Sunday, March 8, 2015

Deutschland, Deutschland Über Alles? The Denazifacation of a National Anthem

The 1958 film, The Young Lions, opens in pre-World War II Germany. American tourist Margaret Freemantle enjoys the romantic attentions of her German ski instructor, Christian Diestl. She is disturbed, however, when Christian defends Hitler as a symbol of hope for Germany. Disheartened, she turns from Christian and walks away, while in the background, guests at the ski lodge are heard singing the first lines of the German national anthem. Here, the song is emblematic of the German people’s acceptance of Nazism, and its ultimate goal of world supremacy. Other World War II films contain similar scenes with similar implications.

In 1952, the Federal Republic of Germany established the third stanza of “Das Deutschlandlied” – “The Song of Germany” – as the national anthem. In effect, the first and second stanzas of the original song were eliminated from official use. Part of the decision to banish the first verse, which begins with, “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, über alles in der Welt,” was due to its association with the Nazis, and the supposed implication that “Germany, Germany above all, above all in the world” endorsed Hitler’s goal of world domination. In fact, in 1945, the victorious Allies banned its use, along with other perceived Nazi symbols. However, that interpretation ignores the historical context and true meaning behind the words.

The lyrics of “Das Deutschlandlied” were penned in 1841 by German poet August Heinrich Hoffman von Fallersleben with a completely different aim in mind. At that time in history, Germany was not a nation, but a conglomeration of disparate principalities, duchies and kingdoms. Hoffman’s plea to the monarchs of these small states was to put the ideal of a united Germany above their individual sovereignties.

In the first verse of his poem, Hoffman outlines the physical boundaries of his envisioned German nation. The four rivers mentioned (known in English as the Meuse, Memel, Adige and Belt) defined Germany’s borders at that time, clearly expressing that instead of conquering other nations, Germans should focus on building their own. World domination could not have been further from his mind:

Deutschland, Deutschland über alles,

Über alles in der Welt,

Wenn es stets zu Schutz und Trutze

Brüderlich zusammenhält.

Von der Maas bis an die Memel,

Von der Etsch bis an den Belt,
Deutschland, Deutschland über alles,
Über alles in der Welt!

Germany, Germany above all,

Above all in the world,

When for protection and defense, it always

takes a brotherly stand together.

From the Meuse to the Memel,

From the Adige to the Belt,
Germany, Germany above everything,
Above everything in the world!

Hoffman’s plea is not so different from the ideal put forth in our own patriotic song, “America the Beautiful,” which defines our country’s boundaries as spanning “from sea to shining sea!”

The final verse of “Das Deutschlandlied,” now sung at governmental and civic occasions, denotes Hoffman’s vision of a free and united Germany:

Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit

Für das deutsche Vaterland!

Danach lasst uns alle streben

Brüderlich mit Herz und Hand!

Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit

Sind des Glückes Unterpfand;

Blüh' im Glanze dieses Glückes,
Blühe, deutsches Vaterland!

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;

Bloom in the Glow of Happiness,
Bloom, German Fatherland!

If you’re wondering what happened to the second stanza, it extols the virtues of German “women, loyalty, wine and song,” noble sentiments perhaps, though a bit old-fashioned, and possibly a touch condescending from a female perspective.

Germany’s decision to eliminate the first stanza from their national anthem is understandable; all possible associations to Nazi aggression must be erased, even if the words themselves are benign. Borders have shifted as well, and Germany’s territory has contracted since Hoffman’s time, making his reference to the four rivers now geographically inaccurate.

The final verse of Hoffman’s poem resonates in a reunified Germany, with its lofty aspirations of “Unity and Justice and Freedom.” Perhaps prophetically, Hoffman’s vision is fulfilled in today’s united and democratic German republic.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

WELTMEISTER! Reflections of a German-American on a World Cup and a World War

My jubilation at Germany’s fourth World Cup title is tempered by the fact that I was born and raised in America. Of course, I also rooted for Team USA but secretly prayed that the two teams would avoid a head-to-head confrontation in the Final – the consequential strain on my loyalties would have been too much to bear. (It was a very remote possibility had USA survived the knockout stage.)

