruction on May 1, 1987, an incredible photo by Michael Hughes (published in his album “Inside Kreuzberg: An hommage to Berlin-Kreuzberg in the 80s” by Berlin-Story Verlag.)
Ask anyone in Berlin what they associate Kreuzberg with and they all – punks/hipsters (depending on the generation they represent), Turks/Poles/Spaniards, Schwaben, the French and Americans – are bound to name the following in their answer: crowds, a gentle whiff of Anarchy and riots. Well, the rebellion might have lost a bit of its lustre over the years but any reports of its death are very much premature.
Recent events in many of Kreuzberg’s neighbourhoods, especially in its traditional hotbed of military resistance known as SO36 (old postal code for East Kreuzberg), prove that the monster of social injustice, squeezing out the old residents to make space for property big-spenders (this time private investors) has just risen its ugly head again. The 30th anniversary of the heaviest street unrests in West Berlin, which was due on Monday, May 1 last year, could have meant a long and brightly lit night. Luckily for all those involved no major harm was done to anyone and the day (as well as the preceding Walpurgis Nacht, or the Night of the Witches, when the rubble begins to be roused) were relatively peaceful.
Interestingly and contrary to what many people believe, however, the famous Mai Krawallen – heavy riots which broke out in Kreuzberg on May 1, 1987 and have been taking place every year ever since until it became possible to curb the violence and turn the event into a peaceful one – were not the first time when Kreuzberg faced such turmoil. Stone-hurling, police-bashing and casual torching of mostly randomly picked objects are things of long standing in this traditionally working-class borough. For some they are the only way of making their message heard, for others a way of stirring things up a bit for stirring up’s sake.
Which of the above reasons was behind the first big Kreuzberg riots – the Moritzplatz Krawallen of 1863 – is hard to judge. But it all began in Oranienstraße 64.
The area of Moritzplatz Krawallen of 1863 with Oranienstraße 64 marked in red (Hobrecht Plan 1863)
The area of Moritzplatz Krawallen of 1863 with Oranienstraße 64 marked in red
The house in Oranienstraße 64, at the beginning of the 20th century home to a famous German composer, Paul Lincke (the one of Berliner Luft and of Paul-Lincke-Ufer in Kreuzberg 36), belonged back then to one Schneidermeister (master-tailor) Steffen. In March 1862 he rented the ground floor and the flat directly above it to a Cafetier, a gentleman called Schulze.
The lease was for five years at the price of 400 Thaler a month. Schulze must have been quite promising a tenant since the situation on the housing market was so bad that soon it would not be unusual to offer a maximum 3-month lease instead.
The problem was lack of payable, affordable accommodation. Berlin’s population had tripled since the beginning of the century: in 1800 the city had only 172,000 inhabitants but by 1880 their number would reach 1,124,000. Although the construction boom was slowly under way, house owners were not prepared to forego their potential profits and squeezed out of their tenants maximum secure income.
New York Draft Riots of the same month and year, July 1863 (image: Associated Press)
The extremely short leases, which in 1863 were indeed signed for a maximum of three months, worked as a threat and a guarantee of payment at once. This policy meant, however, that at the end of each trimester a staggering 49.6% of all tenants were forced to search for a new place to live or become homeless. Understandably, this did nothing to improve the relationship between the landlords and the tenants. And the hostility was becoming more and more open.
Even back in Oranienstraße 64 the initial congeniality between Schulze and Steffen, who were also neighbours as Steffen lived in the house he owned, must have suffered its first blow when slightly over a year later the landlord raised the rent from 400 to 450 Thaler. And that despite their alleged agreement that no such rent-hikes would happen. Since Schulze opened a well prospering beer bar in the rooms that he rented (according to Steffen not only against the conditions of the contract but also against his clearly expressed wishes), he was now earning a pretty penny. It is possible that the landlord simply wanted some of his profits, too. Hence the higher rent. It is also possible, however, that he had enough of the noise and of the late-night brawls that took place there regularly (or so said Steffen).
And here is where the plot thickens and the story becomes one of protest and honourable resistance or one of stubborn malice – depending on interpretation. According to Schulze his landlord demanded he vacate the premises and sued him to make the eviction legal. In his story Schneidermeister Steffen decided to get rid of his tenant to punish him for having the old tile stove in the rooms that he rented replaced with an iron one: something, indeed, specifically forbidden by the conditions of the lease contract.
That was at least what Schulze wrote on the posters he pasted to the windows of his Kneipe two days before the eviction. It was planned for Wednesday July 1, 1863 – the second round of annual evictions took place at the end of the second trimester and on the last day of June. Although allegedly Schneidermeister Steffen allowed Schulze to stay until July 1. The latter, in order to inform the whole world about his plight, wrote: „Warning! As a result of having installed an iron stove and due to the order of eviction, I am forced to close my pub.“
The Berliner Gerichtszeitung, an important Berlin newspaper at the time, in its July 2, 1863 edition commented: „Naturally, this warning attracted great attention of passers-by and Schulze’s “Lokal” filled up with customers as never before. Because everybody wanted to know what happens next.“
People were coming in throngs to listen to Schulze´s story of woe and once they were there, why not have a beer to cool down in the summer heat? Schulze could hardly keep up with the orders and his voice must have been getting hoarse from the talking and the smoke hanging inside.
