Norbert Schultze wrote musical scores for propaganda movies in Nazi Germany, using his position to avoid conscription into the wartime army. A cabaret performer and opera composer of varied interests, Schultze had set a soldier’s poem to music and released it on a record sung by a female cabaret colleague, Lale Anderson. The disc sold few copies upon release and languished until a series of seemingly random causes brought a copy to Radio Belgrade, a powerful station operated by the German army in occupied Yugoslavia. The programming director heard something intriguing in the record’s paradoxical mood of martial and melancholy, its oblique call for a world beyond war.
The song, “Lili Marlene,” became a hit—and not just among its target audience of German soldiers. British troops in North Africa heard it and adopted the stirring melody as their own, even if they couldn’t entirely puzzle out the lovelorn lyric. When “Lili Marlene” was broadcast nightly at exactly the same time, the guns supposedly fell silent in the Libyan desert. One of the song’s British fans, a dashing commando officer called Fitzroy Maclean, paled around with Ian Fleming and supposedly became the inspiration for James Bond.
It’s a great story, briskly told in Lili Marlene: The Soldier’s Song of World War II (published by W.W. Norton) by a pair of young New York journalists, Liel Leibovitz and Matthew Miller. The core of the story, a song by an otherwise obscure cinema composer that became a boundary transcending wartime hit, appears factual and sufficiently researched. Unfortunately the authors are so sloppy with historical references that the project falls under a shadow. In their pages the Weimar republic springs to life a year before its actual birth; Hitler's aborted plan to invade Britain, Operation Sea Lion, is confused with the Luftwaffe’s campaign of air raids; the classic German film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is misidentified with the Ufa studio when it was actually the product of a small indie outfit. And on and on.
Apparently, fact checking is no longer taught in journalism school. Lili Marlene is an entertaining read about a unique moment in pop culture history. But maybe a second, revised edition will be more careful with the small details and the larger cultural context?