Angela Merkel has left Germans wondering how well they really know the chancellor who has governed them for 16 years, after picking a song by the punk rocker Nina Hagen as the soundtrack for her military leaving ceremony.
Merkel, whose Social Democrat successor, Olaf Scholz, is expected to be sworn in as chancellor next week, will be given a customary military farewell in the courtyard outside the defence ministry on Thursday evening.
The Großer Zapfenstreich ceremony will be more low-key than usual because of coronavirus restrictions, with only 200 guests in attendance.
Like her predecessors, Merkel has been allowed to request three songs to be performed by a marching band during the military tattoo.
But whereas Gerhard Schröder and Helmut Kohl picked conventionally bombastic musical fare for the occasion – Frank Sinatra’s My Way and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, among others – some of Merkel’s picks hint at unchartered hinterland.
Großer Gott, wir loben Dich (Holy God, we praise thy name) is a popular Christian hymn from the 18th century, a nod to her upbringing as the daughter of a Protestant pastor and the religious identity of her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
Her second choice, Hildegard Knef’s Für mich soll’s rote Rosen regnen (It should rain red roses for me), a wistful song about teenage ambition and juvenile arrogance, already suggests an ironic twinkle in the eye, however. “I was suppose to conform, make do,” the lyrics go. “Oh, I can’t conform, I can’t make do, I always want to win too.”
But the pick that had commentators searching for subtext and hidden messages is Nina Hagen’s Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen (You forgot the colour film).
First recorded in 1974 in a conventional schlager style, the song was a hit in the East German pop charts before Hagen emigrated to the other side of the iron curtain, where she immersed herself in London subcultures and became West Germany’s pre-eminent punk figure of the 1980s.
But even to embrace her East German identity is a move uncharacteristic of the Merkel her country has known during most of her 16 years in power, when she rarely brought her eastern upbringing to the fore.
The song, whose lyrics were written by Kurt Demmler, is an angry lament that admonishes Hagen’s boyfriend Michael for having only taken a black and white film on their holiday to Hiddensee island. As a result, she wails, “no one will believe how beautiful it was here”.
Though not censored by the state, the song was understood by its admirers at the time as a covert criticism of the socialist republic and its grey and drab everyday, where colour films were a rare commodity.
Some commentators have speculated whether the outgoing chancellor may have seen a more modern meaning in Hagen’s song: a howl of frustration with men neglecting to do their job properly could also be designed as a parting shot from Merkel to her male colleagues.