From the early days of Tomahawk Films when I stated to delve deeper into the field of Third Reich music and began to uncover the history and myriad stories that lay behind both the wonderful military & civilian songs, like many such enthusiasts, it was the distinctive war-time voice of Lale Andersen, the German equivalent of our British ‘Forces Favourite’ that soon caught my attention and I have been captivated by her voice and an assiduous collector of her images ever since…
Born Liese-Lotte, Helene, Berta, Bunnenberg in Bremerhaven on March 23rd 1905, the daughter of a dock-worker, she was first married, at the age of 17, to a local painter Paul Wilke, but following their later divorce (and after their third child), she moved to Berlin in 1929. Just two years later she found herself debuting on stage at the famous Kabarett der Komiker and became a regular feature of the city’s famous night-club scene in the immediate pre-war years of the late 1930’s. This was before Radio Belgrade was to catapult her to stardom, thanks to one abiding song that will forever live in the hearts of almost every soldier that served in World War Two.
Norbert Schultze’s Lied eines Jungen Wachtposten’ (better known as ‘Lili Marleen’) became not only an favourite with soldiers of all nations, but was subsequently recorded by many artistes around the world; however such was the power & emotion that Lale Andersen put into each performance of the song, that every German soldier instantly fell in love with her; and not just German soldiers. In the wake of the 8th Army’s success in North Africa, many members of the Afrikakorps found themselves prisoners of the Allies and, as many British veterans will testify, the young German prisoners, now safe from the fighting, well fed & provided with cigarettes, were happy to sing to keep themselves entertained and their spirits lifted.
It was also this world-wide fame with soldiers of all nations that was to save Lale Andersen’s life, for whilst an undoubted favourite with the combat troops at the front, Lale was to fall foul of the Nazi authorities and come close to finding herself sent to one of the German Reich’s many concentration camps.
Just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War Lale, who was living in Zurich with her lover Rolf Liebermann, (a Swiss-Jewish composer in whose pre-war plays she had acted), was asked to perform at a private birthday party for a high-ranking Nazi official at Lübeck as part of a troupe of famous German celebrities. However she was so upset by the anti-Jewish comments made by those present that she left early, totally disillusioned with life under Nazi rule!
Propagandaminister Goebbels, who liked to claim responsibility for all burgeoning show-business careers, ( and was by now well aware that Lale Andersen was becoming successful without his help), was becoming increasingly jealous of her growing fame and now ordered her to be kept under surveillance by the state secret police.
In 1938 the screws then tightened for Lale as she returned to Berlin for another concert, after which Goebbels refused to let her leave, and she was forced to remain in Germany and base her career there.
After recording ‘Lied eines Jungen Wachtposten’ in early 1939 and its subsequent popularity, Lale was increasingly worried that Rolf Liebermann, left behind in neutral Switzerland, would think she had given up all hope and had thrown her lot in with the Nazis. So she took the risk of writing to him in Zurich, pleading for his help in making an escape from Germany back to Switzerland and both continued an exchange of letters until Rolf came up with a plan: in 1942, whilst entertaining German troops in a military hospital in Northern Italy, Lale would link up with Rolf’s friends who would smuggle her across the Italian-Swiss border.
However, as Lale was about to make good her escape, she was arrested by the Gestapo on Milan’s railway station and escorted back to Berlin; told she would no longer be allowed to sing to the troops and almost certainly be sent to the concentration camps, was allowed home to put her affairs in order where, unnoticed, she managed to take an over-dose of sleeping tablets in an attempt to commit suicide; however her attempt on her own life was spotted and prevented just in time.
But the Gestapo had blundered, for whilst Lale Andersen was a German citizen liable to Hitler’s law, the fictional character Lili Marleen was now an international cult figure, and in most eyes Lale and Lili had actually become one and the same person!
Propagandaminister Goebbels, more than aware of her immense popularity with the combat soldiers, fighting on the various fronts, and realising what a propaganda disaster it would prove if news of her attempted suicide were to leak out, personally intervened realising that she was more use to him alive than dead, though the price she had to pay for Goebbels intervention was a continued surveillance by the Gestapo, to whom she had to report on a weekly basis. But by 1944, she was allowed her to quietly slip away from Berlin for the last time to live with her grandparents on the German Friesian island of in the North Sea, where she saw out the remaining year of the war.
Not long after the surrender, wrongly thinking that all interest in Lili Marleen had died with the Third Reich, Lale Andersen was invited by British Forces Radio in 1945 to sing for them, and her career was thus resurrected. Lale then made a complete return to the stage and toured the holiday resorts of Southern Germany as a singer with the Lutz Templin, (of ‘Charlie & his Orchestra’fame) jazz band, still very much in demand from the war-time generation and especially with the veterans of the Afrikakorps and the British 8th Army, both famous units having adopted her as their own!
Sell-out tours of Europe, America and Britain were followed in 1952 with a feature film on the story of Lili Marleen, (in which Lale starred), before then embarking on her final farewell tour of Germany in that same year. At the end of what was a truly magnificent musical career, both in war-time and then in peace-time, Lale eventually retired back to the North Sea island of Langeoog to become a rather jolly and much-loved guest-house landlady, before tragically suffering a heart attack on August 29th 1972 and passing away at the premature age of just 67.
Despite her tragic passing, long before her time, her wonderful legend very much lives on and Tomahawk Films and myself are most proud of the beautiful CD collection of her most famous, (and certainly most loved), songs that we have managed to lovingly restore, renovate and release from original war-time schellack 78rpm records we sourced in Germany, under the title:
‘Wie einst Lili Marleen’.. The Songs of Lale Andersen, war-time Germany’s ‘Forces Favourite’ 1939-1943’..
Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013