Lili Marlene

On Understanding the World War II German War Song


By Jerry Gilreath

Virtually every members of the 280th ASA Company stationed in Berlin has heard at one time or another the popular war song Lili Marlene.  For many, if not most of the 280th Company members, their understanding of the song does not go much beyond  that of a young German girl faithfully waiting outside the barracks for her soldier friend in a time of war.  This is good as far as it goes, but the song encompasses considerably more than that. Indeed, for those who are only familiar with the  English version, they are deprived of knowing the actual meaning of the song.  The original English version is badly overly romanticized and bears little resemblance to the original  German version.

During the difficult days of World War II, music played a central role in boosting the morale of both the general population and the armed forces of both sides of the conflict.  Obviously, some of the songs gained popularity for their overtly jingoistic tunes, but others captivated audiences with their emotionally evocative content, bringing to mind happier, more innocent times.  The latter kind of songs transcended the pain and enmity of war and proved to be popular with the Germans as well as with the Allies.  Lili Marlene was one of those songs.

The original German lyrics for the song were taken from a poem titled the “The Song of a Young Sentry,” and was composed by a German soldier in World War I. That soldier was Hans Leip, who was born in Hamburg in 1983 and survived for a century, passing away in 1983 in Switzerland.  Leip is said to have written the verses before going to the Russian Front in 1915, combining the name of his girlfriend, Lili, who was the daughter of a grocer, with that of a young nurse named Marlene, who had waved to him while he was on sentry duty as she was just leaving work and disappearing into the evening mist.  His poem was later published in a collection of his poetry in 1938.

However, two years prior to the publication of Lieb’s poems, “Lili Marlene” was first set to music by a composer named Rudolf Zink and sung in a Munich restaurant by a Danish Cabaret singer known as Liselott Wilke.  She was to record the song four years later under her real name, Lale Andersen, and it was this version, “The Girl under the Lantern,” set to new music by the well-known Geman composer Norbert Schultze, that caught the public imagination, but not quite immediately.

Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda secretary of the Nationalist-Socialist party, didn’t like the song, but wanted a military march instead.  Lale Anderson was reluctant to do the recording  and  the radio moderator, who was to help popularize the song, felt it was without merit.  Despite this difficulty, Andersen went ahead and recorded the song just before the war but only 700 copies were sold until the German Forces Radio began to broadcast it to the Afrika Korps in 1941.  The song was immediately banned in Germany for its portentous character, which did nothing to slow the  spread of its popularity.  After the German occupation of Yugoslavia, a station was established in Belgrade and beamed news and propaganda to the Afrika Korps.   A friend of the military director of the station liked the song and was given permission to air Lale Andersen’s version for the first time on August 18, 1941.  General Feldmarschall Rommel liked the song as well and asked Radio Belgrade to incorporate the recording into their regular broadcasts.  The song soon became the signature of the broadcast and was played just before sign-off each evening. The song quickly gained popularity. The Allies listened to it and Lili Marlene became the favorite song of the soldiers on both sides, regardless of language.

The immense popularity of the German version resulted in a hurried English version, supposedly after a British song publisher named J .J. Phillips reprimanded a group of British soldiers for singing the verses in German.  One of the soldiers spoke up and asked that they be provided with an English version. Phillips and British songwriter Tommie Connor soon came up with an English version in 1944.  Anne Sheldon’s English hit record started the song’s popularity in the Allied countries.  Vera Lynn sang it over the BBC to the Allied troops. The British Eight Army adopted the song.  The song was sung in military hospitals and played over loud speakers, along with war propaganda across the frontlines, in both directions.

German film actress Marlene Dietrich contributed enormously to the popularity of the song.  Having come to the U.S. five years earlier to make American films, in 1935 Adolf Hitler demanded that she return to the Fatherland.  Dietrich, and ardent anti-Nazi, refused, resulting in her films being banned in Germany.   She worked tirelessly during the war years with the USO, entertaining Allied troops with her cabaret performances that featured the song Lili Marlene. For her work, the U.S., the French, and eventually the Israeli government awarded her medals for he valuable work to the war effort.  Her recording of Lili Marlene (both in German and in English) remains the signature version of this song.

The original Allied version of Lili Marlene is provided as follows. This highly romanticized version rhymes well but takes great liberties with the original German version.  This is evident when compared with the German version.  Indeed, there are several outright mistranslations such as having the soldier  speak of Lili’s feet (footsteps) when it is the soldier’s footsteps that Leip is referring to.


Lili Marlene (Original English Version)

Underneath the lantern by the barracks gate, Darling, I remember the way you use to wait, ‘Twas there that you whispered tenderly That you loved  me, you’d  always be, My Lili of the lamplight, My own Lili Marlene.

Time would come for roll call, Time for us to part, Darling, I’d caress you and press you to my heart, And there ‘neath that far off lantern light, I’d hold you tight, We’d kiss “good night,” My Lili of the lamplight, My own Lili Marlene.