I prepared for the Final by donning my Deutscher Fußball-Bund t-shirt and fan scarf and painting my toenails in the tricolors of the German flag. Ecstasy erupted for a few seconds from the Argentine fans when their team scored an “almost-goal.” (The ball hit the back of the German net but was quickly erased by an offside call.) I now feared that I might be the only Germany fan in the New York City sports bar where I was watching the match. (My companion was more interested in beer than football.) But when Germany scored the decisive goal in the last minutes of overtime, joy erupted again. Aha…I wasn’t the only spectator in the bar cheering the Schwarz, Rot und Gold.

By now you are rightly wondering what any of this has to do with “World War II…with a German accent.” I assure you there is a connection. Had World War II never happened, Germany would not be what it is today. Guilt over their role in arguably the most horrific atrocities of the twentieth century still lingers in the German psyche.

Germany, despite its prosperity and world influence, has become a nation of handwringers and pacifists. Their participation in the current Afghan war as a member of ISAF (NATO’s security force, which includes troops from the US, Italy, the UK and many other nations) has been controversial at home. Memories of the devastation inflicted by Germany on the rest of the world have made most Germans loath to sending their soldiers to kill other combatants. Hence, German politicians have tried to limit their ISAF role to humanitarian missions.

How does this relate to German football? Even the word “Weltmeister” stirs painful memories. Though usually translated as World Champs, its similarity to the phrase “Masters of the World” evokes the contemptible Nazi goal of world domination. Yet Germans are still able to celebrate being German, as evidenced by the rapture unleashed at securing their fourth title in the world’s favorite sport. Hundreds of thousands packed the Fan Mile in Berlin, many waving German flags, to see their beloved football heroes hoist the trophy in front of the Brandenburg Gate. There are few other occasions where Germans exhibit unrestrained pride in their country, and I contend that reluctance is a result of their culpability in supporting the Nazi regime. Though few Germans alive today bear direct responsibly, remnants of guilt for their ancestors’ crimes remain.

Even I, as a German-American, feel the ambiguity of rooting for the German National Team. I find myself in “defense-mode” when friends, co-workers and even family members question my loyalties. When Germany played the USA in the Group Phase, I avoided declaring my sympathies, lest people reproach me. I, too, experience the guilt of rooting for players whose grandparents may have committed unspeakable crimes. But then I remind myself that my own forebears came to these shores from Germany in the mid-nineteenth century and therefore bore no responsibility for the acts of twentieth century Germans. Indeed, my own father served in the US Army during World War II.
There is more to German identity than the dishonor of the Second World War. There is Beethoven, Kant, von Steuben and now a World Championship to instill pride. Flag-waving and self-respect need not be shameful things. And that comes with the gradual realization that Germany has more to offer the world than its Nazi past.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

War Games

The Germans take their positions to defend the beach as Allied bombers buzz overhead, dropping their loads with ear-splitting thunder. Staccato machine-gun fire reverberates as bright red flashes of ignited black powder erupt from the muzzle of each weapon. At water’s edge, Allied soldiers spill onto the beach in an unrelenting stream, jumping from crater to crater, exploiting the foxholes which their bombers have carved into the sand. The battle rages as Americans fall, Germans fall, but slowly, slowly the Allies creep closer to the German line until it is, at long last, overrun.

I sit on the side of the hill, perhaps fifty yards from the corpse-strewn beach. Soldiers – the able-bodied, the wounded and the dead – rise to appreciative applause. The crowd cheers as the public address announcer declares that victory is ours. But I can’t bring myself to cheer, thinking of the dead and wounded. After all this is war…or is it?

No, it isn’t. This isn’t June 1944 on the beaches of Normandy, France, but August 2012 in Conneaut, Ohio, USA on the tranquil coast of Lake Erie.

This is an annual event – “D-Day Conneaut” – in the quaint northern Ohio town. In a recreation of Occupied France, re-enactors take on the roles of American, British, Free Polish and German troops, French Resistance fighters, Red Cross nurses, war correspondents and USO performers. I even encounter a frisky guard dog – a German shepherd, of course – in the Axis “camp.”

