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What a Tennis Faux Pas Can Tell Us about the Legacy of Germany’s Past and the Value of Political Correctness
Posted by Carlos
Author's copy of the Grundgesetz, the German Basic Law or constitution, with the German black, red and gold tricolour on the front and the national anthem, the third verse of the Deutschlandlied, on the back. Photograph by Author.
Tennis made the headlines in ways that left many Germans puzzled last weekend. At the Federation Cup fixture between the United States and Germany on Hawaii, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) had commissioned a singer to perform the German national anthem, the Lied Der Deutschen (‘Song of the Germans’). Unfortunately, he intoned the controversial first verse with the infamous opening lines, Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles (‘Germany, Germany above all else’). Because this first verse is tainted by its association with the National Socialist (Nazi) era (and the second is somewhat irrelevant), only the third enjoys official status. A perplexed German team and its fans tried to ‘out-sing’ the unwitting performer by chanting the correct, third stanza. After the match, German tennis player Andrea Petkovic expressed outrage and the USTA issued an apology.
This no doubt bizarre episode was hard to grasp for everyone. Clearly, the organisers of the event had no idea of the sensitivity of the first verse. They will have had an opportunity to learn from journalists who wrote about it after the event. Added to the astonishment of the players, most German fans at home could afford to be bemused. Moreover, a few held that the incident was no big deal and that players ought to get over their outrage. Nowadays, it is almost fashionable to attack political correctness – on both sides of the Atlantic.
Yet, there is good reason to look beyond the outrage without dismissing it. The incident and the defiant reaction of the German players and fans allow us to understand what actually happened. It illustrates what a difficult historical legacy entails. Moreover, it can be instructive in terms of how one can deal with it successfully.
The first verse of the Deutschlandlied, as it is known, originally had a more positive connotation connected with the black, red and gold tricolour of Germany today. When Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben composed the hymn in 1841, a single German nation-state was merely an idea. A few decades earlier, French occupation under Napoleon ironically had brought the revolutionary ideas of equality and freedom to the German-speaking states and united Germans in their subsequent struggle for liberation. According to tradition, Prussian volunteers wore black uniforms with red buttons and gold trim. After Napoleon’s defeat, the Congress of Vienna established the German Federation and restored the old authoritarian order, maintaining the regional divisions of the different German-speaking states. Inspired by democratic and nationalist ideals, Fallersleben wrote the poem and chose Joseph Haydn’s Kaiserquartett as the melody. After revolution swept across Europe in 1848, a National Assembly gathered in Frankfurt, where the red, black and gold flag was adopted and the Deutschlandlied was sung in praise of national unity and freedom under the law. Revolution and flag were suppressed in 1849, but the ideals of the hymn remained. They had little to do with German domination.
The darker undertone came with Adolf Hitler, who hijacked the national anthem from the Weimar Republic, Germany’s first real democracy in the twentieth century. The song now had an added military dimension through its use during the First World War, when soldiers sang it to help their artillery identify their location amidst the smoke of battle and avoid so-called ‘friendly fire’. The National Socialists only sang the first verse and added their party song, the Horst Wessel Lied (named after an SA – storm troop – leader who was converted into a martyr in propaganda after he was killed by communists in Berlin). Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles now stood for a Europe redrawn according to a racist worldview, which postulated a hierarchy of different ‘races’ dominated by ‘Aryans’.
It was this context that made it so difficult for the young West German state to adopt the Deutschlandlied as its national anthem. In the summer of 1945, when Germany was under military occupation, the Allied Control Council had forbidden the national anthem. After the two German states were founded in 1949, West German politicians failed to find a new, popular anthem to replace it. Too many Germans subscribed to the (more positive aspects of the) Deutschlandlied. The West German leadership therefore faced the challenge of finding a way to rehabilitate it. In addition to the infamous line, the first verse delineated a now unthinkable German territory stretching from Belgium in the west to the Soviet Union in the east and from the Baltic Sea in the north to Italy in the south. In addition, the West German government sought to reach out to Germans in the communist East as well. The preamble of the Basic Law – or constitution – of 1949 declared German unity as its goal.
After years of debate, a pragmatic solution was adopted. In an exchange of letters in 1952, President Theodor Heuss and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer informed the public about the decision over the new anthem. Only the third verse was to be sung at state events:
Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit Concord and justice and freedom,
Für das deutsche Vaterland! For the German fatherland
Danach lasst uns alle streben, Let us all strive for this,
Brüderlich mit Herz und Hand! Brotherly, with heart and hand!
Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit Concord and justice and freedom
Sind des Glückes Unterpfand –– Are the pledge of happiness
Blüh im Glanze dieses Glückes Bloom in splendour of this joy,
Blühe deutsches Vaterland! Bloom, German fatherland!
President Heuss emphasised the close identification of this verse with the colours of the German flag, which was once more – as during 1848-49 and the years of the Weimar Republic – black, red and gold. Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit were words that had at least as much relevance as they did a century before. In particular, Einigkeit not only meant concord, but unity as well: by implication, the unity of East and West Germany. In 1990, the year when the two German states united, the Federal Constitutional Court ruled that the law for the protection of state symbols applied to this, but not the other verses.
The changing connotations of the Deutschlandlied reveal the difficult legacy of the German past. Many nation-states can claim for themselves a strong tradition – whether artistic, cultural, scientific, military or political – their citizens can identify with proudly. Modern Germany did not have that luxury. Questions of guilt, responsibility and identity haunted not only those Germans who had committed crimes, but also those who were persecuted and murdered: political opponents, religious groups, disabled people, homosexuals, Romanies, Jews, so-called ‘asocials’ and more. What honourable tradition could a German state claim for itself when it rebuilt its state apparatus and sought integration into the West during the Cold War? What sense of identity could Germans born after 1945 find for themselves?
These questions were by no means abstract. Being a dual German and Costa Rican citizen whose father was born in the 1930s, I grew up with a sense of horror and shame at what had happened. As a graduate student in England, some of my peers, including doctoral candidates in history, taunted me unknowingly by calling me a ‘Nazi’ in one form or another. It was deeply disturbing to be singled out at social gatherings where this was considered funny. The association of a German with National Socialism on no other account than his citizenship was a staggering sign of ignorance and bigotry in twenty-first century Oxford. At the time, I did not have the maturity or confidence to stand up to this. It was only years later that I learned to articulate that I personally am not guilty of National Socialism, but responsible for it as a German citizen, and that this does not have to engender a sense of inferiority.
We have a flag, constitution and anthem to illustrate this. Popular awareness of what it means to be German arguably came in the summer of 2006, when Germany hosted the men’s football (soccer) world cup. Young Germans painted themselves in their national colours and cheered their team, side-by-side with supporters of other countries. Could those Germans celebrate their country, wave their flag and be patriotic without it being overly nationalistic? Yes, they could. They bonded with people from all over the world on equal terms. The team they supported comprised players of different national and cultural backgrounds. The flag they waved represented all those ideals suppressed under Hitler. It came with a constitution whose first 19 paragraphs – the Basic Rights – included the inviolability of human dignity, equality before the law, freedom of faith, assembly, association, labour and movement and the right to asylum. They can be read on 19 glass panels designed by Israeli artist Dani Karavan near the parliamentary buildings in Berlin. The price paid for these rights was extremely high, but they symbolise the state’s efforts to make this a different Germany, one which seeks to honour, welcome and identify with those who once were persecuted and murdered. A Germany learning from its past to create a better future is one its citizens can be proud of and their patriotism can be called Verfassungspatriotismus, ‘constitutional patriotism’. The third verse of the Deutschlandlied is its expression.
This was underscored admirably by tennis player Andrea Petkovic last weekend. Along with her teammates and supporters, she defiantly sang the third verse. Petkovic’s personal trajectory makes her stand evermore remarkable. She came to Germany as a refugee – her parents fled from war in Yugoslavia when she was just six months old – and acquired German citizenship at 14. Her example should send a clear message to those hostile to refugees today: not all become tennis stars and not all become terrorists either, but they can make you proud as a compatriot. To her credit, Petkovic has adopted the difficult German past that was not hers when she was born. She did so by upholding the values she identified with when she sang the correct anthem, with heart and hand.
Last weekend’s faux pas can tell us something about political correctness. It is not about being afraid of telling things the way they are. Words have real meanings that genuinely affect people and can elicit strong reactions. When we dig deeper into what is behind them, we can learn more about others in the world and may conclude that they are not so different.
'Grundgesetz 49' at the Jakob-Kaiser-Haus of the German Bundestag in Berlin. Photograph by Michael Rose, distributed under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.