Minding the Issues - Meet My Friend, "Lili Marlene" - and Liberal Education

Come back in time to World War II, to all wars, to the Trojan War. Our vehicle is a song, "Lili Marlene," which I have cherished for more than three decades.

"Lili Marlene" is based on a poem written by the German poet Hans Leip. In the late 1930s the poem was adapted and set to a haunting melody composed by German songwriter Norbert Schultze. It became immensely popular during World War II, first on the German side, beginning with the Afrika Korps, and then among the Allied soldiers (though whether the Allies were singing the same song as the Germans is questionable). The Nazis disapproved of the song, for reasons that will become evident, but the song was too popular to suppress. It is still remembered fondly by those who lived during the War, but is relatively unknown to younger generations.

Before looking more closely at the song, I must make two points. First, I am no German scholar. If my translation is inaccurate at points, if my version of the song varies from the standard, if my interpretation is extravagant - I DON'T CARE. My interpretation of the song is mine, and my enjoyment is mine.

Second, the English version of the song is quite different from the German. I say "version" instead of "translation" because the English version, written largely as a propaganda tool, is diametrically opposed to the German original -- it is bright, optimistic, cheery, totally lacking in depth and irony. The German version, by contrast, emerges as fine and powerful poetry. If you hear the English lyrics, try to wash out your mind with the proverbial soap - not because the lyrics are immoral, but because they are trash.

Perhaps the most famous performer to record the English version was Marlene Dietrich, who added some insipid material of her own (" . . .my pack is light."). The "Lili Marlene" she sang departed from her usual cynical and ironic persona; no doubt she took it on as a morale-booster. I often wonder what she was thinking as she sang the song, and I like to think it went something like this: "Anything for the war effort, but I may vomit if I have to keep on singing this junk."

Let's get to the real thing, in the German. "Lili Marlene" is the story of a German soldier and his girl friend, told in the words of the soldier. Stationed at a barracks, he leaves every night to see Lili Marlene, and at the end of the evening they linger under the lamppost besides the barracks gate. The first few stanzas tell this wistful story.

But their times together must end; he is called away to fight. In the second-last stanza the mood turns somber and bitter. The soldier, far away and talking in his mind to the sentry at the gate, says:

"Deine schritte kennt sie
Deinen zieren Gang
Alle Abend brennt sie,
Doch mich vergass sie lang."

She is well acquainted with your steps,
With your exacting pace.
Every evening she burns with passion,
But me she has long since forgotten.

Then the soldier's thought turns from thought of betrayal to thought of death. Speaking now to Lili, he says:

"Und sollte mir ein Leid geschehen
Wer wird bei der Laterne stehen
Mit dir, Lili Marlene,
Mit dir, Lilli Marlene?"

And if I should be injured [killed],
Who then will stand by the lamp-post
With you, Lili Marlene,
With you, Lili Marlene?

Betrayal, death: These themes set the stage for the superb last stanza:

"Aus dem tiefen Raume,
Aus der Erde Grund
Hebt sich wie in Traume
Dein verliebte Mund.
Wenn sich die spaeten Nebel dreh'n
Wer wird bei der Laterne steh'n
Mit dir, Lili Marlene,
Mit dir, Lili Marlene?"

Out of the deep space,
Out of the earthy ground
Rises as in a dream
Your beloved mouth.
When the late mists rise
Who will stand by the lamp-post
With you, Lili Marlene,
With you, Lili Marlene?

This array of images must be taken all together. "When the late mists rise" sets the scene:

Late at night with the mists swirling around him, the young German soldier sits in his foxhole, shivering from cold and fright. Gazing over no-man's land, he sees an apparition. From out of the ground - from out of the grave - Lili Marlene's mouth arises, beguiling, alluring, luring the soldier into the grave, an invitation to death - while the same late mists of evening are swirling around the actual Lili Marlene as she entertains some other unsuspecting soldier next to the lamp-post.

Lili Marlene as Helen of Troy!

But Lili is not capable by herself of leading the young soldier to his grave. She is a symbol of the social apparatus that has ensnared him and now leads him to his death.

"Lili Marlene," then, is a profoundly pacifist work of art, conveying its theme through a particular story (showing the universal in the particular) and through particular images.

I cannot tell you how much enjoyment I have obtained from running this song through my mind, admiring the poetic genius of its author, relating it to the Trojan War.

And here's another interesting aspect: When I researched on the Internet, I found that the version I have cherished for all these years is a little different from the standard one, which ends on a more upbeat note (" . . . When the late mists rise, I will stand by the lantern, as before, . . .") My version was given to me by a friend; I have no idea where it originated. However, it is an adaptation, not a corruption, for it pursues its own line of thought in a logical and coherent manner. In addition it is faithful to Leip's original poem, which was explicitly anti-war.

So in addition to providing an exercise in literary interpretation, "Lili Marlene" shows how a literary work can change throughout its lifetime and how it can be affected by social/political conditions. It is a liberal education in itself.

The song has made my life better, even though it hasn't gained me a nickel in economic benefits.. And that is the rationale of liberal education - to make our lives better, it its own unique way. History, literature, and other liberal-arts subjects present an unending panorama of human possibilities, and they exercise the most human faculties in the contemplation of these possibilities. They enhance human life in a way that need not and should not take a back seat to economic gains.

Advocates for liberal education have sold it short, it seems to me, by stressing the economic benefits of an education. Liberal education can and should hold its head high without any extraneous support.

Responses and Retorts

On a Submission That Cannot be Published: A certain Lakewood resident submitted a piece that sharply criticizes my column on Kevin O'Brien. Although none of the criticisms were well-supported, in my view, the piece did display a degree of logical acuity. It was worth publishing. However, the author asked that his name not be printed, and the Observer's policy, both in print and on the Web, is not to publish anything without the author's full name. So that's that.

However, there is a deeper significance. Why was the author unwilling to make his name known? Certainly not because he was embarrassed by the piece; he strongly believed in what he said. Of course I can't read the author's mind, but the only reason I can see is that he was intimidated by the thought of expressing a strongly conservative viewpoint in what he perceives as a Democratic town. At least that seems to be a fair assumption, and it brings up an interesting analogy to school prayer and other practices that celebrate the Christian God (e.g. insertion of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance").

If he - a self-confident and assertive adult -- can feel intimidated by the prospect of adverse reaction toward his writing, think how a 10-year old child who is Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist or agnostic must feel when forced to participate in a prayer or tribute to the Christian God. (And let's not kid ourselves - when "God" is mentioned in school prayers or in the Pledge of Allegiance, the clear meaning is the Christian God. After all, the purpose of school prayer is to celebrate the beliefs of the Christian majority.) When such religious celebrations are imposed, the cost of public education for the Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist or agnostic child is intimidation and humiliation that comes with participation in a religion that is alien to their own beliefs and commitments. So much for religious equality.

Aside to the author of "How I Got George Bush Elected": I admire your courage in standing up and admitting to what you've done. I'm sure you'll be able to make amends as time goes on.
Read More on Minding the Issues
Volume 2, Issue 23, Posted 3:03 PM, 10.23.06