Thursday, June 30, 2011

"Lili Marlene" -- The International Hit Song of WWWII

The lyrics to “Lili Marlene” were written in 1915 by a young German soldier named Hans Leip. The female to whom the lyric is addressed was a compilation of two women to whom Leip felt an attraction and one night, after having had momentary encounters with both of them while on his way sentry duty he wrote a five-stanza poem called “Song of a Young Sentry”:

In front of the barracks
In front of the large gate,
There stood a lantern,
And if it stands there still,
Let’s meet there once again,
Let’s stand underneath the lantern,
Like once before, Lili Marlene.

Both of our shadows
Looked like they were the same,
We held each other closely,
You’d think that we were one.
And the world will see it again
When we stand underneath the lantern,
Like once before, Lili Marlene.

Leip’s poem was published in 1937 within a collection. The following year, composer Norbert Schultz encountered the volume of poems, set a few of them to music, and asked German cabaret singer, Lale Andersen, if she’d be interested in recording his rendition of Leip’s “Song of a Young Sentry.” At first they couldn’t find an interested studio – the song was all wrong for the burgeoning militancy of the Nazi regime – but after adding a bugle call to the beginning, Electrola made Schultz and Andersen a deal. “Song of a Young Sentry” aired over German radio for the first time on November 9, 1938, the night that became known as Kristallnacht. The sweet little song died amid the rubble of the Nazi’s first large-scale, organized attack on German and Austrian Jews.

Three years later, a German radio broadcaster named Karl-Heinz Reintgen, who’d just been ordered to initiate a military radio station in newly-conquered Yugoslavia, was scrambling to fill 21 hours of news and entertainment with only 54 records. His young assistant came back from Vienna with a pile of discarded records, one of them Andersen’s recording of Leip’s poem. It was transmitted over the airwaves of Reintgen’s new Soldatsender Belgrad (Soldiers’ Radio Belgrade) on August 18, 1941, becoming immediately and immensely popular all over Europe.

Nazi Propaganda Minister Goebbels was furious – the song was obviously anti-military – and he tried to have it banned. However, Rommel and the other German military brass, whose men all adored the song, politely reminded him that as a civilian, Goebbels had no jurisdiction over military matters; Soldiers’ Radio Belgrade was, after all, a military radio station.

If Goebbels couldn’t keep German soldiers from listening to the song, he could at least ban it on civilian radio (he allowed an instrumental-only version) and make life miserable for singer Lale Andersen, who was eventually caught trying to leave the country and who was, at one point, forbidden from performing at all.

But the soldiers were free to enjoy it every evening at exactly 9:57 when Reintgen would play the song they all knew as “Lili Marlene.” In North Africa, those few minutes actually initiated a nightly cease-fire; the British troops stationed there loved the song too. In fact, they began spending so much time listening to either Radio Belgrade or the broadcasts of Axis Sally (who interspersed her demoralizing propaganda with the song) that an English version of “Lili Marlene” was recorded by 14-year-old Anne Shelton and broadcast over the BBC in order to bring the Tommies back to the fold.

Why a particular song becomes beloved at a certain point in history is one of those inexplicable but fascinating pop culture mysteries but Liel Leibovitz and Matthew Miller, in their enlightening and immensely readable book on the subject, “Lili Marlene: The Soldiers’ Song of World War II,” have this to say about the song’s hold on WWII soldiers:

“Exhausted from combat and marching, caked with sand and burnt by the sun, the soldiers of the Afrika Korps gathered to listen, as they did whenever they could, to Radio Belgrade and their haunting “Lili Marlene.” The familiar song was a gateway through which they could return to the sweetness of their faraway homes and loosen the war’s rigid trip on their minds, if even for a few minutes.”

Did “Lili Marlene” cause the downfall of the Third Reich? Don’t underestimate the power of music. Aside from the nightly North African cease-fire, there has been at least one recorded incident where a single performance of this song kept one German from fighting. In an interview, 90 year-old US WWII veteran, Jack Leroy Tueller, recalls an evening in France, one week post-D-Day, when he played “Lili Marlene” on his trumpet, knowing that a German sniper was in the area.

Captured the next morning and asking for the trumpeter, the German sniper burst into tears when Tueller approached him; in broken English, he admitted that the song had stopped him from shooting: “’Lili Marlene’ reminded me of the tune that my fiancée and I got married to in Germany,” he said, “and I thought of my mother and father and I thought of my brothers and my sisters . . . I couldn’t fire, I couldn’t fire.”

And a British WWII nurse, Brenda McBryde, stationed at one point in Bayeux, Normandy, witnessed a fascinating musical moment when one of the German prisoners she was nursing suddenly began to sing “Lili Marlene.” In her memoir, “A Nurse’s War,” she relates the incident:

“One of the young German boys tentatively started up a song, while his comrades waited nervously to see how it would be received before joining in. We had no seriously ill men in the ward at that time; the boy had a pleasant voice, and we realized how long it had been since we heard anyone sing. We did nothing to discourage him. It was the catchy German marching song, ‘Lili Marlene,’ which had become as popular with Monty’s troops in Normandy as in Rommel’s African campaign where it originated. The rest of the POWs, emboldened, now took up the song, singing in well-rehearsed harmonies that were a joy to hear.

“Then the moment enlarged to provide one of those memories that stay forever. From the adjacent British ward came the same song, sung in English. The surprised Germans responded to the compliment with even more enthusiastic singing, and Soutie and I stood between the two wards listening to a performance that would have done justice to a male voice choir from men who, until recently, had been doing their level best to kill each other.

“‘Just shows how daft war is’ said Soutie.”


The English translation of initial two stanzas of “Lili Marlene,” “Lied eines jungen Wachtposten,” (“Song of the Young Sentry,”) appears on page 17 of the book, “Lili Marlene: The Soldiers’ Song of World War II,” by Liel Leibovitz and Matthew Miller, and was translated from the original German by the authors.

“For the common soldiers . . . “ Leibovitz and Miller, page 115.

German sniper quote:

Hospital quote: “A Nurse’s War” by Brenda McBryde, pages 121-122.


Lili Marlene: The Soldiers' Song of World War II by Liel Leibovitz and Matthew Miller.

"The Official Lili Marlene Page"

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