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.