Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin


Did you know that the legendary World-War-Two tune “Lili Marleen” – which was also the first German hit-song to have sold over one million records – was written in Berlin?

The poem’s author (it did not become a song until nearly two decades later), Hans Liep, wrote the first three verses of his “A Girl under A Street-Light” during a night-watch at what was then the Maikäferkaserne (Maybug Barracks) in Chausseestraße in Berlin on Easter 1915 (the name “maybug”, or “cockchafer”, referred to the colourful uniforms of the troops). In 1927 he added two more verses and included the poem – now called “The Song of a Young Soldier” – in a small poetry collection he published that year.

The Garde-Füssilier-Regiment Kaserne aka Maikäferkaserne in Chausseestraße 89-92 in Berlin, 1910.

The text appealed to the hearts of many young Germans, men especially (it is after all basically a story of war, sex and longing), but was far from being a hit. It wasn’t until a melody was added by a composer Norbert Schultze and the rendition of the song entrusted with a talented but at the time still fairly unknown cabaret performer, Lale Anderson, that the “Lili Marleen” train gained its proper speed.

Lale Anderson at Berlin’s Kabarett der Komiker (KaDeKo) in Wilmersdorf in 1938 (photo by Wlilly Pragher via Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek & Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg)

The song, recorded by Lale in Electrola-Studio in Schlesische Straße in Kreuzberg exactly one month before the outbreak of the Second World War, was not an overnight hit. Allegedly written first and foremost for radio broadcast, its first edition sold some 700 records. Not a bad result as such but rather unimpressive when compared with the song’s eventual success: it was to become the first German tune to sell over a million discs!

The first big public broadcast took place abroad. German troops occupying Belgrade had the pleasure of listening to the song on their local military radio, and with the transmitter being powerful enough to reach even much more distant Nazi posts, “Lili Marleen” started her triumphant march through the trenches.

In fact, such was the song’s appeal on both sides of the fronts of the war that British soldiers are said to have shouted “Louder! Play it louder!” whenever their German enemies put on the record on their side or when their radio began to throb with the opening military-march. By 1943 “Lili Marleen” was played each night at 10 PM as a coda to every broadcast.

Interestingly, the woman who turned that song into a hit and was at the time widely associated with the main character which she effectively created, was at some point not only banned from singing it but also from performing in front of any audience at all.

Two things are said to have happened: firstly, Lale Anderson allegedly refused to visit the Warsaw Ghetto. Not something easily accepted by the minions of the powerful Ministry for Propaganda. Then there was the story of Lale Anderson’s contact to Swiss Jews: she worked in Zürich for a while where she began a relationship with a stage director of the Schauspielhaus. When the story reached the always pricked ears of the head of Nazi censorship and propaganda, Goebbels, he had her promptly removed from the stage. As if that had not been enough, he also ordered the already printed records seized and smashed into pieces (including the “mother-record” held in the recording studio in Kreuzberg).

Anderson’s could have been miserable a fate if it had not been for the public – to be precise, the foreign public. After she had been banned from performing and her name from being in any way associated with “Lili Marleen”, the BBC (as already mentioned, war or not, British soldiers fell head over heels in love with the charming German) informed its listeners that considering her sudden disappearance, Lale Anderson might have been sent to a concentration camp.

Emmy Göring, actress and privately wife to Hermann Göring, giving her own, perhaps a tad unconvincing, rendition of “Lili Marleen” at Krolls Oper in Berlin in 1944 (image from Time Magazine June 5, 1944).

This was not something that the Nazi side wished to leave to speculation, most probably concerned about any potential damage to their image (very sad irony considering that at the same time they were carrying out a regular genocide within the occupied territories of Eastern Europe). Anderson was given consent to sing on stage again, however, she was strictly to keep her distance to the troops.

In the meantime, another popular singer from the other side of the Big Pond – one, however, with every reason to excel at performing “Lili Marleen” as well – gave a smashing performance in front of the American troops. She sang, of course, the English version of the song (by the way, we owe the first translation of the lyrics to a British traitor, Norman Baillie-Stewart, one of the three men referred today as “Lord Haw-Haw”). In 1943 Marlene Dietrich, a Berlinerin and a German as well as a sworn anti-Nazi herself, performed “Lili Marleen” for the US soldiers. The rest, of course, is history.

As for the authors of the legendary song, Hans Liep and Norbert Schultze, they showed significantly less of a spine that Dietrich did. Liep, who survived the trenches of the Eastern Front of the Great War (he wrote “Lili Marleen” shortly before being dispatched there), spent the Second World War writing for the “Krakauer Zeitung”, a Cracow (capital of Hitler’s General Governorate in then occupied Poland) newspaper turned a Nazi-propaganda rag. He also attended the so-called Weimarer Dichtertreffen (Weimar Writers’ Rallies) whose guests were to become – in Goebbels’s wicked plan at least – the future Nazi elite of German literature. By the end of 1942 Liep’s chest had been decorated by the Führer with a Kriegsverdienstkreuz, or “War Merit Cross”. Second-class and without the swords. After the war Hans Liep’s career took a turn for the better and by his death in 1983 he had been a recipient of multiple literary awards and decorations as well as an honorary professor.

“Lili Marleen’s” composer, Norbert Schultze, spent the war producing such gems of German musical heritage as “Bomben auf Engelland” (originally written as “Bomben auf Polenland” to celebrate the Nazi assault on Poland but then, in a very Prussian spirit of “want not, waste not”, recycled ) and “U-Boot-Lied”. He did not receive any royalties on his most popular tune until 1962 – they counted as enemy assets to which he had no right. Later the song brought Schultze 150,000 Marks per year.

As for Lale Anderson who was the first to blow – or rather sing – life into Lili Marleen, she left Berlin still during the war, seeking refuge of a North-Sea Island of Langeook. She lived there with her son – one of the three children she had from her first marriage at the age of 17, children she abandoned to pursue a stage career in Berlin. She had a music come-back in the 1950s and 60s – Anderson even represented Germany during the Eurovision Song Contest in 1961 in Cannes where she sang “Einmal Sehen Wir Uns Wieder” (Suddenly We Meet Again) – a song whose title might have caused slight feeling of unease among some some of the older international viewers.

Two Lilis: Lale Anderson and Marlene Dietrich (photo source unknown – please contact the author if you can name it).

When she died in Vienna in 1972 hardly anyone remembered her as the original performer of the world classic which “Lili Marleen” became over the years. By that time Lili Marleen became for ever associated with die Marleene aus Berlin.

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