The re-enacted battle is more real to me than reading a soldier’s memoir or watching a war movie, however gruesome and disturbing. I can actually feel the concussion of rifle fire against my breastbone. I am almost certainly not going to experience an actual battle first hand, but I’m sure this is the closest thing to it. The re-enactors take their roles very seriously. The uniforms, weapons and machinery are accurate down to rank insignia and battalion designations. Some men wear 1940’s style wire-rimmed eyeglasses and the women style their hair in the fashion of the time. As I walk amongst the re-enactors I ask some of them how deeply they incorporate “the part” into their consciousness. To what extent do they believe they have become actual participants in war, or are they conscious all along that this is only role-playing? Do they think, even for a fleeting moment, that their lives could be in danger? Do they feel as though they have been transported to another place and time where they might die? I’ve heard that actors embody their roles so intensely that the emotions of the characters come through to the audience. I’ve never acted, but as a fiction writer, I delve as deeply into my characters’ hearts and minds as I can so that their words come through on the page and their emotions and actions ring true.

When I visit the American camp, I inquire with fascination about the realism of the recreated battle. If they are firing blanks, why the red flash as the shot resounds? I learn that results from the ignition of paper at the discharge of the empty shell casing. I’m impressed – it’s all quite convincing. I ask how they know they’ve been hit, since blanks do not inflict pain. A re-enactor explains that they take turns playing dead, though sometimes they merely give up; dressed in heavy wool uniforms, in the heat of an August day, with thirty pounds of arms and equipment on their backs, it is sometimes easier to just lie down and rest in the sand. They feign death, content in the knowledge that although this battle is over for them now, they’ll be plenty more in their futures as recreational re-enactors.

I visit the German camp with keen anticipation. I’ve read many memoirs of Wehrmacht soldiers and imagine meeting a Guy Sajer, Johann Voss or Bruno Manz. (See my prior posts for their stories.) Then I remind myself that this is not France 1944, but Ohio 2012, and any Axis soldier I meet is likely to be an American with a passable German accent. “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” I ask one of them. “Klein” (small) he replies with a timid smile. “Ein bisschen” (a little bit), I correct gently. I meet another whose German is so much better than mine I can barely hold up my end of the conversation. When I ask where he is from he says, “Dortmund,” and I almost believe him. I speak to a man dressed in the uniform of the Feldgendarmerie, the military police. This group was amongst the most feared of the Axis forces, even by their own countrymen, for enforcing draconian military laws on ordinary German soldiers. They were known derogatively as “Heldenklauer” (hero-snatchers) by other members of the German forces for arresting and sometimes executing soldiers for the smallest infractions. He assures me that members of the military police saved thousands of civilians from the Nazis. I’m skeptical – I’ve never heard this story. But I thank him for the information and promise to research it further. (Perhaps you’ll read a future post about that here!)

A range of questions swarm my brain as I walk from camp to camp. What must it feel like to play “the bad guys,” as one spectator refers to the Axis troops? And for those playing members of the victorious Allied forces, the embodiment of our beloved and honored “Greatest Generation” – do they do this for nostalgia or entertainment, as a hobby or as a patriotic tribute?

Perhaps the most moving scene comes as we sit on the hillside at Conneaut beach, waiting for the battle to begin. A small white van arrives with a contingent of elderly men, actual veterans of the Second World War. The spectators rise and cheer and some wave small American flags. I applaud too. In fact, if my own father were alive today he might be among them, having served in the US Army in the Pacific Theater of Operations. But with my applause comes sorrow for those lost on both sides of the battlefield. My hope is that this remembrance of war and its terrible consequences will renew our commitment to peace.

Germans prepare to defend the beach. Note the spectators in the foreground and background. 

The Allies land on the shores of Normandy,

and take their positions as they face the German lines.

Under a pall of smoke, the battle is nearly over: dead Germans on the right, advancing Allies on the left, and spectators in the background.

