Lili Marleen: the poem and the song

by Emrys Westacott

Lili Marleen is one of the best known songs of the twentieth century.  A plaintive expression of a soldier’s desire to be with his girlfriend, it is indelibly associated with World War II, in part because it was popular with soldiers on both sides. It was first recorded by the German singer Lale Anderson in 1939. The Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels disliked the song and initially banned it from the radio, probably because it expresses a preference for staying at home rather than going off to war.  But in 1941 he granted a Belgrade-based radio station in German-occupied Yugoslavia permission to broadcast it. Apparently, Rommel, commander of the German troops in North Africa, liked the song, Goebbels relented, and soon Radio Belgrade (which had a very limited supply of disks available) was playing it every night as their sign-off tune. It quickly became popular with both German and allied forces. Anderson recorded an English version in 1942.

Marlene Dietrich, who worked tirelessly during world war two entertaining allied troops, also recorded both a German version and an English version of the song. Compared to the Anderson recordings, with their strong, marching tempo, Dietrich’s versions, which begin with the melancholy strains of an accordion, are slower, sweeter, and more wistful. The English version retains the melody and the general theme, but beyond the first line the lyrics are not even a loose translation of the original German.

The song began life as a poem of three stanzas, written in 1915 by Hans Leip (1893-1983), a schoolteacher from Hamburg who had been called up into the German army and was training in Berlin prior to leaving for the Eastern front. In the years following world war one, Leip became a successful author. His poem, with two further verses added, was eventually published in 1937, as “Das Lied eines jungen Soldaten auf der Wacht” (The song of a young soldier on watch). It was put to music in 1938 by Norbert Schultze, already by then a well-known composer who wrote numerous songs to be used by Goebbels’ propaganda ministry. Read more »