Try whistling a few bars of the Star-Spangled Banner in downtown Kabul if you want to find out how effective a national anthem is at making enemies.
A less deadly outbreak of red-flag-waving hymnody made for one of the most bizarrely theatrical moments at this year’s U. S. Open Tennis Championships in New York City. Towards midnight during the fourth set of what was to become a nearly five-hour match, the longest of the tournament, a fan sitting courtside in packed Arthur Ashe Stadium called out what had once been the opening line of Germany’s national anthem: “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles.” The fan’s target was 12th-seeded Alexander Zverev, who hails from Hamburg.
The German player had been about to serve, but he now approached the chair umpire, James Keothavong, a Brit.
Zverev pointed in the direction of the miscreant and informed the umpire that, “He just said the most famous Hitler phrase there is in this world. It is unacceptable.” Channeling a British school master, Keothavong then turned to the stands behind him: “Who is the smart guy who said that? Put your hand up!” Nearby spectators immediately pointed at the perpetrator. As security moved in the naughty guy got up willingly and left the stadium. Might hate speech laws apply?
The heckler had tried to put Zverev off his game, but the German went on to win the epic match. Yet the offended player’s description of “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” was a mishit—only partially true.
The incendiary lines in question open the first of the three verses of the Deutschlandlied (Song of Germany) penned by August Hoffmann von Fallersleben in the early 1840s. The poetry reflected the widespread desire harbored by liberal reformers of the period to unify the sprawling patchwork of German states into one modern nation. Success in that idealistic endeavor would have required toppling many of the hereditary rulers then presiding over the fragmented political landscape. After writing the Deutschlandlied lyric and other political works, Hoffmann was sacked from his post as a professor of literature. Banished from Prussia, he went into hiding. His was a subversive song, a threat to the ancien régime.
The Deutschlandlied served as the hymn of the failed German revolution of 1848 that sought democracy and unification. “Germany, Germany above everything else” extolls the idea of unity. It was not meant as a cry of triumph over other nations on the battlefield—or tennis court. Indeed, the text of that first verse goes on to sing of brotherhood, protection and defense.
Just as the British Anacreontic Ode provided the tipsily lurching melody for America’s Star-Spangled Banner, so too the Deutschlandlied served for drunken revels. After extolling the unifying spirit of nationalism that will be bring all German speakers together under one flag, the second stanza hymns wine, women, and song.
From 1922 the Deutschlandlied did service as the national anthem of the Weimar Republic, though the opening verse was contested by many, since Germany had been the invaders in World Word I. When the Nazis seized power a decade later, they kept the first verse and used it to introduce their own Horst Wessel Song (“Raise high the flag, the ranks tightly closed”), the Nazi Party anthem.
After seven years out of circulation following World War II the Deutschlandlied was returned to official status as West Germany’s national anthem in 1952, but without the first of two Hoffman’s stanzas—the bits about “Deutschland über alles” and drinking. Like the country, the hymn had been cut way down in size, and it now began with the unobjectionable embrace first of Unity (the same sentiment inherent in the line “Deutschland über alles”) and directly after that, Justice and Freedom.
The U. S. Open heckler shouted more than sang the infamous words, but the contours of the tune were just about recognizable. The melody is familiar not just at Olympic Games when Germans stand atop the medal podium, but also in many American churches where the tune is sung to the words “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken.” These goodly Protestants name the hymn “Austria,” a nod to its origins in the late eighteenth century as a birthday ode by Joseph Hayden for the Austrian monarch: “Gott, Erhalte den Kaiser Franz” (God Save the Emperor Franz).
Scratch the surface of any national hymn or walk along any national borders (preferably those where you won’t get shot at or step on a mine) and you will quickly see and hear how arbitrary these lines on the page or in the sand are. Hitler was born in Austria, but that country is not eager to claim him as a native son.
Things get still more tangled when we turn our attention to the players on the court at the time of the recent anthem incident. Zverev’s parents were professional tennis players in the Soviet Union, his father the Russian number one for a time. Offered coaching jobs at a club in Hamburg, they emigrated freely to Germany in 1990, where Alexander was born seven years later. That his parents are naturalized German citizens doesn’t make their son any less of a German, whatever that means. But it is remarkable how incensed the heckler made him—though it was the attempt to distract him during a tense match that must have really gotten his goat. More than likely, some of Zverev’s 20th-century forbears lost their lives in World War trying to repulse Hitler’s Wehrmacht from the Soviet Union. Because Zverev’s parents left Russia their son gets to compete under the German flag, while the Association of Tennis Professionals (A.T.P) has deemed his Russian tennis colleagues, like this year’s finalist Daniil Medvedev, nation-less since the Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine.
Across the net from Zverev was sixth-seed Jannik Sinner. A native German speaker, he was born in South Tyrol, a region that, since the dismantling of the Austrian Empire in the aftermath of World War I, has been part of Italy. Into the twentieth century Sinner would have been thought of as a kind of “German.” His mother has the very Wagnerian name of Siglinde. Sinner comes from the town of Innichen (called San Candido by the Italians) directly on the border with Austria.
Like so many national anthems the text of the Deutschlandlied hymns the geography of the country it imagines, in this case extending from the Baltic Sea to the Adige River that once marked the border between German-speaking Europe and Italy. Sinner was born north of the Adige. The Deutschlandlied wants to give him German passport: “Germany over everything” including over the Alps. Sinner is really the one who should have been offended by the disrespectful fan’s nationalistic taunts.
Whatever the vagaries of frontiers, Sinner is now defined, by the E.U., U.N. and A.T.P. as an Italian. What’s his attitude? He now lives in Monaco to avoid taxes. So does Zverev.
Yet promoters, commentators, advertisers, and fans continue to stoke the furnaces of nationalist even when the game is globalized, players often live or were trained in far from their home. Tennis is an individual sport, not a team or national one (except at for the Davis Cup). Yet it hoists flags everywhere, except for the Russians.
After young American Coco Gauff won the women’s singles title last Saturday, she was asked in a post-match interview how she felt about the crowds’ chants of “USA! USA!” The newly crowned champion beamed, “I was glad to make my country proud.”
Before both the men’s and women’s finals the world was treated to performances of another nineteenth-century nationalist anthem, “America the Beautiful.” At the women’s championship on Saturday night the message of this bible- and flag-waving hymn to conquest rang through all-the-more powerfully because of the expansive harmonic and off-piste melodic vistas opened up by jazz musicians Sullivan Forster at the Steinway grand and vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant at the mic.
Before the men’s final the same song was again heard, now stitched to the NAACP hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” A brass quintet from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra with their conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin bashing away at the Steinway backed Grammy-winning baritone Will Liverman. As the musicians hymned the United States, the worldwide fans were treated to the embarrassing spectacle of the ball boys and girls unfurling an American flag as big as the tennis court.
All but the maestro wore jackets, casually well-dressed. Nézet-Séguin, who is “Canadian,” was kitted out in bright blue Adidas warm-ups. He wore the real truth: the stars and their stripes are corporate and global.
As the music goose-stepped onward, the camera pulled back to take in the packed stadium and, later, shots from Queens across to Manhattan and the new towers that rise above the scars of 9/11. Beyond these cathedrals of capitalism stretches one indivisible nation under God, from sea to shining sea, above the fruited plain—and “above everything else” too.
Amerika über alles.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)