Interior of a tent in the Allied camp

“Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”

Note: All photos are courtesy of Jonathan Foise from D-Day Conneaut 2012.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Conscience of a Soldier of the Waffen-SS

Public outrage erupted in 1985 when then US President Ronald Reagan participated in a memorial service at a German military cemetery in Bitburg, Germany. Among the dead German soldiers of the Second World War were graves of members of the Waffen-SS. In 1946, the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg had condemned the SS, in its entirety, as a criminal organization. How could an American president honor such men?

Johann Voss volunteered for the Waffen-SS (literally “Armed SS,” which included volunteers from many nations) at the age of seventeen. It was his strong conviction that Europe was under the threat of Bolshevik invasion, and it was his obligation to protect both his native Germany and traditional Western culture as a whole from the Red Peril. Voss was not particularly enamored of Nazi ideology, nor an anti-Semite; his parents deplored the racist dogma of Hitler’s regime.

Young Johann was an idealist and believed in service, pride and duty. To him the SS motto “Meine Ehre heißt Treue” (My honor is loyalty) was a solemn vow. He fought as a machine gunner in fierce battles against Soviet and later American troops. He witnessed many of his comrades, men whom he believed had served with dignity and courage, lay down their lives for their country and for what they saw as the struggle against the godless menace of Communism.

Voss began his chronicle, Black Edelweiss—A Memoir of Combat and Conscience by a Soldier of the Waffen-SS, as a prisoner-of-war, and never intended to publish it. When confronted after the war with the hideous truth of Nazi terror and the magnitude of the Holocaust he was stunned and horrified. But he wanted to tell the story of principled men who fought alongside him as combat soldiers, men who had nothing to do with the atrocities then coming to light. Decades later, it was the widespread criticism of President Reagan’s Bitburg visit that spurred this former SS soldier to publically defend his own honor, and that of his comrades-in-arms.

“For there is nothing monstrous in my memories of our unit’s past, no acts of crime or shameful deeds, or even knowledge of the wicked deeds. What I have seen is the commitment of youth who, in good faith, believed that Bolshevism was their common foe; a cause that in their eyes was noble, even greater than mere patriotism because it united young patriots from many countries of Europe. Their selflessness knew no bounds, not even the boundary of death, as if the fate of Europe was depending on them, on the individual volunteers as well as on their combat groups and on the unit as a whole.” *

Voss does not excuse the contemptibly evil, nearly unfathomable acts of the Nazi regime, nor the men who carried out the murderous scheme. He defends the combat troops of his regiment, men who wore the same uniform as SS members who committed atrocities. But soldiers like Voss, along with many members of other combat units, were guilty of no crimes against humanity. They fought on the battlefield with their honor intact, though later condemned for the SS runes they wore. It is Johann Voss’s plea that he and soldiers like him be judged for their individual acts and not pronounced as villains en masse. The story of Black Edelweiss rings true; this soldier’s voice should be heard, as his fallen comrades cannot speak for themselves.

“Yet there can be no release from our loyalty to our dead, from our duty to stand up for them and to ensure that their remembrance and their honor will remain untarnished. They, like all the others fallen in the war or murdered through racial fanaticism, must be remembered as a solemn warning never to let it happen again.”**


*(Black Edelweiss, page 7)
**(Black Edelweiss, page 203)

Voss, Johann. Black Edelweiss—A Memoir of Combat and Conscience by a Soldier of the Waffen-SS. Bedford, PA: The Aberjona Press, 2002.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


The paperback version of my World War II romance novel, IN THE ARMS OF THE ENEMY, is now available for pre-order at The Wild Rose Press website at  
The e-book version will be available Oct 1.
Please visit my website at for more info and to read an excerpt!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Heart Lessons

Forgiveness. The theme of Andy Andrews’ difficult-to-categorize work, The Heart Mender, pervades the story of a German submariner and an American waitress set in World War II era Alabama. The back cover of the book defines it as “SELF-HELP/Motivational/Inspirational”. These are genres I generally do not read, but when a friend alerted me to the recent publication of a book involving a romance between a German WWII sailor and an American woman, I was too intrigued to resist.