A 19th-century Berlin working-class family living in a Kellerwohnung (cellar flat) in Mitte: most probably one room only with no window. It is highly possible that none of the children int his photo survived until their adolescence. (Image was part of the Berliner Ortskrankenkasse’s study into the living conditions).
It is not hard to predict what happened next, once the beer started getting to his customers’ heads. A group of Schulze’s “protectors” gathered and went upstairs to have a word with the landlord (they later claimed they went to see whether he’d not rather sell the house, now that its price would sink without the pub). After he refused to let them in, says the newspaper, they broke the door and he was „subject to all imaginable Schabernack at the hands of the crowd“, Schabernack being pranks or mischievous tricks. One thing is certain, they were not gentle.
After they left, Steffen sent his son to lodge a complaint and fetch help from the local police. However, since the crowd that gathered in Oranienstraße 64 was inside, meaning in the pub and the little garden before it and not on the street as such, there was no reason for the police to bother. A mistake as it turned out.
By the evening the crowd grew so big and so angry that it was no longer possible to ignore it. The section of Oranienstraße up to Moritzplatz was getting choc-a-bloc with people. After the local police force failed to get the situation under control, twelve mounted Schutzleute (armed and trained police forces) were sent to deal with the upset citizens. Schulze was ordered to remove the offending posters, which he eventually did, but that did not help much. The crowd, full with anger AND beer, was turning into a mob.
Probably the greatest danger that such a mob poses are its unpredictability and its inability to reason. You do not need much for the situation to get out of hand. On that Monday in June it was a drunken man who demanded fire for his cigar in a less than polite manner. He got a no as an answer and a mighty shove, to boot. That shove send him falling backwards onto the cobble-stone street and cracking his skull on it. The crowd gathered around the two men attacked the offender and heavy fighting began.
A fight inside the crowd worked like a magnet, constantly pulling in new participants. On top of that, quick as a lightning there spread a rumour that someone got stabbed by a pickpocket: the thief was trying to ease him of his watch but got caught red-handed and lashed out. Now hundreds of people were pushing in the direction of the fight to have their say in it, too. The chaos turned into a pandemonium.
Nothing but Säuberung – removing every single person from the street – could stop it. The troops were given an order to proceed. Somebody died, many were injured and even more got arrested. But that, unbelievable as it might sound, was only the beginning.
On Tuesday, instead of calming down, the situation spinned out of control further: Schulze, the nearly-evicted pub owner, chose to stir things up a bit again. Not only did he put the posters back on his windows but he also glued similar announcements on all advertising pillars around, too. Plus, a clever businessman that he was, he added a little note telling people that the opening of his new establishment shall be announced in the same manner.
Needles to say, his pub almost immediately filled in with customers again. And again a river of beer began to flow (Schulze was said to have sold 20 tonnes of beer on those days only – more than he could have dreamed of pushing before). People were coming from all over the city to have a look and a whiff of the Skandal playing around Moritzplatz. The pub at No. 64 was full until late in the night.
Since among the guests were also those who “find particular pleasure in such scandals and savagery” (Berliner Gerichtszeitung again), soon Schneidermeister Steffen received another visit. And again after he refused to open the door, they forced their way inside, „invited“ him for a drink downstairs and having their kind offer rejected, became violent and „accidentally“ broke some things. Like crockery. And furniture. And windows.
Another group followed Steffen’s son dispatched to fetch the police. They were not gentle with him either.
The windows of the pub downstairs had already been broken the day before. Now the mob only finished the “refurbishing”. The place, in short, was a ruin.
By the evening of June 30 hundreds and hundreds of people gathered at Moritzplatz again. Refusing to follow the order to disperse, they had to face the mounted police anew. The troops were met by loud shouts “Haut sie!” (Hit them!), „Reißt die Hunde von den Pferden – schlagt die Hunde tot!“ (Pull the dogs down from their horses – bash the dogs in!) and a shower of stones. This time all shop and house owners around Moritzplatz had to shut the doors and windows to prevent damage but also to keep the rioting crowd from seeking refuge inside.
“To break their resistance, the masses were attacked with full ferocity and slowly pushed apart, going street by street. It was not until midnight that the protest ended,” reported the newspaper.
On the following day the riots continued and led again to numerous arrests. However, this time among the arrested there were also some residents of Moritzplatz, accused of encouraging the mob to resist the police by shouting from their windows. Their flats were opened forcefully by hired locksmiths.
On July 1, 1863 Bierwirth Schulze was evicted and all should have stopped. But that hardly mattered any more.
