berlin 19 03 1911 women marching

The photo above was taken on March 19, 1911 in Berlin, on the eastern side of the Garnisonskirche in Berlin-Kreuzberg, at a roundabout known today as Südstern.

The marching women belong to a group of nearly 45,000 who joined one of the 42 official rallies (not counting the spontaneous ones) organised by Berlin’s trade unions together with the German Social-Democratic Party – with Clara Zetkin and Luise Zietz (first female in a leading party position in Germany as well as the first female member of the 1919 Reichstag) as their main female leaders. By 1911 as many as 107,693 women had joined the SPD.

On March 8, 1914 the International Women’s Day was celebrated in Berlin for the fourth time. However, the date was not so much symbolic as a matter of convenience: March 8 was a Sunday that year. The rallies and marches had one main goal: general suffrage for all adult German women. It would take another four years and a war as well as the Kaiser’s abdication for women to be granted the right to vote. It happened on November 12, 1918.

Although celebrated in Europe and North America since the beginning of the twentieth century, March 8th did not become an official holiday until 1975 when the United Nations proclaimed it as one. The date the 8th of March commemorates several historical events which led to that proclamation: firstly, the New York garment workers’ march in 1908, when 15,000 female (but not only) sweatshop employees came together on the Lower East Side, Manhattan, to demand better working conditions as well as salaries which would guarantee them decent and dignified life.

Nine years later on March 8, 1917 (February 23 in the old Julian calendar observed at the time in Russia) another group of textile workers – approximately 15,000 women – took to the streets of Petrograd (now Sankt Petersburg), the capital of the Russian Empire, demanding “Bread and Peace”. Seven days later, the Russian Tsar abdicated and women were given the right to vote. Afterwards the day, March 8th, was celebrated in Russia as Women’s Day.

The 1917 strike in Petrograd. (photographer unknown, image PD).

In Germany of the 1930s and early 1940s, International Women’s Day – too socialist and too feminist in the eyes of the Nazis – was replaced by the Muttertag, Mother’s Day, clearly showing the world what role the German Woman was supposed to fulfill. Hitler himself made a point of instilling in women the “right” sense of their role within the new order: “The term ‘women’s emancipation’ is nothing but a product of a Jewish mind.”

Women whose sons died on battlefields and/or whose daughters proved themselves in the Geburtenschlacht (Battle of Births), or who – alternatively – produced a particularly high number of new Reichsbürger themselves, received medals, known as Mutterkreuze (reference to the Iron Cross given to their “heroic” men). So even though Muttertag was not sensu stricto a Nazi invention – it was called to life in 1923 by the Association of German Flower Sellers – it became synonymous with Nazi propaganda and their national politics.

Interestingly, after 1945 the divided “Germanys” went in two different directions in this respect, too: while in West Germany the Western Allies, especially the US forces, promoted the celebrating of the Muttertag again, East Germany – like all other Eastern Bloc countries – rejected it as a Nazi tradition and chose to celebrate exclusively the International Women’s Day instead.

For those who grew up in the DDR or the PPR (Polish People’s Republic), March 8 and the International Women’s Day are bound to bring up some of the best (and the worst) memories.

Those might have been only perfunctory celebrations – full of wilting carnations, sweet wine, cheap pralines and extra coupons for a pair of new tights (like with meat, butter, oil and flour, there was also a great shortage of those) – but it is hard not to think that in many ways, we were closer to women like Zietz, Zetkin, or Luxemburg then than we are today.

Berlin of the 1980s was a magnet attracting new people, new bands, new artists. The city’s imperfection, its messiness, its open ends juxtaposed against the ultimate barrier, the Wall, running through it, created a perfect breeding ground for all those who thought precious little of elegant white fences and “norms and regulations”.

One of the then new arrivals was a British band, Depeche Mode.  They found here both perfect music-making and recording conditions (at the legendary Hansa Studios in Köthener Straße in Kreuzberg) as well as an enthusiastic, devoted audience.

Not only in West Berlin or West Germany – Depeche Mode won the hearts of many, many East Berlin and East German fans. The same happened in Poland – something to which the author was herself a witness and active participant: I discovered Depeche Mode as a 14-year-old in the People’s Republic of Poland and remain one until today, as a citizen of the German Federal Republic.

Depeche Mode are frequent guests in Berlin and their concerts are sold out every single time. But what was it like back in the 1980s, in the DDR? It wasn’t, in fact, any different: the band were worshipped on both sides of the divide. But for those on its eastern side March 7th 1988 was what many still describe as “the most beautiful day of their life”. This short video – an extract from a longer documentary which is absolutely worth watching if found online – explains why. So does the book by Sascha Lange and Dennis Burmeister, two long-time Depeche Mode devotees.

You will also enjoy the author’s favourite early Depeche Mode video recorded in Berlin in the early 1980s and featuring among others, the U1 viaduct along Gitschiner Straße and Wassertorplatz in Kreuzberg, the Wannsee lido and Hansaviertel in Tiergarten: “Everything Counts”.