When the author Hoffmann von Fallersleben made the crossing from Hamburg to Heligoland in 1841, he was craving not just physical rest and recreation, but intellectual freedom as well. As a poet and scholar, he was living out the pre-revolutionary ideals of what’s known as the Vormärz. He was sympathetic to the powerful, emergent spirit of freedom and dreamed of a united Germany.
But his criticism of existing power structures in Germany was not well received. In those days, the Deutscher Bund, or German Confederation, consisted of a large number of small principalities and duchies, and they felt threatened by ideas about national democracy.
In those days, Heligoland was still governed by the British crown. The small island on the high seas was a favourite travel destination among Germans. This was the heyday of resort tourism, and, far removed from interference by any government authorities, the island was a playground for creative spirits. Among those feeling thus inspired was Fallersleben, who wrote:
As I strolled along, alone on the cliff, seeing naught around me but sea and sky, a sensation overcame me that was so strange, I had to write poetry, even had I had no wish to do so.
The poet took up his pen, and on the 26th of August 1841, he wrote The Song of the Germans – or Lied der Deutschen. It was a drinking song that – with the lines: "Deutschland Deutschland über alles" – evoked the longing for a country without borders, united by the German language.
Fallersleben hit a nerve. His publisher was delighted. He purchased the rights for a fee of four Louis d'or and had the verses set to a melody by Joseph Haydn.
Then history took its course. In the Weimar Republic, the Song of the Germans became the national anthem. The Nazis exploited the first two verses for their own megalomaniacal war-mongering. The anthem was abused. Nevertheless, after the war, in the young Federal Republic, there was general agreement that the third verse, evoking German unity, should be the new national anthem, and it has remained so following German reunification.
Today, a bronze bust commemorates the poet Hoffmann von Fallersleben. The memorial has stood on Heligoland since 1862. After the Second World War, the bronze was found to be damaged, so it was restored, and the plinth replaced. The old one still bore the inscription "Deutschland Deutschland über alles". Today, the old red granite plinth stands outside the museum as a piece of period history.
All depictions: © Nordseemuseum Museum Helgoland