In the evening a slightly different crowd (so the Berliner Gerichtszeitung) assembled in Moritzplatz and around it. “Unnützer Buben und andere verächtliche Gesindel” (good-for-nothing little scoundrels and other contemptible riff-raff) began to yell and whistle like Indianer (those were clearly pre-PC days), jibing at the passengers of the omnibus that had its stop right in the square, offending the ladies in a vulgar manner and generally making sure that the police had every reason to step in.
Yet, surprisingly, the forces of law and order took their time responding. But when they finally did react, it was without holding back their anger. According to the reports of the day, some 150 troops were involved in pacifying the mob. Stones and sabres were in full swing. Once pushed apart, the crowd kept re-gathering, closing around the police forces like water. It wasn’t until the arrival and the intervention of more of the mounted police that the protesters’ began to lose their standing. The barricades they tried to raise – for example, in Prinzenstraße where 15 people got eventually arrested or in Wassertorstraße where a similar thing happened – were immediately dismantled.
By 3AM it got quiet again. The police made 50 new arrests and the vicinity of Moritzplatz looked more than ever like an abandoned battlefield. To keep the “rebellious element” from seeking refuge outside the city walls, both Kottbusser Tor and Wassertor – two important city gates in the Akzisemauer (Excise and Duty Tax Wall) running in the south of Berlin and along the Landwehrkanal – were shut and bolted.
Schulze’s conflict with his landlord, originally fuelled by him with beer and cheap Schnaps, turned into regular public unrests. As much as Schulze’s motives could be described as questionable, the wrath of the Berliners’ at the unsupportable and disastrous property market situation in the city was absolutely understandable. What had been boiling underneath erupted then in Kreuzberg with an ever-growing force. And although the riots surely were a playfield for many “scoundrels” and “riff-raff”, those were desperate regular people who showed up around Moritzplatz first and foremost.
The riots did not die down yet. They continued with even greater ferocity for the next two days, Thursday and Friday the second and the third of July respectively. To win control over the crowd the house and shop owners around Moritzplatz were again ordered to lock the doors and keep windows shut (to prevent anyone from hurtling stones from the buildings). Any person stopping and thus “blocking the pavement or the road” was immediately fined 1 Thaler. The city gates remained bolted, too.
The bloody clash between the police and the angry people – who by then arrived from all over Berlin – that ended with new troops being summoned and as many as 250 rioters arrested – left very visible traces in the borough. Smashed street-lamps, shattered windows, burnt carts, broken doors (change “carts” for “cars” and welcome in 1987). The landscape was not much different from the one in May 1987 or on many other occasions in SO 36.
Of course, today’s riots are in a way much different from those of 1863 or those of the 1870s. If only because of the different legal position of both sides and the legal bounds applying to them. The fear and the anger might be the same but no police troops would dream of using the same sort of violent force as Schutzpolizei AD 1863. “De-escalation” – a strategy aimed at resolving a conflict by decreasing the tension – is the word. It took everyone almost 150 years to learn but it seems to work.
Well, in a way. At least on the side of the police and the city administration: the attempts to keep the stones on the pavement and the cars “un-burnt”, the time around May 1 in Kreuzberg is filled with peaceful and family-oriented events. Such as Myfest (no spelling mistake: “my” and “may” combined) organised since 2003 in Oranienstraße and around the whole of SO36. The event – full of concerts, shows and discussion panels – is supposed to re-focus people’s attention on what the 1st of May really is about, namely workers’ or working-class people’s holiday. It is thought to be the main factor to have stopped the violence in the borough.
On the other hand, Kreuzberg seems to have a new problem. Call it riot-tourism: groups of “trigger-happy” revolutionary wanna-be’s from all over the country and even from abroad arrive in Berlin shortly before May 1 with the sole purpose of participating in the “fun”. Many of them seem to think that Mai Krawallen are a Kreuzberg version of Spanish encierro or Valencian Tomatina but instead of running with bulls, you bash them (Bulle is a cop in German). And instead of throwing tomatoes, you go for stones and pavement blocks.
They would be the 21st century equivalent of the “scoundrels” and the “riff-raff”. They steal the attention that would otherwise be paid to often valid political issues that other groups are trying to voice. But just as in 1863, once the fight breaks out in the midst of a crowd, the magnet starts pulling others in.
It remains to be seen what 2018 will bring with it. In 2009 the 1st of May celebrations ended up with 273 police troops injured, 289 protesters arrested and 44 arrest warrants issued (four for fire-bomb attacks on police troops and one for attempted murder in a fire-bomb attack on a woman who was gravely injured as a result). In 2012, believed by many to have been pretty peaceful in comparison with other years, unexploded bombs were discovered after the day had ended. The events that day where attended by huge crowds of Myfest participants enjoying the shows and the concerts. With their kids and a leisurely glass of beer in the hand. In a huge crowd, however, the future is always uncertain.
The last couple of years, not counting traditional stone-hurtling and even upturning police cars in the streets, the May 1 celebrations were relatively peaceful events. We should all hope it will remain this way.