W. Liebknecht

The First of May in Germany


Written: 15 April 1897.
Published: Justice Mayday Special, 1st May 1897, p.4 & 5.
Transcribed by: Ted Crawford.
Markup: H. Antonn.


Last year I wrote to you that every year since the Feast of Labour was founded has shown an increase in the number of those who celebrate it. This was proved to be true by the First of May of 1896, and it will be proved by the First of May of 1897.

It is in the nature of things that such festivals require some time to strike root. And it is a fact which cannot be denied, except by malignity or by blindness, that the First of May, like its twin-brother, the Eighteenth of March, is getting more and deeper roots every year.

The First of May is the younger of the two great International Feast Days, given to the world by the working, Classes – given to the world in honour of humanity, justice, and science, and destined to replace the old Christian feasts, international too, but international only in the sense of benighted mankind and benightening priestcraft.

Vividly I recollect the enthusiasm with which the International Workingmen’s Congress of Paris, at the centenary of the French Revolution and the storming of the Bastille, received the proposition of our French comrades to create a great international holiday, to be celebrated by the class-conscious Working people in all countries of the world, and dedicated to the New Faith that is to fulfil what hat been the dream of the noblest intellects of all ages before us.

The first First of May brought hard fights in France, in Italy, in Germany. In France and Italy even blood was shed. In Germany the capitalists did all in their power to `prevent or spoil the celebration of the day. It was all in vain. In all centres of the Socialist movement there were demonstrations, social gatherings, meetings. Thousands of workmen were thrown on the streets. Lock-outs and strikes ensued, and heavy were our sacrifices: The Governments, of course, helped the capitalists, and the infamous Socialist Law – Law of Outlawry – which only was abolished five months later, gave the police full power to persecute.

The second First of May – 1891 – brought new struggles, new sacrifices, and new persecutions. But our workmen were undaunted; the First of May had become popular. Up to this day the opposition of the employers continued, and it waxes fiercer the more hopeless it becomes.

This year the employers, organised, in big combinations, threaten with instant and irrevocable dismissal every workman who will not work on the First of May. We laugh at the employers’ combinations and conspiracies. In many places the masters are reasonable, and allow a holiday. In other places, where they are not reasonable, they are unable to enforce their will. And where the masters can enforce their will the workmen, cursing the chains, will have to submit to brute force, and come to the Feast of Labour after the hours of wage-slavery.

This brutal opposition has only endeared the First of May to the masses, and, just as the party has been made great in Germany by persecution, so the First of May has, through persecution, become more. popular in Germany than in any other country, and it is now celebrated by the bulk of the working classes all over the country.

Last year already the May Day was celebrated almost entirely on the First of May, instead of the first Sunday in May, which in the first year had been chosen in some places to avoid conflicts with the employers and the police. But it was found that it was more manly to face the enemy, and this year there will be no May Day in Germany except on the First of May, and we are glad that in England, too, the same view is getting the upper hand.

