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German President Joachim Gauck, remembering a Nazi purge of trade unionists 80 years ago, on Thursday called for greater rights for workers from Bangladesh to South America.
"Freedoms, rights and dignity only exist as long as we practise and defend them, even in today's democracy," said Gauck, who was a pastor and rights activist in communist East Germany.
He spoke at an event commemorating May 2, 1933 when Adolf Hitler's regime smashed the country's trade union movement and sent their leaders into exile, to jail or to their deaths.
Gauck, the ceremonial head of state, urged support for unionists persecuted today, saying that at least 76 were killed worldwide in 2011 for defending workers' rights.
"Too many workers in the world are still without any protection or representation," Gauck said. "Just recently almost 400 workers were buried under a dilapidated building in Bangladesh.
"Elsewhere toxic chemicals sicken textile dyers, workers without rights are exploited in illegal jobs, migrant workers can't send their children to school, young girls hired as domestic help are abused as slaves," said Gauck.
Speaking about the events of 80 years ago, Gauck praised those labour leaders who joined the resistance, saying the memory of persecution and struggle "reminds us what's worth fighting for."
"Only where free trade unions and workers' representatives exist can free, participatory democracy be more than an empty promise and become a social reality," said Gauck.
In 1933, only months after Hitler's January 30 rise to power, his henchmen on May 2 stormed the offices of labour leaders as police looked on, taking them into what they called "protective custody."
The day before, May 1, the Nazis had cynically co-opted the international Labour Day as their own public holiday, celebrated by applauding masses under swastika flags.
The Nazis delivered a death blow to a union movement already paralysed by mass unemployment, economic crisis and internal divisions.
Too weak to fight back, perhaps with a general strike, union leaders had as late as February urged "cool blood" in face of the Nazi terror.
Many people had not yet faced the reality that Hitler's regime was using "intimidation, naked violence and state repression" to limit and finally eliminate democracy, said Gauck.
The nationwide raids marked the "worst defeat in the history of the free union movement," said Michael Sommer, chairman of the German Trade Union Federation, at the remembrance event.
"Many who had not already gone into hiding or exile were imprisoned or sent to concentration camps, tortured, and not a few were killed. We remember them with gratitude for their courage, their willingness to take risks, their resistance."