Before the Internet, before television, it was broadcast radio that connected the world. People got news and entertainment through radio, but it was also a powerful propaganda tool. Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda saw to it that the Nazi party and government were the only to transmit their “truth” on the airwaves. Listening to foreign stations such as the BBC became a criminal offence in when the war began, while in some occupied territories, all radio listening by non-German citizens was prohibited. Penalties ranged from fines and confiscation of radios to sentencing to a concentration camp or even capital punishment. Nevertheless, people being people and channels of information other than Nazi propaganda so few, such clandestine listening was widespread in many Nazi-occupied countries and (particularly later in the war) in Germany itself.
There were moments when enemies could listen to the same programs and share something. After the capture of Belgrade in Yugoslavia in 1941, Radio Belgrade became the German forces’ radio station under the name of Soldatensender Belgrad (Soldiers’ Radio Belgrade), with transmissions heard throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. While on leave in Vienna, a lieutenant working at the station was asked to collect a pile of second-hand records from the Reich radio station. Among them was “Lili Marleen” sung by Lale Andersen, which up till then had sold around 700 copies. For lack of other recordings, Radio Belgrade played the song frequently.
“Lili Marleen” was a sentimental, romantic song with the words written in 1915 as a poem of three verses by Hans Leip, a school teacher from Hamburg who had been conscripted into the Imperial German Army. The poem was later published in 1937 as “Das Lied eines jungen Soldaten auf der Wacht” (“The Song of a Young Soldier on Watch”), with two further verses added. It was set to music by Norbert Schultze in 1938 and recorded for the first time by Lale Andersen in 1939.
The previously obscure song became a hit with German soldiers all over Europe and North Africa, and not only them, but with Allied soldiers, too. At one point Joseph Goebbels ordered broadcasting of the song to stop. Radio Belgrade received letters from Axis soldiers all over Europe asking them to play “Lili Marleen” again. Goebbels reluctantly changed his mind, and from then on the tune was used to sign-off the broadcast at 9:55 PM. A recording in English was made both by Lale Andersen and Marlene Dietrich (who had permanently left her native Germany for the US in 1939), the latter as a move by the Allies to make Allied Soldiers less prone to tune in German propaganda channels in order to listen to the song.
“Lili Marleen” became one of the signature songs of WW2, and unique because it was loved by both sides.