Introduction of the German National Anthem
Prof. Dr. Juliane Brauer / History
Photo: Friederike von Heyden

"You can tell an incredible amount of history from the use of songs".

Prof. Dr. Juliane Brauer on the introduction of the German national anthem in the Weimar Republic.

The German national anthem is an amalgamation of the Deutschlandlied, composed in 1841 by August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben, and the original Roman-German imperial anthem by Joseph Haydn. How did this come about?

Brauer: Basically, it's nothing unusual that we have poems that are mixed with familiar melodies, or that we have a poem that is also given a new melody decades later or even a century later. If you look at this song - it wasn't a national anthem at the time, after all - the story of how it came about is rather typical. August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben traveled through the German lands in 1841 and discovered his national feeling. We are in the middle of the Rhine crisis. The question is whether the areas on the left bank of the Rhine should belong to France or the German Confederation (the German Empire did not exist at that time, it was not founded until 1871). That is, we are in the midst of a search phase for national identity, which comes to a provisional conclusion with the founding of the Empire. But in 1841 it is still completely open which areas are "German", which should belong to a future German nation state. The areas on the left bank of the Rhine belonged to France until 1814 and were assigned to the German Confederation after the Congress of Vienna. This was challenged by France in 1840. The Rhine was to become the natural border again. Which areas were now German, which French? During this time, many Rhine poems and Rhine songs were written that were inspired by the national idea. One of these poems later became a kind of national anthem of the empire. That was "Die Wacht am Rhein" by Max Schneckenburg and Carl Wilhelm. Now Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben, on his journey through the German territories in 1841, also wrote a poem about the questions of what is German, what is German land, what is German identity. What is not certain is whether he had already written his text to Joseph Haydn's melody of 1797. What is certain, however, is that Haydn's "Kaiserhymne" was very popular at the time. It provided the melody for more than 50 poems. In this respect, it is not unusual that the poem by Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben was also quickly sung to Haydn's melody.

It was not until August 10, 1922 that Reich President Friedrich Ebert designated the Song of the Germans as the national anthem of the German Reich. Why this song in particular?

Brauer: We are in the early years of the Weimar Republic. We have a democratic republic for the first time, that's how it was called and understood. August 10, or actually August 11, 1922, was the so-called Constitution Day, the third anniversary on which the Weimar Constitution was adopted. On this day, the "Song of the Germans" was officially sung as the national anthem for the first time. Friedrich Ebert probably adopted it on August 10. The early years of the Weimar Republic were not easy. It was founded in 1918 and gave itself the constitution of a democratic republic in the summer of 1919. That shook the country up a lot, because the people and the politicians had to learn democracy first. Especially in the early years, there were massive attacks on the republic from the right-wing conservatives, from the Reichswehr and from the Kaisertreuen, which had to be fended off. Shortly before Constitution Day, Walther Rathenau was assassinated and the Republic stood on very shaky ground. But why was the "Deutschlandlied" introduced as an anthem precisely on Constitution Day? This song had already been sung for a long time by German nationalists, including the militant, anti-Semitic chauvinists loyal to the Kaiser, as a national song. Therefore, it was actually problematic to designate it as the anthem of the new republic. For the Communists and Social Democrats, the "Deutschlandlied" was downright forbidden. Therefore, there was a long phase of negotiating what could be the national anthem of the Weimar Republic. The decisive point was then that with the "Song of the Germans" a continuity could be established from the bourgeois-democratic beginnings of the Vormärz and the revolution of 1848 to the new republic and therefore it seemed so suitable for the first German republic. In addition, in 1922 England asked which official song should be played for the Weimar Republic? Every country needed an anthem for official occasions. In response, in the summer of 1922, the Reich government relied on the civic democratic tradition and the feeling of "unity and justice and freedom," which was supposed to be stronger than the chauvinistic nationalist idea with which the militant Kaisertreuen had sung the Deutschlandlied until then.

After World War II, the singing of the national anthem was banned, especially in the American zone, and even after the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, there was no definition of an anthem. On official occasions, therefore, the first stanza of Schiller's poem "An die Freude" in Ludwig van Beethoven's setting of the fourth movement of the 9th Symphony was often used as a substitute anthem. But even that could not catch on. Why not?