The book purports to be a true story and is divided into three sections. It begins as a contemporary, factual narrative. Mr. Andrews describes how, while digging up a tree stump in his own backyard on the Gulf coast of the southern US, he accidently unearths a rusty can containing a number of unusual artifacts. Through careful research, he is able to identify the anchor-embossed buttons, Iron Cross medal, and silver badge depicting an anchor curiously entwined with the initials “UB” (later identified as U-boat). Also included in the can are three old photographs – one of a sailor, another of a couple with a small child and the last a group of naval personnel and military officials, including Adolf Hitler, the only individual in any of the photos whom Mr. Andrews can identify.

The middle section of the book, by far the longest, reads like a novel and is set in 1942 Alabama. The main characters are Helen Mason, the embittered widow of an American Army Air Force officer, and Josef Bartels Landermann, the German U-boat officer whom Helen discovers near death, washed up on the beach near her cottage.

At times while reading The Heart Mender, I didn’t know quite what to make of it. Though very much caught up in the story of Helen and Josef, I would occasionally glance at the back cover, wondering how this book fit into the category of “SELF-HELP/Motivational/Inspirational”, which the publisher had placed it in. I primarily read straight fiction or non-fiction; this book read like a fusion of both, with something else, a genre I am not familiar with, mixed in. In a sense, the lack of a “Romance” designation enhanced my enjoyment; I didn’t know whether to expect a happy ending and that mystery propelled me to excitedly read on, as the characters I had come to care about faced wrenching and even life-threatening plot twists. Romance readers are guaranteed a happy ending, though death, destruction and despair often loom, apparently inescapably. One of the challenges for a romance novelist is to keep the reader wondering, if just for a moment, if she will get that happy ending she has been promised.

To sum up the thrust of Mr. Andrews’ book, I quote part of the back cover blurb: “The Heart Mender is a story of life, loss, and reconciliation, reminding us of the power of forgiveness and the universal healing experience of letting go.” Though primarily drawn to the book by it’s WWII story, involving a romance between enemies (much like my soon-to-be-released novel), I was intrigued by the theme of forgiveness and reconciliation. As a writer of World War II romance, I find myself in the paradoxical position of spinning a tale of both love and war. I consider myself a peace-loving person. I wouldn’t call myself a pure pacifist though; in the most extreme cases, aggression is sometimes the only response to aggression, when all avenues for peaceful resolution have been exhausted. So why was I moved to write a book immersed in themes hate, as well as of love? And why do I blog about it? Though I deal with the subject matter differently than Mr. Andrews does (after all, he writes “Inspirational” and I write “Romance”), I hope readers will come away from my novel with a similar message. Years ago, when discussing my book with my sister Stephanie (one of my manuscript’s early critiquers) she and I both concluded that its themes were love and forgiveness. My personal journey in writing In the Arms of the Enemy, as well as “World War II…with a German accent,” has revealed an overriding ethic: that even amidst the worst of human experience and inhuman behavior, I refuse to give up hope of redemption – redemption not in a religious sense, but in a moral one.

Forgiveness. This powerful, life-altering phenomenon stirred my heart through The Heart Mender, and the thrilling true story drove my interest. Though this is not a genre I would normally pluck from the bookshelf, I came away moved and enchanted. I loved Mr. Andrews’ characters – real people whose names have been altered – and was satisfied to learn in the third and final section of the book their ultimate fates. Mr. Andrews had the good fortune to actually track down and interview some of them, enabling him to piece together the mystery of how German World War II artifacts, secreted for nearly 60 years, ended up in his back yard on the Gulf coast of the United States. Had it not been for that pesky tree stump, this story would never have been known or told. I encourage you to read it, and dare the cynical among you not to be moved.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Movie Review — Dresden

Dresden, an epic film made in 2006 for German television, touches on many themes: human frailty, human brutality, kindness, cruelty and indifference. The plot hinges on a love triangle between Anna, a German nurse, her fiancé Alexander and Robert, the British bomber pilot she rescues. Subplots involve her colleague, a Gentile woman trying to protect her Jewish husband from the Nazis, and the treacherous diversion of medicine from the hospital Anna’s father directs.

