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Die Gedanken Sind Frei (Our Thoughts Are Free) -- Traditional

Guest poem sent in by Priscilla Jebaraj

This one's not really a war poem, but it struck me as being relevant to the
(Poem #1185) Die Gedanken Sind Frei (Our Thoughts Are Free)
 Die Gedanken sind frei
 My thoughts freely flower,
 Die Gedanken sind frei
 My thoughts give me power.
 No scholar can map them,
 No hunter can trap them,
 No man can deny:
 Die Gedanken sind frei!

 I think as I please
 And this gives me pleasure,
 My conscience decrees,
 This right I must treasure;
 My thoughts will not cater
 To duke or dictator,
 No man can deny--
 Die Gedanken sind frei!

 And if tyrants take me
 And throw me in prison
 My thoughts will burst free,
 Like blossoms in season.
 Foundations will crumble,
 The structure will tumble,
 And free men will cry:
 Die Gedanken sind frei!

 Neither trouble or pain
 Will ever touch me again.
 No good comes of fretting,
 My hope's in forgetting.
 Within myself still
 I can think as I will,
 But I laugh, do not cry:
 Die Gedanken sind frei!
-- Traditional
       (Old German song, translation by Arthur Kevess and Gerda Lerner)

I first discovered this poem in what was my favourite book as a child: 'From
Anna' by Jean Little. It tells the story of a German family in the 1930s who
are digusted with Hitler and Nazism and leave the Fatherland for Canada.

This song was apparently very popular immediately before and during World
War II. At a time when all freedoms were being attacked, Germans clung to
the fact that their thoughts were still free. It was a source of hope in the
concentration camps and an weapon of defiance to the resistance. (In fact, I
found this translation on a website about the student protest group, The
White Rose).

The poem has a long history of protest. It can be traced back to the 12th
Century when the minstrel (!) Dietmar von Aist sang "Die Gedanken, die sind
ledig frei".

It appeared in its current form during the Peasant Wars of 1524-5, a series
of rural uprisings directed against unbearable taxation.  Both Lutheran and
Catholic landlords cut the rebels down: Martin Luther himself condemned the
peasants.  But they didn't really care -- after all, their thoughts were
still free.

I guess it's still the same today. The manipulation of ideas and thoughts,
whether in Baghdad or Washington, will ultimately fail, because "Die
gedanken sind frei!"


PS: Interestingly, there are several fairly different versions and
translations of this song. If you want to read it in the original German, or
listen to the song set to music, check out this site:

And here's a not-so-popular version that some people say is more authentic:

Thoughts are free!
Who can guess them?
They fly along like nightly treasures.
No man can know them
No hunter can shoot them
With powder and lead
Thoughts are free!

I think about what I want
and what makes me happy
But everything quietly,
and just how it comes.
To my wish and desire
Nobody can oppose,
It stays this way:
Thoughts are free!

And if they lock me in a dark dungeon
That is something that can be forgiven
'Cause my thoughts tear up the bars and walls.
Thoughts are free!

I think about what I want
and what makes me happy ...

And if they lock me in a dark dungeon ...

I love wine, my girl most of all,
Only me she pleases best
I am not alone
With my glass of wine
My girl is with me:
Thoughts are free!

That's why I will never worry anymore
And I will never tease myself
with whims anymore
Because in one's heart
One can keep laughing and joking
While thinking
Thoughts are free!


19 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Mallika Chellappa said...

At first blush, this poem looks so idealistic!
But let's look closer:
There is a close relationship between free, invaluable
and valueless, just as there is between the Everything
and the Nothing (+infinity and -infinity are at the same
point on the number line)
So - as the comic book goes, "words are cheap - let's
have action" - and thoughts are even cheaper.
However, there is no doubt that the poem has a message -
and it is that one should remain true to one's thoughts
and values, no matter what the prevailing political and
cultural climate rewards.
A case in point is how, during the Irangate years,
most US immigrants were willing to toe the establishment
line and blame Don Regan for Ron's shortcomings.
Even in this current imbroglio - one will find
the born US citizen more often rasies his/her voice against
the establishment, the first generation immigrants do not dare
to do so - and this leads to subtle thought censorship.

Acynta said...

>one will find the born US citizen more often rasies his/her voice against
>the establishment, the first generation immigrants do not dare
>to do so - and this leads to subtle thought censorship.

Partly this is because born citizens naturally feel more "entitled" to
complain/protest. Partly, it's also because people who come to the US from
places that are a lot worse have a more informed perspective on what a really
horrible government is like. Or at the very least appreciate the good things
that born citizens take for granted. Such as the Bill of Rights.


