The Best National Anthems: Germany

With twelve nominees for world’s best national anthem having fallen by the wayside, we’re finally up on the medal platform and ready to reveal our 3rd best anthem. (See earlier posts for a full explanation of methodology. The brief version: the first round used objective rankings for longevity, singability, and inspiration to narrow the list down to six, then ranked in the second round by my Modern Europe students.)

So here’s the bronze medalist, our 3rd best national anthem:

Germany, “Deutschlandlied (The Song of Germany)”
Longevity: 1922-1945, 1952-1990 (West Germany), 1990-present
Singability: ranges from Bb3-E5 (C4 = middle C)
Inspiration: 7.0% of Olympic golds won; 3 men’s and 2 women’s World Cups won (M-1954, 1974, 1990; W-2003, 2007)
Student Ranking (number ranking it 1st/2nd/3rd/etc.): 1/4/5/0/4/1

This is the moment when I make my brother-in-law Dan really happy and heap praises on the song best known as “Deutschland, Deutschland, über Alles (Germany, Germany, above all).” See, Dan is so enthusiastic about his German heritage that he uses the first lines of this tune as his cellphone’s ringtone. I should add: his grandfather pastored a German-language church in North Dakota, and virtually everyone in his family (Dan included) has traveled to Germany multiple times.

Then there’s my dad’s family. Aside from the impossible to spell/pronounce last name and a genetic predisposition to enjoy sour-tasting foods, you’d never know they had any connection to Germany. (As to that name: according to my German professor in college, “Gehr” is a word for “spear” in German, and Germanic peoples at one point served as spear-bearing infantry for the Celts. So to be named Gehr, Gehrke, Gehrig, or (like us) Gehrz is to be about as German as you can get.) The Gehrzes of Milwaukee weathered two world wars pitting Americans against Germans by making it abundantly clear that they had no great love for the Vaterland. While that’s left one side of my family history a virtual cipher (at least by contrast to the proudly Swedish mother’s side), it’s easy for someone who studies a lot of 20th century German history to understand.

Oddly then, for a nation that inspires such strong reactions on either side of any issue, the German anthem garnered only a lukewarm reception from my students: only one thought it was the best of the six, only one found it the worst.

A somewhat difficult sing, the Deutschlandlied boasts a melody written by the most famous composer of any national anthem: Joseph Haydn. And a good melody it is. One of my students found it particularly captivating:

…Germany’s music is what does it for me. It starts out nice and smooth and then picks up nice and loud. It is something that I would be excited to hear after winning an Olympic medal. The song just speaks: my country is elegant and defined yet unpredictable and dominant. Also, the fact that I went back and put in on a repeating loop to listen to as I wrote my reviews for the anthems.

The melody is also well known as the tune for the hymn, “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken.” Indeed, this was what led one student to vote it the weakest of the six finalists: “As grand as this anthem is I still struggle to separate it from the popular hymn. This may be a result of my American ignorance but none the less it is enough to place it sixth on this list.”

The fact that Haydn was an Austrian who wrote the tune for the Habsburg Emperor didn’t stop mid-19th century German nationalists from adapting it to their purposes (which ended up excluding Catholic Austria from their vision of a unified Germany).

The lyric, written by A.H. Hoffmann von Fallersleben, contains three stanzas. The first and third have served as the text of the anthem, and fit very different regimes. The second is easily the best.

Stanza the first was preferred by the Nazis. As if putting “Germany, Germany above all” wasn’t bad enough, the lyric also defined Germany as stretching from the Maas River in the west to the Memel in the east, from the Adige (or, auf deutsch, “Etsch”) in the south to the Little Belt strait in the north. Those rivers run through, respectively, the Netherlands and France, Lithuania, Italy, and Denmark. You can see the attraction for Hitler et al.

Banned temporarily while Germany was under Allied occupation, the song returned in West Germany (though not the Communist East, which adopted a different song featuring a Hanns Eisler lyric) in 1952, and then was retained as the anthem when Germany officially reunified (an event that happened 21 years ago this week). But only the third, less aggressively nationalistic stanza was used.

Unity and justice and freedom
For the German fatherland!
For these let us all strive
Brotherly with heart and hand!
Unity and justice and freedom
Are the pledge of fortune;
Flourish in this fortune’s blessing,
Flourish, German fatherland!

Snore. As a student of German history, it’s hard not to celebrate the near-total lack of patriotism shown by post-WWII Germans until recently. But man, what a blah lyric for a national anthem: like the aural-political equivalent of having to eat brussel sprouts. Packed full of vitamins, but you might not want to eat food again for a while.

Why, oh why, can’t the Germans simply embrace the 2nd stanza? It steers clear of nationalistic-militaristic hubris and bland platitudes to cut to the heart of what Germans are about:

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!

Ah, that’s more like it. Wine and women. I’m just going to assume that when all those German footballers listened to the tune before World Cup final after World Cup final (the German men have lost four finals in addition to the three they’ve won; the women one on top of the two they’ve won so far), they were thinking of the second verse even while mouthing the third.

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