A song conquers the world: ′Lili Marleen′ | Music | DW | 20.04.2013
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A song conquers the world: 'Lili Marleen'

All across the trenches of World War II, soldiers from around the world were fascinated by the same song. DW looks back at the first broadcast of the song 'Lili Marleen' on April 18, 1941 by Radio Belgrad.

It was a gloomy, rainy night in April 1915 when Guards Corps member Hans Leip was keeping watch in front of Berlin barracks. World War I had gripped Europe, and Leip was set to head out to battle on the next day. Looking for comfort, he got a goodbye kiss - or two, in fact, first from a kitchen worker named Lili, and then from a nurse's aide from the military hospital named Marleen.

The young soldier grew infatuated with both women - so much so that he immortalized them in a poem in which the two figures melted into one, named Lili Marleen.

For about 20 years, the author Hans Leip left the text to "Lili Marleen" in a drawer, forgotten. Upon rediscovering it, he wrote a couple more verses and ultimately published the work in 1937 in his volume of poetry "Die Hafenorgel" (The Harbor Organ). Leip's words have been set to music three times, initially by the author himself, then by Rudolf Zink, a student of Paul Hindemith, and finally by Norbert Schultze. That version would go on to conquer the world.

Singer Lale Andersen (c) picture-alliance/KEYSTONE

Singer Lale Andersen made "Lili Marleen" famous

From flop to hit

The original 1939 recording of "Lili Marleen" was far from a success. Lieselotte Bunnenberg, who performed as a chanson singer under the stage name Lale Andersen, had sung the song with a degree of success in cabarets. It wasn't until German troops occupied Yugoslavia and took over the medium wave broadcaster Radio Belgrad that the song's real success story began. The radio station's range was so wide that it reached all fronts in Europe and North Africa - from Narvik to Cairo, making the song accessible to six million listeners.

Every evening, the melancholy tune reminded soldiers of home and loved ones left behind. Composer Norbert Schultze recalled years later: "There couldn't be any fighting during that time. The weapons were put down, and the English lying on the other side of the trench were also listening to the song, their weapons also at rest. No one had to reach an agreement about it. And when the last note of 'Lili Marleen' had sounded, then the machine gun fire resumed."

Radio Belgrad received more than 12,000 letters from soldiers each day, mostly regarding "Lili Marleen." Americans, Russians and Frenchmen sang translated versions, and British soldiers stationed in the African desert even dubbed it the "Eighth Army Song."

Marlene Dietrich surrounded by celebrating soldiers (c) picture-alliance/akg-images

Marlene Dietrich won adulation from soldiers for her performance of the song

'In another Germany'

When singer Lale Andersen got on the Nazis' wrong side and was no longer allowed to perform, the BBC's German-language service began using the song for propaganda purposes.

"Have you noticed that you haven't heard this song in quite some time?" asked the moderator. "Why might that be? Perhaps because Lale Andersen is in a concentration camp? In any case, the song's words are no longer up to date. How would they be if Lili Marleen wrote her soldier a letter today?"

After that moderation, German expatriot Lucie Mannheim sang, "Maybe you'll fall in Russia, maybe in Africa. But wherever you fall, that's how the Führer wants it! And if we should meet again, then let the lanterns stand, in another Germany. Yours, Lili Marleen."

After war's end, General Eisenhower is reported to have said about "Lili Marleen" author Hans Leip: "He's the only German living in Germany during the war who has brought joy to the whole world."

The general even got a dollar bill autographed for his wife.

After 1945, "Lili Marleen" didn't fall back into obscurity. Hundreds of artists performed versions of the song, including Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Greta Garbo, Eric Burdon, Milya and - again and again - Lale Andersen, the singer from Bremerhaven who made the song famous.

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