How Germany′s national anthem withstood 175 years of political change | Music | DW | 26.08.2016
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How Germany's national anthem withstood 175 years of political change

It's been called too republican and was misused by the Nazis. The German national anthem, sung to a melody by Haydn, was written 175 years ago. "Unity, justice and freedom" seem to be resilient to political upheaval.

During the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, national anthems sounded a total of 306 times as medals were handed out. The German anthem was heard 17 times - once in honor of 25-year-old track cyclist Kristina Vogel, who won her single track sprint by just one four-thousandth of a second, despite nearly losing her bike seat.

A short time later, the Erfurt-based athlete teared up as these words resounded in the venue:

3. Unity and justice and freedom
For the German fatherland!
Let us all strive for this purpose
Brotherly with heart and hand!
Unity and justice and freedom
Are the pledge of happiness
Flourish in the glow of this happiness,
Flourish, German fatherland

Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben, Copyright: picture-alliance/OKAPIA

Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben

August Heinrich Hoffmann (1798-1874) wrote the text of what is now the German national anthem - known as the Song of Germany - 175 years ago, on August 26, 1841. Using the pseudonym Hoffmann von Fallersleben, he was a university lecturer who wrote poetry and collected and published old writings.

Hoffmann von Fallersleben's lyrics were paired with the "Emperor's Hymn" melody composed by Joseph Haydn in 1797. Six weeks later, the Song of Germany was sung publicly for the first time in Hamburg. It originally consisted of three verses, but only the third is used nowadays as the German national anthem. But let's go back to the beginning.

Turbulent political times in central Europe

The song originated during an eventful era. During the first half of the 19th century, following the wars and subsequent reign of Napoleon, German national identity was in tatters. The so-called Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation had ceased to exist during the liberation wars against the French emperor, giving way to the existence of more than three dozen little states only loosely held together in the German Confederation. A unified national German state did not exist.

Helgoland, Copyright: picture alliance / Hinrich Bäsemann

Hoffmann von Fallersleben wrote the song text on the island of Helgoland

The search for common ground between Saxony and Württemberg, Prussia and Bavaria, Hesse and Holstein only advanced at a very slow pace until a new nationalist movement was born when the French demanded in 1840 that the Rhine River should serve as France's western border. In other words, France was claiming the Alsace and Lorraine regions, along with everything else west of the Rhine.

The Germans responded with numerous new patriotic songs dismissing the French claims, including the "The Guard on the Rhine." Hoffmann's Song of Germany of 1841 can be seen within this political context, although it actually distanced itself from some of those other patriotic songs.

A song as a declaration of love

The Song of Germany testifies to Hoffmann von Fallersleben's yearning for his fatherland, which had ceased to exist. The very first words in the now defunct first verse, "Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles" (Germany, Germany, above everything else), were an appeal to his countrymen to do their utmost to create a new German empire that would unite all positive qualities of human community: protection, brotherhood, unity, justice and liberty.

Hoffmann von Fallersleben directed his avowal of a national state towards all people living in the German speaking world of this era, marking the frontiers with bodies of water: from the Meuse River in the West to the Neman River in the Northeast, and from the Adige River in the Southeast to the Great Belt Strait in the Baltic Sea in the North.

Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben's hand-written Song of Germany, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Grimm

The Song of Germany text, hand-written by Hoffmann von Fallersleben

The Song of Germany didn't take off as a number one hit. For a long time, it was just one of many tunes sung by glee clubs, sport clubs, revolutionaries, fraternities and sports leagues. The German emperors rejected it for being too "republican" - in contrast to quite a few German soldiers on the front during World War I.

The Song of Germany wasn't declared the official German anthem until 1922 by the first president of the Weimar Republic, the Social Democrat Friedrich Ebert. That anthem also included the second verse, which praises German women, virtues and characteristics. Lacking any political significance, it was more suited as a drinking song.

2. German women, German loyalty,
German wine and German song
Shall retain in the world
Their old beautiful chime
And inspire us to noble deeds
During all of our life.
German women, German loyalty,
German wine and German song!

First verse often taken out of context

As for the first verse, it has often been misinterpreted or mistranslated - sometimes intentionally. Taken out of context, critics have associated it with German arrogance, aggression or even imperialism.

1. Germany, Germany above all else,
Above all else in the world,
When, for protection and defense,
It always stands brotherly together.
From the Meuse to the Memel,
From the Adige to the Belt,
Germany, Germany above all else,
Above all else in the world!

The Nazis have a lot to do with the misuse of the first verse. Taken superficially, Hoffmann von Fallersleben's sophisticated phrases could fit perfectly into the Nazis' blood and soil ideology. During the Third Reich, the song continued to be used as the national anthem, but only the first verse was sung. It was followed with the so-called "Horst Wessel Song," a battle tune from 1929 that later become the Nazi party anthem.

Opening of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Copyright: picture-alliance/Schirner Sportfoto

The Nazis misused the first verse of the Song of Germany

Divided country, divided anthems

In ruins after World War II, Germany was divided up by the Allies in 1945. Not unlike the period in which the Song of Germany was written, the country was once again in fragments. The anthem was banned only in the American sector and only for a short time.

Germany's East went to the Soviet Union and was absorbed into the communist bloc. In 1949, East Germany took its own national anthem, known as "Auferstanden aus Ruinen" (Risen from Ruins).

After the war, West Germany didn't have an official national anthem, which led to a few embarrassing moments at international events. When Chancellor Konrad Adenauer visited the US, the carnival song "Heidewitzka, Herr Kapitän" (Woo Hoo, Mr. Captain) was played instead.

It wasn't until 1952 that Adenauer and German President Theodor Heuss reinstated the Song of Germany as the national anthem - but with one caveat: Only the third verse should be sung.

The Song of Germany, Copyright: Imago/Schöning

Can you sing along?

Return to (musical) unity

"Unity and justice and freedom / For the German fatherland! / Let us all strive for this purpose /

Brotherly with heart and hand!" This line in the third verse seems like an appeal that applies in particular to times of division.

This appeal was fulfilled on October 3, 1990, when West and East Germany were reunified. The following year, President Richard von Weizsäcker and Chancellor Helmut Kohl agreed that the third verse of Hoffmann von Fallersleben's song, based on the melody by Joseph Haydn, would become the national hymn for the reunified country.

"Unity and justice and freedom": It seems the values represented in the Song of Germany still ring true for Germans today - including Kyrgyzstan-born German athlete Kristina Vogel.

German reunification celebration at the Reichstag on October 3, 1990, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa

Unity was restored in Germany on October 3, 1990