The story of World War II’s accidental megahit, a song surpassingly popular with troops of all stripes.
In their unpretentious retelling, Miller and Leibovitz (Aliya: Three Generations of American-Jewish Immigration to Israel, 2005) feature characters arrayed along the continuum of humanity, from dutiful soldiers, Nazis and Allies alike, to brutal bureaucrats, in particular Reich Culture Chamber head Hans Hinkel. Standing guard duty in Berlin in 1915, poet Hans Leip got the idea for a poem about a lonely soldier. Back in his room, he wrote “Song of a Young Sentry,” combining the names of his landlady’s niece and a girl he’d met at an art gallery to christen the soldier’s lover Lili Marlene. Leip put the poem in a drawer, but 20 years later, he found it, revised it and published it. Enter pianist/composer Norbert Schultze, who discovered the poem, set it to music and sent it to cabaret singer Lale Andersen. She recorded it, but its first broadcast was on the same November 1938 evening as Kristallnacht, so not many minds were on music. Then Karl-Heinz Reintgen, head of Soldier’s Radio Belgrade, found the recording in 1941 and put it into rotation. From that moment, “Song of a Young Sentry” was a phenomenal success with troops, who waited to hear it—and sing along with it—every night. Referred to by soldiers simply as “Lili Marlene,” it was eventually translated into other languages, and people wrote additional lyrics for special occasions. Goebbels despised this sentimental ballad, which he thought weakened the will of Aryan troops, and Nazi leaders did all they could to suppress it, including the attempted rape and confinement of Andersen. British authorities, troubled by the popularity of a song in German with Nazi connotations, took the simpler expedient of arranging an English-language recording. The multiple versions available on the Internet, including Marlene Dietrich’s famous interpretation, attest to the song’s enduring appeal.
A compelling examination of a simple song’s enormous psychological and political power.