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10 iconic phrases that map out each era of German history

The Germany we know today has been shaped by its unique, yet tragic and tumultuous history, originating from 1871 when Germany first became a country. The Local has collected 10 iconic and internationally renowned phrases that mark historic change in Germany, and how Germans see their country.

10 iconic phrases that map out each era of German history
The 1954 World Cup win is still considered a miracle for many reasons. Photo: DPA

1. Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit (unity and justice and freedom)

Translated as “unity and justice and freedom”, the opening line of Germany’s National Anthem has become the country’s unofficial motto. From the text of the 1841 three verse poem das Deutschlandlied, this third verse alone was confirmed in 1990 as the national anthem of the reunified Germany. 

When coined by German poet August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben, the phrase “Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit” had a liberal connotation as it was distinctly revolutionary, calling for a united and free Germany governed by rule of law rather than a number of local monarchs. 

The call for German unity was associated with demands for press freedom and other civil rights. For this reason, all three verses of the song were chosen as the national anthem for the Weimar Republic in 1922. Though President Friedrich Ebert advocated that only the third verse should be used, as it best endorses the Republic’s liberal tradition. 

For similar reasons, the song was reintroduced as the national anthem of West Germany in 1952, after years of discussing several options. Though the first and second verses were not outlawed, contrary to popular belief, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer made it clear that only the third verse would be sung.

2. Deutschland, Deutschland über alles (Germany, Germany, above all else)

Sticking with das Deutschlandlied, we draw your attention to the first verse of the song, which was banned by the Allies at the end of World War II. 

Just like the current national anthem, these lyrics were written by German poet August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben in 1841. At that time, the phrase “Deutschland über alles” was considered progressive as it called for a unified Germany – “über alles” – above all loyalty to existing small principalities and their rulers. 

The lyric, “von der Maas bis an die Memel, von der Etsch bis an den Belt” calls out to German speaking populations across Europe, asking them to unite. The song is considered a big proponent to Germany’s initial unification thirty years later in 1871. 

However, because in the 1930s the Nazis misused the first verse to convince the population of Germany’s superiority over other nations, the phrase “Deutschland über alles” is now closely associated with the Third Reich, and the first two verses of das Deutschlandlied are no longer sung. 

Messing this up is easier than you think. During the Federation Cup in 2017, an international tennis tournament, the United States Tennis Association apologised after playing the banned version of the German national anthem. An embarrassing mistake, which German tennis player Andra Petkovic described as “the worst experience that has ever happened to me”.

3. Im Westen nichts neues (All quiet on the Western Front)

“This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.”

Im Westen nichts neues is a 1929 novel by German World War One veteran Erich Maria Remarque, which sold 2.5 million copies in 22 languages in its first 18 months in print, becoming popular in Germany and the countries Germany fought against, particularly the USA and UK. The novel was the first of its kind, a war memoir, and changed the way Europeans perceive war. This is not a tale of patriotism and heroism. 

A key theme of the text is chance. How can you be a hero, why it is sheer luck whether a bullet or a shell hits you or miss you? Remarque highlighted the lack of control soldiers had during WWI as a result of machine warfare, capturing the dehumanising effect this left on soldiers. 

Remarque’s title character is Paul Bäumer, an innocent teenager with no experience of war, who left his village for the trenches alongside his schoolmates as a result of nationalistic propaganda. His detachment from civilian life, as well as physical mental and trauma struck a chord with an entire generation of post-war Germans. 

Remarque’s agenda was not political, but rather to tell the stories of Europe’s lost generation, whether through death or mental trauma. Anecdotes from the novel, often referred to as a patchwork of different experience, are believed to have been inspired by stories Remarque would hear as he recovered in a German war hospital from a shrapnel injury sustained in the Western Front. 

4. “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart”, Anne Frank

This is one of the most famous lines of Anne Frank’s diary, one of the world’s best known books, documenting her life in hiding from 1942-1944 during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Born in Frankfurt, Anne lived in Germany until she lost her citizenship in 1941, spending the rest of her life in the Netherlands during undoubtedly the darkest period of German history. 

