Posted by: nancycurteman | June 30, 2010

The Best-Known Song in History: Lili Marleen

In 1915 during World War I a homesick young German soldier, Hans Leip, wrote a romantic poem that was destined to become a popular song that would endure for decades, Lili Marleen. The romantic poem was not set to music until 1938. The lovely melody by Norbert Schultze along with the sentimental words conquered not only German hearts but the hearts of the Allied and Axis soldiers during World War II because Lili Marleen spoke to each soldier of his loved one back home. Stories abound about marching armies of every nationality singing this song either in German with heavy foreign accents or translated into languages such as English, French, Japanese, and Italian. Lili Marleen was published and/or performed in almost every country from France, England, the United States, Australia and Canada to the Netherlands, Croatia, Uruguay, Argentina and Spain. In 1950 Lili joined the military in Korea. In 1960 the song traveled to war-torn Viet Nam. Despite the fact that Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany, vowed to crush the song because it wasn’t militaristic enough, Lili Marlene became a song for all nations. (Special thanks to my brother, Billy West, who provided background for this piece).

Lili Marleen

(English Words)

Underneath the lantern
By the barrack gate
Darling I remember
The way you used to wait
T’was there that you whispered tenderly
That you love’d me, you’d always be
My Lili of the Lamplight
My own Lili Marlene.

(German Words)

Vor der kaserne
Vor dem grosen tor
Stand eine laterne und steht sie noch davor
So wolin wir da uns wiedersehn
Bei der laterne wolin wir stehn
Wie einst Lili Marleen
Wie einst Lili Marleen

Photo: Carlton Jackson

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Responses

  1. Figures . . .

    I’ve never heard of the “best known song in history.” ; )

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  2. I HAVE heard of it, and I know the tune. I’m not sure if it really is the best known song, however. I believe that the song sung most often around the world is “Happy Birthday”.

    Eric Burden and the Animals had a very interesting version of Lili Marleen on one of their more psychadelic albums.

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  3. Thanks for the lyrics; I’ve never been able to put them all together before.
    Interesting that opposing armed forces were all singing this song….
    I also remember that it was sung by a most famous singer, but I can think who.

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  4. It’s a beautiful song. It was recorded by many artists including Marlene Dietrich, Bing Crosby, Lale Andersen (first to record it), Edith Piaf and Connie Francis. It was featured in the 1973 movie Judgment at Nuremberg as well as several television programs such as Rat Patrol.

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    • Thanks. Great information. How do you gather it! (Just rhetorical question!). It was Edith Piaf who is most remembered by me but yes, I thought of Dietrich, too.
      Thanks for the memory!

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  5. I’ve always loved Lili Marleen. I remember the character played by Marlene Deitrich in Judgment at Nuremburg saying the German lyrics are sadder than their English translation. Thanks for this post.

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    • I learned the words to Lili Marleen in German and they are very sentimental. The melody is a nice even beat for marching.

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  6. From the book THE ARMS OF KRUPP by William Manchester,Hans Leip the author of LILLE MARLEEN states, I have often had to refute the insulting assumption of english translators that lille marleen was a prostitute and therefore needed bowdlerizing for english sensibilities. The two people concerned were both highly respectable young ladies in Berlin in 1915.Their names were LILLI and MARLEEN and I,then a gaurdsman,fell in love with both of them.I fused their two personalities into one in these verses,which were written as a farewell just before we marched out for the Russian Front.

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    • Peter, Thank you for adding so much more to the history of this well-loved song. The biggest surprise is that it was about two women.

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  7. I learned two different versions of this song from my father, a WWII soldier. I titled them differently when we used to sing them on long car rides. One was known as Lily of the Lamplight and the other as Lily Marlene. Both songs had the same tune, but different lyrics. One was similiar to the above song you have printed, and the other had different words starting as:
    “Sometime after midnght, in a land not mine
    Somewhere near a roaring mudstrewn battleline
    Oh sleep would not lull my soul tonight
    And so awake, I long to write
    To you, Lily Marelene
    To you Lily Marelene

    Oh soft burns my candle, soft yet bright (I can’t remember what
    My love for you, is like that light else went here)
    So true, Lily Marelene
    So true, Lily Marelene

    Is your hair still golden, are your eyes still blue?
    Would your voice enchant me the way it used to do?
    Oh I’d give this world to see you smile,
    And hold you close, just for awhile.
    Just you Lily Marelene
    Just you Lily Marelene

    Lower flames my candle, grey the eastern sky.
    Another day of battle, another day to die.
    Oh, God how I hate this warring hell,
    But I endure each screaming shell.
    For you Lily Marelene
    For you Lily Marelene

    Wait for me my darling,till I return to thee,
    When the guns are silient in hush of victory.
    For even the flaming gates of hell,
    Against sweet you, cannot prevail.
    Adieu Lily Marelene
    Adieu Lily Marelene

    Have you heard of any lyrics similiar to these? I so enjoyed singing these songs with my father. And love that he taught me many more wartime songs that I now sing to my grandchildren.
    Sincerely Linda

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    • Linda, I hadn’t heard these words. They are really beautiful. I’ll bet there are lots of variations on this famous song. New lyrics may have been added by different countries or in translations into different languages. Fascinating isn’t it?

