Thursday, June 30, 2011

"Lili Marlene" -- The Soldiers' Song

The lyrics to “Lili Marlene” were written in 1915 by a young German soldier named Hans Leip. The female to whom the lyric is addressed was a compilation of two women to whom Leip felt an attraction and one night, after having had momentary encounters with both of them while on his way sentry duty he wrote a five-stanza poem called “Song of a Young Sentry”:

“In front of the barracks
In front of the large gate,
There stood a lantern,
And if it stands there still,
Let’s meet there once again,
Let’s stand underneath the lantern,
Like once before, Lili Marlene.

“Both of our shadows
Looked like they were the same,
We held each other closely,
You’d think that we were one.
And the world will see it again
When we stand underneath the lantern,
Like once before, Lili Marlene.

Leip’s poem was published in 1937 within a collection. The following year, composer Norbert Schultz encountered the volume of poems, set a few of them to music, and asked German cabaret singer, Lale Andersen, if she’d be interested in recording his rendition of Leip’s “Song of a Young Sentry.” At first they couldn’t find an interested studio – the song was all wrong for the burgeoning militancy of the Nazi regime – but after adding a bugle call to the beginning, Electrola made Schultz and Andersen a deal. “Song of a Young Sentry” aired over German radio for the first time on November 9, 1938, the night that became known as Kristallnacht. The sweet little song died amid the rubble of the Nazi’s first large-scale, organized attack on German and Austrian Jews.

Three years later, a German radio broadcaster named Karl-Heinz Reintgen, who’d just been ordered to initiate a military radio station in newly-conquered Yugoslavia, was scrambling to fill 21 hours of news and entertainment with only 54 records. His young assistant came back from Vienna with a pile of discarded records, one of them Andersen’s recording of Leip’s poem. It was transmitted over the airwaves of Reintgen’s new Soldatsender Belgrad (Soldiers’ Radio Belgrade) on August 18, 1941, becoming immediately and immensely popular all over Europe.

Nazi Propaganda Minister Goebbels was furious – the song was obviously anti-military – and he tried to have it banned. However, Rommel and the other German military brass, whose men all adored the song, politely reminded him that as a civilian, Goebbels had no jurisdiction over military matters; Soldiers’ Radio Belgrade was, after all, a military radio station.

If Goebbels couldn’t keep German soldiers from listening to the song, he could at least ban it on civilian radio (he allowed an instrumental-only version) and make life miserable for singer Lale Andersen, who was eventually caught trying to leave the country and who was, at one point, forbidden from performing at all.

But the soldiers were free to enjoy it every evening at exactly 9:57 when Reintgen would play the song they all knew as “Lili Marlene.” In North Africa, those few minutes actually initiated a nightly cease-fire; the British troops stationed there loved the song too. In fact, they began spending so much time listening to either Radio Belgrade or the broadcasts of Axis Sally (who interspersed her demoralizing propaganda with the song) that an English version of “Lili Marlene” was recorded by 14-year-old Anne Shelton and broadcast over the BBC in order to bring the Tommies back to the fold.

Why a particular song becomes beloved at a certain point in history is one of those inexplicable but fascinating pop culture mysteries but Liel Leibovitz and Matthew Miller, in their enlightening and immensely readable book on the subject, “Lili Marlene: The Soldiers’ Song of World War II,” have this to say about the song’s hold on WWII soldiers:

“Exhausted from combat and marching, caked with sand and burnt by the sun, the soldiers of the Afrika Korps gathered to listen, as they did whenever they could, to Radio Belgrade and their haunting “Lili Marlene.” The familiar song was a gateway through which they could return to the sweetness of their faraway homes and loosen the war’s rigid trip on their minds, if even for a few minutes.”

Did “Lili Marlene” cause the downfall of the Third Reich? Don’t underestimate the power of music. Aside from the nightly North African cease-fire, there has been at least one recorded incident where a single performance of this song kept one German from fighting. In an interview, 90 year-old US WWII veteran, Jack Leroy Tueller, recalls an evening in France, one week post-D-Day, when he played “Lili Marlene” on his trumpet, knowing that a German sniper was in the area.

Captured the next morning and asking for the trumpeter, the German sniper burst into tears when Tueller approached him; in broken English, he admitted that the song had stopped him from shooting: “’Lili Marlene’ reminded me of the tune that my fiancĂ©e and I got married to in Germany,” he said, “and I thought of my mother and father and I thought of my brothers and my sisters . . . I couldn’t fire, I couldn’t fire.”

