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21 June 2020

Two songs that shaped the course of the Second World War

Vera Lynn's "We'll meet again" helped the British endure the war, while "Lili Marleen" reminded the Germans what it cost them.

By Richard J Evans

The death of Vera Lynn on 18 June at the age of 103 severs another link with the Second World War. The “forces’ sweetheart”, a girl next door rather than a glamour icon, she was widely credited with raising the morale of the British troops and their loved ones at home with her hugely popular songs. “There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover” promised “love and laughter and peace ever after” when the war was over.

And, of course, “We’ll meet again” promised the certainty of reunion between soldiers and their wives or girlfriends, families and friends “some sunny day”, when the clouds of war had been driven away. Until then, she exhorted her listeners to “keep smiling through”. The message she purveyed was unambiguously one of hope.

The Germans, too, had their favourite song, but its message was very different. “Lili Marleen” was actually written during the First World War, but only set to music in 1938; it did not become popular until well after the outbreak of the Second World War. Sung by Lale Andersen, it told of a soldier remembering his evening trysts with his girlfriend beneath a lantern outside the barracks, before he had to turn in for the night. But that, the soldier says, was long ago: he’s been killed in battle, and the lantern has forgotten him. Who will she be meeting there now, he wonders? Still, from the silence of the grave he will rise, and his ghost will be standing beneath the lantern, just as Lili Marleen once did.

It’s not exactly a morale-boosting song, and the Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, recognizing this, had it banned. Andersen herself was barred from further public appearances. When Goebbels finally allowed her back on stage, in 1943, it was on condition she didn’t sing “Lili Marleen”, but when she appeared in theatres, her audiences shouted for it, and when she refused they sang it themselves. It was banned again in August 1944, but by this time, the Allies had realized its morale-busting potential, and had it blasted out across the front lines, sung by Marlene Dietrich, to depress the German troops.

“We’ll Meet Again” was popular right from the beginning of the war, but “Lili Marleen” didn’t become a hit until it was broadcast over the German forces’ powerful radio transmitter in Belgrade from the spring of 1941 onwards. In Germany itself, the lyrics spoke to a very different frame of mind to the wartime spirit that, by and large, prevailed in Britain, epitomized by Vera Lynn’s injunction to “keep smiling through”. Enthusiasm for the war began to wane among German after the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, despite all the efforts of the Nazi regime to turn them into militarists since 1933. The 300,000 British military deaths during the war, a bald enough statistic of grief and suffering, were dwarfed by the 5 million German deaths in the conflict. No wonder “Lili Marleen” was so popular.

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