Rónán-Gearóid Ó Domhnaill
Underneath the lantern by the barrack gate,Darling I remember the way you used 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
Lili Marlene undoubtedly ranks as the most famous song of The Second World War. It became the unofficial song of both the Germans and Allies and had many different versions, some designed to promote longing and love, others hatred towards the foe while others were anti-war.
The song was originally written by Hans Leip (1893-1983) in 1915, who was a young soldier about to go to war. What he experienced at the front horrified him and he often reminisced of happier times when he stood on guard duty and caught a glimpse of his girlfriend and wondered if he would survive the death and destruction that surrounded him. Amidst the horrors of war he longed to be with her once more, a longing his generation and the next one could readily identify with. The name Lili Marlene was a combination of the name of his girlfriend Lili, with that of his friend’s girlfriend Marlene.
It was published as a poem in 1937 under the title of 'The Song of a Young Sentry' when it caught the attention of the composer Norbert Schultze who wrote music to ita and in 1938 and got Lale Andersen to sing it. It was first sung at a cabaret but this version was forbidden due to its anti-war message, one of the verses which ran:
Who recovers the bodies,Lost in desert sands?Who counts the victimson the oil-soaked beaches?Tell me, how much pain must pass,'til we see the waste and stupidity of it all?Oh God, Lilli Marleen
It landed Schultze in hot water with the authorities and in order to appease the Propaganda Ministry who could make or break his career he later came up with marches such as 'Bombs for England', which in turn landed him in trouble with the English after the war.
When the song was released it didn’t prove popular. The propaganda minister Josef Goebbels wanted to make a march out of it, which Andersen didn’t want and no radio station wanted to play it. When it was launched it only sold 700 copies.
In 1941 when the Germans occupied Yugoslavia they set up a radio station in Belgrade to broadcast to their troops. It was powerful enough to broadcast to most of Europe. Lieutenant Karl-Heinz Reintgen had the job of running the tiny station with rather limited resources. After the radio station was bombed he was left with only five records, three of which were banned. Therefore Reintgen had no option but to play the same two records again and again. It was assumed that the station in Belgrade would have a very limited audience and he played the Lili Marlene for his friend serving with the Afrika Korps who liked the song very much, until he couldn’t take it anymore and resolved never to play it again. What happened next shocked him. The station was inundated with letters and telegrammes from all over Europe requesting the song be played. One of the letters was even from an American, although America was now at war with Germany, requesting that Reintgen play a request for a friend of his. At the time the song was not been played in Germany as the propaganda ministry felt that the sad song was bad for morale and Andersen herself was forbidden to perform as she was consorting with Jews. Now everyone in Germany wanted to hear her sing it and the authorities were forced to back down. Field marshal Rommel also ranked among the legions of fans of the song and requested that it be permanently integrated into the programme. Thus every evening at 9:55, just before the station went off air the sad song echoed over the deserts of North Africa and soldiers on all sides listened in. For a brief moment they could reminisce about they love they had to leave behind back home. The station also proved to be a way of contacting the Allies. On one occasion an RAF pilot, who had been shot down was brought into the station under guard. He had been posted as missing and was anxious that his pregnant wife back in England know that he was alright.
The popularity of the song meant that it could be used for propaganda purposes and the BBC came up with a German version with a subtle anti-Hitler message, to remind the German troops that due to Hitler, their wives were suffering alone at home with the hardships of war. The British were becoming concerned that their soldiers were whistling and singing a German song and when several English soldiers were given a dressing down they responded by saying that someone should write an English version of it.
In 1944 Tommie Connor did just that and composed the English text in only 25 minutes. It was first sung in English by Anne Shelton. Over a million records of the song were sold in a month. It was also sung by Vera Lynn, Edith Piaf, Amanda Lear, Bing Crosby and Perry Como but it was Marlene Dietrich who immortalised the song for the Allies. Dietrich was originally from Germany but joined the American forces to help the fight against her fellow countrymen, something that Germans never forgave her for. She entertained the Allied troops with ‘The Girl under the Lantern’ both on radio and live performances in North-Africa, Sicily, Italy, Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, and England over a three year period. The theme of a soldier longing for his love was something people all over the world could understand, especially in a time of separation that the war had brought.
By the time the war had ended the song had been translated into 48 languages and its popularity didn’t show signs of waning. As late as the 1980s it was still been re-released into the charts. Never before had a single song captivated so many people and it has yet to find its equal.