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Film of Police Responding to Demonstrations in Berlin

Blutmai Footage
US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Courtesy of the Bundesarchiv

In the aftermath of World War I, economic collapse and social unrest helped fuel political extremism throughout Europe. During the years of the Weimar Republic (1918–1933), Germany's fragile new democracy faced several different insurrections and attempted coups from Communists, Nazis, and others. German police forces in the Weimar Republic confronted increased levels of political violence, and many Germans called for more forceful police responses.1 By the time of the Nazi Party’s rise to power in 1933, many German police supported the new regime’s persecution of Communists, Socialists, and other political opponents of Nazi rule.

Following World War I, many German police became hostile to Communism and sympathetic to rightwing movements such as the Nazi Party. Thousands of veterans joined German police forces during the first years of the Weimar Republic, as did members of rightwing paramilitary groups (Freikorps) that formed after the war ended.2 Unwilling to accept Germany's defeat in World War I, many former soldiers who joined the police believed in the widespread myth that Germany had only lost the war because the country had been betrayed from within by Communists, Socialists, and Jews. Known as the "stab-in-the-back legend" (Dolchstosslegende), this unfounded myth led many German police officers to question the legitimacy of the country’s democratic government and to develop prejudices against leftwing political groups. They shared this position with the Nazi Party.

The featured film provides a glimpse into the Berlin police responses to the prohibited Communist demonstrations of May 1929. Public political rallies had been banned in Berlin since November 1928, when three people were killed in fights between Communists and Nazis following a speech by Adolf Hitler.3 Berlin Communists planned a series of marches to protest the ban on May 1—International Workers' Day. Tensions escalated as police tried to disperse people gathering for the marches, leading to violence. The Berlin police began attacking crowds, chasing people through the streets, and shooting wildly.4

During the events that came to be known as “Blood May” (Blutmai), nearly 200 people were injured and 33 people were killed.5  Over the course of three days, Berlin police fired more than 10,000 bullets. Police attacked onlookers and witnesses unconnected to the demonstrations, and they even fired into people’s homes.6 One of the first people to die was shot by police while watching the events from his window. A similar vantage point is also featured in this film. What other perspectives can be seen in the film? Who is present in these scenes, and how do they respond to the crowds and the police? 

Although the events planned by Berlin Communists for International Workers' Day were not much more than a symbolic protest, Berlin police responded to the Communist demonstrations of May 1929 as if they were facing an organized insurrection against the government. Police training in the Weimar Republic often focused on suppressing civil unrest by force, and many German police held strong anticommunist beliefs. After using force to suppress threats from the far left, German police forces easily adapted to persecuting Communists, Socialists, and others who opposed the new Nazi regime in 1933.

For more on police responses to the rising levels of violence during the years of the Weimar Republic, see Christian Goeschel,"The Criminal Underworld in Weimar and Nazi Berlin," History Workshop Journal 75 (Spring 2013): 58-80; Sara F. Hall, "Moving Images and the Policing of Political Action in the Early Weimar Period," German Studies Review 31, no. 2 (May 2008): 285–302; and Molly Loberg, The Struggle for the Streets of Berlin: Politics, Consumption, and Urban Space, 1914-1945 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018). 

The 1919 Treaty of Versailles limited the size of Germany’s military to 100,000 soldiers and ensured that a centralized police force would not emerge as a way around these restrictions. Nevertheless, many veterans joined German police forces after World War I as the police took over responsibility for keeping order from the defunct army of Imperial Germany. To learn more about the structure and organization of German police in the Weimar Republic, see George C. Browder, "The Weimar Police," in Foundations of the Nazi Police State: The Formation of Sipo and SD (Lexington, KY: The University of Kentucky Press, 1990): 35-42. 

The decisions to extend the ban and mobilize thousands of police to enforce it were made by Berlin police president Karl Zörgiebel, who was a prominent politician with the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Tensions had been high between this moderate leftwing political party and German Communists for years, and rhetoric had grown even more antagonistic in the late 1920s. With the SPD controlling them, Berlin police were deployed to prevent radical political rallies from taking place.

Although the violence spread throughout the city, it was mostly centered in the working-class Berlin neighborhoods of Wedding and Neukölln

To learn more about "Blood May," see Peter Lessmann-Faust, "Blood May: The Case of Berlin, 1929," in Patterns of Provocation: Police and Public Disorder, edited by Richard Bessel and Clive Emsley (New York: Berghahn Books, 2000): 11–28; and Chris Bowlby, "Blutmai 1929: Police, Parties and Proletarians in a Berlin Confrontation," Historical Journal 29, no.1 (1986): 137–158.

Investigations into the events of "Blood May" were conducted immediately, and a report was created the following month. It concluded that all of those killed by gunshots had been shot by police, but only one of the deceased had been a member of a Communist organization. The report also revealed that ten of the civilians who had died had been shot by police while in their homes or on their balconies. Berlin police officials decided that it was "not appropriate" to release the report publicly, and Prussian government authorities did not pursue a high-level review of the events.

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Courtesy of the Bundesarchiv
Accession Number 1991.263.1
RG Number 60.3760
Source Number 60
Date Created
May 1, 1929
Duration 00:00:37
Time Selection 00:01–00:38
Sound No
Berlin, Germany
Moving Image Type Raw Footage
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