Fed Cup blunder on German national anthem: Why a lyrics mistake means so much

'It's 2017 – something like this simply should not happen in the United States,' player Andrea Petkovic said, after now-banned lyrics associated with the Nazi era were played before her quarterfinal match.

Susan Mullane/ USA TODAY Sports
Andrea Petkovic (GER) in action during her match against Alison Riske (USA) at the USA vs Germany Fed Cup tie at the Royal Lahaina Resort in Maui, Hawaii on Feb. 11, 2017.

The US Tennis Association (USTA) has issued an apology to Germany after mistakenly using an old version of the country’s national anthem that associated with the nation’s Nazi era.

At a Saturday Fed Cup quarterfinal match between American Alison Riske and Germany's Andrea Petkovic in Hawaii, the local opera singer hired perform the German anthem mistakenly sang the first verse of the song, rather than the third, as has been the official version for decades. The first verse contains lyrics that translate to "Germany, Germany, above all, above all in the world," which became associated with the Nazi government's push for expansion and German dominance. That segment of the anthem has since been banned in Germany.

"In no way did we mean any disrespect," the USTA said in a statement. "This mistake will not occur again, and the correct anthem will be performed for the remainder of this first-round tie."

"I thought it was the epitome of ignorance, and I've never felt more disrespected in my whole life, let alone in Fed Cup, and I've played Fed Cup for 13 years now and it is the worst thing that has ever happened to me," Ms. Petkovic told German news site Deutsche Welle. She also said that she considered walking off the court upon hearing the anthem.

"It's 2017 – something like this simply should not happen in the United States," she added.  

As Germany has moved forward and rebuilt following World War II and post-Soviet reunification, the nation has wrestled with how to reconcile its past, particularly public symbols of the Nazi era, from the national anthem to "Mein Kampf." Those clashes have intensified as many voters have become wary of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s accepting stance toward refugees, saying it could open the borders to potential terrorists, while others caution against taking a more closed-door stance that could constitute discrimination based on religion.

The controversial lines, originally written in the 19th century as a call to unify a nation still feeling stark regional divides, took on a new meaning as the Nazi party came into power. For many, the words serve as a reminder of Adolf Hitler’s desire to expand Germany to become the preeminent world power. In 1951, West Germany restored the third verse of the song, and in 1991, after reunification with East Germany, that was declared the national anthem.

"Deutschlandlied," as it is called, is one of many Nazi-era symbols and relics Germany continues to debate, as The Christian Science Monitor has previously reported. Last year, for example, eyes turned to Zeppelin Field in Nuremberg, where Hitler held rallies and parades. While some have made calls to completely abolish the grounds and other reminders of the past, others say keeping history alive serves an important reminder of how Germany went astray, encouraging future generations to learn from past mistakes.

“We don’t hide any buildings, and we don’t hide any books,” Alexander Schmidt, a historian at the documentation center of the Nazi Party rally grounds, told the Monitor at the time. “We can’t hide history.”

Similar concerns surfaced last year surrounding the printing of a critical edition of Hitler's autobiography “Mein Kampf,” which served to become a manifesto for his anti-Semitic and ethnic cleansing ideas. But since the once-banned book hit shelves again, the annotated edition has been used predominantly by scholars and schools, quelling fears that the book would serve to fuel neo-Nazis and anti-Semitic sentiments.

“Mein Kampf was dangerous only as a myth, as a rumor, as a so-called ‘banned book,’ ” Sven Felix Kellerhoff, a German author and journalist who published a book on the autobiography’s history in 2015, told the Monitor last month. “Now, with the very good scientific edition and maybe a little bit with my own book, this myth is destroyed.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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