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The story of Germany's national anthem

Torsten Landsberg
May 2, 2022

Created in the 19th century, the "Deutschlandlied" was sullied by the Nazis. Germany decided 70 years ago it would adopt only the third verse of the original song as its national anthem.

A German flag is raised in front of the German parliament in Berlin
The Bundestag in BerlinImage: Winfried Rothermel/picture alliance

National anthems all over the world can be pretty violent. In their anthem written in 1792, the French sing about the blood of their enemies watering their fields; 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 Germany," known as the "Deutschlandlied," looks back at a turbulent history.

Adopted on May 2, 1952, seven years after the end of World War II, West Germany's national anthem uses only 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
Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben wrote the words of the 'Deutschlandlied'Image: dpa/picture-alliance

Yearning for national unity

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).

The "Deutschlandlied" first became the national anthem in the Weimar Republic, as decreed on August 11, 1922 by the Social Democratic president, Friedrich Ebert.

It remained the national 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 though Hoffmann von Fallersleben had originally intended to promote the idea of a unified German nation.

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

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

Konrad Adenauer
Konrad Adenauer, West Germany's first chancellorImage: DB Bundespresseamt Ludwig Wegmann/dpa/picture alliance

Carnival songs for state visits

In the absence of a national anthem, at official receptions and sporting events, bands 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. Even though Germany's first chancellor, Konrad Adenauerhailed from the Rhine region, known for its boisterous carnivals, these were deemed unsuitable as an official anthem.

"Ich hab mich ergeben" (I have surrendered), Hans Ferdinand Massmann's 1820 folk and student song, was often sung at state events in West Germany, including at 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 destined to be the national anthem either. President Theodor Heuss had in fact commissioned a new anthem entitled "Land of Faith, German Land," but it failed to convince the population, which was asked its opinion 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 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 Kapitän" (Heidewitzka, Mr. Captain). He remained unperturbed.

Alternatives to anthems

These days, everyone knows the "Deutschlandlied" is the national anthem, although statistics show that only 50% of Germans know the words. And every now and then, somebody asks whether Germany needs a new national anthem — or at least a reworking of the old one.

 Lothar de Maiziere
In 1990 Lothar de Maiziere performed a Brecht song, mooted as a possible alternativeImage: Johannes Eisele/dpa/picture-alliance

An alternative was mooted ahead of Germany's reunification in 1990, when the first freely-elected President of the German Democratic Republic, Lothar de Maiziere, played Bertolt Brecht's "Children's Hymn" on the violin for the West German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. 

But the third paragraph of the "Deutschlandlied" won out, as determined by then-president Richard von Weizsäcker and Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

In 2005, pop singer Sarah Conner inadvertently reworked the German anthem when she performed the song at a football game and changed the words "Bloom in the glow of happiness," into "Brew in the light of happiness."

Canada and Austria adjust

In 2018, the equal opportunities officer of the German family ministry, Kristin Rose-Möhring, suggested that the "Song of Germany" 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." 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 Thüringen's chief minister Bodo Ramelow realized three years ago. In an interview, Ramelow said he wanted "a new text that was catchy enough for everyone to identify with." Ramelow landed on the first pages of Germany's tabloids, with the Bild newspaper talking of his "crazy plan" to replace 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.