The “Deutschlandlied”, formerly “Deutschland über Alles”: a brief history

There are two tunes that in the popular imagination are associated with Germany in WW II: the Horst Wessel Song[*], which is an NSDAP battle song that acted as the Third Reich’s unofficial second anthem, and of course “Deutschland über Alles”. Some people expressed surprise to me that the latter is still being played as the German national anthem at official functions. So what is the real story here?

The tune is actually by none other than Joseph Haydn, and originally was written by him as the music for the Habsburg anthem with the title “G-tt erhalte Franz der Kaiser” (G-d save Francis the Emperor). (It appears he may have adapted the tune from a folk song.) Classical music aficionados will recognize it as the theme from the middle movement of the “Emperor Quartet” Op. 76, Nr. 3, for which Haydn recycled it.

In 1841, a German nationalist poet named Hoffmann von Fallersleben gave it new lyrics in three stanzas. Each is themed differently:

  • the first, with the well-known incipit “Germany, Germany above all” (Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles) has greater-German nationalist themes, speaking of borders from the Meuse to the Nyemen, from the Baltic Sea to the Adige in Northern Italy.[**] (This was definitely “Greater Germany nationalism”, unlike the “Little Germany nationalism” of Otto von Bismarck, who preferred a smaller state with a clear Prussian-Protestant complexion.)
  • the second is a panegyric to German women, loyalty, wine, and song
  • the third stanza speaks of Einigkeit, Recht, und Freiheit (unity, justice, and freedom) and brotherhood

According to Wikipedia[***], the Deutschlandlied’s first singing at an official ceremony took place in 1890, but it became one of the most popular patriotic songs during the reign of Wilhelm II. (Meanwhile, in Austro-Hungary, the melody was still in use as the Habsburg anthem until the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918.) In 1922, Weimar chancellor Friedrich Ebert adopted it as the official German anthem.

During the Third Reich, only the first two stanzas were sung, as National Socialism frowned on the message of the third stanza about “justice”, “freedom”, and “brotherhood”.

In the postwar era, the new Federal Republic of Germany of course needed an anthem. One proposition was to use Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” from the Ninth Symphony (with lyrics by Schiller) — which, of course, eventually would become the anthem of the European Union. For a while, a mix of tunes was used at official functions, even once the Cologne carnival song “Heidewitzka” (a nod to Chancellor Adenauer’s long tenure as Oberbürgermeister, Lord Mayor, of the city).

Eventually, in correspondence between Adenauer and [mostly ceremonial] President Theodor Heuss, it was decided to restore the Deutschlandlied, but with the specification that only the third stanza be sung. After the reunification, in 1991, then-Chancellor Kohl and President Richard von Weiszäcker [brother of the Nobel Physicist] reaffirmed the third stanza’s, and only the third stanza’s, status as the national anthem of the reunited republic.

From Wikipedia (Gemeinfrei/Public Domain). Note that Haydn’s original is in G major,
while this version is in the more brass ensemble-friendly key of Eb major

[*] Horst Wessel was a street brawler in the Berlin SA (Sturmabteilung, “the brownshirts”) who worked part-time as a procurer/souteneur/pooier/Zuhalter. He appears to have been killed in a turf war with a “colleague”; the NSDAP brownwashed him into a martyr for their cause.

The tune was borrowed from a popular song and minor hit, the original lyrics dealing with the life of a sailor.

[**] The German essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger (RIP) satirized the incipit by naming one of his books, “Deutschland, Deutschland unter Anderem” (Germany, Germany among others/other nations).

[***] always caveat lector (reader beware) with Wikipedia, except for bare, verifiable facts on issues not of current controversy.

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