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The German national anthem and its pitfalls

September 6, 2023

A spectator at the US Open was kicked out after chanting what used to be the lyrics of the German national anthem, but is now a reminder of the country's Nazi past. Here's what you need to know about the anthem.

German flag on a boat
Germany has a complicated relationship with its national anthemImage: Eberhard Thonfeld/IMAGO

German tennis player Alexander Zverev had reported the spectator to the umpire after he heard him singing "Deutschland über alles," or Germany above everything, during Zverev's match against Italy's Jannik Sinner.

The phrase used to be part of the lyrics of the German national anthem, but was removed after World War II. 

"He started singing the Hitler anthem. That was too much," Zverev said to reporters. "As a German, I'm not proud of that part of history and it's not OK to do that."

Confused about why a former national anthem lyric triggers such strong reactions? We got you covered. 

Alexander Zverev during a tennis match
Zverev said that many people had heard the spectator chanting the offending lyric, and that he couldn't let it stand.Image: Dubreuil Corinne/abaca/picture alliance

How the 'Song of Germany' became the national anthem

Composed by Joseph Haydn, the much-admired melody for the "Lied der Deutschen" (Song of the Germans) - also known as the "Deutschlandlied" (Song of Germany) - was first performed in 1797 to honor Holy Roman Emperor Francis II, who would later become the emperor of Austria.

The lyrics were added by the German poet August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben in 1841. He was a big proponent of a unified Germany, which he believed preferable to all the small principalities with their own rulers that still existed in his time.

That's why his first words of the eventual anthem were "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles / Über alles in der Welt" (Germany, Germany above all / Above all in the world).

In 1922, the "Lied der Deutschen," still in its entirety at the time, was officially declared the national anthem of the Weimar Republic.

The Nazi problem

When Adolf Hitler rose to power in the 1930s, the Nazi regime misused the first verse - "Deutschland über alles" - to emphasize what they saw as Germany's superiority to all other nations.

That's why the Allies prohibited the public singing of the "Lied der Deutschen" after they vanquished Nazi Germany to bring World War II to an end in 1945. When Chancellor Konrad Adenauer requested to reintroduce the song as the national anthem of West Germany in 1952, he made it very clear that only the third verse would be sung. It begins with "Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit / Für das deutsche Vaterland," which translates to "Unity and justice and freedom / for the German fatherland."

The former communist East Germany had its own hymn, "Auferstanden aus Ruinen," or Risen from the Ruins." In 1991, a year after reunification, all of Germany then adopted the third stanza of the "Song of Germany" as its unified anthem.  

Thus, today, the German national anthem consists of just this third verse.

Not a crime ― but likely a faux pas 

It can still be tricky for non-Germans to get the anthem right. That became clear at another tennis event, when a US soloist performed the first verse at the opening of a Fed Cup match on the Hawaiian island of Maui in February 2017, angering German athletes and fans alike.

Though most Germans find the redacted lines, including a second verse that praises German women and wine, distasteful or undesirable, it is not a crime to perform the whole "Lied der Deutschen" at events.

However, the person at the mic would not be singing the actual national anthem of Germany, which is the third verse ― and the third verse only.

Editor's note: This article was originally published on August 16, 2017. It was updated with the US Open incident on September 6, 2023. 

Edited by: Andreas Illmer

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Carla Bleiker
Carla Bleiker Editor, channel manager and reporter focusing on US politics and science@cbleiker