AXIS SALLY: THE AMERICAN VOICE OF NAZI GERMANY
By Richard Lucas
Casemate, $29.95, 288 pages
Arguably one of the more odious civilian figures to emerge from World War II was an American woman who broadcast radio propaganda aimed at U.S. troops. Her on-air name was “Midge,” and in a chatty, folksy fashion she tried to portray herself as “the average American woman speaking to other American women, girl to girl.” But GIs despised her as “Axis Sally” - as well as other names that wont be printed in this newspaper.
In reality, “Midge” was a failed actress named Mildred Gillars, whose early life was marked by turmoil. Her father was a wife-beating drunk, her stepfather an itinerant “painless dentist” who died a bankrupt alcoholic. At Ohio Wesleyan University, she fluttered into the orbit of a charismatic drama teacher who convinced her to pursue a stage career.
Bad advice. Gillars failed to find any Broadway roles. She did manage to hook up with a stock company that played one-night stands hither-and-yon. (Her “romantic” life also seemed to be a series of one-night stands.) As Richard Lucas writes, “the seeds of anti-Semitism and resentment towards the upper class might well have been planted in those bitter, hungry days in New York.” In a later Nazi radio rant, she told listeners that “in a weathered shanty you will never find a Jew. No, sir, the Jews are all in the marble palaces along Park Avenue and Fifth Avenue.”
She tried to start anew in Europe, first in Paris, then in Berlin. She broke into the fringes of the artistic world by befriending a Berlin correspondent for the New York Times, through whom she got assignments to cover the German film industry for Variety, the show-business periodical. Her gushing commentary on pro-Nazi films caught the attention of the German propaganda machine.
A Foreign Office memo spoke of the need for “speakers who have a command of English with an American accent.” German commentators had an accent “to which American listeners are especially sensitive.” Further, commentators “with Oxford accents … are not appropriate for American broadcasts.”
Gillars was the solution. She began as shift announcer two nights a week, then blossomed into the star of German overseas radio. In 4 1/2 years, she “would clock over 10,000 hours of broadcasting to become the highest-paid radio personality on the Overseas Service.” In return, she signed an “oath of allegiance” to the German Reich. Her later claim that refusal meant prison seems thin.
For the first time, Gillars enjoyed the celebrity she had fruitlessly sought in America. She fell in love with her mentor, a Silesian-born academic, Max Otto Koischwitz, who had taught at three New York colleges during the 1930s, then returned to Berlin and joined the Foreign Office, responsible for broadcasts to America.
Gillars knew that Koischwitz was married and had three children (a fourth was born during their affair), but no matter. He made her the “mistress of ceremonies” of such shows as “Home Sweet Home,” with a soundtrack featuring jazz and a lonesome train whistle, intended to arouse homesickness among American GIs.
Axis Sally’s propaganda had several broad themes. A constant was that America entered the war because of “Roosevelt and his Jewish cohorts.” Further, the “Jew-controlled media” ignored “the great role which Germany is playing in the future of the Western Continent,” in opposing the spread of Soviet communism. She lamented the suffering of men who will find “that there is no job for cripples” after the war.
At war’s end, Gillars was seized by the Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) and tried in Washington on charges of “giving aid and comfort to the enemy.” Among other defenses, her attorney asserted that her broadcasts naming captured Americans, and their home addresses, comforted anxious families. In fact, they displayed cynical cruelty.
For instance, a segment devoted to a California sergeant was directed at his sister. She said, “Miss ___, your brother got his left leg crushed below the knee and the right leg broken below the knee. Well, that’s pretty bad. Let’s hope he won’t have to lose it, but I suppose it’s quite possible.” (A prosecutor rebutted that this broadcast, and others, were “sadistic.”)
Her sentence: 10 to 30 years in prison. (The two most notorious British radio collaborators, William Joyce, aka “Lord Haw Haw,” and John Avery, died on the gallows.) She converted to Catholicism while imprisoned and spent her last years teaching in Ohio.
What created the monster named Axis Sally? Mr. Lucas makes much of the deprivations suffered by a failed actress, and her frantic quest for fame. But even after her arrest, she insisted to CIC interrogators that for her “the war was against England and the International Jewry.” She said, “I just couldn’t get the Jews out of my mind. …” Mr. Lucas concludes, “She accepted the Nazi worldview, believed her own propaganda, and paid a heavy price for that delusion.”
Joseph C. Goulden has completed an update of his “Dictionary of Espionage,” to be published by Dover Books in the fall.