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Lili Marleen, the Peace Song of War

marlene dietrichDuring World War II, both Allied and Axis soldiers on the front lines buoyed themselves up by listening to the same song, "Lili Marleen".  The song was incredibly effective in raising the morale of soldiers living in the worst of conditions and not knowing when it would be their turn to be killed.  The song is about a soldier who is called back to his barracks, forcing him to leave his love under the light of a lantern and he declares that he will return to her. This helps him get though the depressing and frightening darkness on the battlefield.  The song takes the soldier out of the darkness and horror of battle to the bright light of a lantern that shines on him and his love as a symbol of peace in the future.  The song was translated into just about every language spoken by soldiers fighting in Europe and Africa. German expatriate Marlene Dietrich supported the Allied cause by traveling during the war to sing the song in Africa, Sicily, Italy, Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, England, France, Belgium, Germany and Czechoslovakia.
 
Origins of the Song  
Strangely enough, the words to Lili Marleen came from a poem written in 1915 by Hans Leip, a 22-year-old German soldier, while he was serving in the front lines during World War I  (“The Song of a Young Soldier on Watch”).  He wrote the poem about his separation from his girlfriend Lili, a Jewish grocer's daughter, and Marleen, a nurse who waved to him every night as she left work while he was on sentry duty.  Leip didn't do anything with the poem until 22 years later in 1937, when he published his works because he feared the darkness of another world war.  He hoped that remembrance of World War I would help to prevent World War II.  
 

Norbert Schultze, a composer, read the poem and wrote the music for "Lili Marleen" but it was rejected by publishers.  Two years later in 1939, Schultze commissioned Lale Andersen to record his song, but that also was not accepted by anyone.  The recording was offered to Hitler's propaganda minster, Joseph Goebbels, who hated it because it was not a loud marching call-to-arms-type of song. Goebbels thought the song was against the war, so he banned the song, placed Andersen under house arrest and ordered Schultze to compose marching songs. 
 
In 1941, the English were battling German troops in North Africa, where a German radio station in Belgrade sent daily music broadcasts to boost the morale of German troops.  Bombs hit the radio station and destroyed most of their records. The station's director, Lieutenant Karl-Heinz Reintgen, found a recording of the banned "Lili Marleen".  As a last resort, he played that recording and the response was so overwhelmingly good that Field Marshal Rommel asked Radio Belgrade to play the song every night.  Andersen was sent all over Germany to perform the song, with Schultze accompanying her on the piano.  
 
The Allied African troops also heard the song over the radio and members of the American Eighth Army sang it with its original German lyrics.  The British soldiers begged for the song in English and it was changed from an anti-war statement to one dreaming of a distant love.  Anne Shelton recorded it for the British soldiers.  French soldiers heard it in French recorded by Suzy Solidor, and from 1943 onward, German-born Marlene Dietrich sang an American version to soldiers all over the world.  She made anti-Nazi broadcasts in German, took part in many war-bond drives and, in three years, entertained half a million Allied troops and war prisoners across North Africa and Western Europe.  She stood in GI food lines, washed herself  with snow and slept in dugouts and ruins near the front lines.  The song was also a major hit for Bing Crosby, Edith Piaf, Perry Como and Jean Claude Pascal and was translated into 48 languages, including Hebrew, Latin and Japanese.
 

What the Germans Overlooked
The Germans knew that Hans Leip wrote the poem for his girlfriend while he was in the front lines, but did not know she was the daughter of a Jewish grocery store keeper. During the early years of the war, Joseph Goebbels prevented the song from being played on the radio, and Lale Andersen, the German singer who first recorded "Lili Marleen", was reported to have attempted suicide after she was prohibited from singing any song in public for nine months because she was very close to a Jewish musician, Rolf Liebermann.   She and Lieberman remained close friends after the war.  Even after "Lili Marleen" became an overwhelming hit with  German soldiers, the Nazis prohibited her from singing it in public.  
 
What Became of the people who made "Lili Marleen" Famous?
Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992)
Dietrich was a brilliant lady who spoke three languages fluently. She went on to become one of America's great singers and a movie and television star.  She even wrote a book of German poems.  In 1961, she starred in and sang "Lili Marleen" in the movie Judgment at Nuremberg. For twenty years, she toured the world as a one-woman cabaret show.   
 
She was reported to have had affairs with many famous people: Maurice Chevalier, Frank Sinatra, Michael Wilding, John F. Kennedy, Yul Brynner, the Prince of Wales, Errol Flynn, George Bernard Shaw and so forth.  She continued to have many love affairs even into her 60s and 70s.  She said she preferred impotent men because "you can sleep and it's cozy."   She was very prejudiced and her daughter said that she was both anti-Semitic and anti-African American. With aging, she drank more and took more pills and eventually spent all her time in her bedroom.  Her daughter wrote that she smoked, drank and took pain medications, and that "her bedroom stank because she would not allow anyone to touch her, change her bed or give her a bath."
 
I could not find the cause of her death at age 90, but she drank and smoked all her life, and took drugs for most of her later life.   Her grandson said that at age 90, she still drank a bottle of champagne and half a bottle of scotch each day.  Then she would breathe oxygen for five minutes and go on with her day.  That means to me that she probably had severe lung damage from her smoking, and liver damage from her drinking and drugs, and eventually died of heart failure from staying in her room for the last 10 years of her life.  Aging weakens the heart and not exercising with aging can eventually cause the heart to become so weak that it cannot pump enough blood through the body. 
 

Lale Andersen (1905 –1972) 
After the war, Andersen married Swiss composer Artur Beul, sang several songs that became major hits, toured the world,  wrote "Ein Schiff wird kommen" that became the theme song for the hit movie, Never on Sunday, and wrote several books. She died of liver cancer at age 67.
 
Hans Leip (1893 to 1983) 
From age 21 to 24, Leip served as a German soldier in World War I.  He then worked as a teacher and a writer of poetry, plays and books, mostly novels about sea and harbor life. He died at age 89 in Switzerland.
 
Norbert Schultze, (1911 to 2002)
Schultze was a composer, pianist, conductor, and actor who at age 29 joined the Nazi Party to avoid being drafted into the German army.  He headed several large propaganda programs and wrote songs including "Bombs on England" that encouraged the destruction of England.  He defended his disgusting and obnoxious propaganda with "compose or croak, so I decided for the former."  To his credit, he gave all of his royalties from works from 1933 to 1945 to the German Red Cross.  After the war, he wrote several operas, musicals, ballets and the music for more than 50 movies.  He died at age 92.
 

Lessons from "Lili Marleen"
How could battlefield opponents from different cultures in a world war all love the same song that offered warmth and tenderness?  Soldiers know that they can die at any moment and lose contact forever with the people that they love and respect, so they want to hear anything that offers hope of eventually reuniting with their loved ones.  People who have not been in battle will never realize how frightening and depressing war really is.  Every time you see a leader threatening war, realize that your loved ones could be exposed to situations so terrifying that the memories will stay in their brains to haunt and damage them for their lifetimes.
January 6th, 2019
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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