During sahur last Sunday I turned on the TV to find that the World Cup Final was still 0-0; Mario Götze scored the all-important goal just as I finished my mango. After the final whistle, fireworks were audible in Damansara Heights, just as the azan for the subuh prayer began. The crowd in Rio de Janeiro waving yellow-red-black flags while singing their anthem reminded me of Negeri Sembilan’s Malaysia Cup triumph in 2009 after a drought of 61 years, weeks after the Installation of their new Ruler.
The German victory inspired me to listen to Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet in C (Op 76 No 3), including variations on the tune he composed in 1797 in honour of Francis II, the last Holy Roman Emperor and first Emperor of Austria. In 1841, Hoffmann von Fallersleben, a German poet with nationalist aspirations – the German Confederation was then a collection of over thirty sovereign monarchies and republics – set new lyrics to the same tune, beginning with “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” – “Germany, Germany above all”.
This was not a yearning for German dominance over others, but an appeal to the rulers of the various sovereign states to place loyalty to a new united nation above independence for their territories – this makes the Malaysian story of federation more similar to the German, rather than the American or Australian, one. The dream of a unified Germany came true in 1871, with Wilhelm I of Prussia proclaimed as Emperor, and the diplomatic genius Otto von Bismarck as Chancellor – but it wasn’t until 1922 that Haydn’s melody with von Fallersleben’s lyrics officially became the German Reich’s national anthem. Ironically, in 1918, the melody was abandoned in its native Austrian Empire (then in union with the Kingdom of Hungary) when its monarchy was abolished in the aftermath of the defeat in World War I.
In better days, the Austro-Hungarian throne’s heir presumptive Archduke Franz Ferdinand (whose assassination triggered that war) probably heard his anthem on his visit to Johor in April 1893, alongside the one composed in 1879 for then Maharaja Abu Bakar. The Archduke wrote that at a gala dinner in his honour hosted by the Tunku Mahkota, “a rather good private orchestra of the sultan provided the musical entertainment”. He was then awarded the Darjah Kerabat Johor, an honour later bestowed on the German Kaiser’s brother Prince Henry of Prussia when he visited the sovereign sultanate in 1898.
Haydn’s composition made a comeback in republican Austria in 1929 until the Anschluss with Germany in 1938 – where they were still using the tune alongside the anthem of the Nazi Party. After World War II, West Germany reinstated Hadyn’s melody with von Fallersleben’s third stanza as its national anthem – the first stanza having been banned for its associations with Nazism (despite its pre-Nazi origins). Nonetheless, West German fans sang the first stanza by default when their squad won the World Cup in 1954, causing consternation amongst neighbours.
After the 2014 win, however, only the third stanza was audible, and referring to the anthem as “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” today will cause offence. It is unfortunate then, that the only invocation of German history by a Malaysian politician during the World Cup was praise for Hitler, provoking a firm response by the German Ambassador here and embarrassing international headlines.
The furore died down – assisted by another woeful comment from another politician – but not before a number of comments in praise of Hitler emerged, especially in the context of recent Israeli aggression in Gaza. Here, we navigate the dangerous territory of history being cited to justify present day actions, but devoid of a wider context. For example, had Hitler not come to power, European Jews would have more likely stayed in Europe instead of escaping to Palestine and grabbing land from the grandfathers of today’s suffering Palestinians. Remember also that Hitler’s alliance with the Japanese facilitated the death of tens of thousands in Malaya, North Borneo and Sarawak.
Also at risk of oversimplification are the calls to boycott certain companies because they purportedly support Zionism. As a student in the UK I blindly supported such calls, until my Palestinian classmate explained that in some cases boycotts can end up hurting Palestinians even more because of their position in the supply chain: economic boycotts are only useful, he argued, if they lead to a political solution. A recent target here was McDonald’s, which issued a statement pointing out that their allegedly Jewish CEO had long left the company, and that they employ over 12,000 Malaysians. Who will more likely be negatively impacted by a boycott of GCBs and banana pies?
Sport, music, history and economics: there could hardly be a more exciting sahur.
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Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is President of IDEAS