I couldn’t quite tell you what this Axis-Allied Second World War song meant to me throughout my childhood. While it might seem to the unlearned ear that this is some German propaganda song, it’s actually far from that. It was a tune that inspired and brought hope to both sides of the war, and was actually banned by German propaganda minister Goebbels on Radio Belgrade until popular appeal brought it back. As Allied and Axis troops both marched through Europe, Lili Marleen reminded them of the women they left behind and gave them hope for the future. It’s about a girl waiting under a lantern for her lover to return from war, and is deeply touching.
The song was originally recorded by German singer Lale Andersen under the title, “Das Mädchen unter der Laterne,” which is based off of the first World War poem Das Lied eines jungen Soldaten auf der Wacht. She recorded the song after she met Norbert Schultz, who had composed the music for the tune.
The link I have provided you with shows a much peppier, war-time, gun-ho version that was recorded after Goebbels banned it from the radio. The original tune was much sadder and slower, along the lines of a ballad. Goebbels allowed it back onto the propaganda-sodden radio so long as it promoted war support rather than lament.
Lale Andersen attempted suicide, but failed. She was allowed to perform again after the song Lili Marleen was brought back to the radio, but she could not perform Lili Marleen, despite its soaring popularity.
Because of its popularity, Lili Marleen was played at the end of each Radio Belgrade broadcast. The German-controlled Serbia had Allied forces close enough to hear its radio, and Lili Marleen became a song that was popular on both sides of the front. Both Allied and Axis troops reminisced about their sweethearts. Let me take an excerpt from Wikipedia on the matter:
Many Allied soldiers made a point of listening to it at the end of the day. For example, in his memoir Eastern Approaches, Fitzroy Maclean describes the song’s effect in the spring of 1942 during the Western Desert Campaign: “Husky, sensuous, nostalgic, sugar-sweet, her voice seemed to reach out to you, as she lingered over the catchy tune, the sickly sentimental words. Belgrade…The continent of Europe seemed a long way away. I wondered when I would see it again and what it would be like by the time we got there.”
The next year, parachuted into the Yugoslav guerrilla war, Maclean wrote: “Sometimes at night, before going to sleep, we would turn on our receiving set and listen to Radio Belgrade. For months now, the flower of the Afrika Korps had been languishing behind the barbed wire of Allied prison camps. But still, punctually at ten o’clock, came Lale Andersen singing their special song, with the same unvarying, heart-rending sweetness that we knew so well from the desert. […] Belgrade was still remote. But, now that we ourselves were in Yugoslavia, it had acquired a new significance for us. It had become our ultimate goal, which Lili Marlene and her nostalgic little tune seemed somehow to symbolise. ‘When we get to Belgrade…’ we would say. And then we would switch off the wireless a little guiltily, for the Partisans, we knew, were shocked at the strange pleasure we got from listening to the singing of the German woman who was queening it in their capital.”
So now you know how much of an impact this song had on Europe, though you may never have heard it before in your life. Perhaps it rang through the corners of your history classroom, or perhaps you turned it off when you heard it come on some weird Pandora station. The song was also recorded by Marlene Dietrich as a way of demoralising enemy soldiers. A film and music icon and an avid anti-Nazi immigrant to the United States, Marlene Dietrich helped to popularise the song back in the States.
I’ve included a verse from the song to help you understand the nature of the translation.
Deine Schritte kennt sie, It knows your footsteps,
Deinen zieren Gang. Your beautiful walk.
Alle Abend brennt sie, It burns every evening,
Doch mich vergaß sie lang. Although it forgot me long ago.
Und sollte mir ein Leid gescheh’n, And if a mishap should befall me,
Wer wird bei der Laterne steh’n, Who will stand by the lamppost,
Mit dir, Lili Marleen! With you, Lili Marleen?