Brauer: I really love these song stories, because you can tell an incredible amount of history by the use and struggle for songs. On May 23, 1949, the Federal Republic was founded with the adoption of the Basic Law, and on October 7, the GDR was founded with the adoption of the constitution. In between, we have the division of Germany into the four occupation zones. On the one hand the three western occupation zones and on the other hand the Soviet occupation zone. The three western zones gradually merge, first in 1947 to form the British-American Bizone, and then the Trizone. With regard to the Trizone, the cabaret artist Karl Berbuer wrote in 1948 as a carnival song: "We are the natives of Trizonesia". This was played and sung as an anthem and not so much "Ode to Joy". The "Trizonesien-Song" describes the Germans ironically as human "Wesien" and not as "Menschenfresser" (man-eaters) and thus stands for the German state of mind during the occupation. The Germans no longer wanted to be demonized by the Allies, but wanted to be considered normal people in a normal country again, which, in view of the crimes committed during the Nazi era, also stands for a complete oblivion of history. Of course, the song was not permanently used as an anthem on official occasions. The GDR was much faster in this respect, and that makes it particularly exciting. The first officials were already working on the anthem in August 1949, barely three months before the state was founded. Johannes R. Becher and Hanns Eisler were commissioned to write a new national anthem for the new Germany. "Risen from Ruins and Facing the Future" begins the first stanza. Thus the song stands for a new, state consciousness of a developing socialist state. Regardless of the political context, Eisler also succeeded in writing a gripping composition; it is not for nothing that he is considered one of the most important German composers of the 20th century. No sooner had the GDR been founded than President Wilhelm Pieck officially designated this song as its anthem. It was spread massively via radio, through printed music and learning in schools. In the Federal Republic, of course, it did not work to impose a song as an anthem in such an authoritarian way. Theodor Heuss, the first Federal President, also wanted a new anthem for the Federal Republic. It was clear to him: we cannot and must not sing this "Deutschlandlied" in these three stanzas, especially since the first stanza, "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles..." was always sung in conjunction with the Horst Wessel song during the Nazi era. There were many submissions with suggestions for a new anthem. The archives still bear witness to this today. Many people wrote to the President, making suggestions for new anthems. But Heuss then commissioned the poet Rudolf Alexander Schröder in the summer of 1950 to compose a new text. At first he wanted Carl Orff to compose the melody, but he refused. Hermann Reutter then composed the melody. But the result was not convincing; the melody and text seemed more like a chorale. The reactions of contemporaries showed that the new anthem could not move hearts, could not grip emotions, and the criticism was harsh. Heuss and Adenauer then had a long correspondence about what was really allowed to be played as the anthem for Germany. Adenauer pleaded strongly for the "Song of the Germans," the old, beloved anthem, because it had grown so close to people's hearts, was so emotional, and everyone had grown up with it. It contained the feelings of pride, happiness and self-confidence, Adenauer argued. Heuss then backed down. In May 1952, Adenauer suggested that only the third verse be taken as the national anthem, and Heuss no longer objected.

Why do you need a national anthem at all?

Brauer: In other European countries there is no discussion about this at all, for example in France with its long nation state. But for Germany, it's a recurring topic; even in 1990, at the time of reunification, the question came up again as to what anthem the reunified Germany should have. But it was not discussed for a long time. The need for a familiar anthem with a recognition effect was very great. What makes a national anthem? It is sung collectively, in sports, for example, to feel strong together.

The Deutschlandlied actually has three verses. Why is only the third verse sung today?

Brauer: That was the compromise between Heuss and Adenauer. The first stanza was not acceptable because of the National Socialist connection with the Horst Wessel Song. Also, the territorial claims in the text "... from the Meuse to the Memel, from the Etsch to the Belt..." was completely out of date after the Second World War. The second stanza is generally not very meaningful for a national anthem and the third stanza was most innocuous. "Unity and justice and freedom...". With the founding of two German states and after the division of Germany for over forty years, you couldn't go far wrong with this lyric.

When Sarah Connor sang "Brüh im Lichte dieses Glückes" instead of "Blüh im Glanze..." at the opening of the Allianzarena in 2005, the entire nation was ecstatic. How important is our anthem to us today?

Brauer: If you look at the development of German national consciousness since 1949, you can see that it was not particularly pronounced. There were, and still are, right-wing conservative forces that cultivated a pronounced nation-state self-confidence, but by and large, Germans held back on exuberant national sentiments in the second half of the 20th century. That changed, however, starting in the 1990s and 2000s. The 2006 World Cup marked this turnaround. All of a sudden, it was okay to bring out the flags, to sing along with the anthem - that didn't exist to that extent before. In my observation, that changed because after 1989/90, German history could be told as a nation-state success story. We have the (as is repeatedly emphasized) successful reunification. Germany is well positioned in the world, is an economically strong industrial nation and politically a positive authority, also due to Angela Merkel's chancellorship. The perspective on Germany has thus changed a great deal in the last 30 years. In my opinion, this is one of the reasons why national pride and national consciousness are more accepted again. One symbol of this is the "Deutschlandlied," the national anthem, which is no longer up for debate and is sung as a matter of course, especially in the context of sports competitions.

Uwe Blass (interview on 14.06.2022)

Prof. Dr. Juliane Brauer teaches history and its didactics in the Faculty of Humanities and Cultural Studies at the University of Wuppertal. Her research interests in the field of history didactics are emotions and historical learning, music in history education, imagination and historical learning, and digital historical cultures. For Modern and Contemporary History, she researches and teaches primarily on the history of divided Germany.

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