The long and checkered history of the “Deutschlandlied,” or “Song of the Germans,” began in 1841, when the poet Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben penned its lyrics as a rallying cry for supporters of a unified Germany. Set to a melody by famed composer Joseph Haydn, the song later became one of the German Empire’s most cherished national hymns. It was particularly popular among the military, and during World War I, German troops often belted it out from the trenches to identify their position and avoid friendly fire artillery deaths. Shortly after the war, the Weimar Republic selected the tune as the official national anthem.In the 1930s, the Nazis turned the “Deutschlandlied” into a symbol of fascism by combining its first verse—which included the famous line “Deutschland, Über Alles” (“Germany, Above All”)—with the official Nazi party song. Allied forces briefly banned the song after the war, but it was later restored as the national anthem—minus the now-tainted first verse—after the reunification of Germany in 1990.
National Anthem of South Africa
Prior to the end of apartheid in 1994, South Africa had dueling national anthems. The official state song was “Die Stem,” known in English as “The Call of South Africa,” but the country also had an unofficial national hymn in “Nkosi Sikolel’ iAfrika,” or “God Bless Africa.” In a land sharply divided along racial lines, “Die Stem” was seen as the preferred national hymn of the white population, while “God Bless Africa” was more closely tied to blacks, who employed it as a song of protest against apartheid.
The rival tunes stood as a musical symbol of South Africa’s troubled history until 1994, when newly elected President Nelson Mandela announced that “Die Stem” and “God Bless Africa” would share honors as the national anthem. Finally, in 1997, the two anthems were blended into a single song that incorporated lyrics from each. In an unusual twist, the new anthem also included lyrics in five of South Africa’s most commonly spoken languages: Xosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English.
The “Kimigayo” officially became Japan’s national anthem in 1999, but its lyrics date all the way back to a piece of 10th century verse written in honor of the Japanese Emperor. The poem was used in folk songs as early as the Middle Ages, but it wasn’t established as a patriotic tune until 1869, when a British music teacher working in Yokohama first set it to music for use as a national hymn. The Kimigayo was then updated to its current form in the 1880s, and eventually became Japan’s unofficial national song after the country’s Education Ministry decreed that it should be sung in schools. Its plaintive melody was transformed into a symbol of Japanese militarism during World War II, but the song endured through the post-war era and into the 1950s, when it was reintroduced as part of an effort to restore Japanese patriotism. The Kimigayo is often noted for its extreme brevity—at a breezy five lines, it’s one of the world’s shortest national anthems.
La Marseillaise (France)
One of the world’s most recognizable national anthems, the famed “Marseillaise” dates back to the height of the French Revolution. The song was composed in April 1792 by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, a French soldier and musician then stationed in Strasbourg. De Lisle wrote the march in support of a war with Austria—its original title was “War Song of the Army of the Rhine”—but its spirited melody proved more popular among revolutionaries gunning for the head of King Louis XVI. The tune became known as “La Marseillaise” after republican volunteers from Marseilles sang it during their long march into Paris, and it was later adopted as the new French republic’s national anthem in 1795. Ironically, despite having accidentally penned its battle hymn, the royalist De Lisle would only narrowly escaped the guillotine under the revolutionary government.
The Marseillaise was later banned by Napoleon and several other French monarchs and wasn’t officially restored as the national anthem until 1879. Since then, the song has often come under fire for its violent lyrics, which make vivid reference to throat cuttings, vanquished enemies, and fields running red with blood.