A long time ago, in a second-hand bookshop in a German village somewhere, I picked up (for a song) the autobiography of Lale Andersen, the German singer who made a hit of Lili Marlene (Lili Marleen in its German spelling). From that day forth I knew I’d end up writing a book about the song. I spent the next ten years collecting all kinds of related material—from rare books, war postcards and old gramophone records to newspaper clippings. The result of this scholarly obsession is Lili Marlene. The biography of a song. After being successfully released in Spain and also translated and published in Germany, a digital edition of the book is finally available in English, remarkably translated by Paul Hammond:
Take a look at the booktrailer!
Is writing a whole book about a single song worth it?
When it comes to Lili Marlene, the answer is definitely yes. Certain songs, like La Marseillaise, are not just a piece of music, but a whole chunk of history, and the same is true of Lili Marlene. This song allows you to retell the whole history of the whole 20th century, from the First World War to Fassbinder movies in the eighties. Some amazing things are found on the way: you can find a few insights here.
But the book is not just about the song: it’s also about the people who made the Lili Marlene phenomenon possible. It’s about the poet who wrote the lyrics of the song in 1915, scared to death because the next day he was to be posted to the trenches of the First World War. And about the Nazi composer who set this poem to music in 1938, with the synagogues burning around him. And about the German woman enamored of a Jew who provided the voice that in 1941 would make those verses famous. But it’s also about thousands of anonymous people: broadcast just before 10 o’clock each night by a military radio station, Lili Marlene united and gave hope to the distraught and persecuted of all Europe.
The history of the song is full of contradictions. The world was cruelly divided into two irreconcilable camps, but Lili Marlene traveled across all frontiers and war zones, moving within an ambiguity that flouted norms—it was a product of the Third Reich sung by English and American soldiers, too. And if, when the war was over, British veterans listened to Marlene Dietrich with tears in their eyes, she was booed in Poland for singing it in German. Some claim that the song was dedicated to the Jewish niece of Sigmund Freud and that without it the famous Barbie doll would probably not exist.
John Steinbeck claimed the song was perhaps “the only contribution to the world by the Nazis.” Whatever, it became a social phenomenon that not even the German propaganda machine was able to control. Unlike traditional wartime compositions, Lili Marlene is about the harshness of the conflict and about saying farewell to one’s nearest and dearest with no promise of future peace and happiness.
How Lili Marlene, the most famous German song of all time, was able to retain its innocence and to cradle an era of horror in its ethereal beauty is still a mystery. A mystery this book tries to shed light on.
(If you click down here, at MyLibreto, you will be able to read part of the text):
Look at Lili Marlene: The Biography of a Song in myLIBRETO
Get it here! ($8.97):