The story of Germany’s national anthem

… protests against police brutality towards African Americans. Professional football player Colin Kaepernic …

… protests against police brutality towards African Americans. Professional football player Colin Kaepernic …

National anthems all over the world can be pretty violent. The French sing about the blood of their enemies watering their fields in their anthem written in 1792; the Italians are ready to die fighting for peace and freedom (1847) and the Argentines swear to die gloriously for those same ideals (1813).

The German anthem is comparatively peaceful, even though the lyrics also date back to the mid-19th century, a period of confrontation among nations.

Just like the country, “The Song of the German,” known as the “Deutschlandlied,” looks back at a turbulent history.

Adopted on May 2, 1952 after World War II, the Federal Republic’s national anthem is a version which only uses the third verse of the original song. It begins with the lines: “Unity and justice and freedom for the German fatherland! Let us all strive for this, brotherly with heart and hand!”

Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben wrote the words of the ‘Deutschlandlied’

Yearning for national unity

The text dates back to the 19th century.

On August 26, 1841, the poet August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben (1798-1874) penned the verses in an appeal to his countrymen to create a united German empire.

At the time, Germany was fragmented into countless individual states under the rule of various princes. Von Fallersleben set his text to the melody of Joseph Haydn’s 1797 “Kaiserquartett” (Emperor Quartet).

In the Weimar Republic, “Deutschlandlied” became the national anthem for the first time, as decreed on August 11, 1922 by the republic’s Social Democratic president, Friedrich Ebert.

It remained the German anthem under Nazi rule, too — but only the first stanza. The line “Germany, Germany, above all in the world” seemed tailor-made for the Nazi regime’s ideology, even if back in the mid-19th century, Hoffmann von Fallersleben rather intended to promote the idea of a unified German nation.

After the end of World War II, the song was banned in the American occupation zone for a time.

The German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany, immediately presented poet Johannes Robert Becher’s “Auferstanden aus Ruinen” (Risen from Ruins) as its new anthem when the state was founded in 1949, but it took a while for West Germany, founded that same year, to find a new anthem.

Konrad Adenauer, Germany’s first chancellor

Carnival songs for state visits

In the absence of a German anthem, at official receptions and sporting events, bands abroad would play popular German carnival songs like “Wir sind die Eingeborenen von Trizonesien” (We are the natives of Trizonesia) — a reference to the three zones of occupation in West Germany after World War II. Despite being from the Rhine region, known for its boisterous carnivals, Germany’s first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, was not impressed. Clearly, it was high time for an official song.

“Ich hab mich ergeben” (I have surrendered), Hans Ferdinand Massmann’s 1820 folk and student song, was often sung at official West German events, including the proclamation of the Basic Law on May 23, 1949, and at the constituent session of the Bundestag on September 7, 1949.

Its lyrics stated: “I surrendered
with heart and hand,
You land full of love and life
My German fatherland!”

But this song was not meant to be kept as the national anthem.

President Theodor Heuss commissioned a new anthem entitled “Land of Faith, German Land,” but it failed to convince the population, asked in a poll.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was in favor of keeping the “Deutschlandlied.” The chancellor prevailed, and the president gave in, under the condition that only the third verse ever be sung on official occasions.

In May 1952, West Germany finally had an anthem again.

It took a while for other countries to take note, however. The following year, during a visit to Chicago in 1953, the German Chancellor was welcomed by a band playing yet another carnival song, “Heidewitzka, Herr Kapitan” (Heidewitzka, Mr. Captain). He remained unperturbed.

Alternatives to anthems

Germany’s national anthem has meanwhile established itself, even though statistics say only very second German knows the text. And every now and then, somebody asks whether Germany needs a new national anthem or at least a reworking of the old one.

De Maiziere played a Brecht song as an alternative

Before Germany’s reunification, the first freely-elected President of the German Democratic Republic, Lothar de Maiziere, played Bertolt Brecht‘s “Children’s hymns” on the violin for the West German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schauble.

But the third paragraph of the “Deutschlandlied” prevailed, as determined by then-president Richard von Weizsacker and Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

In 2005, pop singer Sarah Conner reworked a version of the German anthem. She sang the song at a football game, changing the words, “Bloom in the glow of this happiness,” into “Brew in the light of this happiness.”

Canada and Austria adjust

In 2018, the equal opportunities officer of the German family ministry, Kristin Rose-Mohring, suggested that the “Song of the Germans” be modified to reflect gender equality. She suggested “fatherland” be replaced with “homeland” and “brotherly, with heart and hand” with “courageously, with heart and hand,” but the changes were not adopted.

Austria had already led the way after changing the line “You are the home of great sons” to “home of great sons and daughters” in its anthem. Canada also corrected its national song to reflect gender neutrality.

Questioning the German national anthem can bring its own set of problems, as Thuringen’s chief minister Bodo Ramelow realized three years ago. In an interview, Ramelow said he wanted “a new text that was so catchy, that everyone would identify with it.” Ramelow landed on the first pages of Germany’s tabloids, with the Bild newspaper talking of his “crazy plan” to remove the national anthem.

The first two paragraphs of the German anthem are taboo, but not banned. In 2017, the anthem again became a subject of debate when the German Fed Cup women’s team played against the USA in Maui and a singer sang the first paragraph of the song before a tennis match.

Meanwhile, the Spanish have done away with all problems lyrics may bring: Their “Marcha Real” from 1761 has no text.

This article was originally written in German.


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