WHAT MARLENE DIETRICH CAN TELL US TODAY
Marlene Dietrich once famously said, “The Germans and I no longer speak the same language.” She spoke these words upon the end of World War II, after she had performed over two hundred times for Allied troops on battlegrounds throughout Europe. Her words were poignant and heartfelt. And she meant them. Ironically, her sentiment speaks to us today.
Marlene witnessed first-hand what fascism, in particular Nazism, wrought upon the world. In 1930, when she first became an international sensation with her film The Blue Angel, Hitler’s Nazi party gained a stunning victory in the Reichstag, obtaining 107 seats and becoming the second largest political party in Germany. She left for Hollywood under contract to Paramount Pictures shortly thereafter; by the time she became a U.S. citizen in 1939, Hitler had seized power as the Führer through a series of violent coups, the Nazis had suspended civil liberties and eliminated political opposition, and the last Jewish businesses in Germany were shut down. On Sept. 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, initiating World War II.
A rebel herself, defying her upper middle-class background to become a cabaret chanteuse and actress, Marlene strongly opposed Nazism from the start. She had worked with many of Germany’s most talented directors and actors. Now, as she watched in horror from the safety of America, that talent fled in droves from her homeland. Three actors and several members of the crew who worked with her on The Blue Angel were interred in Dachau, where they perished.
She did whatever she could to assist refugees who reached Hollywood, but she had family still in Berlin, and her own daughter and husband to support. Under the studio system, movie stars weren’t allowed to speak out. Anything a star said or did to mar their carefully constructed image or box office appeal could destroy their career. Nevertheless, Marlene refused enticements to return to Germany. She recorded songs by Jewish composers. She made it clear how much she detested Hitler. But it wasn’t until the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 that she took her public stand. She filed for a USO permit to entertain Allied troops.
During her North African tour in 1943, she introduced one of her most famous songs, “Lili Marlene,” a German marching song which Goebbels had banned and the British Eighth Army adopted as their own; Marlene later wrote new lyrics for it. She tended to wounded soldiers in base hospitals, served meals in mess halls, participated in wireless broadcasts against Germany, and again refused a lucrative offer to return make a film in Germany, though she was promised a reversal of the rabid Nazi boycott campaign against her. In retaliation, Goebbels declared her an enemy of the Third Reich and set a bounty on her head.
In February, 1945, after a near-fatal bout of pneumonia, frostbite, a jaw infection, innumerable lice infestations and every other discomfort known to a common soldier, Dietrich entered Germany with the Allied troops and saw first-hand what Hitler had done. She toured the recently liberated concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, where it was later discovered Anne Frank had died.
Why is this relevant? Because in today’s America, we could be facing a similar scenario. We have a president elect whose campaign platform is steeped in hatred-fueled rhetoric. He has taken a vice president known for ultra-conservative values, and appointed a journalist as his counselor who is infamous for anti-Semitic, homophobic, misogynistic and racist diatribes — and all of it uncontested thus far by his national party, who are acting much as other political parties in 1930s Germany did, thinking Hitler was an unpleasant, transient phase to endure. Many Germans thought the same. By the time they realized their error, it was too late.
For her work during the war, Marlene received the French medal Légion d’Honneur and the U.S. Medal of Freedom, the highest award for a civilian from the Defense Department. But these honors, as affirming as they were, didn’t mean anything to her in that moment of standing up and being counted. Marlene recognized the threat from the start. It is startling to contemplate that a 1930s movie star whom I’ve fictionalized in a novel, researching her era and contributions for over three years, was more prescient than many of us are today. She saw what was coming and she tried at first to keep quiet to protect her family, leveling her middle finger directly at Hitler. But when the chips came down, she strode onto the battlefield in a bugle-beaded gown and sang her heart out for the Allies. What Marlene found in Germany after the war devastated her. For life. She later said, “Words can bruise and break hearts, and minds as well. There are no black and blue marks, no broken bones to put in plaster casts, and therefore no prison bars for the offender.”
Of course, the Nazis did more than fling words, but that’s how they started. Words are always how it starts.
Marlene has something to teach us today. To tell us. We only need to listen.
C.W. Gortner is an internationally bestselling author. His novel MARLENE is out in paperback on December 13. Visit him at cwgortner.com