The words were written in 1915 during World War I by Hans Leip (1893-1983), a school teacher from Hamburg who had been conscripted into the Imperial German Army. Leip reportedly combined the names of his girlfriend and another female friend. The poem was later published as "Das Lied eines jungen Soldaten auf der Wacht" ("The Song of a Young Soldier on Watch") in 1937 now with the two last (of five) verses added. It was set to music by Norbert Schultze in 1938. Tommie Connor later wrote English lyrics.
The poem was originally titled "Das Mädchen unter der Laterne" (German for "the girl under the lantern"), but it became famous as "Lili Marleen".
It was recorded by Lale Andersen in 1939.
After the occupation of Belgrade in 1941, Radio Belgrade became the German forces' radio station under the name of Soldatensender Belgrad (Soldiers Radio Belgrad). It could be received throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. A lieutenant working at the station who was taking leave in Vienna was asked to collect some records to broadcast. Amongst a pile he obtained from a second hand shop was the little known 2 year old song Lili Marleen sung by Lale Andersen, which up to then had sold only around 700 copies. For lack of other recordings, Radio Belgrade played the song quite frequently.
The Nazi government with Joseph Goebbels, the Nazis' propaganda minister then ordered it to stop broadcasting the song. Radio Belgrade received many letters from Axis soldiers all over Europe asking them to play Lili Marleen again. Goebbels then reluctantly changed his mind and the tune was from then on signing off the broadcast at 9:55 PM. Its popularity quickly grew. Soldiers stationed around the Mediterranean, including both German Afrika Korps and British Eighth Army troops, regularly tuned in to hear it. Even Erwin Rommel, the commander of the Afrika Korps admired the song. He asked Radio Belgrade to incorporate the song into their broadcasts, which they did. Allied soldiers in Italy later adapted the tune to their own lyrics, creating the D-Day Dodgers song.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s "Lili Marleen" was recorded in English as well as German by Marlene Dietrich.
Another very melodic version was recorded in the 1960s by country music legend Hank Snow.
A recording was made by Perry Como on June 27, 1944 and issued by RCA Victor Records as a 78rpm record (catalog number 20-1592-A) with the flip side "First Class Private Mary Brown". This recording was later reissued as catalog number 20-2824-A with flip side "I Love You Truly." The song reached chart position #13 on the United States charts. The song was recorded during the musicians' strike and consequently has a backing chorus instead of an orchestral backup.
French singer and disco queen Amanda Lear recorded a German/English language version of the song for her 1978 album Never Trust A Pretty Face, making it a repertoire standard. She re-recorded the track for album "Cadavrexquis" in 1993 and most recently for 2001's "Heart" with updated German language lyrics by original composer Norbert Schultze, this version was released shortly before his death. Another French singer, Patricia Kaas used Lili Marlene as an intro for her song D'Allemagne and sang the entire song during concerts in the 1990s.
Carly Simon recorded the song as the third track on her 1997 Arista CD Film Noir.