Written in 1915 during World War I, the poem was published under the title “Das Lied eines jungen Soldaten auf der Wacht” (German for “The Song of a Young Soldier on Watch”) in 1937, and was first recorded by Lale Andersen in 1939 under the title “Das Mädchen unter der Laterne” (“The Girl under the Lantern”).
Following the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia, from 1941 Radio Belgrade became Soldatensender Belgrad to entertain German armed forces; the song was played frequently and became popular throughout Europe and the Mediterranean among both Axis and Allied troops.
- While she was in London, officials of the Nazi Party approached Dietrich and offered her lucrative contracts, should she agree to return to Germany as a foremost film star in the Third Reich. She refused their offers and applied for US citizenship in 1937.
- In 1944, the Morale Operations Branch of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) initiated the Musac Project, musical propaganda broadcasts designed to demoralize enemy soldiers. Marlene Dietrich, the only performer who was made aware that her recordings would be for OSS use, recorded a number of songs in German for the project, including Lili Marleen.
- German Hollywood actress, and staunch anti-Nazi Marlene Dietrich became synonymous with the song, performing it for US infantrymen ‘for three long years in North Africa, Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, and in England’, as she later recalled.
- In December 1941, the U.S. entered World War II, and Dietrich became one of the first celebrities to raise war bonds. She toured the US from January 1942 to September 1943 (appearing before 250,000 troops on the Pacific Coast leg of her tour alone) and it is said that she sold more war bonds than any other star.
- Dietrich, who was bisexual, enjoyed the thriving gay scene of the time and drag balls of 1920s Berlin. She also defied conventional gender roles through her boxing at Turkish trainer and prizefighter Sabri Mahir’s boxing studio in Berlin, which opened to women in the late 1920s.
- Her last great passion, when she was in her 50s, appears to have been for the actor Yul Brynner, with whom she had an affair that lasted more than a decade; still, her love life continued well into her 70s. She counted John Wayne, George Bernard Shaw and John F. Kennedy among her conquests.