Friday, June 16, 2006

Über Alles

Germans have slowly been recovering their national dignity, but some of them still are covering their ears.

BERLIN, June 16 (Reuters) - As Germany revels in the national team's World Cup victories, a union representing German teachers has rekindled a debate on the national anthem with a sharp critique of its "nationalistic sentiments".

Concerned it could fuel unwanted outbursts of patriotism at the World Cup, the GEW teachers' union condemned the anthem as a "terrible song of praise" in a report and is calling for even the least controversial of its verses to be banned.

"As an education union, we at the GEW are quite consciously and clearly in opposition to such nationalistic sentiments and notions of a dominant German culture," the heads of the GEW wrote in a statement issued this week.

Sort of odd that the story goes on so long without naming the anthem or describing what's so offensive about it. But that's a tangled matter and the reporter probably figured he'd lose his readers in it.

The official name of the German National Anthem is Das Lied der Deutschen "the Song of the Germans," though it is popularly known also as Das Deutschlandlied "the Germany Song."

But most Americans, if they know it at all, would call it Deutschland über Alles, which are the opening words of the first stanza.

And that's the crux of the problem.

The anthem has been used since 1922 but its first verse -- with the refrain "Deutschland, Deutschland ueber alles" -- was dropped after World War Two amid fears it had Nazi overtones.

But wait a minute. That "1922" is a bit of a red flag. That's not a Nazi year. This was the anthem of the Weimar Republic.

So, let's dig deeper. Nazis or not, Das Lied der Deutschen has always seemed to me to be one of the most beautiful tunes for a national anthem. Which is unsurprising because it was composed by Haydn, in 1797, as part of his String Quartet in C major. He was also the first to use it as an anthem, working it into a song for Austria, Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser.

That didn't stick, but in 1841 a teacher and librarian named Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben pulled up the music and set new words to it, which form the current Das Lied der Deutschen. Like the American anthem, the music was composed before the lyrics, and for another purpose.

Von Fallersleben wrote his hymn when Germany was fragmented and yearned for unity, repressed by tinhorn tyrants and yearned for freedom. It was a time and place when romanticism flowered in young minds, with all the good and dark things that cling to it.

The poet was part of this movement, and in fact he was a fugitive from local authorities in Silesia when he wrote it. The first line, Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, über alles in der Welt is not meant as a literal "over all," as in Germany "ruling over all in the world," but more of a "before all others." It's an urging to the Germans of the 1840s to put national unity above local loyalties and petty rivalries of religion and regionalism. To stop thinking of themselves as Catholic or Protestant, Bavarian or Rhinelander or Saxon, and start thinking as Germans.

As a liberal, revolutionary, utopian, and romantic piece, it did not get much traction with the Kaiser or Bismarck when German unity eventually did come about. But it became the anthem of the people during the first year of World War I, another high water mark of romanticism, when young soldiers from all over Germany sang it together as they charged into battle.

The Nazis ditched most of the symbolism of the despised and decadent Weimar Republic, but they kept the anthem, leaning heavily on the first verse and trimming off the third stanza, in which von Fallersleben called for a Germany built on Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit -- "unity, justice, and freedom." In fact, the Nazis tended to play the first stanza only and then break into the Horst Wessel Lied.

The Allies also pumped up the distorted meaning of Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, über alles in der Welt as part of their propaganda, which is why so many people in the U.S. think it means what they think it means.

The Allied occupation authorities banned the song, along with all things Nazi, after 1945. In 1952, Adenauer managed to unofficially revive the anthem, but only the third verse was to be used. But, like the "Star Spangled Banner," the anthem's first stanza was the one people knew, while only a few knew the subsequent ones. So when the music played, Germans tended to sing the first stanza, making their leaders cringe, as they did when West Germany won the World Cup in 1954.

Another problem with the first stanza is that von Fallersleben pitched his appeal for German unity to what was then the length and breadth of the land where Germans lived: "from the Maas to the Memel, from the Etsch to the Belt."

Two world wars have considerably shrunk those boundaries. The reference points are now in Belgium, Lithuania, Italy, and Denmark respectively. Especially in the east the Poles and Russians ruthlessly expelled and exterminated Germans from whole provinces that had been their homes for a thousand years. No right of return for the Silesians! But the anthem nowadays can be heard as a reminder of what was lost or, for some, a murmur of revanchism.

It's unlikely that modern Germany, with its rapidly declining birthrate, will ever again be the threat to European security that the swelling nation of 70 million was in 1940. A call for national togetherness and identity today seems a relevant thing when the danger is not Germany crushing neighbors under its boot, but rather German culture and identity itself dissolving into a Euro-mash.