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From the realm of silence. Why Lili Marleen WW2 song was ever so popular!

Updated: Jul 12, 2022

She was the most anticipated date in the entire WW2 era; the romance which German, as well as British and American soldiers, sang alike. The girl by the street post outside the barracks, waiting for her beloved to come. Their love is true; anyone watching them

together under the dim lamplight can tell. But now it's time. The sentry already sounds the lights out. Don't be long, he calls, and the lovers must part. They do not know if they will see each other again. Tomorrow he may be off to the front; who knows what will happen there.

The street post will burn every night. It knows the way she walks and the way she waits and it will see her, standing there, waiting, night after night. Will she be waiting for another? Will she be waiting for him? Even when it is finally all so quiet, even when he lies in the embrace of the ground, he will remember how they met under the lantern, how they promised eternal love. And his spirit will rise, light and free, it will travel back in time to see himself with her again, their love brighter than the lamplight; under the lantern, with her, like they used to...

During the difficult times of war, music always plays an important role in lifting the morale of the armed forces and the population. Many well-liked songs of WW2 would just be happy tunes aiming to change the mood from gloom to something a little more gleeful. Like one of my personal favourites, for example: "We're going to hang up the washing on the Siegfried line", a witty analogy to the German defensive line, built in the late 1930s, as the country was already preparing for the war. Flanagan and Allen's "Run, rabbit, run" was another clever innuendo, with the rabbit often changing into the name of the hateful foe. Together with "Ich bin die fesche Lola" (I am the smart Lola, smart as in elegant AND clever) and "Einen Mann, einen richtigen Mann" (A man, a proper man), two of the crown jewels played in the 1930s' movie "Der blaue Engel" (The blue angel), you are certain to start shaking your booty, war or no war.

But other songs will simply speak into people’s hearts. They will, too, arouse affect, making all senses awake and reactive, but, this time, you just want to nest in a warm little corner, put your arms around yourself, squeeze yourself in them, and use this stimulus to remember what it felt like to be in love, how exhilarating and sad the sentiment was knowing this love can never last, but hoping it does anyway. In WW2 there was such a song and it was bound to be adored in both enemy camps because true emotion is universal and stronger than enmity, propaganda, or even the pain of war.

Lili Marleen was first recorded shortly before the outbreak of the war, but the lyrics originate from much earlier, from a poem written by a German soldier of the Great War. The song initially had very little impact but was soon to become what might be called the anthem of WW2. It was famously sung by Marlene Dietrich, the legendary and ardent anti-Nazi German actress, who had been established in the United States for some years before the war and enormously contributed to the popularity of the song among the American troops, for whose entertainment she tirelessly performed throughout the fighting. A German actress on the side of the Americans, well, it was no wonder that she was black-listed and her films were completely banned from Nazi Germany.

What’s interesting, but also quite indicative, is that the Reich’s propaganda ministry and its Secretary, Joseph Goebbels himself, took a very unfavourable view of the song, to begin with. And so it was, that the first singer ever of “The Girl under the Lantern” Lale Andersen, was also persecuted for recording the song in the form by which it was made popular, instead of a military march, that the Secretary of Propaganda preferred in order to avoid anything ominously predictive of the war outcome. It is notable, however, that the main idea of this rejection was hardly any different on the other side of the fence.

Although clearly a German favourite, the impact of the song among troops would quickly call for an English translation, as it was, of course, for good reasons, unadvised that Allied soldiers should sing a German song. The English version of “Lili Marleen” was ready in 1944 and recorded by Vera Lynn, the English WW2 stage persona, who was the Allied Forces’ own personal sweetheart. Comparing the two songs, one can easily notice that the English translation is in several instances far from the spirit of the German original. Overstressing the romantic aspect of the song, it, probably deliberately, disregards the often referred to as bleak perspective of its German counterpart. After all, it was not only Nazi Germany who would call defeatism any other declaration than that it was their own forces winning the war with the fewest losses, and, in fact, at all fronts.

But love and death distinguish not between camps and front lines. A heart besotted with another will ache for its loved one regardless of the uniform they wear. And even if one of them were to lose their life, the lover would still long for that reunion; perhaps under a street lamp; two shadows joined into one, with an “Auf wiedersehen” making the everlasting pledge:

From the realm of silence,

From the earthly ground

Like in a dream, it lifts me

The taste of your sweet mouth

When later the Night will take you

By the lantern, I’ll wait for you

Like once, Lili Marleen

Like once, Lili Marleen.


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