Anne wrote in her diary until she and her family were discovered and arrested. A few months later, Anne and her sister Margot died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Anne’s father Otto Frank, the only member of the family to survive the Holocaust, found Anne’s diary after his secretary and close friend, Miep Gies, had saved it. Moved by Anne’s desire to become a writer, he published the diary in 1947.

“I want to go on living even after my death! And that’s why I’m so grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and to express all that’s inside me! When I write I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived! But, and that’s a big question, will I ever be able to write something great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer?”

The Diary of Anne Frank was quickly introduced to school curriculums across the world, and prominent figures such as Nelson Mandela, John F Kennedy and Hilary Clinton have credited Anne Frank’s diary with inspiring them.

According to Holocaust survivor and Nazi Hunter Simon Wiesenthal, the diary has raised more awareness of the Holocaust than the Nuremberg Trials, “people identified with this child. This was the impact of the Holocaust, this was a family like my family, like your family and so you could understand this.”

5. Das Wunder von Bern (the miracle of Bern)

There is no football match in history that could make a German’s eyes light up quite like the 1954 World Cup Final between West Germany and Hungary.

Going into the match, West Germany was a hopeless underdog, it was a huge surprise that the five year old country had even made the final. Just a few days earlier, West Germany had lost 8-3 to the Hungarian Mighty Magyars, who had been undefeated for four years. Those watching in Germany simply hoped not to be humiliated again.

It looked bad for West Germany at the beginning, with Hungary scoring two early goals. The second half was a rainy, muddy battle, until German Adidas revolutionary Adi Dassler unleashed his secret weapon: screw in studs. The new shoe allowed longer spikes to be screwed in, improving the West German players footing on the wet pitch compared to the Hungarians’ heavy, mud-caked boots. 

With a final score of 3-2, the World Cup victory was about more than just sport. It was the founding legend of modern Germany and a moment steeped in the country’s collective consciousness. 

It was the first time that many Germans could get behind their country and feel proud to be German. The event also bridged the generation gap between those who experienced the Nazi-era and who didn’t, bringing back a sense of German Einigkeit (unity). The “miracle” boosted West German’s morale, a country which was suffering in the aftermath of the Nazi era.

6. Die Banalität des Bösen (the banality of evil)

The concept of the “banality of evil” was developed by Hanna Arendt, a German Jewish philosopher who settled in New York in 1941, after fleeing from Nazi Germany. Her theory altered the world’s perception how of evil operates, and how genocide can be both caused and prevent.

In 1961, she reported on the trail of Adolf Eichmann, the head of the SS “Office of Jewish Affairs” who had vanished before the Nuremberg trials. He was secretly brought to Jerusalem by the Israel Security Agency, after being discovered living in Argentina.

Arendt noted that Eichmann showed “no case of insane hatred of Jews, of fanatical anti-Semitism or indoctrination of any kind. He personally never had anything whatever against Jews”. Instead, he offered the typical Nazi plea that he did nothing out of his own initiative and only obeyed orders. Arendt argued that Eichmann felt that his moral responsibility was relaxed once he saw “respectable society” endorsing mass murder.

However, Arendt insists that moral choice remains, even under a dictatorship, because our most fundamental human quality is the dialogue between us and ourselves: the ability to think. The ability to think is what prevents genocide, as it makes us a person. 

By blindly following orders and refusing to think, Eichmann refused to be a person and consequently, was no longer capable of making moral judgement. Arendt highlighted that the greatest evils are evils committed by nobodies, by human beings who refuse to be persons. 

Arendt called this phenomenon “the banality of evil”. 

7. “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner), John F Kennedy

“Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was civil romanus sum “I am a Roman citizen”. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is “Ich bin ein Berliner!”. All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner!”

You were waiting for this one. US President John F Kennedy’s speech in front of 450,000 West Berliners, on the steps of the Rathaus Schöneberg on June 26th 1963, is regarded as the best known speech of the Cold War. The speech demonstrated the USA’s support for West Germany, 22 months after the GDR erected the Berlin Wall. JFK offered a great morale boost for West Berliners, who lived in a capitalist island surrounded by the communist GDR, and feared a potential East German occupation. 