Orders came for sailing somewhere over there, All confined to barracks was more than I could bear; I knew you were waiting in the street, I heard your feet, But could not meet, My Lili of the lamplight, My own Lili Marlene.

Resting in a billet just behind the line, Even tho’ we’re parted you your lips are close to mine; You wait where that lantern softly gleams, Your sweet  face seems to haunt my dreams.  My Lili of the lamplight, My own Lili Marlene.

Marlene Dietrich did a variation of the lyrics, probably to endear the song to the troops of the day:

When we are marching in the mud and cold, And when my pack seems more than I can hold, My love for you renews my might, I’m warm again, My pack is light, It’s you Lili Marlene, It’s you Lili Marlene...

In my translation of Lili Marlene below, I have not tried to do a poetically rhymed translation in English, but rather to simply give a close English equivalent to what is being said in German.  It is evident that a soldier and his girlfriend’s tender meetings occur within the context of war and the possibility he may fall in battle.  There is a hint of the soldier’s fate when he asks if harm should come to him.  In all but one of the English translations I have seen, near the end of the song, the soldier is rhapsodic about escaping the earthly realm to join Lili in loving bliss.  I believe a more somber interpretation is warranted.  To me, the “quiet place’ and the “earthly ground” referred to in the poem can only be understood as the abode of the dead, from which the soldier is mystically resurrected to join Lili in the bonds of love.  Indeed, the most plausible interpretation by far is that the  young soldier did perish in battle. Certainly, it is not a crime to fudge the meaning of the poem (let’s call it poetic license) to give it a happy twist, but intellectual honesty it is not. But for those who prefer a Lili Marlene Lite in order to enjoy the song, this is certainly acceptable.


Lili Marlene (Semi-literal Translation)

Vor der Kaserne, vor dem grossen Tor
In front of the barracks, at the large entrance gate

Stand eine Laterne, und steht sie noch davor.
Stood a lamplight, and if it’s still standing there,

So woll’n wir uns da wieder seh’n
We want to see each other there again

Bei der Laterne wollen wir steh’n
We want to stand at the lamplight

Wie einst Lili Marleen, Wie einst Lili Marleen.
As before, Lili Marlene, as before, Lili Marlene.

Unsere beide Schatten sah’n wie einer aus
Our two shadows appeared as one

Dass wir so lieb uns hatten, das sah man gleich daraus.
That we were so  much in love, one saw immediately.

Und alle Leute solln es seh’n
And everyone should see it

Wenn wir bei der Laterne steh’n,
When we are standing by the lamplight

Wie einst Lili Marleen, wie einst Lili Marleen
As before, Lili Marlene, as before,  Lili Marlene.

Schon rief der Posten: Sie blasen  Zapfenstreich
The sentry had already called out: They are sounding curfew.

Das kann drei Tage kosten.  Kam’rad, ich komm sogleich.
It can cost three days.”  “I’m coming momentarily, comrade.”

Da sagten wir auf Wiedersehen,
Then we said goodbye.

Wie gerne wollt ich mit mir dir geh’n,
How much I wanted to go with you,

Mit dir Lili Marleen, mit dir Lili Marleen.
With you, Lili Marlene, with you, Lili Marlene.

Deine Schritte kennt sie, deinen zieren Gang
It [the lamplight] knows your footsteps, your graceful walk

Alle Abend brennt sie, doch mich vergass sie lang.
Every evening it is burning, but it forgot about me long ago.

Und sollte mir ein Leids gescheh’n,
If harm should come to me,

Wer wird bei der Laterne stehen,
Who will stand at the lamplight,

Mit dir Lili Marleen, mir dir Lili Marleen?
With you, Lili Marlene, with you, Lili Marlene?

Aus dem stillen Raume, aus der Erde Grund
From the quiet place, out of the earthly ground

Hebt mich wie im Traume dein verliebter Mund.
I am lifted as in a dream to your loving lips.

Wenn sich die spaeten Nebel drehn,
When the evening mist swirls in

Werd’ ich bei der Laterne steh’n
I will be standing at the lamplight

Wie einst Lili Marleen, wie einst Lili Marleen.
As before, Lili Marlene, as before, Lili Marlene.

Lili Marlene is easily the most popular war song ever written.  In addition to its wide acceptance by the soldiers at the front on both sides, an RCA recording by an anonymous chorus made it No. 13 on the U.S. music charts in 1944.  It hit the U.S. charts again in 1968, the German charts again in1981 and the Japanese charts in 1986.  The song has been translated into more than 48 languages, including French, Russian, Italian and Hebrew.  What accounts for the enduring popularity of this song?  There are obviously many reasons: the haunting melody, the lyrical wording and cadence, and the universal  theme of abiding love and the perils of youth in a time of war.  But Lale Andersen may have said it best, “Can the wind explain why it became a storm".

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