Module: National Identity: Fixed or Fluid?

By Mareike Herrmann. “Fixed and Fluid Notions of National Identity: The Case of Germany”. Offered in “Migration and Intercultural Engagements in Germany”. Module Duration: Two weeks.

With a history of both Fremdenfeindlichkeit (xenophobia) and Willkommenskultur (welcoming culture), Germany, having accepted around a million refugees and asylum seekers since the beginning of 2015, has taken on a dominant role in responding to the current refugee situation. This has sparked intense debates not only about how Germans will deal with such a large number of immigrants, but how the nation and German identity will change as a result.

In this module on fixed and fluid notions of identity, students will first study the development of German national identity in the 19th century by examining the national anthem, Das Lied der Deutschen. Until the second half of the 19th century, Germany was a conglomerate of disparate states whose identities were characterized more by a regional sense of belonging rather than a national one. The poem that eventually became the text of the national anthem, Hoffmann von Fallersleben’s “Song of the Germans,” represents a desire to give Germans a more collective sense of identity. The class will then examine how such a ritualistic, fixed understanding of identity, in which notions of ethnicity and purported national character are tied to a geographic location, contrasts with more fluid notions of citizenship that are grounded in constitutional ideals.

Learning Goals and Objectives:

The specific learning objectives for this unit are as follows. Students will,

  • Examine and assess the history and significance of the German national anthem, including debates about its use today;
  • Compare and contrast the German anthem to those of other nations, particularly the ones of nations that send immigrants to Germany, and understand the sociological/anthropological function of anthems in the construction of national identity;
  • Compare traditional notions of national identity with other, more fluid notions of identity and models of citizenship (transnational, cultural, etc.);
  • Learn about debates of citizenship and immigration in postwar and post-unification Germany.


Week 1

Session 1.1
In class: The history of national identity in Germany; in-depth discussion of Hoffmann von Fallersleben’s “The Song of the Germans” (national anthem) and its history; discussion of the text, central motifs, images, music, etc.)
Reading: Hoffmann von Fallersleben, “The Song of the Germans”;
Fulbrook, Mary, “National Identity and German History”, in German National Identity After the Holocaust. Hoboken (NJ): Wiley, 1999;
Deutsche Welle “Germany’s National Anthem: A Song with a Tricky Past

Session 1.2
In class: The Nature and function of national anthems (sociological views, comparative studies). Followed by, student presentations of National Anthems of Turkey, Italy, Spain, Greece, Syria, Russia, Ghana, Vietnam
Reading: Vamvakidou, Ifigenia et al, “Nationalism through State-Constructed Symbols: The Case of National Anthems” The International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences 4 (2009). Web resource.

Week 2: Germany’s identity in a transnational context

Session 2.1
In class: The effects of post-war immigration on German identity;
Film: Almanya: Welcome To Germany (2011), dir. Yasemin and Nesrin Semdereli
Reading: Zafer Senocak, Atlas of A Tropical Germany (excerpts). Translated by Leslie Adelson. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.

Session 2.2
In class: Changing Notions of Citizenship in Germany: from Jus Sanguini to Jus Soli?
Reading: Yasemin Nuhuoğlu Soysal. “Citizenship and Identity: Living in Diasporas in Postwar Europe?” The Postnational Self: Belonging and Identity. Eds. Ulf Hedetoft and Mette Hjort. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. 137–151.
Documents relating to changes in the German citizenship law around 2000 (from Göktürk, Gramling, Kaes, Germany in Transit: Nation and Immigration 1955-2005)


Instructions for student presentations:
Students will get together in groups (of 2 or 3) to research the anthem of one of the nations assigned to them. They will put together a presentation (visual and oral) that examines both the words and the music of the anthem (music will be played, lyrics projected and handed out on handouts). To contextualize the anthem, students will present some basic facts about the political system, population overview (ethnic make-up, religions, languages) and discuss other markers of national identity construction (e.g., flag) of the country. In reference to the article “Nationalism Through State-Constructed Symbols,” each group will present one or two critical questions on the meanings and limitations of anthems as national symbols.

Goals of assignment

  • To expose students to a variety of anthems of nations from which people have im/migrated to Germany, in order to familiarize them with national identity constructions in those nations
  • To learn about political contexts and histories of diverse global nations;
  • To provide a basis for comparison between Germany’s and other nations’ anthems;
  • To have students work collaboratively with other students and hone their presentation skills.

Discussion questions for Session 1.1:
National anthem discussion:
Homework questions for discussion that day:
(1) What is the history of the anthem’s creation?
(2) What were the poet’s main interests at the time he wrote it?
(3) How do his goals reflect the developments of Germany’s history in the mid-19th century?
(4) What resonance do these ideas have in today’s Germany? Use the readings by Fulbrook and the Deutsche Welle overview as your main sources.

In-class discussion questions:
(1) Discuss specifics of the music: What mood does it establish? How is this done? Are there developments, changes, climax? Which instruments are used? Discuss, for example, dynamics, harmonies, melody.
(2) What does this choice of music (i.e., a classical piece by Joseph Haydn) say about German identity?
(3) How is national identity determined in the words of the anthem? Discuss issues like geography (real and imagined boundaries), collective values, products, cultural and political ideals.
(4) Discuss how the idea of national identity as represented in the anthem is problematized and questioned in postwar Germany (see Fulbrook). Examine specifically the ways that the legacy of the Holocaust and of German expansionism positioned Germany and the world to become wary of ideals that are represented in the first two verses of the anthem.

Session 1.2:
Presentations, discussion questions from students for class following each presentation

Session 2.1:
Film analysis form (To be uploaded)
Discussion questions on identity construction by Turkish-Germans
(1) What are some of the central conflicts portrayed in the film?
(2) What role do generational differences play in the identity constructions of Turkish immigrants in Germany? How are they dealt with in the film?
(3) How does the film reflect the discrepancies between a de facto multicultural society and the existing law about “fellow foreign citizens” that Senocak identifies?
(4) Discuss Senocak’s plea for a changed notion of citizenship in “Germany – Home for Turks?” What arguments does he put forward?

Session 2.2:
Discussion questions
(1) Outline the changes Germans have made to immigration and citizenship laws since WWII (homework: make a timeline based on primary documents from Germany in Transit)
(2) Discuss the implications of the most recent legal change (2000) and relate them back to Senocak’s plea; do they address his concerns?
(3) Discuss Soysal’s critique of traditional notions of citizenship and national identity. How do such older notions, and also theories of diaspora, “overlook the transgressions of the national and lose sight of the new dynamics and topography of membership”