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“Inappropriate and embarrassing“

Most of the passages in the Bundeswehr’s songbook are no longer contemporary, according to Michael Fischer

Freiburg, Jun 16, 2017

“Inappropriate and embarrassing“

Photo: Jürgen Gocke

According to media reports, the Bundeswehr wants to overhaul its songbook “Sing, comrades!” It isn’t that easy as Dr. Dr. Michael Fischer, Director for the Center for Popular Culture and Music explained in an interview with Nicolas Scherger. Although the critique about the book is justified, it is just as difficult to find appropriate songs for it.

„Kameraden singt!“ (“Sing, comrades!”) has been the Bundeswehr’s official songbook since 1991. Photo: Jürgen Gocke

Mr. Fischer, is it time to overhaul the Bundeswehr’s songbook?

Michael Fischer: It is completely normal to overhaul such a collection of songs after a quarter of a century. The reason behind it, however, is most interesting: when taking a critical and sensitive look at the content, we recognized that some text passages no longer reflected our current belief system. In particular, it has to do with songs that emerged or were received in a national-socialistic context: “The hazelnut is black-brown”, the “Tank Song” or the “Westerwald Song”. Furthermore, there are many other problematic texts and contexts. 90 percent of the text passages in this book are inappropriate and embarrassing.

So it is not enough just to eliminate certain songs?

No, it is not. Nazi or Wehrmacht undertones can be found in other songs as well. One verse begins with the expression: “The ranks are closed” – that arises in the so-called Horst Wessel song. In another we have found the following passages: “We are the masters of the world, the kings of the sea … and we hoist on our waving mast our flag as red as blood.” Certain associations come up that we don’t want associated with the Bundeswehr. And in a further text it says: “We drive to the north … we have been driving for one thousand years … We will drive another thousand years.” One should have noticed that in 1991 that is no longer feasible.

What other problematic contexts have you identified?

The book speaks of outdated notions of homeland, gender, manliness and defense strength. Since 1991 we have developed completely different societal debates and even the Bundeswehr has changed dramatically with the rise of female soldiers. It makes some songs completely unspeakable: “Farewell, my love, duty calls, give me your hand as we part! I will be a solider by tomorrow and will write you from the barracks.” In some ways you could say it is rather harmless – but it is simply no longer modern and reveals a problematic, unacceptable image of women.

The songbook gives off the impression that war is a game or a great adventure. That does not reflect the Bundeswehr’s image as an army for peace, says Michael Fischer. Photo: Jürgen Gocke

The list goes on…

What is also completely out of place is the colonialist content. “How often have we walked the narrow negro’s path” with the refrain “Hey yeah, Safari.” This type of humor is no longer acceptable. Then we find other Carnival and hit songs such as “There is no beer in Hawaii.” And the so-called folk songs:  In “High on the yellow wagon” one verse goes like this:  “Postillion in the tavern quickly feeds the steeds, foaming barley corn drinks are handed to us by the barkeeper indeed.” I have no idea what a 20-year-old should think of such texts.

What does the book say about the emergence of such alleged soldier songs?

In the prologue it says “that soldiers singing is an old custom. Soldier songs are handed down orally, continuously change and are ‘adjusted’ by the soldiers to adapt to their daily routine. It is an ideology that the former German Folk Song Archive, the predecessor to the Center for Popular Culture and Music, emphasized and propagated – but that was over one hundred years ago! Soldier songs are actually passed down in written form – through such normative books as these.

What kind of image does the book cast about the Bundeswehr itself?

The cover alone speaks volumes: Soldiers around the campfire, while hiking, on a sailboat – the Bundeswehr as an adventurous vacation. It seems out of place. Both from an ethical as well as political perspective, war is evil and it should only be considered an option in democratic societies when it comes to defending the country against imminent danger. In that case, there shouldn’t be any texts in the book that give the impression that war is a game or a great adventure. It doesn’t give off the image of the Bundeswehr as an army for peace.

A fine line: The songbook has to fulfill high normative standards – its purpose, however, is to foster camaraderie amongst the soldiers.  Photo: Jürgen Gocke

How can you explain then that such problematic content has lasted so long?

We have to walk a rather difficult line: the songbook is an official Bundeswehr publication issued by the Federal Ministry of Defence. That is why it has to fulfill very high normative standards. The purpose for it, however, is to bring soldiers together, foster a sense of camaraderie and allow them to chat with one another. So we want to offer songs that reflect their world – put plainly, their life as soldiers. There is a conflict of interest and one has to realize it in the face of justified criticism.

Is there a song in the book that you think is suitable?

Yes „We shall overcome“ – but pacifistic songs and protest hymns don’t fit well with the soldier’s experience. But then again there are texts by Bertold Brecht: “Spare no grace or pains of yours, Spare no passion or insight, So that a good Germany flowers, Like many another good country.“ But with such ’didactic’ songs the book would lose its purpose.

What do you suggest as a solution then?

I have to admit I can’t offer any simple solutions – if we don’t say: This official songbook is unnecessary. The soldiers should sing what they know and what is fun for them to sing. At the beginning of the current song collection, there is a quote attributed to Fredrick the Great: “No moping…let’s sing instead!” But the notion of someone making a military directive that we all have to sing song number 17 is quite outdated. Musical activity should always be spontaneous and voluntary.