“Singing Nations”: National Anthems as a Cultural Expression of the Formation, Reproduction and Promotion of National Identity in France and Germany

Scientific Essay, 2005

16 Pages, Grade: A




1. Historical Context

2. Particular Features

3. Use of and Attitudes towards the anthems

4. Football





When the first European nation-states were created during the 18th and 19th century, the necessity arose to form new bonds and loyalties within and to the state, replacing those in favour of regional rulers. The new governments and ruling elites found themselves under the obligation to create a common national identity in order to ensure the future existence of the recently created states. One way of doing so was the invention of national traditions and symbols, and most prominent among these were national anthems, patriotic songs that were supposed to enhance national awareness and unity. When looking at Europe, however, and in particular at France and Germany, it seems like these very anthems had, towards the end of the millennium, lost considerable significance and had been reduced and limited to, almost exclusively, international sporting events, as far as public consciousness was concerned. Yet, at the beginning of the 21st century, we can observe a sudden return of national anthems onto both social and political agendas, with new laws being passed and recent debates surrounding them. Considering the social and political changes at present, especially within the new context provided by the greater role played by the European Union, it is to assume that these recent developments of the national anthems in France as well as in Germany are a reflection of a change in the reproduction and promotion of national identity in these countries.

1. Historical Context

When looking at the historical context of the national anthems and their creation in France and Germany, as well as the formation of both (modern) nation-states and their respective national identities, one can already but notice some fundamental differences.

Although France had already existed as a political unit for a long period of time, it was a largely heterogeneous space, as far as cultural issues were concerned, at the time of origin of its national anthem, La Marseillaise. Written by Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle in 1792[1], when nationalism started to rise in western Europe and at a crucial point in French history, i.e. the French Revolution, it had originally been composed as a battle song (first titled Chant de guerre pour l’armée du Rhin) for the performance at a musical banquet and subsequently motivated the revolutionaries who sang it when they marched into Paris. Its demands for liberté, égalité et fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity) became symbols of the French Republic under which all French were united and into which they were assimilated. Consequently, La Marseillaise was officially accepted as the republic’s national anthem in 1795 before it was banned by both Louis XVIII and Napoleon III due to its revolutionary connotations. It was finally reinstated as the official anthem in 1879.

The German national anthem, Das Lied der Deutschen or Das Deutschlandlied[2], was written by August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben in 1841 to the music by Joseph Haydn (intended for the Austrian emperor

Francis II). Unlike France, at the time of the creation of the anthem, “Germany” consisted of 39 autonomous kingdoms, principalities and free cities, loosely bound by the German Federation, and Fallersleben, a university professor of German language and literature and a utopist, wrote the poem that was later on to become the text for the national anthem in order to express his desire for a politically unified Germany, including what was perceived as an original Volk (later leading to misinterpretations, as I shall discuss in more detail further on). The German national anthem made similar claims as the French anthem by demanding Eingkeit und Recht und Freiheit (Unity, Justice and Freedom), supporting popular demands for freedom of speech and democracy, amongst others. Consequently, it was not instated as official anthem until 1922, after these right had been granted. It was partially replaced by the Nazi regime (although it remained popular and was encouraged by the Nazis) and banned by the victors in 1945. While in East Germany a new anthem was chosen in 1949, the Federal Republic remained without one until 1952, when the German Chancellor and the President decided to reinstate Das Deutschlandlied as national anthem, after the attempt to introduce a new anthem had failed due to popular resistance (almost three-quarters of the population expressed a strong liking for it in 1951[3]), with the limitation, however, that only the uncontroversial, third verse was to be sung at official occasion, and it was also this verse that was affirmed as the official anthem in 1991, after the reunification of Germany.

We can, thus, see how the two anthems were born out of the context of two different projects created by 19th century nationalism: cultural homogenization in a politically united France, and political unification of a culturally and linguistically relatively homogeneous German Volk. Both anthems, however, were essential parts of the countries’ project identities[4], constructing and transforming a national identity that would result in loyalty to the new nation-states.

2. Particular Features

Due to the different circumstances of their creation and the distinct bases for the countries’ national identity, we can thus expect considerable variations concerning particular features of these two anthems, both in the music as well as their lyrics, reflecting not only a difference in the formation, but also in the reproduction and promotion of national identity.

As far as the actual music is concerned, one of the most extensive studies has been conducted by Karen Cerulo[5], who relates musical codes to sociopolitical factors, which could be a reflection of the formation of national identity. According to Cerulo, embellished musical codes are to be found in the anthems of nation-states that, at the time of the creation/ adoption of their national anthem, consisted of a pre-modern society, with low sociopolitical control and at the periphery of the world system. Modern societies, high sociopolitical control and a position at the core of the world system, Cerulo holds, are to be reflected by basic musical codes. Despite the fact that the German anthem was written over half a century later than the French anthem (and adopted even later), both countries could be located in comparatively similar positions, both modern societies at the core of the world system, but due to he French Revolution, sociopolitical control was much lower in France than in Germany and its music is thus, as expected, slightly more embellished[6].

Nevertheless, while the music to the French national anthem was composed by de Lisle himself (although it has also been attributed to other composers, there is no evidence to support these theories), Fallersleben chose an already existing piece. Nowadays it may seem contradictory that the music of the German anthem was written by an Austrian and for the Austrian emperor (or the British anthem by a Frenchman and in French, for that matter), but two facts should be kept in mind here: first of all, at the time of its composition/ selection, there was still no clear concept of separate nation-states, national culture and nationalism as we know it today, and, secondly, Austria had, initially been included in the project of a Greater Germany.

Furthermore, while La Marseillaise had been written by an amateur musician and member of the army (a royalist who barely escaped execution when refusing to pledge allegiance to the new republic) for performance at a military banquet, Das Deutschlandlied was created with a political project in mind and for the German people. Consequently, the French anthem can be expected to include more embellished musical codes, having been an artistic creation to a much larger extent, while it had to be in Fallersleben’s interest to choose a piece of music that was simple enough to make it “accessible” to the public. These factors are largely not taken into account by Cerulo’s highly technical and theoretical analysis. Therefore, I would like to believe that the actual music is actually of less importance than the way in which it is promoted.


[1] All historical facts are taken from the Modern History Sourcebook

[2] Nowadays the anthem is also commonly known as Eingkeit und Recht und Freiheit, the first line of the third verse.

[3] Institut fuer Demoskopie Allensbach, September 1951

[4] Castells, M. (1997), quoted in Chimisso, C. (2003), p.60

[5] Cerulo, K (1989)

[6] For exact numbers, see Cerulo, K (1989)

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“Singing Nations”: National Anthems as a Cultural Expression of the Formation, Reproduction and Promotion of National Identity in France and Germany
The Open University
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Nations”, National, Anthems, Cultural, Expression, Formation, Reproduction, Promotion, National, Identity, France, Germany
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Kristina Kolb (Author), 2005, “Singing Nations”: National Anthems as a Cultural Expression of the Formation, Reproduction and Promotion of National Identity in France and Germany, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/138933


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