Hans Leip, the poet who had given birth to “Lili Marlene” [ “Song of a Young Sentry”- 1915], was angry. Like the singer Lale Anderson, he too watched with futile rage as his life was torn apart by the Nazi ascent and the all-encompassing war. After the heady days of the 1920s, with costume parties and love triangles and instant literary fame, the 1930s were bleak. He struggled to find work, his celebrity working against him. Every artist who wished to retain a high profile had to join the Nazi party, and Liep would not do that.
“I said no,” he told an interviewer many years after the war. “Me as a Hamburger, a free Hambuger, you know, I do not become a party member.”
His principles pushed Leip even further into a corner. Now earning his living almost entirely from writing brief cultural reviews for small newspapers, and forced to scrutinize every sentence he wrote for anything that mighty cause even the faintest displeasure to the bureaucrats of the Culture Chamber, Leip was offered a flattering and lucrative deal. One of his old acquaintances, remembering the poet in his golden days, was involved in Ufa and entrusted to produce a script for a new film. An added incentive was the fact that the film was to star Emil Jannings, a revered actor who had gained international fame when he starred opposite Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angle. Leip always loved Jannings, was intrigued by the way the actor, who often portrayed men who had fallen from grace, managed to embody at once the searing hurt of being humiliated by his environment and the fundamental, perennial dignity that made life, even at its darkest hours, worth living. The theme of the film appealed to Leip as well. It was be a nautical adventure, capturing the struggles of a German battleship fighting the British in the First World War. Leip saw the film as a chance to relive his childhood dreams of life on the high seas. If he wasn’t fit to serve in the navy on board submarines, he could at least now live vicariously by creating a fictional world of sea battles, brave ensigns, and nautical drama a plenty. However, his enthusiasm soon faded.
It being 1938, with Germany and Britain engaged in a tortuous power play that would shortly lead to war, the film’s plot shifted dramatically as did world events: as soon as Britain ceased to be a friendly appeaser, Ufa’s sovereigns were instructed by Goebbels to change the film from an innocent story of peril at sea to a bombastic piece of anti-British propaganda. Instructions along these lines were conveyed to Leip, who was expected to amend the script accordingly. He, however, refused.
Bowing out of the film did little to tarnish the reputation of Jannings, but it took its toil on Leip. Already viewed with a jaundiced eye for refusing to pledge his allegiance to National Socialism, he was now an outcast, with all but a handful of courageous editors keeping their distance and refusing to publish his contributions. Having amassed some money as the author of a best-selling novel, Leip had enough funds to live in modest comfort for a few years. With a wife and two children in tow, he prepared for a few lean years. Optimistic by nature, he was certain that the impending war would turn out much like the one that preceded it, with the fanatical fires of nationalism burning furiously for a few years and then dying down, giving way to another Weimar, to another Renaissance of art and enlightenment. At least this time around, he told himself, he was too old to be sent to the front. He wrote sporadically, sketched from time to time, and did his best to ignore the world outside.
In 1939 he took a small house on Lake Constance, located on the Rhine and bordering Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. It was a quiet and pastoral place, he imagined, in which a poet was likely to find inspiration. By summer’s end, however, Leip’s hopes of winning the Muse’s favor evaporated when he learned that a poem he had written many years before, was set to music and was now, thanks to the military radio station in Belgrade, a hit all across Europe with soldiers and civilians alike. More than anything, it was unbearable for him to think how little had changed since he had given life to the two women who had captured his imagination in 1915. Back then, he thought, he imagined Lili as a promise: guarding the barracks, watching the invalid soldiers in the hospital and the oblivious men at the officers’ quarters, he conjured Lili as a force stronger even than the madness that drove men to the battlefield. The war will be over, he thought, and the men will return to their own Lili Marlenes. His Lili seemed to assure him, a young and anxious soldier about to be shipped to war, that love will triumph over death. But now, less than two decades later, here again were men marching en masse to their death, again fighting a gratuitous and pointless war. Leip found little comfort in the thought that millions of men looked forward to the song each night or that his words brought soldiers to tears, reminding them of loved ones left behind and of lives interrupted by war.
