Lili Marleen: the poem and the song

by Emrys Westacott

Lili Marleen is one of the best known songs of the twentieth century.  A plaintive expression of a soldier’s desire to be with his girlfriend, it is indelibly associated with World War II, in part because it was popular with soldiers on both sides. It was first recorded by the German singer Lale Anderson in 1939. The Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels disliked the song and initially banned it from the radio, probably because it expresses a preference for staying at home rather than going off to war.  But in 1941 he granted a Belgrade-based radio station in German-occupied Yugoslavia permission to broadcast it. Apparently, Rommel, commander of the German troops in North Africa, liked the song, Goebbels relented, and soon Radio Belgrade (which had a very limited supply of disks available) was playing it every night as their sign-off tune. It quickly became popular with both German and allied forces. Anderson recorded an English version in 1942.

Marlene Dietrich, who worked tirelessly during world war two entertaining allied troops, also recorded both a German version and an English version of the song. Compared to the Anderson recordings, with their strong, marching tempo, Dietrich’s versions, which begin with the melancholy strains of an accordion, are slower, sweeter, and more wistful. The English version retains the melody and the general theme, but beyond the first line the lyrics are not even a loose translation of the original German.

The song began life as a poem of three stanzas, written in 1915 by Hans Leip (1893-1983), a schoolteacher from Hamburg who had been called up into the German army and was training in Berlin prior to leaving for the Eastern front. In the years following world war one, Leip became a successful author. His poem, with two further verses added, was eventually published in 1937, as “Das Lied eines jungen Soldaten auf der Wacht” (The song of a young soldier on watch). It was put to music in 1938 by Norbert Schultze, already by then a well-known composer who wrote numerous songs to be used by Goebbels’ propaganda ministry.

Anderson’s recording of Lili Marleen was the first German record to sell over a million copies. The song has been covered by numerous artists, including Vera Lynn, Bing Crosby, Edith Piaf, Perry Como, and Carly Simon, and has been rendered into dozens of languages. But the meaning of the English lyrics made famous by Dietrich and others bear little relation to Leip’s poem. While they no doubt served their purpose in relation to English-speaking audiences at the time, they lack the unity and poetic coherence of the original.

The central image of that poem is that of the lantern or streetlamp that burns brightly by the barracks gate.  It marks the place where the lovers would wait, meet, embrace and kiss. It signifies love, intimacy, constancy, happiness, home, peace, the cherished past, and a hoped-for future. The poem underscores this by constantly returning to the phrase “bei der Laterne stehen” [stand by the streetlamp]. There is also an ominous cast to the later verses which gives the whole a greater seriousness and depth. The soldier recalls saying goodbye, considers the possibility of being a combat casualty, and contemplates being replaced by another lover. The imagery of the final stanza–mist, earth, and silence–intimate the prospect of death.

So, in the hope of offering a reasonably lyrical English version of this lovely song that doesn’t stray too far from its original sense, I humbly offer the following translation of Leip’s poem.

Vor der Kaserne                                                  In front of the barracks

Vor dem grossen Tor                                         Before the giant gate

Stand eine Laterne                                             There stands a streetlamp

Und steht sie noch davor                                  It’s where we used to wait

So woll’n wir uns da wieder seh’n                   And if that streetlamp still burns bright

Bei der Laterne wollen wir steh’n                   We’ll stand again beneath its light

Wie einst Lili Marleen (repeat)                       Like back then Lili Marleen

 

Unsere beide Schatten                                      Our two shadows look

Sah’n wie einer aus                                            Like one seen from above

Dass wir so lieb uns hatten                              Easy to see

Das sah man gleich daraus                              How much we were in love

Und alle Leute soll’n es seh’n                          For anyone who saw the sight

Wenn wir bei der Laterne steh’n                    Of us standing there beneath the light

Wie einst Lili Marleen                                      Like back then Lili Marleen

 

Schon rief der Posten                                      Already the sentry cries

Sie blasen Zapfenstreich                                 They’re sounding the curfew

Das kann drei Tage kosten                             That can cost you three days

Kam’rad, ich komm sogleich                         OK I’m coming through

Da sagten wir auf Wiedersehen                    There where we kissed and said adieu

Wie gerne wollt ich mit dir geh’n                  Oh how I wish I could go with you

Mit dir Lili Marleen                                         With you Lili Marleen

 

Deine Schritte kennt sie                                 That streetlamp knows your footsteps

Deinen zieren Gang                                         How you walk gracefully

Alle Abend brennt sie                                     It burns bright every evening

Doch mich vergass sie lang                            But it won’t remember me

Und sollte mir ein Leids gescheh’n              And if I should fall in the fight

Wer wird bei der Laterne stehen                  Oh who will stand beneath the light

Mit dir Lili Marleen?                                       With you Lili Marleen?

 

Aus dem stillen Raume                                  From the solid earth

Aus der Erde Grund                                       With silence all around

Hebt mich wie im Traume                            Just like in a dream

Dein verliebter Mund                                     Your kisses lift me from the ground

Wenn sich die späten Nebel drehn              And when the mist fall with the night

Werd’ ich bei der Laterne steh’n                  I’ll be standing there beneath the light

Wie einst Lili Marleen                                    Like back then Lili Marleen

 

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