National anthems, as the name implies, are an expression of nationalism. Cultural nationalism is the belief that one’s own nation, or Volk, to use the nineteenth-century terminology, is unique and should be celebrated. Picture children in folk costumes dancing folk dances and singing folk tunes at a folk festival. A political nationalist believes that the most natural form of political organization is the nation-state. If you don’t have one, the true patriot must work to get one, either by breaking up a multi-national state or by unifying many states into one nation. Unification into a single nation-state was the dream of both German and Italian nationalists in the nineteenth century, and this process influenced the developments of both national anthems. Germany today, Italy to follow!
While Russia’s national anthem changed with every change of regime, the anthem of Germany has remained surprisingly constant. The national anthem of Germany is the Deutschlandlied (“Song of Germany”), also known, from its original opening words, as “Deutschland über alles.” First adopted in 1922, it remained as the German national anthem through the Weimar Republic, the Nazi era, postwar West Germany, and the post-cold war re-united Germany.
“Deutschland über alles” is a national anthem like the Marseillaise, but it originated as a royal anthem, and not for Germany. The tune was composed by Franz Josef Haydn in 1797 to celebrate the birthday of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II. Haydn had visited London in 1794-95 (one of the trips for which the London Symphonies were written) and had been impressed by hearing “God Save the King.” Since in 1797 Austria was at war with revolutionary France, it seemed like a good time to have an Austrian equivalent to Britain’s anthem. Haydn’s composition was given lyrics by Lorenz Leopold Haschka and titled “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser,” or “God Save Emperor Francis”; it is also known as the Kaiserhymne. Haydn used the same melody again in one of my favorite string quartets, Opus 76 no. 3, now nicknamed the Emperor or Kaiser Quartet. The Kaiserhymne served as the anthem of the Austrian Empire until its dissolution in 1918.
Meanwhile, a liberal German nationalist poet, August Heinrich von Fallersleben, wrote new words for Haydn’s tune to promote German unification. In this context, “Deutschland über alles” refers to placing a united Germany over its constituent parts, not necessarily over other nations. The new combination of Haydn’s music and Fallersleben’s words was sung by the liberal revolutionaries of 1848. But when Germany was finally unified in 1871 as an empire ruled by the Kaiser, the new government found the song to be too identified with liberal republicanism and instead chose a German version of, you guessed it, “God Save the Queen.”
When, like the Austrian Empire, the German Empire ceased to exist after World War I, its replacement, known as the Weimar Republic, chose the Deutschlandlied to reinforce its break with the recent imperial past and its connection to the earlier 19th-century liberal republicanism (liberal in the 19th-century sense and republican in its constitutional sense of a non-monarchical elected government).
When the Weimar Republic fell in its turn in 1933, the Nazis kept the anthem, but now the words “Deutschland über alles” took on a different meaning. The Nazis also paired the Deutschlandlied with the song of the Nazi party, the “Horst Wessel Song.” After World War II, the new West German government stuck with the Deutschlandlied, but without the problematic first verse, with its Nazi associations, or the second, which sounds like a sexist drinking song. West Germans sang only the third verse, which celebrates unity, justice, and freedom (Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit). Although East Germany had its own anthem from 1949-1990, Auferstanden aus Ruinen (“Risen from the Ruins”), after 1991, the third verse of the Deutschlandlied was adopted by reunited Germany, emblematic of the dominant position of the former West Germany in the post-Cold War era.
Next: do you know the Italian national anthem?