Leip was horrified to learn that a poem so personal, a poem he considered to be a strong statement against war, was put to march-like music and made popular by an army radio station. “Lili Marlene”, he thought bitterly, would now forever be thought of as a soldiers’ song, when he had imagined it to be everything but. And he, the song’s lyricist, the poet and humanist, the bohemian intellectual and a man of peace, was now linked in the popular imagination with the soundtrack to so many bloody battles. If that wasn’t enough, his original poem, his original poem was robbed of its male voice, the voice of a soldier pinning for his sweet heart, and given a new, female voice instead. And what a woman’s voice it was! That harsh tone, that strange diction, that literal interpretation that shied away from any vocal flourishes, all those maddened Leip even further. If the song had to be interpreted by a female singer, he thought, why not someone who could actually sing? And yet there was little he could do about it. By early 1942, Leip, like Anderson, realized that the popularity of “lili Marlene” was unstoppable.
Not surprisingly, Goebbels and his henchmen in the Culture Chamber recognized the anti-war sentiment in the song and put everyone involved in its creation under tighter watch. With Anderson recruited by Hans Hinkel for his elite artists tour and the composer Schultze a registered member of the Nazi Party and a prolific tunesmith in service of the army, Leip was the next logical target. Pressures increased on him to join the party. He continued to refuse. Veiled threats were made, but he wouldn’t budge. He did not believe in anything the Nazis represented and would not declare himself one of their ranks merely for expediency’s sake.
One day, sometime in 1943, he received a telephone call; it was a Nazi high official, a key player in the Culture Chamber’s division for writers and poets. Curtly, the man said that while he was a patriotic German, he couldn’t stand to see the way the Chamber was persecuting anyone who did not succumb to its will. And Leip, he said, was about to be its next target, having incurred Hinkel’s anger. “My dear Hans Leip,” said the man, “you have to see to it that you get away a little bit so you are not drawing attention, because they want to interrogate you by the SS and, as I know, you will tell them exactly how you feel. And then you re finished. You know, then you will be imprisoned.”
Stunned by the man’s unexpected candor, Leip took his advice. He bid farewell to his wife and children and moved to his summer house on Lake Constance, sinking into a routine of artistic infertility.
. . .
There are many plausible explanations for the popularity of “Lili Marlene.” Most of them are obvious and come back to the same basic point: as the war divided the world into different ideologies, different nationalities, different visions of the future, the song reminded the young men at the front and their dear one’s back home of the one virtue that, ultimately, binds the entire world together, the one virtue that travels across time and trenches, the one virtue that matters most of all – love.
But these explanations, we believe, are missing a large part of the point, and ignore the very thing that made “Lili Marlene” popular and keeps her and her mutations) popular still. The best war songs, John Steinbeck noted in his observations, are not about war at all; instead, they are about the things that make war bearable, the things that await at its end, the mundane and wonderful little pleasures of the everyday. These pleasure – a sweetheart’s kiss, say, or a country sunset –are too elusive for ordinary speech. They evade even the most sensitive writers. Put them in a sentence and they sit listlessly, deflated of all meaning. But put them in a song and they glow. The music changes the words, guiding simple images to those compartments of the mind that store wild emotion. It is there that a song’s significance and its potency lie.
As Lale Anderson herself witnessed when she toyed with alternative compositions, it was only Norbert Schultze’s music that made “lili Marlene” a crowd pleaser, only his tune, a wedding of folk songs, military marches, and a children’s ditty, that managed to capture the true spirit of the poem Hans Leip’s words alone weren’t enough; “Lili Marlene” needed a melody and a memorable voice to translate its essence from the private language of one man to the international idiom that captured the hearts and minds of men of all cultures and tongues. This is the true essence of every great song, and it is certainly true in the case of Lili Marlene.” The secret of the song’s universal appeal, then, may lie just there, in its bars, stating its case in a sublime musical language that transcends the artificial constructs that men have built to separate themselves from other men. Beethoven, quoting from Schiller, addressed this pleasant joy directly in the choral finale of his Ninth Symphony: “Thou shining spark of God . . ./your magic reunites those/Whom stern custom has parted/All men will become brothers/ Under your protective wing.”