National Anthems

Most of us know our own national anthem and possibly even Canada’s (“O Canada”). Like most familiar things, though, we often fail to reflect on the meaning of the words. But it is worth doing. For national anthems provide a picture into the heart of a country, or at least that is what they should do.

Since so much sentiment is associated with America’s anthem, it is easier to study those of other countries. Once this is done and we have discovered what makes a good anthem, perhaps we will be in a better position to turn to our own. In what follows I shall consider three national anthems and offer a few comments about each. Links are provided for each. I suggest you listen to them before turning to the commentary.

Great Britain

Most are familiar with the tune (America cribbed it for “My country ’tis of thee”). Click here. Below are the lyrics to the first two stanzas.

God Save the King/Queen

God save our gracious King/Queen,
Long live our noble King/Queen,
God save the King/Queen:
Send him/her victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us:
God save the King/Queen.

O Lord, our God, arise,
Scatter his/her enemies,
And make them fall.
Confound their politics,
Frustrate their knavish tricks,
On Thee our hopes we fix,
God save us all.

1) This is a song to be sung in a crisis — particularly a military one. When there is no war or no prospect of war, the anthem seems a bit out of place. Fortunately for Great Britain, peace has been punctuated by regular and predictable intervals of war.

2) The lyrics are repetitious. Yes, yes, may the queen be saved, now let’s get on with it.

3) Perhaps the king or queen should be saved, but then, maybe not. What if a reincarnation of Richard III were sitting in Buckingham Palace? Would the English really want him to be saved?

4) The second verse really does not work. Apart from the bit about “knavish tricks” (has Britain never been guilty of knavery?), it is too political. National anthems should rise above the clamorous din of realpolitik.

5) Officially, Great Britain is a monarchy in name only. The Queen plays a ceremonial function, but not much more (at least officially: who knows what goes on behind the scenes). What is the point of saving her? Why can’t a Duke or the Prime Minister open Parliament and preside over state dinners?

6) Nothing particularly British is exalted in this anthem. Any country of any era could make a few changes and make it their own. Americans could sing, “God save our President, Long live our President, God save him, please.” Or imperial Rome, di servent nostrum imperatorem . . . Officially atheistic countries such as the former Soviet Union may have a bit more difficulty, but even this could be done with a little imagination.

So while august and dignified, the anthem leaves much to be desired. It is conservative, but fails to say why the monarchy is worthy of being conserved.


With the French national anthem we move from the one to the many. Far from saving the monarch, the French anthem calls for his head.

Once again, listen to the anthem before reading further. This striking version is sung by Mireille Matthieu.

La Marseillaise

Allons enfants de la Patrie
Le jour de gloire est arrivé
Contre nous de la tyrannie
L’étendard sanglant est levé (bis)
Entendez-vous dans les campagnes
Mugir ces féroces soldats?
Ils viennent jusque dans vos bras
Égorger vos fils, vos compagnes!

Aux armes, citoyens!
Formez vos bataillons!
Marchons, marchons!
Qu’un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons!

Arise, you children of the fatherland
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us, tyranny
Has raised its bloodied banner (repeat)
Do you hear in the fields
The howling of these fearsome soldiers?
They are coming into your midst
To slit the throats of your sons and consorts!

To arms, citizens!
Form your battalions!
Let us march, let us march!
May impure blood
Soak our fields’ furrows!

1) The call to overthrow the tyrants is moving. One can imagine pubescent boys being swept away by it and running off to the front with musket and uniform. But after the tyrants head has been severed from his body, what next? A perpetual call for revolution is not something to found a nation on.

2) There is a time and a place for violence. But even when necessary, it is an ugly affair. Songs that are occasioned by blood fury have a place on the battlefield (think of the Rohirrim on the fields of Gondor), but not at state ceremonies.

3) Like Great Britain’s national anthem, France’s offers up little that is particularly French. Any nation can (and do) use this anthem as a call to overthrow its tyrants.

4) The anthem strikes a wrong cord in the stale world of modern democracies. A friend of mine once told me that he was talking to a Brit one day and the Brit asked him what the Revolutionary War was over. My friend gave the expected reply, “taxation without representation.” To which the Brit dead-panned, “how do you like taxation with representation?” A similar jibe can be given about the French and their anthem. France, like other western nations, elects its tyrants; it is incongruous to turn around and call for their heads. Especially with another election always looming on the horizon.


Germany’s nation anthem steps into none of the pitfalls that the previous two do. Here is a stirring rendition. (Click “German wine/women” under “Reports.”)

Das Lied der Deutschen (The song of the Germans)

Deutschland, Deutschland über alles,
Über alles in der Welt,
Wenn es stets zu Schutz und Trutze
Brüderlich zusammenhält.
Von der Maas bis an die Memel,
Von der Etsch bis an den Belt,
Deutschland, Deutschland über alles,
Über alles in der Welt!

Deutsche Frauen, deutsche Treue,
Deutscher Wein und deutscher Sang
Sollen in der Welt behalten
Ihren alten schönen Klang,
Uns zu edler Tat begeistern
Unser ganzes Leben lang.
Deutsche Frauen, deutsche Treue,
Deutscher Wein und deutscher Sang!

Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit
Für das deutsche Vaterland!
Danach läßt uns alle streben
Brüderlich mit Herz und Hand!
Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit
Sind des Glückes Unterpfand;
Blüh im Glanze dieses Glückes,
Blühe, deutsches Vaterland.

