Written by Lewis Twiby
Warning: The music video discussed in this article is graphic and viewer discretion is advised.
French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs described memory as being owned by both the individual and society. One can have different recollections of an event, but societal memory can greatly impact an individual’s own memories. Cultural memory has become especially important in Germany as it tried to come to terms with its dark twentieth century; ranging from division during the Cold War to the horrors of genocide during Nazi rule. In March 2019, German heavy metal band Rammstein released their new, and controversial, song ‘Deutschland’. The lyrics and music video to this song gives us an insight into memories of German history, the politics of national identity, and the controversies which accompany it.
Due to Rammstein often using cryptic lyrics and imagery in their songs we can only look at a snapshot of the song just as Rammstein looks at a snapshot of German history. The song opens referencing the Battle of Teutoburg Forest: a Roman squadron sees their comrades hanging from a tree as Germania, the personification of Germany played by Afro-German actress Ruby Commey, decapitates a dead soldier. This event was later adopted by German nationalists as the forging of Germany: Arminius uniting the Germanic peoples against Rome halted their expansion, and delineated what was Rome and what was Germania. The rest of the song flashes through snapshots of German history ranging from the very literal, with the Hindenburg disaster to the Red Army Faction (RAF) attacks, to the more metaphorical, the political violence of the 1920s being represented through a boxing match. Naturally, being Rammstein, the video is full of controversial imagery. Monks gruesomely eat a meal over the body of Germania (possibly referencing the Reformation and Wars of Religion) and the band, to show the hypocrisy of the leaders of East Germany, go from drinking champagne to having an orgy. Lead singer Till Lindemann, dressed to resemble East Germany’s premier Erich Honecker, re-enacts the famous ‘socialist fraternal kiss’ with Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev in that scene. Even the end credits reference Germany; over the credits their song ‘Sonne’ is played, and its music video features a twisted version of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Originally this was a German fairy tale, so the band has linked their own personal history with wider German culture.
The most controversial part of the video concerns the concentration camp scenes. The band wear a Star of David, a pink triangle (signifying homosexuality), and a red triangle over the Star of David (signifying that they were a socialist Jew) while awaiting execution on the gallows. Germania is now dressed as an SS-officer and in the background V-2 rockets fire into the sky. Accompanying these images are the words
Überheblich, überlegen, Übernehmen, übergeben Überraschen, überfallen, Deutschland, Deutschland über allen (Overbearing, Superior, Take Over, Surrender, Surprising, Assault, Germany, Germany, Over Everyone).
By the end of the video the inmates take their revenge on the Nazis, in typical Rammstein fashion, by bloodily shooting them in the face. Rammstein purposefully chose Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp, Nordhausen for this scene for several reasons. Over 350 inmates were hanged and up to 20,000 more were worked to death to build Wernher von Braun’s V-2 rockets. In a great injustice, von Braun never saw justice as he was one of many Nazi scientists taken to the US to work on the rocket project and was never brought to trial for mass murder.
In ‘Deutschland’, Rammstein wanted to look at German history through a very particular lens. Despite the initial view that the song is nationalistic, ‘Deutschland’ instead paints German history as a grim and violent one. The Golden Age of Weimar is replaced by political violence and brutality, Germany’s ‘origin’ of defeating the Romans is shown as a gruesome affair and past intolerances are linked to contemporary ones. As witches are being burnt at the stake the Nazis are burning books. Curiously, for a song about German history, the events depicted do not show any recognisable historic figures: Honecker and van Braun somewhat appear through parody, and Karl Marx appears via the giant head which can be found in Chemnitz. Otto von Bismarck, Frederick the Great, Martin Luther, Hitler, and even Arminius are absent. This links us back to Rammstein creating an ‘anti-patriotic’ song, and their own politics. German history is presented as being driven by the masses where the ‘Great Men’ become great only thanks to the agency of the people. The band further tries to highlight a marginalised history of Germany. Germania is represented by an Afro-German woman; Lindemann at one time plays a beaten political prisoner, and the band become Jews and homosexuals being persecuted by the Nazis, who later get violent retribution. Rammstein’s own politics and contemporary issues impact why this version of German history is created.
History does not exist in a vacuum; it is constantly shaped by future generations to fit new narratives or ideas. Rammstein’s version of history is one part of this constant rewrite of history and is a direct critique of rising xenophobic nationalism in Germany. The band have been very open about their own politics and opposition to fascism; in a 2011 interview with Rolling Stone Lindemann said that he is a socialist and that ‘We used to be either punks or goths – We hate Nazis!’. This is highlighted by their song ‘Links 2,3,4,’ which is a direct reference to the labour movement song Einheitsfrontlied. The far-right has seen a resurgence in Germany over the last decade – the rise of Pegida and the AfD shows that, despite the trauma of Nazism, fascism is exploiting conditions in Germany. On 9 October 2019 a far-right Holocaust denier attacked a Turkish kebab shop and a synagogue in Halle. It is against this backdrop that Rammstein re-evaluates Germany’s history. Rammstein tries to argue that German history is full of darkness which nationalists overlook:
Deutschland, deine Liebe, Ist Fluch und Segen, Deutschland, meine Liebe, Kann ich dir nicht geben, Deutschland! (Germany, your love is a curse and a blessing, Germany my love I cannot give you, Germany!).
