The remarkable story of "Lili Marlene"

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I think “Lili Marlene” is a great example of how a song can be appreciated by people for things that were never intended by its author. Liel Liebovitz and Matthew Miller have told the gripping story of how the song spanned two World Wars, and became a kind of unofficial 3 minute truce each night as the Allies and the Germans fought for control of North Africa in World War II when the song was broadcast by the Nazi radio station in Belgrade. It’s not the only story of its kind: there is the famous World War I tale of the Allies and Germans singing “Silent Night” to each other on Christmas Eve – a story so poignant you’d think Frank Capra must’ve made it up, but it actually did happen, and has itself been memorialized in song. (Check out John McCutcheon’s beautiful “Christmas In The Trenches.”)

But the thing that makes “Lili Marlene” so remarkable is how it has become so many different things to different people. For me, it was simply a great drinking tune; I’d go the annual Oktoberfest celebrations in Forest Park in Queens each fall, where the Dinkel Acker flowed, freely some times and cheaply at others; and the fact that I was not yet 18 somehow escaped notice. I’d half-listen to atrocious oom-pah music being made under the huge tents. But inevitably, at least once a night, someone would lead the crowd in a rousing chorus of “Ach, du lieber Augustin” (the tune used for the kiddie song “Did You Ever See A Lassie?”), followed by “Lili Marlene.” The German was simple and direct, and the melody was, to use a modern marketing term, “sticky” – once heard, I can’t imagine anyone ever forgetting it. To the teenaged me, “Lili Marlene” was just a song about a girl, and what could be better than becoming pleasantly and illegally inebriated while singing about a girl? I knew nothing of its history – hell, I didn’t even know the right words to the chorus. “Wie einst Lili Marlene” (as once with Lili Marlene) sounded to me like the equally plausible “sie heisst Lili Marlene” (her name is Lili Marlene). But it had a great hook that spoke to a young punk from Queens as easily as it did to a much older crowd for whom the song stirred deeply-felt emotions. I don’t think I understood or would’ve approved of nostalgia at that age, but somehow, the underlying melancholy behind this melody came through, even when it was being bellowed by hundreds of people, some of them singing it in English.

So a young poet, feeling a little lonely at his guard post, writes a simple verse or two about a girl he almost had a fling with – and clearly hopes to renew acquaintances with, if you get my drift – accidentally creates a love song, a wartime song, and a drinking song… without ever intending to write a song at all. (The cabaret musician who set the poem, on the other hand, might have intended all this, but that would have required a colossal amount of ego and imagination.)

“Lili Marlene” has traveled the world and been recorded in dozens of styles and languages. Tell us what your experience of the song has been. Or, can you suggest another song that has been able to cross cultures and generations like “Lili Marlene”?