May Day Violence Hamburg Sees Worst Rioting in Years

May 1 is a traditional day of workers' unity rallies in Europe, but in Germany the day often brings clashes, particularly between anti-fascist leftists and neo-Nazis. On Thursday there were some isolated incidents in Berlin but it was Hamburg that saw the worst rioting.

Major May 1 riots rocked the northern German port city of Hamburg and isolated attacks occurred on Thursday in Berlin, where the head of the city's police department was forced to flee an angry crowd of left-wing demonstrators.

In Hamburg, an estimated 1,100 right-wing extremists and 7,000 left-wing demonstrators clashed, escalating to an unusual level of violence for the city. "These were the biggest riots the city has seen in a long time," Ralf Meyer, a spokesman for the Hamburg police, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. The intensity of the riots in the city has left officials shaken.

At a press conference on Friday, Peter Born, the Hamburg police officer in charge of deploying officers during the protests, said he believed the presence of officers prevented a loss of life during the particularly brutal clashes between the two groups. "If the police hadn't thrown themselves in between," Born said, "there would have been deaths. I am firmly convinced of that." Born was refering to a brawl that broke out between several hundred right-wing radicals whom he described as "nationalist anarchists" and a similarly large far-left group.

Following Thursday's violence, Hamburg Interior Minister Udo Nagel and the police union GdP sharply criticized the decision of a local upper administrative court to invalidate a police order prohibiting the right-wing and left-wing protest marches from coming into direct contact with each other.

"We knew we had to expect violence," Nagel told the mass-circulation daily Bild. "The police had developed a plan, but it was undermined by the court." Nagel described the court's decision as "irresponsible," adding that "the judges didn't just expose police to the worst dangers, but also people who hadn't even participated."

In the city on Thursday, rioters burned trash cans and cars, vandalized stores and cafés, lit firecrackers, set off smoke bombs and volleyed a hail of stones. In one incident, a pile of tires was burned just 20 meters (65.6 feet) away from a gas station. Around 2,500 police were deployed in the city, and officers attempted to disperse the crowds by firing water cannons.

Neo-Nazi groups in Germany often hold rallies during the May 1 holiday that frequently end in massive clashes between neo-Nazis and anti-fascist, left-wing groups. The day is traditionally one for workers' unity rallies across Europe, but in Germany it often boils down to confrontations between extreme-right and far-left protesters.

The event that triggered Thursday's violence was a march by far-right activists and neo-Nazis through Hamburg, during which the demonstrators shouted out slogans against the newly elected city parliament. The right-wing radicals disparaged it as a "gay government," an apparent reference to the city's openly homosexual mayor and his new city coalition government of conservative Christian Democrats and the left-wing Green Party. They also accused the government of working together with a "left-wing radical mob." The demonstration ended with a speech by the head of the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) in the city, neo-Nazi attorney Jürgen Rieger. But police quickly broke up the event.

In total, police arrested 55 people and temporarily detained another 200. Police said most of those arrested were young men who had traveled to Hamburg from either the formerly communist eastern German states or neighboring Denmark. Two men were arrested on suspicion of arson for allegedly burning two cars. Around 20 of the 2,500 police deployed were injured, and one police car and six other vehicles were burned.

In evening demonstrations, radical left-wing protesters threw stones at a local bank, set up barricades and then lobbed fireworks and rocks at oncoming police.

Attack on Police Chief

Berlin, a past hotbed of May 1 violence, remained relatively peaceful on Thursday -- with an estimated 10,000 people holding a demonstration in the city's multicultural Kreuzberg district. Still, police on Friday said that 138 rioters had been detained in the city, with charges expected to be filed against 92.

But as the city's police chief, Dieter Glietsch, visited the site in the early evening to get a better view of what was happening, left-wing extremists tried to attack him. Glietsch's security guards took him into a police van for protection, but protesters threw bottles stones and chairs at the vehicle. Police retaliated with pepper spray. Elsewhere, protesters also threw bottles, stones and even bicycles at officials in a neighborhood that has long been a lightning rod for left-wing violence.

The Bavarian city of Nuremberg also experienced left-wing violence on Thursday after 3,000 left-wing protesters try to stop a demonstration by the far-right NPD party. Police officials say protesters threw stones at officers, who responded by deploying nightsticks.

The state's governor, who is a nationally prominent politician, described the annual "violent excesses" of the right-wing anarchists and left-wing extremists as "entirely unacceptable." Governor Günther Beckstein called for changes in the law to allow security authorities to move to prevent violence from these groups before it takes shape on May 1 each year. He proposed, for example, implementing a rule that would require "known violent people" to register with their local police office on May 1. Similar requirements are on the books for registered football hooligans during some major matches, and Beckstein believes it would keep many from traveling to major rallies in bigger cities.

Neo-Nazis Take Control of Train

Meanwhile, police confirmed on Friday that a neo-Nazi group took control of two cars of a commuter train near Hamburg on Thursday as they traveled towards the march in the city, sending out xenophobic messages over its loudspeaker.

According to passengers, the neo-Nazi's took control of the loudspeaker and made anti-foreigner statements like: "Starting today, the German National Railway will transport foreigners and Germans in separate cars." For foreigners, the neo-Nazis apparently said, "freight cars are available."

However, a police spokesman denied a report in the mass-circulation daily Bild that federal police stood by and did nothing as the xenophobic incident occurred. Police claim they didn't receive a call from a witness until the train had pulled into a Hamburg train station. They said they were able, however, to get the names of some of the people who participated in the incident.