Germany, Germany above all,
Above everything in the world,
When it always, for protection and defiance,
Brotherly stands together.
From the Maas [Meuse] to the Memel [Neman],
From the Etsch to the Belt,
Germany, Germany above all,
Above anything in the world.

German women, German loyalty,
German wine and German song
Shall retain in all the world
Their old beautiful ring
And inspire us to noble deeds
During all of our life.
German women, German loyalty,
German wine and German song!

Unity and Justice and Freedom
For the German fatherland;
This let us all pursue,
Brotherly with heart and hand.
Unity and justice and freedom
Are the pledge of happiness.
Prosper in this fortune’s blessing,
Prosper, German fatherland.

Haydn wrote the music originally for Austria (Christians will recognize it as the tune “Glorious things of thee are spoken” is set to). The official anthem of Germany today is the third verse only.

1) Woody Allen’s character said to Annie Hall after walking out of The Flying Dutchman, “I feel like invading Poland.” Many feel the same about this anthem and have panned is as incitement to German aggression. The first stanza is often understood to mean, Germany is to be above all other countries. But this is not the case. When written, Germany was not a unified state. The call was for pan-German unity. Germans were thus called to look to Germany first very much like conservatives in American call for her representatives to put American first.

Indeed far from calling for world domination, it sets specific geographical boundaries — Denmark to the north, the Meuse to the west, the Neman to the east (at the time the border between Prussia and Lithuania) and the Etsch to the south. This is the German Fatherland. No more, but certainly no less.

2) Though in historical context the song is nationalistic, it is better understood as racial. The Germans are one people, one kin. They share a common history, language, and culture. This bond of blood is to be celebrated. We are constantly propagandized to despise our kin and heritage. Germany’s anthem rightly pays no heed to this call to rebellion.

3) Some find that the nationalism of the song repelling. But what it wrong with pride in your country? All good national anthems exalt its nation and its people. And what is the point one if it does not celebrate its people, history and land?

4) The second verse is the best of all. There are other worthwhile things in life besides wine, women and song, but not many. The German anthem glories in the concrete things of life; things that can be touched and tasted. This is far superior to celebrating an abstract idea such as freedom or democracy. It recognizes that common blood and heritage tie a nation together, not a proposition.

5) No other nation has as great of a chorus than those of the third verse: “Blüh im Glanze dieses Glückes, Blühe, deutsches Vaterland.” Above, Blühe was translated as ‘prosper’. Literally, it means to bloom or flower. Glückes of course means ‘luck’ but it has the broader meaning of good fortune. Literally it means, bloom in the luster of this fortune; bloom, German fatherland. A beautiful sentiment.

On a lighter note, Sarah Connor sang this anthem at the opening ceremony of a stadium in Munich last year. But instead of Blüh im Glanze dieses Glückes, she sang, Brüh im Lichte dieses Glückes (“Boil in the light of this fortune”). No doubt a mistake, but somehow fitting given the ongoing anti-German sentiment of many — even sixty years after the Nazi regime.


Musically, all are good. Their melodies capture something of the spirit of all three nations. But they also capture something universal as well. Who does not get goose bumps when Laszlo leads the patrons in Rick’s Café in a stirring rendition of “La Marseillaise” in the movie “Casablanca”?

But when the lyrics are considered together with the music, Germany’s national anthem rises above the others. In a few words it captures the soul of its people. And it is a people not a form of government or an abstract idea that makes a nation great. Would that the United States had an anthem so good. Or does it? Let me know what you think of our national anthem.

9 thoughts on “National Anthems

  1. I was watching Grand Illusion and a stirring rendition of La Marseillaise is given. (Indeed, I think Casablanca cribbed that whole scene.)

    However, what struck me this time was how, despite the fact that France is supposed, like the USA, to be a “propositional” nation, the song is heavily laced with blood and soil. Those that resist must be of “impure blood.” Defend your sons (as well as companions). Blood soaking the fields. Etc.

    I’m thinking that propositionalism as the basis for patriotism is always a fantasy of intellectuals.

  2. What about a world anthem? Words to express whatever comes up by consensus from around the world.


  3. Ray –

    Well, if we were to go by today’s consensus, I would nominate Paul Anka’s, “I did it my way.” As someone once put it, that is the song men sing on their way to hell.

    But the question is misguided. A national anthem is just that: a national anthem. And as such it has to do with one’s nation, one’s land, one’s people, one’s language, one’s culture. A world anthem is thus impossible. It was attempted once at Babel, but it failed.

  4. If your refering to “music” appreciation I suggest that you put this topic under it’s own heading. Our national anthem is our national anthem! If you don’t think it is good enough for you then “LEAVE”!

    And if you happen to be a democrat, then I suggest that maybe you also think that our national anthem might not be good enough for you.

    Maybe you should leave too?

  5. Excuse me for not replying sooner, I had to go look up “Hannitized.”

    I don’t know if I would call it hannitized, exactly? I just sincerely believe that most of the “proclaimed” liberals and/or democrats are “blinded and brainwashed” by our media into thinking that it is politically incorrect to recognize God and Country in the same sentence?

    It just seems to me that all the people that I meet who happen to adhere to “alternate lifestyles” and/or denounce God, happen to be Democrats?

    I believe this country was founded on Christian values and concepts, and any desire to move away from them, is not only a fatal mistake, but also an indication of the imminant demise of our Country. It’s already, economically, in a lot of trouble, and now they seem to want to make God politically incorrect?
    It is no wonder violence is on the rise?
    I suspect that they don’t even believe that is was partly, or mostly, due to their practices!


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