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It began life as a poem written during WW I by Hans Leip, a German soldier and subsequently minor literary figure, titled Das Lied eines jungen Soldaten auf der Wacht (The Song of a Young Soldier on Watch). It wasn’t set to music until 1938 by composer Norbert Schultz, and in its first recorded incarnation, by singer Lale Anderson, it barely raised a ripple. Then came a new World War, and the discovery of the little-known record by somebody working for German Armed Forces Radio, upon which it was heard by Erwin Rommel, then commanding German forces in North Africa. The Desert Fox fell in love with it. He ordered it played every evening to soothe the soldiers of his Afrika Korps, and as it was broadcast throughout the Mediterranean theatre over Radio Belgrade in occupied Yugoslavia, played with Teutonic precision as the sign-off at precisely 9:55 PM each night, it wasn’t just his own troops who fell in love with it.

Before long, it grew so popular with British forces that English language recordings were hastily made (can’t have the lads listening to the bloody Krauts, can we?), first by vocalist Anne Shelton, and then, iconically, by Vera Lynn, she of We’ll Meet Again and White Cliffs of Dover. Perhaps even more famous is the attached rendition by Marlene Dietrich, who first performed it as part of a project begun by the American Office of Special Services, predecessor to the CIA, whose Morale Operations Branch intended it as a propaganda tool to be broadcast with presumed demoralizing effect to German soldiers over the OSS radio station Soldatensender. This only increased its general popularity, everybody on both sides tuning in, and Dietrich was called upon to sing it live for Allied troops all over the European theatre, laying them flat in the aisles wherever she went. In due course these performances were featured in newsreels shown in theatres on the home front, where the reaction was equally enthusiastic, until just about everybody, everywhere, was listening, enraptured by the sublime melody. Thus what began as a German poem of the First World War became the almost universally adored theme song of the Second, the sentimental favourite of homesick soldiers of the Axis and Allies alike, and of all of the loved ones who hoped to see them one day home again. By VE Day, it was probably the world’s most popular piece of music.

German Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels positively hated the song, for the same reason the OSS was eager to promote it: as rendered in the original German, Lili Marlene, despite its superficial similarity to a conventional love ballad, is perhaps the most moving and evocative anti-war song ever recorded. Those accustomed to the pure, romantic sentimentality of the English lyrics as warbled by Vera Lynn, which make it all about the girl who waits faithfully back home for her soldier boy to return, might be taken aback by the decidedly different tone of the poem as it was first written; here it is translated literally, with no alterations to preserve rhyme or metre:

In front of the barracks, in front of its large gate
There was a lantern
And still it’s standing there
Let’s meet again in the lantern’s shine
Let’s stand underneath it
Like we used to do, Lili Marleen
Like we used to do, Lili Marleen

Our shadows merged, and
That we loved each other
Everyone could conclude
And all the people could see it well
As we stood underneath the lantern
Like we used to do, Lili Marleen
Like we used to do, Lili Marleen

The sentry was already calling,
They bugled the last post
“That may cost you three days!”
“Comrade, I’ll be right in!”
That was when we had to say goodbye
How I wished I could go with you
With you, Lili Marleen
With you, Lili Marleen

It knows the sound of your steps
The lovely way you walk
It’s burning each and every night
But it forgot about me long ago
And should woe befall me –
Who’ll be the one, standing by the lantern with you?
With you, Lili Marleen?
With you, Lili Marleen?

From the realm of silence
From the earthen grounds
Lifts me like I’m dreaming of your lovely mouth
When nightly mists are drifting
I’ll be standing by the lantern
As once, Lili Marleen
As once, Lili Marleen

Should woe befall me, who’ll be the one standing by the lantern with you, Lili? The version crafted for the grunts on our team didn’t mention that the poor, frightened soldier got killed in his trench, and now, long forgotten, aches for his lost love from the other side, while these days his darling Lili perhaps meets somebody else beneath the old lantern.

Goebbels tried to ban it. You can see his point.

Anybody following Songs of the Day here on The Needlefish will know that if there’s one thing for which I’ll always be a helpless sucker, it’s an exquisite melody. Write me something like Lili Marlene, and if needs be I’ll do my damndest to separate the art from the artist, which, sadly, is necessary in this case because this fellow Norbert Schultz turns out to have been a bit of Nazi, and an avid composer of patriotic scores for the propagandistic extravaganzas put on across various media by the aforementioned Goebbels. He was not, therefore, somebody we ought to admire as a human being, but maybe look at it this way: with Lili Marlene he undoubtedly managed, however unwittingly, to thoroughly undermine any contribution he made later as a composer of stirring martial themes for the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. His music rendered immortal the almost unbearably poignant sentiments of a poem that made his own people long for an end to war, and gifted the Allies something which, when suitably tweaked, put the forces of his enemies in mind of all they had to look forward to once victory was won, and they could all go home. I don’t know whether he just went along to get along, or was a fervent Mein Kampf-reading, Jew-hating, Hitler-worshiping son of a bitch, but either way, isn’t there something delicious in the irony?

Besides which, damn, it’s one for the ages, isn’t it? No wonder it made Rommel weep inconsolably into his schnapps. I’m not saying we give its composer a pass, but given what became of it, I’d say we can enjoy Lili Marlene, in all its ineffable, heart-rending beauty, without any guilt.

2 comments on “Song of the Day: Marlene Dietrich – Lili Marlene

  1. Cethru Cellophane says:

    In 1965 I was stationed in Germany with the 3rd royal tank Regiment. I became a Regimental interpreter and language instructor. During my language training and qualification In Dortmund, my instructor, an Irishman by the name of Major Story taught the class this song. I have never forgotten it. It rang so true. Listening to Marlene Dietrich again after so many years brought back a flood of memories. thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. graemecoffin says:

      You’re most welcome, Cethru! Thanks for reading.

      Liked by 1 person

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