This love song was first recorded in 1938, but its lyrics were written much earlier, in 1915, by Hans Leip, a young German soldier. His poem was originally entitled "Das Lied eines jungen Soldaten auf der Wacht" ("The Song of a Young Soldier on Watch") in which he recorded the pain felt by a soldier on being separated from his loved one.
Leip combined two girls' names for the female that he addresses. Lili was the young soldier's own girlfriend, the daughter of a local grocer. Marlene was a young nurse, who was a friend of his and also a comrade's sweetheart.
When Leip's work appeared in a collection of poems in 1937, composer Norbert Shultze set about turning it into a song. It was recorded by popular German singer Lale Andersen in 1939, but initially made very little impact. During the occupation of Yugoslavia, Radio Belgrade incorporated the tune into its broadcasts, for lack of other recordings and it became popular despite the opposition of Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda secretary of the Nazi party, who ordered broadcasting of the ballad to stop.
Radio Belgrade helped to spread its popularity among the soldiers of Allied armies too, who were listening in. A hurried English version was broadcast by the BBC for the Allied troops and eventually, both sides began broadcasting the song in both languages, interspersed with propaganda nuggets, intended to distract the enemy soldiers.
The German Hollywood actress and staunch anti-Nazi Marlene Dietrich recorded a version in her native language in 1944 that was designed to demoralize enemy soldiers. She became synonymous with the tune, performing it for American soldiers many times over the following years.
Despite the song's popularity with the German soldiers, Andersen was persecuted by the Nazi regime because of her relationship to a Jew, Ralf Liberman. She was not allowed to perform publicly for nine months, but was so popular, that the Nazi government eventually relented, though they still forbade her from singing "Lili Marleen." After the war ended in 1945, Andersen continued her career and had a number of other hits. She became rich from this song's royalties.
American singer Connie Francis released a version in 1962 as a single, which peaked at #9 in the German charts. Francis also recorded the song in Italian and French.
The song is also known as "Lili Marlene", "Lily Marlene" or "Lili Marlène."