Frankfurt am Main 1st May Demonstration 1932

Zuchthaus, Frankfurt am Main, 1st May 1932 © Gisèle Freund
Zuchthaus, Frankfurt am Main, 1st May 1932
Black-and-white photograph; Fiber Base Silver Gelatine Print; white outline border


Sturm bereit! Hinein in die antifasch. Organisationen!, Frankfurt am Main, 1st May 1932 © Gisèle Freund
Sturm bereit! Hinein in die antifasch. Organisationen!, Frankfurt am Main, 1st May 1932
Black-and-white photograph; Fiber Base Silver Gelatine Print; white outline border


Die Rote Anna, Frankfurt am Main, 1st May 1932 © Gisèle Freund
Die Rote Anna, Frankfurt am Main, 1st May 1932
Black-and-white photograph; Fiber Base Silver Gelatine Print; white outline border


Schupos, Frankfurt am Main, 1st May 1932 © Gisèle Freund
Schupos, Frankfurt am Main, 1st May 1932
Black-and-white photograph; Fiber Base Silver Gelatine Print; white outline border


Strasse frei am 1. Mai, Frankfurt am Main, 1st May 1932 © Gisèle Freund
Strasse frei am 1. Mai, Frankfurt am Main, 1st May 1932
Black-and-white photograph; Fiber Base Silver Gelatine Print; white outline border
In 1932 I was a sociology student, but my hobby was photography. My father, in 1928, had given me a Leica camera, a make that had been on the market for only six years. I was impressed by the ease with which this little camera could be handled and the possibility of taking almost forty pictures without changing the reel (film in those days was not yet numbered).

Sunday, May 1, Frankfurt am Main. The weather is splendid, not a cloud in the transparent sky, and the spring air is surprisingly mild.

In the dawn, lines of trucks transporting men and women approach the city. All of the passengers get off as soon as they arrive and line up in columns, led by people carrying placards covered with political slogans. The streets swarm with a crowd that moves toward the Roemerplatz, the large medieval square in the old city, alongside the cathedral. Soon the square is filled by a veritable human sea and the arriving columns must station themselves in the adjoining streets (Frankfurter Zeitung, May 2, 1932).

May Day is the holiday celebrating labour, but most of the faces are grim and anxious. At least a third of those assembled on this day are unemployed. In 1932 Germany had more than six million unemployed, and this, when one includes their families, represents a total of twenty million people living in poverty. It is the greatest economic and social disaster ever experienced by the Weimar Republic, which had been established only thirteen years before. The crisis had begun with the crash of the New York stock exchange in 1929. Considerable American capital was invested in Germany. Banks collapsed, thousands of businesses were ruined, and the climate became one of catastrophe.

Political behaviour accordingly became radicalized. Parapolitical squads of the Communist party and of the National Socialist party met face to face during bloody battles on the streets of large cities. Chancellor Brüning, heading a government composed of the Catholic party of the center and of parties on the right, could govern only by emergency measures.

On this May Day, the Social Democratic party, the Communist party, the trade unions, and other workers’ organizations have summoned all their members and sympathizers to demonstrate against the government. The left is anxious: the Communists and Social Democrats are still strong, but in the last Landtag elections they have lost a considerable number of seats to the National Socialists, whose rise seems to be overwhelming.

Speakers address the crowd and denounce the fascists. They also blame the Social Democrats, whom they hold responsible for the situation and for the rise of the forces of the right, since their leaders have not opposed Hitler vigorously enough. They also condemn big business for financing him out of fear of the Communists.

The students, too, are politicized, and battles take place in front of the University between those of the right and those of the left.

Members of rightist groups organize a demonstration protected by the police, in which students of the “Korps” participate in uniform. When the leftist students see them march, they hastily organize a counterdemonstration, improvise handwritten placards, and go in formation to the University. The police immediately intervene, confiscate the placards, and arrest those carrying them, taking them away in police vans while the other demonstrators flee.

Actually the Government’s emergency decrees oblige the organizers of street rallies, whatever their orientation, to obtain a permit first from the police, something that the leftist students, caught by surprise by their opponents’ demonstration, have not had time to do.

I do not recall seeing a single professional photographer during this impressive demonstration, which was to be the last before the end of the Weimar Republic.

In January 1933, Hitler became chancellor of the Reich and established his dictatorship in Germany. Many of those I photographed on that May Day in 1932 became members of the Nazi party; others ended up in concentration camps.

By Gisèle Freund, 1985

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