Outside Edge: Above all, God save our awful anthems

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Ask your average Englishman to sing the German national anthem and, if it is not part of a torrent of very Anglo-Saxon invective, the second pair of words to pass his lips will be über and alles.

So it was for Pete Doherty, whose unsolicited rendition last weekend drew boos that ended a Munich gig for the Babyshambles lead singer. Public radio had already pulled the plug on a live feed.

Yet he is in good company. Few foreigners anywhere seem aware that for six decades the Fatherland has shunned the supremacist-sounding first two verses of the 1841 Deutschlandlied and instead chirped merely of “unity and law and freedom”. Problems crop up even in neighbouring Switzerland, where a television channel last year subtitled the authorised version with the old opening stanza – for which it later blamed “young editors”.

Anthems are ever more of a minefield, and not only for modern-day doomed youth such as Doherty or the errant Swiss. As George Bernard Shaw, that ferocious foe of patriotic pomp, once had a character opine: “The national anthem belongs to the 18th century. In it you find us ordering God about to do our political dirty work.”

For those who would require that God for instance got His act together on monarchical salvation, chores notoriously include the “rebellious Scots to crush”. But at least as troublesome as the bellicose numbers are those that appear to cede ground – and the older the words, the more scope there is for wayward parsing.

Though the Dutch trace back to 1574 the ditty about their William of Orange-Nassau being “from Germanic blood”, The Hague granted Het Wilhelmus anthemic status only in 1932. Just eight years on, the Nazis were sweeping through the area of the Netherlands that the latterly taboo part of their nation’s Deutschlandlied conspicuously namechecks as “the Maas”.

Now, 18 years since the Maastricht treaty sought to unify Europe’s economies, and with the Lisbon pact forged on the political front, can anything be done to quell all this lyrical confusion?

Some, to be sure, will never learn. Those might not include the contrite Doherty. But politicians are certainly among them. Take Yves Leterme: asked in 2007 whether he knew the anthem of his native Belgium, he launched not into La Brabançonne but France’s Marseillaise. Nor did that stop him becoming prime minister.

One obvious solution is to end the singing and just let the band strike up – as the Spanish do, having rejected their Franco-era libretto. But too many nations share a score: Germany with Austria, Britain with Norway and Liechtenstein as well as with America’s unofficial “My Country, ’Tis of Thee”. Never mind that if left unsung, many are dire dirges.

So there’s only one thing for it. Summon Simon Cowell. Run a contest, tweak the lines, twist the tunes. Call it the Ü Factor. Whether pronounced – your votes please, jury – ooh or eew.

The writer is the FT’s (not young) depüty analysis editor

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