And a British WWII nurse, Brenda McBryde, stationed at one point in Bayeux, Normandy, witnessed a fascinating musical moment when one of the German prisoners she was nursing suddenly began to sing “Lili Marlene.” In her memoir, “A Nurse’s War,” she relates the incident:

“One of the young German boys tentatively started up a song, while his comrades waited nervously to see how it would be received before joining in. We had no seriously ill men in the ward at that time; the boy had a pleasant voice, and we realized how long it had been since we heard anyone sing. We did nothing to discourage him. It was the catchy German marching song, ‘Lili Marlene,’ which had become as popular with Monty’s troops in Normandy as in Rommel’s African campaign where it originated. The rest of the POWs, emboldened, now took up the song, singing in well-rehearsed harmonies that were a joy to hear.

“Then the moment enlarged to provide one of those memories that stay forever. From the adjacent British ward came the same song, sung in English. The surprised Germans responded to the compliment with even more enthusiastic singing, and Soutie and I stood between the two wards listening to a performance that would have done justice to a male voice choir from men who, until recently, had been doing their level best to kill each other.

“‘Just shows how daft war is’ said Soutie.”


The English translation of initial two stanzas of “Lili Marlene,” “Lied eines jungen Wachtposten,” (“Song of the Young Sentry,”) appears on page 17 of the book, “Lili Marlene: The Soldiers’ Song of World War II,” by Liel Leibovitz and Matthew Miller, and was translated from the original German by the authors.

“For the common soldiers . . . “ Leibovitz and Miller, page 115.

German sniper quote:

Hospital quote: “A Nurse’s War” by Brenda McBryde, pages 121-122.


"Lili Marlene: The Soldiers' Song of World War II" by Liel Leibovitz and Matthew Miller.

"The Official Lili Marlene Page"

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Book Review: "My Father's War" by Paul West

For writer Paul West, the connections between the two world wars of the last century transcend the likes of a train car at Compiegne and a Bavarian private named Adolph Hitler. West’s connections are personal, powerful memories of a one-eyed father, maimed in the “Great War,” playing war games with his son while Nazi planes regularly bombed a nearby English town. West’s father, forever transformed by “his war,” was an enigma and mystery to West; My Father’s War is his attempt to work out that mystery.

As West seeks to assemble the puzzle pieces at his disposal, a beautiful and moving portrait of his father emerges: a teenager issuing from the mud and blood of WWI trenches who became a respected veteran never quite comfortable with peacetime. His discomfort with post-war life far surpassed his frequent unemployment due to his war-damaged eye. When other Englishmen were hiding in their homes with their curtains drawn during Nazi air raids, West’s father would go outside to watch the planes, partly because he had come to admire the Germans while gunning them down on European battlefields and partly because, as West relates, he was “going after some sullen undesirable beauty he must first have seen from the trenches.” Beauty in the trenches? Yes. It was there that “he had found men at their noblest.” He never stopped longing for that beauty but it almost completely evaded him during his civilian life. That is, until the outbreak of the second world war: then, for a few years, he embraced the beauty of his old war with a salute to the new. He began to teach his pre-adolescent son soldering through war games.

Is it possible that the senior West played war with his son in order to prepare him for real warfare? Possibly. No one knew how long World War II would last. But perhaps the more likely reason was that “the only busyness he regarded as genuine toil was soldering. All the rest, which is to say life’s work, he regarded as frippery, trivia.” He was first and last, a soldier.

The book is comprised of a series of essays, some previously published, written in novelist West’s inimitable prose which is so lyrical at times, it occasionally threatens to leave earth (and some readers) behind. In the chapter entitled “An Extraordinary Mildness,” West describes his father’s later years in terms of a certain lightness of existence: “almost all the woes of the human condition [were] floating away from him, although ascending with him toward the nullity that, compared with his post-mortem paradises, was the merest tincture of slightness.” Excellent prose? Well, yes. Slightly incomprehensible? Definitely.

If West’s writing sometimes aviates into clouds of rarified incomprehensibility, it also (and usually) soars into prose of pure gold. Ruminating on Hitler’s reticence to invade England, West opines: “If only Hitler the knowitall had followed through, brushing aside the popguns and Robin Hood pikes along with the remnants of the British army, we would all have been goners; but by then he was lusting eastward toward Mother Russia and “Uncle Joe,” and my father and I had joined the survivors in the street, crisp with our sense of reprieve.” West exhibits his formidable descriptive skills while watching his father watch American bombers returning from the mainland: “Not a bomber left its place on this return trip as the crews, with the correct bustle and protocol of bombing left behind, tuned in to swing music on the American Forces Network, chewed fresh gum, and over the sea slung out their machine guns and other gubbins to lighten the load.”