This year our First of May will be of particular significance. Germany is in the midst of a political crisis such as we have not had since 1848. The German middle-classes have never been able to break monarchical absolutism, as the middle-classes have done in England and in France. So the Empire has a so-called “Constitution”, which on one side acknowledges the sovereignty of the people by establishing universal suffrage, and on the other side tolerates a Sovereign with undefined powers, who can every moment set his will against the will of the German people and the German Reichstag. The present Emperor has ideas and political notions diametrically opposed to those of the immense majority of the German people, and, being impulsive, and surrounded by persons who are aiming at a coup d’etat, he is now bent upon the realisation of plans which cannot fail to bring about a conflict between Government and Parliament. You know I am speaking of the “boundless marine projects”. We Germans are not to be content with being the greatest military power in the world, we are also to become the greatest maritime power of the world. But our army weighs already too heavily on us, and at the last General Election, in 1893, there was a million of votes more against than for the increase of the army, which the Government desired. However, in consequence of the inequality of the electoral districts; the majority of the voted did not mean a majority of members, and so the Government carried their Bill by a small majority. The election of 1893 has shown the true mind of the German people, and the hatred of militarism is increasing every day. As for the planned gigantic increase of the fleet, not a thousand men approve of it in all Germany, and out of these, thousand nine hundred and ninety–nine do so only because the Emperor wishes it! The Reichstag has rejected the proposals of the Government, and there has been no dissolution, although it had been announced beforehand by courtiers priding themselves to be in the Emperor’s confidence – the Emperor’s, not the Chancellor’s. What is the Chancellor? The Constitution makes him responsible for all acts of the Government. But what is the German Constitution? A sheet of paper. And the German Emperor commands more than a million of soldiers; he dismisses a Chancellor who does not do what he wants, and dissolves the Reichstag who oppose his will. Well, this time he did not dissolve it. Had he done so, the opposition, headed by Social–Democracy, would have gained a hundred seats, and swept away the principal supporters of the Government. This the Government knew, and so we shall have our elections only in the summer of next year, when the present Reichstag reaches its natural end. And then we shall fight against militarism, against marinism, and against absolutism in general, which means capitalist reaction, which in 1850 made the coup d’etat in France, and which is now preparing the coup d’etat in Germany.

When the present Emperor ascended the throne he believed in “social kingship”. In February, 1891, he said to one of our largo employers: “The workmen list have equal rights with the other classes, and they must get the conviction that they are not treated as inferior beings”. A year later, just before the elections of 1890, he published the famous “Ordinances of February”, containing the solemn promise that the working classes should have equal rights, and would be protected against too keen exploitation. We were thankful, but not contented. We trusted in our good cause, kept our powder dry, and beat the enemy. These were the memorable elections, which made us the strongest of all parties in Germany, and which, broke the Socialist Law and Bismarck’s blood and iron rule. And the Emperor! He had his international conference for the promotion of International Factory Laws. And what came out of it? Nothing. I was at that time asked by Duc Quercy, one of our French friends, who was in Germany then, what were my opinions concerning the Emperor’s new policy. I told him the policy was not new, and there was no choice for the Emperor but to become a Social-Democrat and help us fighting against capital. If not, he was sure to succumb to capital. He did not become a Social Democrat, and he succumbed to capital. When the Hamburg dockers strike broke out last November, the Imperial Government took at once the side of the employers, and the Emperor personally told them the employers of Germany had the duty to combine against the workmen. That is the “social kingdom” in practice.

On the First of May the German Socialists will think of all that. They will proudly face the fact that all other parties, the Government included, are bent upon destroying them, but that they are strong enough to conquer them all. They will, in the solemn communion of Labour’s International Feast Day, strengthen themselves for our two great tasks: to found political liberty on the basis of Universal Suffrage, which we have to defend against our enemies, and to prepare and organise the Social Revolution.

Our English comrad, Herbert Burrows, was with us on March 18. He saw what stuff our workmen are made of, and what is their spirit. The spirit of the meeting, which he attended with me, is the spirit of the hundreds of thousands that will gather in Germany to celebrate the First of May. Hundreds of thousands will then repeat the vow of relentless hatred to tyranny and oppression. Hundreds of thousands will renew the resolution of continuing the fight for the rights of labour and mankind until victory is gained. Hundreds of thousands will send Fraternal greetings to their comrades in all other countries. And I speak out of the heart of every German Socialist and class-conscious workman if I conclude with the assurance that the German proletarians are throughout fully alive to the call of Karl Marx: “Proletarians of all countries unite!” and that they will fulfil all duties imposed upon us by our Socialist and international programme.

My, nay, our love to the English comrades end fellow and fellow fighters

Hoch die Internationale Social-Demokratie! Hoch die Englischen Brueder! Hoch der Erste May!

Berlin, April 15, 1897



Last updated on 9.2.2005