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Singing Enemy Songs: Lili Marleen April 13, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

One of the most moving moments in cinema is the extraordinary ending of Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. A young German girl is pulled in front of a crowd of French soldiers and forced to sing. The poilu mock her but as she nervously begins  the mood changes. The soldiers join in and drown her anxious, uncertain German, humming along. What begins as a musical lynching ends as a moment of unlikely understanding between enemies.

It works in a film, but has music ever really united foes in this way? Sure, there are stories of Silent Night/Stille Nacht being sung on both sides of the trenches at Christmas in the First World War. But these are difficult to document. However, there is one striking example from the Second World War, Lili Marleen, that can be documented by record sales alone.

Lili Marleen had the unlikely trajectory of so many surprise successes. It was written as a soldier’s poem in 1915, published in 1937 (in a very different Germany) and then set to music and recorded in August 1939 just before the Reich knocked rather loudly on the door of the Polish corridor.  The song was a complete failure and would have been entirely forgotten had it not been played by chance in 1941 by Germany’s military Radio Belgrade. There it was particularly picked up by Rommel’s Afrika Corps, listening and dreaming of home on the other side of the Med: Rommel himself is said to have loved the song, though Beach has found no good source for this.

A problem. The song was not very ‘Nazi’. In fact, its popularity infuriated Goebbels who briefly banned it – it did not help that its singer, Lale Andersen, had many Jewish friends. The song describes, after all, not the inevitably tedious march of the master race, but a suffering soldier with a heavy pack recalling a girl back home. And all this sung to a nostalgic, jerky, but catchy Blue Danube type tune! The arms of the swastika were wilting by the time you got to the end of the second verse.

However, it was these qualities that meant that it was able to cross the enemy lines with both the Dominion and British troops in the Eighth Army in Egypt and Libya singing along as they piled up sand bags or carried munitions back and forth.  By then Radio Belgrade, often listened to by the Allies, was using the song as their signature.

The war in the desert was a bloody and unpleasant affair: but it involved a degree of chivalry not found on any other front as combatants (all in a foreign land) found themselves also fighting the dunes and the sun. (Memories of the weather wars). In this unusual situation Lili Marleen became a motif of solidarity between the troops, friends and enemies alike. One British security agent, for example, remembers that whenever he was to debrief a German soldier he would always break the ice by asking what the latest alternative verses to Lili Marleen were: countless parodies and subversive versions were composed.

There was initially resistance to Allied soldiers singing the music: remember that some English-speakers had tried to get Beethoven banned for the duration of the World Wars, so a contemporary German number was bound to be controversial. However, in the end, Lili Marleen’s popularity was such that an English version became a commercial ‘sure thing’. A catastrophic rendering was given by Vera Lynn who is just too strait-laced and, well, English to do it justice. The best version in English is perhaps Marlene Dietrich’s sultry and very enjoyable purring. And from 1941 the song was translated into various languages among the combatant nations. Today it belongs to all of them.

Any other soldiers-brought-together-by-music stories? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

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First on the subject of LM Howard M writes ‘I thought you might enjoy — if enjoy is the right word — this version (attached) of 07 Lilli Marleen recorded by Goebbel’s own propaganda swing band, Charlie and His Orchestra. It’s a bit atypical for Karl Schwendler’s outfit, since this is performed straight and sentimental. Nonetheless, the Reich seemed to feel that a German song popular with Allied soldiers had some propaganda value, or they wouldn’t have recorded it. Note that it’s not the usual English translation, and was probably written by Schwendler himself.  I don’t know if you’re familiar with the music of Charlie and His Orchestra; their best-known recordings are parodies of popular American and British dance numbers, characterized as much by exceptional musicianship as by lyrics full of antisemitism, racism, and frequent boasts of Aryan supremacy. The history of jazz and jazz musicians under the Third Reich is fascinating in and of itself (Jews! Drug addicts! Negermusik!), but I’m a little too steeped in jazz history to know if it qualifies as “strange” for your purposes.’ Katie J writes in ‘After the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, the Union regimental bands started playing at twilight. They played pro-Union songs, naturally. After a while, Confederate band started playing their songs. Finally, the Confederates started to play, ‘Home, Sweet Home’ and Union bands joined in. It’s recorded that soldiers of both sides joined in. I’m pretty sure that ‘Home, Sweet Home’ was a neutral song, but Fredericksburg was a horrific battle and oddly enough, there are a few well-documented acts of kindness and mercy between the opposing armies. Perhaps the combatants felt the need to reassure themselves of their common humanity.’ On the Civil War there is, as Tacitus points out, that beautiful story about Dixie. Abe Lincoln was said to be rather fond of Dixie Invisible writes in with an example of the Battle of the Bands also from the CW:  See Battle of the Bands and the Battle of the Bands at Stone River. ‘As’ Invisible continues ‘for soldiers being brought together by music, (but not on opposing sides) you can do worse than think of all the regimental pipers who stood their ground in the face of charging cavalry, rallied the wavering when badly wounded, and piped their men over the top or onto the beaches. Here’s the obituary of one, The Mad Piper, Bill Millin JEC writes ‘When I think of incidents of one side singing the enemy’s songs, I’m reminded of a scene from the book Das Boot and the movie of the same name in which the crew of u-boat U-96 lustily sing ‘Its A Long Way To Tipperary’. The book was written in 1973 by former Kriegsmarine propaganda officer Lothar-Günther Buchheim and, while fictionalized, closely follows his mission on the real U-96 in 1941. In the scene, the politically reckless captain clearly enjoys ordering his over-formal First Officer, a committed Nazi, to replace a Berlin propaganda broadcast being played over the p.a. system with the old English music hall song. The crew’s enthusiastic singing tells the reader/viewer that they heartily approve of the little tweak of the young Nazi’s inflated ego. Because the book and film are so well documented as having been heavily autobiographical, I feel safe in submitting this as a real-life incident.’ As a sidenote, the captain of the actual U-96, Korvettenkapitän (Lieutenant Commander) Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock, was awarded the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves (Ritterkreuz des Eisernes Kreuzes mit Eichenlaub) for conspicuous and multiple incidents of gallantry, and, although wounded in action, survived the war to serve as a consultant on the masterful 1981 Wolfgang Petersen film based on Buxhheim’s book.’ KMH writes: Music itself does have a particular quality of rising  above national distinctions. Is it possible to imagine a world where German music was appreciated only by the Germans, Russian music only appreciated by the Russians, etc.? Music, as the world’s foremost international language,  seems to have done its share in promoting a global reluctance to indulge in genocidal thoughts and activities. The exception seems to be the Muslims, who have their own music, but non-Muslims aren’t aware of or familiar with it. Problem nations aren’t musical nations. The same goes for problem ideologies. This may be one reason why they inevitably fail to achieve their objectives.’ And to round off perfectly Grand Old Partisan, Michael Zak sent in this video of that famous Cold War Warrior Edward Rowny playing LM on his harmonica. Thanks to MZ, KMH, Invisible,Tacitus, Katie J. and Howard!

30/04/2012: Mike Zak also writes in: ‘Yankee Doodle was originally a British mockery of the American colonials’ Thanks Mike!