By Mike Walsh
Lili Marlene, the soldiers’ song, crossed the trenches and won the hearts of both Allied and Axis servicemen during World War Two. The ballad’s wistful lyrics were composed in 1918 by Hans Leip (1893~1983). The 25-year old was a German infantryman during The Great War.
The ballad started life as a poignant poem. It was inspired by the infantryman’s desire to record the angst of barracks life and a soldier’s pain of his being separated from his loved one. The poem’s words were penned shortly before Leip and his comrades left for the Russian front. Lili Marlene is not a single young lady but two. Lili, daughter of a local greengrocer, was Hans Leip’s sweetheart. Marlene, a comrade’s girlfriend, was a nurse.
Lili Marlene was first published in 1937 in a collection of poetry under the title “The Song of a Young Sentry” by Hans Leip. Its evocative pathos had caught the imagination of Norbert Schultze. The popular musician was the composer of a number of operas, musicals and songs. Norbert Schultze was a prolific composer of the backing music to period films and battle songs of the Reich such as “Bombs for England” (Bomben auf Engeland) and “Tanks Roll into Africa” (Panzer Rollen in Afrika). It was in 1938 that he set the words of “Lili Marlene” to music.
The ballad was no more than mildly popular and had sold just 700 copies by the time German Forces Radio began broadcasting it to the Afrika Korps in 1941. The chanteuse was Lale Anderson. Such was the song’s popularity that Field-Marshall Erwin Rommel requested Radio Belgrade to incorporate the song into their broadcasts.
Following Germany’s defeat, the occupying forces classified Schultze as a sympathiser. The composer’s music was forbidden to be performed and he was forbidden to work as a musician. The composer, who epitomised World War Two in music for both the Reich and the Allied Armies, now turned to earning his living as a labourer in heavy construction. Schultze afterwards worked as a gardener before eventually resuming life in the song writing disciplines.
British troops serving in North Africa were roundly condemned when the song first caught their imagination. There being the German version, they sang it. The BBC, when it wasn’t eulogising Joe Stalin’s Red Army, sneeringly dismissed Lili Marlene as a German prostitute. It was a failed attempt to deflect the song’s growing popularity, but the libel hardly dented enthusiasm for the two young German ladies.
J. J. Phillips, a British song publisher, berated the British soldiers for singing the German version. ‘Then why don’t you write us some English words,’ challenged one mutinous soldier. Soon after both Phillips and songwriter Tommy Connors came up with an English language version. Armed forces’ favourite singer Anne Shelton was to bring popularity to the German poem. Vera Lynne, the forces’ favourite, sang it over the BBC and the British Eighth Army adopted it as their ballad.
“Lili Marlene” was a global chart buster. An anonymous chorus brought it to No.13 in 1944. It hit the US charts again in 1968 and the Japanese charts in 1986. There are a number of versions of Lili Marlene in a wide diversity of languages. The poem-song has been translated into 48 languages including French, Russian, Italian, and surprisingly, Hebrew. This poignant off-the-cuff poem penned in a wistful moment by a twenty-five year old sentry pulled heartstrings across the world and is the most popular wartime song ever recorded.