‘Deutschland’ becomes a way to fight the rising far-right through its lyrics and its symbolism, and it is no coincidence that an Afro-German actress is purposefully chosen to represent Germania. In a Germany where resurgent fascism attacks anything that is not white, Christian, or cis-heterosexuality, Rammstein aims to directly challenge this.
However, by making this statement it links back to German cultural memory and what is missing from this history loudly echoes in the video. Anti-Semitism was rife throughout European history and Germany is one of the many countries to have a long, sordid history of persecution. This ranges from the pogroms during the People’s Crusade to the state-sponsored anti-Semitism during Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, however, German anti-Semitism is boiled down to just the Nazi camps. The Holocaust did not simply start with the rounding up of Jews and other so-called untermenschen into camps; it instead built on years of intolerance towards those marginalised in society. This has been a constant tension in German cultural memory; while Germany has started coming to terms with the horrors of the Holocaust there has been little state sponsored memory of pre-Nazi anti-Semitism. Berlin’s Tiergarten still boasts a large statue honouring Bismarck despite his anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic policies. The inclusion of an Afro-German Germania also raises these issues. Germany’s black population, and its history in colonialism, have regularly been overshadowed by other narratives of trauma. In 1904, the German empire enacted the first genocide of the twentieth-century when, in Namibia, over 100,000 Herero, Nama, and San were murdered by colonial forces. Furthermore, the Nazi sterilisation of the so-called ‘Rhineland Bastards’, mixed-race children born by colonial French and even German troops, has been forgotten in cultural memory of Nazi eugenics. As cultural memory is blind to empire and colonialism, so is Rammstein’s ‘Deutschland’.
Finally, controversy sparked up when Rammstein released the teaser for the video. This was partially expected thanks to the band’s long history of controversy; BDSM imagery in their concerts has created hysteria, in 1998 during a concert in Massachusetts they threw a dildo into the crowd, and in July 2019 they kissed on stage during a St. Petersburg concert to protest Putin’s homophobic laws. The particular scene they chose to release was the one set in Mittelbau-Dora which caused accusations of anti-Semitism for trivialising the Holocaust. When the context of the scene was revealed these accusations were retracted, but Felix Klein, Germany’s commissioner for anti-Semitism, stated it best; that it was ‘a tasteless expression of artistic freedom’. Rammstein could have used any scene from the video; after all, the violence in each scene could have generated the wanted publicity, but instead they chose to use images of genocide to do this. Although Rammstein are firmly against fascism and anti-Semitism, their willingness to use the trauma of the Holocaust shows that cultural memory does not touch everyone equally. While the Holocaust is, and should be, remembered as a horrific event, even in Germany it can still be used as a cynical way to garner publicity. This is at the expense of the 16 million Jews, Roma, Slavs, and other ‘undesirables’ who perished under Nazi rule.
To conclude, Rammstein’s ‘Deutschland’ offers an interesting snapshot into how history, memory, and contemporary politics comes into play. History and memory are always being shaped by those in the present, and ‘Deutschland’ shows how it can be used to fight resurgent intolerance in society. It also shows how it can be manipulated for publicity. To quote Rammstein, ‘Germany, your breath cold, so young, and yet so old, Germany, your love is a curse and a blessing’.
Image: Single cover of ‘Deustchland’.
Rammstein, ‘Deutschland’, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NeQM1c-XCDc, (28/03/2019), [Accessed 13/10/2019].
‘Rammstein video: German rock band causes outrage with Nazi clip’, BBC News, bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-47745071, (29/03/2019), [Accessed 13/10/2019].
‘Rolling Stone: Exclusive Interview with Till Lindemann and Flake Lorenz’, Rammstein Press, https://www.rammsteinpress.com/2014/04/02/rolling-stone-exclusive-interview-with-till-lindemann-and-flake-lorenz/, (02/04/2014), [Accessed 13/10/2019].
Cesarani, David. Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews, 1933-1945, (London: 2015).
Fulbrook, Mary. A Concise History of Germany, Second Edition, (Cambridge: 2004).
Hobsbawm, Eric. The Age of Capital, 1848-1875, (London: 1975).
Judt, Tony. Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945, (London: 2010).
Stone, Dan. Histories of the Holocaust, (Oxford: 2010).
3 responses to “‘Deutschland’ by Rammstein: A Look at Cultural Memory in Germany”
[…] Germany, Rammstein This article was first published by Retrospect Journal on 20/10/2019 here. French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs described memory as being owned by both the individual and […]
Kudos! Amazing analysis, of an amazing song. Rammstein has always been one of the most interesting and thought-provoking bands. With “Deutschland” they also became one of the most IMPORTANT ones. Anyone who criticizes the song or its video is a total idiot (pardon my language). I say this as a Jewish person, and I congratulate Rammstein for having the guts to put this mirror in front of anyone who tries to ignore the truth. “anti-Semitism for trivialising the Holocaust” must be the stupidest thing I have ever heard: what Rammstein tried to do with the song and the video was exactly the opposite. And they succeeded.
I agree. But I am curious as to The bands politics, if they say they are socialist what does that mean in action. Like they mentioned far right holocaust denier which in america we have them but if the band hates nazis and faschism then are they like moderates in American terms.