Lili Marlene
Liel Leibovitz and Matthew Miller

This page:

Lili Marlene



index pages:

Lili Marlene

Note (Hal’s):
Though structured as the story behind the popular song, this book weaves around it much of the history of World War II. Some significant figures:

  • Hans Leip: poet, author of the lyric.
  • Lale Andersen: singer identified with the popular recording.
  • Norbert Schulze: composer.
  • Karl-Heintz Reintgen: in charge of Radio Belgrade, which popularized the song among soldiers on both sides.
  • Tommie Connor: British songwriter who produced the English translation.

Authorities who banned the song during the war ranged from Joseph Goebbels, Nazi minister of propaganda, to the British General Bernard Law Montgomery.

— end note


Underneath the Lantern
For him, the syncopated din of turning wheels, the clatter of men and metal tossed together at great velocity, and the shrieks of pulled brakes were the sounds of death. From his position next to the barracks, he saw trains carry off loads of fresh-faced young men into battle and then, months later, return with a harvest of invalids—burned, maimed, and disfigured beyond recognition— headed to the military hospital with nothing but agony to look forward to. Irrational as it might have been, Leip blamed it all on the trains, as if they were not merely the instrument but the cause of such misery. With every whistle of an engine, he shuddered.




“Bombs! Bombs! Bombs!”

Even in the midst of the steady, spiraling descent into madness that was the Nazi state, the events of Kristallnacht stand out. Nothing radically new, of course, happened on the evening of November 9, 1938: concentraton camps and mass arrests, synagogue burnings and vandalism, anti-Semitic outbursts and random acts of violence, had all been an inseparable part of life in Germany for at least half a decade prior to that night. What was new, and terrifying, was the scope of the convulsions: 7,000 Jewish shops were ransacked, 30,000 Jews were shipped to concentration camps, 1,574 synagogues were plundered, 267 of them set on fire, and at least three dozen Jews were murdered that night.

Observing with horror, foreign correspondents based in Berlin all noted that the events of the two-day-long, organized bloodletting were an extraordinary surge of psychosis.


“A Small Piece of Home”

The café crowd sang the memorized words with joy, something that, at that time, was enough to be considered a not-so-subtle act of subversion. It was no secret that Goebbels, who had obsessively controlled every aspect of German culture, despised “Lili Marlene.” [...] He ordered the destruction of Lale Andersen’s original recording matrix and banned Hans Leip’s tender words from German airwaves. In a nod to the song’s popularity with the masses, though, and unwilling to cause a public upset, Goebbels decided that the tune, composed by Bomber Schulze, could stay: thus “Lili Marlene,” on civilian radio still existed, but only in its instrumental form.

Goebbels also tried, but failed, to silence “Lili Marlene” on the military’s radio stations as well. He was stopped by a number of Hitler’s generals, Rommel included, who recognized the special place the song had in the hearts of their soldiers.

If banning “Lili Marlene” was going to be the only way to undo the damage caused by the tune to sensitive English ears, Britain’s leaders realized that the Allies would have to create a supersong of their own, one that captured something of Schultze’s infectious, singsong melody and Andersen’s sensuous intonations in order to forestall an open revolt from the soldiers in the field. Wouldn’t it be easier, opposing voices suggested, to simply record an English version of “Lili Marlene,” play it to the men often, and, over time, dilute the Nazi connotations of the song?

Fortunately for the Allied soldiers, this simpler and far less provocative course of action won out.

The collective crying always amazed Schneider: Here were men who had heard the screams of comrades being burned alive in blazing tanks, who had seen friends crushed by these machines or slain by bullets, who had the taste of sand and blood constantly in their mouths, all without betraying a hint of emotion. But when the song came on, the men—young conscripts, husbands, grown men with children—wept.



A farmer by training, Schneider recalled learning of America’s vast agricultural sector, with its advanced wheat-threshers, mechanical combines, and plentiful beehives. How could Germany, more or less alone in the world, survive against forces backed by a country of such farming prowess?

While other soldiers of the Afrika Korps thought of the war in terms of dive-bombers and armored columns, it was only natural for Schneider to see it as some enormous contest of agricultural output.


“Can the Wind Explain Why It Becomes a Storm?”

She sang a song in the movie G.P.U., a standard work of propaganda besmirching the Russians. Complete with scene after scene of sweaty Soviet agents torturing young, innocent, and perfectly coiffed German maidens, the film became a hit largely due to Andersen’s participation.

But fame and fortune in Nazi Germany could never remain apolitical for long. [...] After all, what was the point of mandating ownership of a government-issued radio receiver if the most popular song on the airwaves was some sentimental tune that did not possess the savage virility of a good military march? What good was propaganda if all people cared about was the story of a young woman waiting underneath the lamplight for her beau to return home from the war?




“We’re the D-Day Dodgers”
Rommel knew that for his men, and for the men strewn all across the North African front, this song, this “Lili Marlene,” was supporting them, keeping them from collapsing, and reminding the soldiers of all nations that they were, on some level deep beneath their khaki clothes, still human, still alone, and still longing to reunite with those they had no choice but to leave behind. So, on behalf of them, for three minutes in the evening, Rommel allowed the radios surrounding him to tune into more pleasant, emotional fare than the orders, reports, and dispositions that normally flowed through the metal speakers of his personal battle group during the day.

Compare to:

“Cyrano de Bergerac”

Epilogue Hans Leip had written the poem under the shadow of the First World War, and Andersen and Schultze recorded it on the precipice of the Second. It always had a hard kernel amid the soft tune that resisted ideology, that transcended borders, that spoke of what we had in common. But while love in a time of war is a powerful balm, love in the time of peace runs the risk of turning into a sweet nothing.

text checked (see note) Oct 2009

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