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      • I’m glad I could share the words with you. My father died in 1975 when I was only 21 but I remembered all the songs he taught me orally, nothing written down. He did know the version you printed as well, and I remembered only parts of it: Orders came for sailing….Therefore, I’m glad I found your site to get the beginning verses so I can teach my grandchildren. By the way, my father was Canadian and in the war from the beginning to end. Possibly this is a Canadian translation?

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    • Linda, My father was in the Navy in WW II. I still have his dress blues in my trunk. I also have some photos. He played guitar and sang some of those old songs. I’m glad to see you sharing them with your grandkids.

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      • My mum during World War I I sang as a 13 year old the song to her dad 47 years old dying of leukemia contracted from mustard gas poisoning on the battlefield in world War I, as she sat by his couch / bed at home. When I sing it I change a few words of the Vera Lynn version “lips” to “heart” etc …so it makes more sense then to imagine it as a special song between my mum and grandad. It is especially poignant as my mum couldn’t go to the hospital in his last days and the seperation that makes the song so hauntingly beautiful became a painful reality for my mother then a child/ teen and the song befits the situation so well…”orders came for marching, ‘somewhere over there’ ” …like my grandad had his call to his final battlefield. ..the battlefield of sickness and death…and he could not meet his little girl again…..this song gave me goosebumps. ..part of my history…txs for the alternate words…I guess we can all fit this melancholy song to our own experience or our own thoughts on the experience of war….I think it strikes a chord through both tune and lyrics to help one feel the emotions even if we haven’t experienced the consequences of war first hand. …but for some of us in other ways…loosing a relative or witnessing the pain of those damaged on the battlefields or by the repercussions.

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      • Thank you for sharing such a tender true story. How sad for your mother as a child not to be able to be with her father when he passed away. I remember when my father left for overseas though I was only two years old. I watched my mother cry and I cried with her. War can be such a heartbreak for everyone. The song does speak of the sadness of separation.

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      • woah! Linda! I hadn’t read your comment when I wrote my reply above to Nancy re sharing the alternate words… then I afterward read your comment ..you mention the same line from the song that I did …you mention your Dad passing away and then I read the date of your comment. .August 13th …that is my mum’s birthday! . .she just turned 85 & I heard the song for the first time just 10 days ago whilst visiting her! Every time I talk about this song…read about it…hear it …I am convinced of it’s spiritual significance. (By the way I am from ‘down under’… Australia)

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      • It seems that every country has a connection with this song. It’s not just the words and the lovely lilting melody, it’s the sentiment.

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      • Well it looks like yours was the 14th August Linda…it was Nancy’ s comment the 13 th …but it’s all still significant for me.

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  8. […] The Best-Known Song in History: Lili Marleen […]

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  9. To Suzan, So strange to see this pop up in my e-mail 2 years after I posted my comments. How is it that you never heard the song until only 10 days ago? Had your mother never sung it to you as a child? Did she just recently tell you this story of her and her Dad? I know that most who served in those horrible wars never spoke much about their experiences. In any case, my Dad rarely did, unless prodded by me relentlessly, and after a few drinks and he would loosen his tongue up a bit. Never much of a talker, I only gleaned a few details of his experiences, and was in awe of the fact he had been in so many different countries. Like a bad world tour! Plus, I lost him at such a young age.
    I regretted that my children would never know their Grandfather, and sang the song to them as a lullaby to get them to sleep when they were babies. And now, I have done the same to my Grandkids.
    Thank you for reminding me today of this beautiful song and all its variations that has had such a great impact on me in my life.
    Best regards Down Under,
    Linda

