Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Marlene Dietrich At The Front

War Songs

I am pleased to welcome a new contributor, Rosa Sala Rose, from Barcelona, Spain. In her first essay, she writes about the famous song, Lili Marlene, a song that carries with it, not only history but symbolism. Rosa Sala Rose writes: "The mere presence of Dietrich in the theater of war, singing for the Allied side, had incalculable propaganda potential. This context also explains the huge symbolic value Lili Marlene attained on her lips: she was German, but also American. Just like the song, she’d made the leap to the other side of the frontline."

by Rosa Sala Rose

Marlene Dietrich with two American soldiers in Paris (June 1945) 
Photo Credit: Library and Archives Canada-PA-132406, ID Nr. 3192337 

You all know the Lili-Marlene-song, that beautiful German tune that, despite being composed and sung by the enemy, ended up taken over by the Allied troops: A quite uncommon event in times of war! What made this possible was also something German that switched the sides: Marlene Dietrich. Her presence at the European battle fields with Lili Marlene on her lips was one of the biggest propaganda weapons America could count on and her reckless optimism when entertaining the GIs was indeed truly American.

According to her autobiography, the general of the United Services Organization—an organization in charge of the entertaining of American troops—to which she offered her services in 1943, said to her:
Good will alone is not enough. If you lose your nerve, if you break down, then this good will only harms me. But if you can swing it—then bravo. It’ll do the soldiers good to know that you’re at the front. They’ll tell themselves the situation can’t be so bad if Marlene Dietrich’s there. If we were all going to be mowed down here, the old man certainly wouldn’t expose her to such danger.
False reasoning, he added. But you must reduce the tension; they need that.
Marlene Dietrich, of course, did not get on with the Nazis, who, after trying to persuade her to return to Germany, completely ignored her as soon as she got American citizenship in 1939. Yet in all probability it wasn’t just antifascist idealism that made her risk her neck in the bombings or to put up with the masculine world of the soldier: the few opportunities remaining to her to further her career in Hollywood after the failure of her most recent films must also have carried weight. Even so, the courage she displayed by performing at the frontline with the attendant risk of being taken prisoner by the Nazis—who would have accorded her the treatment befitting a “traitor”—remains beyond doubt. The American GIs were aware of this and admired her. “We thought she showed a lot of courage performing this close to the fighting,” a military doctor recalls. “Because she was a German, I imagined that if she was captured by the Nazis, she would be treated badly”, recalls combat medical aidman Allen N. Tone.

In her autobiography Marlene Dietrich dramatically remembered the difficulties she had to face:
The war in Europe was marked by endless rain. Mud was everywhere, moisture was everywhere, and crept into our clothing—and then there were the rats.
Rats have icy paws. You’re lying on the bare floor in your sleeping bag, the blanket pulled up to your chin, and these creatures run over your face, their paws as cold as death; they give you the jitters.
Then the bombs—are they V-1s or V-2s—also scare the pants off you, and you don’t know which way to turn.

The rats in Aachen gave us no peace. They came every night. I sprayed a kind of wall of de-lousing powder around me—in vain. This way, at least, I got rid of the crabs.
 Since I read these lines, every time I see a rat I shiver and think of its “icy paws”...

Marlene Dietrich at a United States hospital in Belgium (Nov. 1944).
Photo Credit: NARA-ARC Identifier: 531330 
Her daughter, Maria Riva, qualifies this tale somewhat in the book she would devote to her mother’s complex personality:
To hear Dietrich describe her tour of duty, one would believe that she was actually in the army, overseas for at least the full four years under constant fire, in imminent danger of death, or worse, capture by vengeful Nazis. Anyone listening to her became convinced of this, for she had convinced herself that this was so. Actually, on and off, she worked from April 1944 to July 1945, in between returning to New York City, Hollywood, and, later on, remaining either in Paris or at the headquarters of her favorite general in Berlin. Dietrich’s laudable civilian contribution to the war effort is not to be downgraded by this, only put into its proper perspective. She was fearless, heroic, and dedicated. But so were many civilian women and many entertainers who were not given the Legion of Honor in three escalated grades or the Medal of Freedom. It was just that Dietrich was so much better at playing the valiant soldier and had the fame and beauty to be noticed doing so.
The mere presence of Dietrich in the theater of war, singing for the Allied side, had incalculable propaganda potential. This context also explains the huge symbolic value Lili Marlene attained on her lips: she was German, but also American. Just like the song, she’d made the leap to the other side of the frontline. And, of course, she bewitched the soldiers, as Robert Peters, who had the opportunity of hearing her in Paris in 1944, recalled:
‘Lili Marlene’ produced pandemonium. She stopped, bowed, and raised a white gloved arm to quiet the audience. Dietrich was Lili. I locked the stream of her sound in my ear and cried. By evoking such immense love and beauty, performing in a city that was itself a monument to the human spirit (both Allies and Nazis vowed not to bomb it), with most of Europe in ruins, Dietrich asserted all that remained constant and fine. Thanks to her, Lili Marlene was not a Nazi song anymore, but a symbol of humanity. An immortal song about love, death and the endless tragedy of every war.

Rosa Sala Rose (Barcelona, 1969) is a graduate of German Philology and has a PhD in Romanic Philology. After devoting herself to literary translation and to the editing of German classic literature (especially Goethe and Thomas Mann), she currently works in Barcelona as an essayist and independent researcher. Her speciality is Nazism, considered from the perspective of the history of mentalities. She has written several successful books in Spanish about this subject. Her historical essay Lili Marlene. The Biography of a Song has been translated into English by Paul Hammond. She also runs the blog Looking at German History in a Different Way.

Copyright ©2013. Rosa Sala Rose. All Rights Reserved. More information on her book about the Lili-Marlene-song can be found at her personal page. It is republished here with the author's permission.