Dresden unfolds in the days leading up to the infamous Allied firebombing of the German city on February 13-14, 1945. Nicknamed “Florence on the Elbe” for its legendary beauty, the city was reduced to ashes in one night, leaving tens of thousands of civilians dead. Its destruction remains a profound trauma in the German memory of World War II.

My soon-to-be published World War II novel, In the Arms of the Enemy, involves a love triangle, too, and my heroine must choose between two lovers—one her compatriot and the other her enemy. The characters in Dresden face conflicts very similar to those in my novel. When Anna discovers Robert’s identity, she is torn between love and hate. Robert represents to her the most despicable of the enemy, the men who bomb not only legitimate military targets, but women and children as well.

The movie combines familiar elements: a poignant love story, conflicted characters, tortuous plot twists, all set against the cataclysmic destruction of a city. On one level, Dresden plays like the clichéd disaster film. The plotline and the interactions of the protagonists are largely predictable. The principles rush through burning streets and collapsing buildings in search of their loved ones. Most find each other in the end, though not all survive. At times, the storyline stretches believability and pulls a bit too vigorously on our heartstrings. But on the whole, it is effective. The acting and direction are fine and the technical aspects of the production—special effects, costumes, sets, cinematography—are high quality. Careful research is evident in the historical recreation of the events surrounding the bombing. The scenes involving the firestorm are riveting, though they offer only a glimpse of the horror of the actual event.

The film examines the moral paradox of war, of fighting for love of country, and believing, as the principled combatants on both sides do, that it is both honorable and obligatory to kill other human beings who have done nothing to deserve their individual fates. Not only perpetrators of war crimes, but innocents, too, merit punishment. It is frequently expressed by their former foes (we Americans, for instance) that any losses the German people suffered were richly deserved. When Anna learns that the Englishman she has been sheltering is a bomber pilot, she is horrified. In anger and disgust she asks, “What does it feel like to bomb women and children?” to which he responds, somewhat predictably, “Ask the Luftwaffe.” In other words, you bomb my country—I have every right to bomb the hell out of yours.

In the “Making of Dresden” featurette included in the DVD, the filmmakers stress that this is an anti-war film. In recognition of the monumental atrocities committed by Germans during World War II, the current Federal Republic has become a nation of avowed pacifists. This subject is timely as the heated debate about Germany’s participation in the present NATO operation in Afghanistan persists. In fact, Germany does not even call this undertaking a “war”; rather, they consider it a humanitarian mission. The thought of their soldiers intentionally killing other combatants is repugnant to most Germans. Their national conscience has not yet, and perhaps never will, recover from the guilt today’s Germans have inherited from the Nazis.

Beyond the anti-war message, and in addition to the moving love story and dramatic twists and turns, Dresden examines the fate of the city itself. Dresden becomes a protagonist in its own right, and its destruction is almost as painful and poignant as the deaths of the human beings who inhabit it. At the end of the film, actual footage of the recent reconstruction of the city is shown, including the rededication of the famed Frauenkirche, the centerpiece of the city. The British city of Coventry donated a cross to the resurrected church as a symbol of reconciliation. This cross was one of several fashioned from nails recovered among the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, destroyed by a Luftwaffe blitz in 1940. I was fortunate to see one such cross in Berlin’s Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche during my recent trip to Germany. The ruins of that church are preserved, as a memorial to the devastation of the war. I saw only the outside of the Frauenkirche while in Dresden, but was awed by its rebirth, after having viewed photographs of the shattered remnants that followed the February 1945 bombing.

Dresden painstakingly treads the line between portraying the firebombing as a justified, military objective and depicting it as a gratuitous act of vengeance. The question remains open. Germans today are conflicted over how to view this catastrophe, as well as other tragedies suffered during the war. In the decades since 1945, Germany still struggles with these issues. Do Germans have the right, in light of the crimes committed by the Nazis, the murders of millions of Jews, Roma, homosexuals, political dissidents and countless other victims, to acknowledge and mourn their own losses? Twenty-first century Germans are ambivalent.

Dresden is an important and well-made film, which examines these themes in a compelling manner. I recommend it, as I believe Dresden’s story deserves to be told.

Note: The DVD, in German and English with English subtitles, is available here at