The Quest for Acceptability: The Socialists' May Days in Bavaria and Brittany, 1920-40

By Bargain-Villeger, Alban | Canadian Journal of History, Spring-Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

The Quest for Acceptability: The Socialists' May Days in Bavaria and Brittany, 1920-40


Bargain-Villeger, Alban, Canadian Journal of History


To this day May Day has been associated with the socialist and communist Lefts. (2) However, the importance of May Day as battlefield for political legitimacy has greatly decreased since the second half of the twentieth century? It must nevertheless be remembered that a ritual whose visibility and influence have been successfully challenged by new media and the de-proletarianisation of the Left used to be at the centre of most European socialist parties' communication strategies.

This study explores the ways in which the French and German Socialists incorporated May Day in their communication strategies in the 1920s and 1930s. By focusing on two of the most important socialist parties of the interwar period, the SFIO (Section francaise de l'Internationale ouvriere--French Section of the Workers' International, founded in 1905) and the SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutsehlands--Social Democratic Party of Germany, founded in 1875-90) in two conservative regions, namely Brittany and Bavaria, this analysis purports to show the importance of syncretism as propaganda tool in hostile political environments.

Syncretism, usually defined within the confines of religion, can also be applied to the realm of politics. In this context, it denotes the appropriation of locally non-threatening values in order to make an unwelcome set of beliefs more acceptable. For example, an attempt to convert an avowed Catholic to socialism by claiming that Jesus was a socialist would constitute a syncretistic approach. As opposed to "shock" tactics. (3) then, syncretistic methods aim to couch an ideology in moderate, reassuring terms.

The Socialists' more or less successful attempts at gaining ground in regions traditionally dominated by the Catholic Rights led them to resort to a combination of syncretistic and shock tactics? While the two parties usually were more confrontational during election campaigns, press campaigns that dealt with May Day were usually more diplomatic. Indeed, those campaigns led the SFIO and the SPD to tailor their rhetoric to non-proletarian readers and ultimately helped them portray themselves as broad-based republican parties. Moreover, the similarities between the SFIO's and the SPD's uses of syncretism demonstrate that the two parties have had more in common than has previously been assumed.

The rationale for the choice of Bavaria and Brittany in this study is threefold. Firstly, Bavarian and Breton socialists of various hues have resorted to syncretistic tactics ever since they began to gain visibility in their respective political landscapes, in the late 1860s in Bavaria, and in the 1890s in Brittany. (4) Secondly, the founding of the Bavarian SPD (BSPD) in 1892 and, in 1900, of the Breton Socialist Federation (FSB--Federation socialiste de Bretagne) gave the two regional organisations a unique status within their respective movements. Although the FSB was abolished in 1907 and the BSPD lost some of its autonomy in the 1920s, the regional/state dimension remained an important aspect of the BSPD's and the Breton federations' political cultures. (5)

Finally, the socioeconomic and cultural diversity of these two generally conservative regions make them ideal contexts in which to examine the importance of syncretistic tactics in generally hostile environments. Indeed, neither Bavaria's substantial Protestant populations in the Rhenish Palatinate, Swabia, and parts of Franconia, nor Brittany's bilingual nature, with Breton then' still spoken in its western half, qualified the Socialists' choices in matters of political communication. While they occasionally tailored their rhetoric to local conditions, the propagandists resorted to similar syncretistic approaches in all parts of Bavaria and Brittany. (6)

The first part of this study consists of a history of May Day from its beginnings until 1918. The second part is composed of two sections, After a brief history of the event during the interwar years, this part will attempt to shed some light on the extent of the Socialists' concern for tailoring the forms and contents of their messages to the local and regional contexts. …

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