Reading from his note, “ish bin ein Bearleener” (so he was sure to get the German pronunciation right!), the phrase birthed a misconception across the English speaking world that Kennedy had made a mistake by called himself “ein Berliner” rather than “Berliner”. Supposedly, this changed the sentence to mean “I am a doughnut”. 

Kennedy’s sentence was in fact correct, and while the phrase does have two possible meanings, Germans will assure you that not one of the 450,000 in the audience genuinely thought it was the doughnut option. 

8. “It comes into effect, according to my information, immediately” – Günter Schabowski

When East German spokesperson for the Politburo Günter Schabowski arrived at a press conference on November 9th, 1989, he had no idea that his slip of the tongue would bring down the Berlin Wall hours later.

He’d been given an edited document about new East German legislation regarding travel restrictions, which he’d not read in advance of the conference, thinking he didn’t need to prepare. Pressure was mounting on the GDR to allow its citizens freedom of movement, as most citizens had to endure a lengthy and almost-impossible process, involving questioning from the Stasi, to leave the country.

When asked about current travel rules, he was supposed to tell the journalists that from now “East Germans could apply for visas in an orderly manner at the appropriate state agency”.

Instead, he read from his documents, not understanding the edits because he was taking a smoking break when they were explained at a meeting: “we have decided today… um… to implement a regulation that allows every citizen of the German Democratic Republic… um… to… um… leave East Germany through any of the border crossings”.

When asked when the new rule was taking effect, he shuffled through his papers and read out the first answer he could find: “According to my information… immediately, without delay”.

Destiny was calling, and the journalists at the conference certainly answered. They began reporting immediately that the Berlin Wall, a symbol of the Cold War and a divided Germany, was open, inspiring East Germans to dash for the border and start a peaceful revolution, which ultimately unified Germany into the country we know today. 

9. “Now what belongs together will grow together.” – Willy Brandt 

In November 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, Germany was still very much divided. There was much uncertainty surrounding the future of both East and West Germany, with talks of a reformed GDR or a confederation of the two Republics.

Many influential politicians were keen to continue a divided Germany, as they feared unification would evolve into another wave of Nationalism. However Willy Brandt, former Chancellor and SPD honorary chairman at the time, commented in an interview following the fall of the Wall “now we are in a situation in which what belongs together will grow together”.

Across his political career, Brandt advocated that the two Germanies “belonged together”. Though towards the end of his life, he considered his long-term dream of reunification “in many ways a sustained delusion”.

His simple statement pinpointed the emotional turmoil of a divided nation and the inevitability of unification. The public was moved by the statement, a patient and humble promise that not only Germany but Europe as a whole had the potentially to evolve together organically. 

Brandt died in 1992, living to see his dream of a united Germany in 1990. He is remembered as a national figure of east and west integration, working in both of the former countries, demonstrating his commitment to German unity.

10. Berlin, arm aber sexy (Berlin, poor but sexy)

No phrase epitomises modern Berlin quite like that of Klaus Wowereit, mayor of the city between 2001 – 2014: arm aber sexy.

He coined the phrase in 2003 in order to draw creative minds to the city. With significantly lower rents than other European capital cities, over the last 10 years Berlin has become a hub for artists, writers, musicians, technology and web entrepreneurs. 

According to a DW report, 40,000 new residents move to the city every year. Examples of Berlin-based startups include music sharing service SoundCloud and games company Wooga. Furthermore, Berlin’s aesthetic draws in 12,000,000 tourists every year, providing a key economic boost to the city that is still €60 billion in debt. 

Fifteen years after he coined the phrase, Wowereit, a Berliner born and raised, wrote a book about his relationship with the city: “Sexy, aber nicht mehr so arm: Mein Berlin” (Sexy, but not as poor any more: My Berlin). In the book he highlights how Berlin has gone from strength to strength following the tumultuous isolation and division across most of the last century. 

This city has always been earnest, because it’s never had it easy. Nevertheless, Berlin has always exuded a certain attitude to life, which means that you can throughly enjoy life here.”


Member comments

  1. Thanks for this fascinating article – but sadly the original phrase in German is missing for no. 4,8,9?

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‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.