This is a song without words that rings out each year at Germany’s main remembrance ceremony on the National Day of Mourning (Volkstrauertag). But not only there: "Der gute Kamerad" also accompanies the state’s act of commemoration at funerals of Bundeswehr (Federal German Army) soldiers today as well as when remembering the casualties of yesterday’s wars. It is the melody that is the symbol – the words no longer play a role. And that’s fine as the third verse in particular is somewhat off-putting to modern sensibilities.
"Der gute Kamerad" has been and remains a traditional element in remembrance ceremonies: on the one hand, the words were written back in 1809 during the Napoleonic Wars; on the other, the melody can also be heard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on France’s day of national commemoration. In the Netherlands and Japan, the song is sung in the respective national language while the text has also been translated into the world language Ido.
The words were written by the young poet Ludwig Uhland of Tübingen, who had to write a military song for a pamphlet. Uhland had sympathies with soldiers on both sides. He later became not only a literary scholar but also a jurist and politician and was, moreover, a member of the first all-German parliament, the Frankfurt National Assembly.
The melody, meanwhile, has its roots in a Swiss folk-song and was added by Friedrich Silcher of Tübingen in 1825. In 1993, Richard von Weizsäcker, as President of Germany, ordered an enquiry into whether "Der gute Kamerad" remained appropriate to the political culture of remembrance in the reunited Germany. He was informed that the song had been played since 1918 and therefore also during the Weimar Republic.
In a detailed essay, the journalist and writer Kurt Oesterle comes to the conclusion that: “The song without words will remain the music that accompanies national commemoration for the foreseeable future.” The complete article can be accessed here.
The Good Comrade
by Ludwig Uhland (1809)
Once I had a comrade,
No finer could there be.
When the drum summoned us to battle,
He strode along by my side,
In perfect step were we.
A bullet flew towards us,
Was it destined for you or me?
My comrade it has carried away,
He lies now by my feet
As if a part of me.
His hand to me he reaches,
Just as I reload.
But mine in yours I cannot lay,
In life eternal may you, friend, stay
O good comrade of mine!
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