Was West was able, at last, to completely understand his father? The emotive center of his book focuses not on the mystery solved but the journey through it. Whether writing in convoluted or golden prose, West has succeeded in piecing together a very moving account of his father, an eternal soldier, discovered by his son between two wars.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Book Review of "Bombs Away: The World War II Bombing Campaigns over Europe"

“When the commander arrived, the room went silent and the tension immediately spiked. Behind their old-man facades, these boy-warriors prayed for an easy mission. The daily toll of deep strikes had left them weary.

“They’d long since learned that the glory they saw back home on small town silver screens simply did not exist in the skies over Germany. Physically and psychologically, the strategic bombing campaign was a death march that only the luckiest and strongest would survive.” (“Bombs Away,” page 166).

“Bombs Away: The World War II Bombing Campaigns over Europe” is an enormously oversized book (so big, in fact, that it caused some moderate pain when, ironically, it landed on my foot) filled with reams of stunning photographs and which contains more of the human element than other similar titles. In the introduction, author, John R. Bruning, who, during the 1990’s, interviewed many veterans of the European air war, promises that his book is less about “aircraft specifications” than about “the men who flew the machines and the civilians on the ground who endured the fall of their bombs.”

The book not only includes the winning human element, however; it does describe the types of planes (German, American, and British) used in every major bombing campaign in the European Theater and, most interestingly, frames the entire story in terms of an Italian who first conceived that superior air power would grant victory to whichever country possessed and utilized it. A veteran commander of the Great War, Giulio Douhet wrote what Bruning describes as “the single most influential book on military airpower for the next thirty years,” a book that was “nothing short of an apocalyptic vision of societal destruction through aerial bombardment.”

Bruning relates how the Luftwaffe used “Douhet’s playbook” to destroy civilians in Guernica, Spain, in 1933 and in Warsaw six years later. The Germans were able to subdue France and the Low Countries quickly, also because of their superior air force. And superior air power is obviously what kept the British from succumbing to the Germans when the two countries pitted their air forces against each other in the skies above Britain during the summer of 1940. The subject of British resolve during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz is a tremendous subject in anyone’s hands, but especially in Bruning’s as he sums up the chapter thus: “Moral never wavered. Britain did not submit to terror. Guilio Douhet’s nihilistic vision of future warfare, once put to the ultimate test, proved bankrupt. The Germans gave up on the invasion of England . . . “

The air war replaced the bloody trenches of the Great War and was similarly costly in terms of lives lost (based on percentages of those involved). And although the Allied plan to end the war by targeting Germany’s munitions factories and fuel supplies fell short of its immediate goal – bringing Nazi Germany to its knees quickly (the attempt which Bruning shows clearly in several chapters, including one on the missions to Ploesti, Romania where the Nazi war machine kept oil refineries) -- Bruning also points out that during the Ardennes Offensive the slim German hopes for victory were pinned only on the remote possibility of stealing Allied fuel. Their own supplies were running short thanks to the strategic bombing missions of the U.S. and British aircrews.

Covering the major campaigns, the strategies, the planes, and most of all, the people involved, “Bombs Away” uses superior prose, quotes, and numerous stunning photographs to bring the story of the air war in Europe to life in a powerful and unforgettable way.

(Published at

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Excerpt from the new Zenith Press title, "Bombs Away: The WWII Bombing Campaigns Over Europe"

The Teune brothers in their Army Air Corps uniforms. John, second from right, was shot down over Ploesti, Romania (and his diary from that experience can be read in previous posts). Below is the final paragraph of chapter describing that campaign taken from John Bruning's brilliant new book, "Bombs Away: The WWII Bombing Campaigns Over Euroope."

"It was the resolution and courage of the American air crews that left the most enduring legacy. Where other air forces would have turned back in the face of such incredible opposition, men like Col. John Kane pressed the attack and refused to be dissuaded. The courage this requred cannot be underestimated. Flying below the treetops, hedghopping across the Romanian countryside, the pilots clearly saw what they were in for a s they approached the swirling inferno over Ploesti. They could not doubt their fate. That their hands remained steady on the controls, their hearts resolved because they believed in the mission's importance, left an example of heroism unsurpassed in American aviation history. Five men, including Colonel Kan, received the Medal of Honor for their valour that day. Their Balaclava-like charge at Ploesti sent a clear messge to the Germans: The Americans would not be dissuaded."

