Row Over German Anthem Erupts amid Nationalism Debate
Germany has embarked on a heated debate about its national anthem as the country continues to wrestle with its identity 70 years after its post-war rebirth and amid lingering tensions over its reunification.
A bout of soul-searching erupted this week when Bodo Ramelow, the premier of Thuringia state in the ex-communist east, said the time had come for a different hymn to better capture the soul of the nation.
Ramelow said that while he sang along with the anthem, he could not, when hearing it, “get the image of the Nazi rallies from 1933 to 1945 out of my head”.
“We need something completely new — new lyrics that are so catchy that everyone can identify with them and say: that belongs to me,” he told the Rheinische Post newspaper.
Written in 1841, the anthem “Das Lied der Deutschen” (The Song of the Germans) has a history as turbulent as the country’s own.
It only officially became the anthem in 1922, with three verses set to the strains of composer Joseph Haydn and beginning with the now taboo line “Deutschland, Deutschland ueber alles” (Germany, Germany above all).
The Nazis dropped the second two verses and only sang the first combined with another now banned nationalist song.
Only seven years after the war, in 1952, did West Germany return to “The Song of the Germans” but solely the third verse, espousing “unity and justice and freedom”, is sung at official events.
During national reunification in 1990, calls from the east to incorporate parts of its anthem “Risen from the Ruins” were rebuffed in favour of West Germany’s hymn.
– ‘Hands off our anthem’ –
Ramelow said many east Germans still felt little connection to the song and wished for “a truly shared national anthem”, suggesting playwright Bertolt Brecht’s “Kinderhymne” (Children’s Hymn) as a replacement.
He noted that politicians from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) had recently been captured on video singing the “Deutschland ueber alles” verse, sparking widespread outrage.
Ramelow, 63, grew up in West Germany but made his political career in the east. He is the only state leader from the far-left Linke party.
His comments come as Germany prepares to mark 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall amid heightened friction between east and west over economic equality and a sense among easterners that their heritage is often given short-shrift.
Three eastern regions face pivotal elections in October in which the anti-immigration AfD is expected to make strong gains.
National pride, meanwhile, remains a highly sensitive issue in Germany given its responsibility for the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust.
Conservative officials accused Ramelow of lacking patriotism, with Markus Blume, the general secretary of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, saying “hands off our national anthem”.
If Ramelow “has a problem with unity and justice and freedom he should think that over but not change our anthem”, he said.
AfD leader Alexander Gauland said the comments showed that the Linke party had “still not made their peace with German unity” and accused him of “waging battle with Germany’s nation-state”.
– ‘Homeland’ instead of ‘fatherland’ –
The top-selling Bild tabloid made front-page news out of the story, attacking the “crazy proposal” and asking “What does Ramelow have against our beautiful anthem?”
Leaders of four other eastern states — from across the political spectrum — accused Ramelow of starting a tempest in a teacup while neglecting more urgent voter concerns including the transition away from fossil fuels and attempts to check rising rents.
However several officials rushed to his defence, with the deputy premier of Brandenburg state Christian Goerke telling Bild the criticism was “understandable” given the lack of debate during reunification in 1990.
It was not the first time the anthem has faced calls for an update.
Last year the equality ombudswoman at the family ministry, Kristin Rose-Moehring, urged Germany to follow Austria and Canada in adopting more gender-neutral language in its anthem, swapping out “fatherland” for “homeland” and “brotherly” for “courageous”.
Merkel, for her part, declined to wade into the debate, with her spokesman saying only: “The chancellor finds the anthem’s music and lyrics beautiful.”
[Editor’s Note: A translation of the lyrics is available here.]