Die Gedanken sind frei

Die Gedanken sind frei is a German song about the freedom of thought. The text and the melody can be found in Lieder der Brienzer Mädchen, printed in Bern, Switzerland between 1810 and 1820. The original lyricist and the composer are unknown, though the most popular version from Neukirch near Schönau (Nowy Kosciól) was rendered by Hoffmann von Fallersleben in his 1842 collection Schlesische Volkslieder mit Melodien.

The idea represented in the title — that thoughts are free — was expressed as early as in Antiquity and became prominent again in the Middle Ages, when Walther von der Vogelweide (c.1170-1230) wrote: “joch sint iedoch gedanke frî” (yet still thoughts are free). In the 12th century, Austrian minnesinger Dietmar von Aist (presumably) had composed the song “Gedanke die sint ledic vrî” (only thoughts are free). About 1229, Freidank wrote: “diu bant mac nieman vinden, diu mîne gedanke binden“. (this band may no one twine, that will my thoughts confine).

Since the days of the Carlsbad Decrees and the Age of Metternich Die Gedanken sind frei was a popular protest song against political repression and censorship, especially among the banned Burschenschaften student fraternities. In the aftermath of the 1848 German Revolution the song was proscribed.

The song was important to certain anti-Nazi resistance movements in Germany. In 1942, Sophie Scholl, a member of the White Rose resistance group, played the song on her flute outside the walls of Ulm prison, where her father Robert had been detained for calling the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler a “scourge of God”. Earlier, in 1935, the guards at the Lichtenburg concentration camp had ordered prisoners to stage a performance in celebration of Hitler’s 46th birthday; the imprisoned Jewish lawyer Hans Litten recited Die Gedanken sind frei in response.