Taken from page 141 of John R. Bruning's new book, "Bombs Away: The WWII Bombing Campaigns Over Europe."

Redd Griffin's Brilliant, Historically Connected Remarks for Memorial Day, 2011

Photo by Debby Preiser
(Sorry that I don't have a photo of Redd but since this was the same event, it was as close as I could come visually!)

Memorial Day, 2011, in Scoville Park, Oak Park, Illinois
Remarks by Redd Griffin

Today events of the distant past and recent present near where we meet link us with Memorial Day. The only three men mentioned in our State song, John Logan, Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant, helped make these connections possible across time and space.

What became the national observance of Memorial Day began with John Logan, a Civil War general and commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (Union veterans of the war) from downstate Murphysboro. Logan in May, 1868, proclaimed the Day’s forerunner, “Decoration Day” be observed nationwide to honor those fallen in the Civil War. This day survivors would decorate their graves. Last month the Illinois State Historical Society began its commemoration of that war’s 150th anniversary with a conference at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale with a side trip to Logan’s home nearby.

Events triggering the beginning and end of that war happened along a route at the bottom of this hill, where Oak Park began on the U.S. frontier in the 1830’s. What we call Lake Street extended from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. Less than ten miles east of us on Lake Street in Chicago, the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln as their candidate for President 151 years ago this month. That event led to the South’s secession and the outbreak of the Civil War. Last year, several Oak Parkers were among the hundreds who celebrated the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s nomination in the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall at the Chicago Cultural Center.

One hundred fifty miles northwest of us on Lake Street’s extension as route U.S. 20, Ulysses Grant joined the army exactly 150 years ago today. His leadership along with Lincoln’s and Logan’s led to the Union winning the war, preserving the nation and freeing the slaves. Today civil and religious leaders are gathered in Galena to commemorate Grant’s leaving civilian life for the army.

After the Civil War ended in 1865, Oak Parkers who had served under Grant, stayed together. In 1887 they organized the Philip Sheridan Post of the Grand Army of the Republic (the GAR). Among them was Anson Hemingway, one of Ernest Hemingway’s two grandfathers who served in the War. He was photographed in his dark blue uniform with young Ernest, and with his fellow veterans in front of Oak Park’s first library, a few yards southwest of us.

Besides the grand sweep of historic forces and patterns are the more immediate, intimate, moments of those who served democracy in the Civil War and the centuries of our history.

Their terrors and triumphs were captured in their diaries or the writing of authors like Ernest Hemingway, who had heard such stories from Civil War veterans as a boy growing up in Oak Park. He would write of his own intense war-time experiences in non-fiction and fiction, including his widely-read novel about World War I, A Farewell to Arms.

With trend-setting candor, Hemingway made clear his view based on his own wartime experiences that “Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene besides the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.”

Hemingway saw such abstract words as empty, especially when cynical leaders used them to manipulate the masses. But he found the values these words stood for to be very real when people lived by them.

Those living by these values include our fellow Americans in the service and their loved ones, who have unselfishly supported them and their cause. Their heroic sacrifices led to growth in character and higher levels of being.

These protectors of our democracy need solidarity with each other, with their community and their nation. But why do they give up part--and sometimes all--of their freedoms and lives to defend ours? How should we civilians utilize the freedoms and lives they allow us to enjoy? Positive answers might be found in lessons from history, which clarify where we came from, where we are and where we should be going.

John Logan, for example, turned from opposing Lincoln to supporting him, even to the extent of risking his life for his cause in war. On his first Decoration Day, flowers were placed on Confederate as well as Union graves in Arlington National Cemetery. Such tolerance, forgiveness and reconciliation are as essential to healthy individual lives as to the just life of a nation.

Among possible responses, the arts and religion often provide direction, motivation, meaning and hope. Of the thousands of songs and hymns written to do this during the Civil War, few better linked individuals, their country and a greater cause than “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” with Julia Ward Howe’s inspired words. The History Singers, John and Kathryn Atwood sing it here today. They invite you to join them and sense the spirit that it brought to Americans during the Civil War as it has brought to them ever since.

[Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath or stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightening of His terrible swift sword,
His truth is marching on.

Chorus: Glory, Glory Hallelujah, His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watch fires of a hundred circling camps;
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence in the dim and flaring lamps,
His Day is marching on.

Chorus: Glory, Glory Hallelujah, His truth is marching on.]