Marcus Brinkmann said...

The english version posted here is not a very close translation,
neither in word nor in spirit or meaning. The main reason is that it
introduces several new concepts that go beyond the content of the
original, and that it is bold and specific where the original is
subtle and broad.

Priscilla posted a more literal translation in her post scriptum,
which doesn't rhyme and can't be sung. But it gives you a much better
idea on the original. There are a couple of simple translation errors
in there, though, which I want to clear up for anybody interested:

"They fly along like nightly" shadows, not "treasures".

"and just how it comes." should be "and how it becomes", ie, in a way
that is proper and polite.

"To my wish and desire Nobody can oppose," comes out a bit wrong. The
original has the meaning that nobody can deny you the act of wishing
and desiring something. They can oppose all they want to your wish,
but they can't stop you from wishing.

"And if they lock me in a dark dungeon That is something that can be
forgiven" is a simple translation mistake ("vergeblich" was mixed up
with the verb "vergeben"). Literally it is: "And if they lock me in
the dark dungeon, these deeds are all purely in vain."

The stanza about the girl and the wine seems to be odd, I'd think it
is an addition that was made in a later century by students or guys
from the YMCA or so. In any case, "Only me she pleases best" should
be "Only she pleases me best".

"And I will never tease myself with whims anymore" is probably ok.
The original is an oldish German idiom which means about the same.

Lorna Collier said...

I recently co-authored a memoir about a young German farm girl growing
up in WWII and the subsequent Russian occupation, titled "Tilli's
Story: My Thoughts Are Free." The title came from this song, which
Tilli remembered her mother humming so often during the war as a way of
signaling her opposition to Hitler -- the only protest she could make.
We have been playing versions of the song at our book-signings and
passing along lyric sheets and info about it, gleaned from websites
such as this one.

Tilli's translation of the first verse is as follows:

My thoughts are free, who can guess them?
They fly by, like nightly shadows.
No one can guess them, no hunter can shoot them.
It's a fact, my thoughts are free.
I think what I want and what makes me happy,
But orderly and quietly to myself.
Because my thoughts tear down fortresses and walls,
My thoughts are free.

I've read the song was banned by the Nazis. Is this true?



Lorna Collier
Author, "Tilli's Story: My Thoughts Are Free"
Freelance writer/editor

Bonnie Couchman said...

Ah !
Thank you for posting this song & the translations!
I have been facinated with it since I heard it on a movie about WWII as
a child.
It depicted prisoners of war, how hery kept sane & their attempts to escape.
This song was sung to infuriate the Germans after a particularly nasty
I managed to catch most of the words during a viewing,
translated what my command of german permitted &
asked my Mom to help with the rest.
The more accurate translation and the comments from Marcus Brinkmann
are definately closer to the intent.
She had a good deal of difficulty expressing the idiom in english, &
couldn't remember a few of the more esoteric words, so I dispared of
ever getting it right.
One of these days I'll smooth it so it fits the tune. Rhyme at the same
time is hopeless.

Marcy said...

Dear Priscilla Jebaraj:

I am so happy to find the poem Die Gedanken Sind Frei listed under World War II songs. I didn't know the correct spelling and am composing a poem for my fathers 87th Birthday mentioning it. I was a little girl (12 years old) and saw a World War II movie. There was a castle on a mountain top surrounded by water. High official undercover American, English and German men were kept captive there. I am not sure of its title . Maybe Richard Whitmark was in it, but I am not sure since it was so long ago.

The men had to always gather in the court yard outside to be accounted for. When the hardships were tearing at their hearts an English or American plane flew overhead. Slowly and quietly at first, then loud and fervently they say this song. I was so taken by their emotions that I asked my Dad (a World War II German Jew survivor) what they were saying. He explained that no matter what someone does to you, your thoughts are always free.

I made him teach me the whole song that night and I have never forgotten it.

Marcy Hamberg

Anonymous said...

brilliant song

Anonymous said...

Dear Marcy,

You wrote: "I was a little girl (12 years old) and saw a World War II movie. There was a castle on a mountain top surrounded by water. High official undercover American, English and German men were kept captive there. I am not sure of its title."
The song, "Die Gedanken Sind Frei" was sung multiple times in the movie. It is called, "Escape of the Birdmen" and it stars Doug McClure and Chuck Connors, among others. It is a fine WWII movie that you should watch again!

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