    Thanks to Nancy for using her site to communicate with Suzan

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    • Yes Linda, many thanks to Nancy for this beautiful site! I am only now getting back to see your comment Linda Sept 1 /15 to reply. I have come back on to the site because we just commemorated 25th April the most important day after Easter and Christmas in Australia, remembering the fallen in Wars and those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country and the future generations . Australian culture (though loosening up now) had been for generations “stiff upper lip” and if bad things happened we were all taught to “soldier on” — so emotions were suppressed.My mum did not sing this song to me as a child…perhaps the memory of it was too painful…she was very close to her Dad. Mum and I are close too but I only heard Lili Marlene when she sang it to me just after her 85th birthday. We were having a great old yarn into the wee hours of the morning just like we used to when I was a teenager ( I am 60 years old now). I was visiting from another state (I live 800km from my parents). She told me for the first time the story of her singing it to her Dad shortly before he passed away and that was the very first time , as she sang it that night at 85 years old, that I had ever heard it. She couldn’t remember all the words, so I looked it up on utube and it was one of my experiences of extreme thankfulness for technology that Mum could hear the complete song again before the memory faded and we forgot about it ….now it is preserved for our family’s posterity.

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      • Suzan, What a touching story about this beautiful song. Thank you so much for sharing it. Very heartwarming.

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      • Thank you Nancy, for forwarding Suzan from Down Under response to me. It may have taken a year to hear the answer to my questions, but she also provided a lovely story of her family. How fortunate for Suzan to still have her mother to spin a few yarns into the night. I too, am 60, but I lost my mother, who was a war bride, shortly after my father, when I was 25. Ironically, she died in Australia visiting my sister and her family, and her own 2 sisters. One who was also a war bride, but moved to Australia with her husband. What odd circumstances the war created. The shifting of people from place to place in the aftermath.
        I had cared for my mother before she died, and knowing death was soon to come, I encouraged her to travel to see her first born daughter, and grand- children, as well as her 2 sisters. I knew they would care for her in her last hours and they did. I had hoped to visit Australia one day, but as I get older it seems less likely.
        Thank you Suzan for getting back to me.
        Best Regards, Linda

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  10. What a joy to see such interest in on of my most favorite songs. I love the stories associated with the song.

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    • Dear Nancy, It is fascinating to hear the connection Linda Boughton has with Australia. I’m not sure if it is the right place to see if Linda is interested in communicating more….just curious where her relatives are in Australia . You can send my email to her if she would like to communicate more, thanks! If you don’t have it please let me know how I can send it. Much appreciated!

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  11. I can only add to this fascinating chain that my mother, who passed away in 2012, sang to all of her nine children a lullaby to the tune of Lili Marleen. She was a nurse during WWII but on the home front, and my father served in the medical corps. She had two uncles that were casualties in WWI.

    My mother I assume made up her own lyrics and all I recall is based on a tape she sent to me when I was in England in my youth in the sixties:

    Mommy’s little baby, Daddy’s little boy,
    “Johnny” is my darling, he’s daddy’s pride and joy,
    And now that he’s far across the sea,
    Dear God take care of him for me,
    My own dear son, my darling one,
    Who means so much to me.

    Oh bring my love on wings of joy,
    To my own dear son.

    I have no idea how she may have changed the words for her daughters or if these lyrics are the same she used when rocking us to sleep. I’d be curious if anyone has ever heard anything similar to the tune of Lili Marleen.

    Regards from Canada,
    John

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    • John, Thank you for sending this version of Lili Marleen to me. The words are lovely and speak of a mother’s love for her husband and her son.

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  12. Here’s a link to Marlene Dietrich singing Lili Marleen. The lyrics are different from the ones I’ve always heard.

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    • Kathy, That video was wonderful! What great scenes. Dietrich sang with such feeling. Thank you for providing this link for my blog readers. Outstanding!.

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      • Thank you for passing this on to me. It seems that there are lots of variations in the words, but all have a great emotional impact.

        Sent from Windows Mail

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  13. Ranger, I agree with you about the great emotional impact of Lili Marleen. Certainly the words are beautiful, but also the lovely lilting melody adds to the the song’s charm.

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  14. Thank you Nancy for passing on Suzan’s interest in communicating with me. I would like to hear more from her and you can pass on my e-mail or I will print it here. In answer to her questions, my sister and her family moved to Australia in 1977 to a suburb just outside of Sydney. She is 10 years older than me and was born in England during the war. My parents got married on Christmas Day in 1943. Several of my Dad’s brothers were there at the time, as he came from a family of 12 and many of them enlisted to serve. I actually keep in contact with my niece quite frequently through both Facebook and e-mail. She lives in Dover Heights which is close to Bondi Beach I think. My aunts and their family live in Melbourne, but I haven’t had much contact with them. You can contact me at this e-mail: ranger@teksavvy.com

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    • Hi Linda, I hope Suzan reads your comment on my blog. I’m really enjoying all the family histories associated with the song, Lili Marleen. I love to hear if Suzan does contact you.

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