Today marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Mildred Gillars, better known as Axis Sally – an ohio-born actress turned radio broadcaster hired by Nazi Germany to spread propaganda during World War II.
Convicted of treason by the US government in 1949, Axis Sally spent 12 years in prison before being released on June 10, 1961. She spent the rest of her days teaching French, German and Music until her death in 1988.
To learn more about the infamous life and legacy of Mildred Gillars, we asked a few questions to Richard Lucas, author of Axis Sally: The American Voice of Nazi Germany.
What is it that piqued your interest in writing about Mildred Gillars, aka “Axis Sally”? How did you arrive at a desire to write her life story?
I first heard Axis Sally’s voice on a website devoted to old time radio and propaganda broadcasting. I have listened to shortwave radio since I was nine years old. My father brought home a Hallicrafters set in 1971 and I became very knowledgeable about the different styles of radio propaganda in the Cold War and loved to hear the differences between, for instance, the Soviet style and the Chinese style, etc..
While I had heard of Axis Sally before, I had not heard her voice until the internet made sound files available. I noticed two things: 1) the American woman behind the microphone was clearly trained as an announcer or as an actress – her elocution was precise and with the affectations of a 1930’s American film actress; and 2) there were two different voices broadcasting as Axis Sally. I found that one woman who broadcast out of Berlin was Mildred Gillars, an aspiring Broadway actress from Ohio, who went by the on-air name ‘Midge’ and the second was an Italian-American secretary from New York named Rita Zucca who went by the name of Sally. I knew that there were several ‘Tokyo Roses’ besides Iva Toguri D’Aquino (the woman ultimately tried and convicted of treason), but I did not know that there were two Axis Sallies. I looked further and discovered that there were no non-fiction biographies of either of these women. I felt that I could really make a contribution to World War II literature by writing the first fact-based account of Mildred Gillars’ fantastic life story. It was a fascinating and surprising journey that lasted five years.
Please describe for us what you believe motivated Mildred Gillars during the various stages of her life. Today it appears some people will do anything for fame. Given that she found hers primarily by becoming the veritable mouthpiece for Hitler’s Third Reich, do you believe this American woman was motivated purely by the pursuit of fame, or did she have a parallel ideological motive?
As a young woman, Mildred Gillars was motivated by the desire to not only become famous, but to be a serious actress who could perform Shakespeare and Ibsen. When the Depression came, she was thirty years old, unmarried and without work. She followed a man to Algiers, but the relationship ended. Then, in 1934, she went to Berlin where she worked at a string of jobs on the periphery of show business.
Mildred lived in Berlin for six years before her employment at the Reich Radio Corporation. She had been thoroughly imbued with National Socialist ideology and propaganda and believed that the United States would remain isolationist. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, she was shocked and frightened by the development. According to her, she went to her then-fiancée who would be killed on the Eastern Front and typed out an oath of allegiance in German so that she could return to work.
When she became involved with the former Hunter College professor Max Otto Koischwitz, her life and career changed. He made her the star of several radio shows. He took her to the Hotel Adlon where she met Nazi leaders. She became his mistress and his creation – Axis Sally.
By the time Koischwitz died in 1944, Mildred Gillars believed in National Socialist racial policies as well as the propaganda she read on air. One example of this mindset occurs when she was briefly let out of jail in 1946 for Christmas by the Occupation authorities. Reporters asked her about the increased tension between Americans and the Soviets, and she replied (and I am paraphrasing) that it shows that Hitler’s policies were correct. That mindset stayed with her and didn’t really change until her religious conversion to Catholicism in the late 1950s.
Do you know if Ms. Gillars has surviving relatives, and if so, do you expect that her legacy will someday be expanded by new insights? Or do you believe she is someone her family (possibly also the American public) would just prefer to “sweep under the rug”?
Ms. Gillars does have a surviving nephew who did not wish to answer questions during the writing of the book. After the book was published, I met several friends of hers who told me wonderful stories about her last days. One of these stories came from a couple I met in Columbus, Ohio who were close friends with Gillars before her death. They mentioned that she had a blue cup that she kept from her days in Berlin, and that when they came over to visit, she would serve coffee to them in that cup. The cup came into her possession during an evening when she met one of the most powerful men in the Nazi leadership. I also know that many of her mementos and photographs from that period were burned after her death at Mildred’s request.
I think this story is important not to “sweep under the rug.” Today, we have many people driven by fame or notoriety who will do anything to achieve that goal. I think it is a cautionary tale about how one’s life can be forever marred by amoral decisions.
Many of the responses (even today) to who Mildred was and what she did are brutal. An example of the comments are: “Axis Sally lived a disillusioned life, convincing oneself of an extravagant worth. Instead of landing fame, she found infamy and proceeded to end her life with a well-deserved mundane backdrop.” After delving into her true identity, how do you feel about this woman? What are your opinions on who she was and who she chose to be?
In writing the book I tried to understand how Mildred Gillars, an American woman from an upper-middle class background, could wind up in league with a genocidal regime. I was even more interested in how a woman convicted of betraying her country could live among her fellow Americans after prison. I believe that the reasons for her actions are a mixture of financial necessity, hubris, ignorance and ideology. I feel that, at several junctures, her decisions to remain in Germany were based on the men she was involved with and believed she would marry. She never thought her lover Koischwitz would die. If he did, she would have been a German citizen by marriage and not subject to prosecution in the U.S.
In memory of Axis Sally on the 25th anniversary of her death, are there any lessons that our current population can learn from her example?
Loyalty and allegiance to one’s country means something. Despite the popular talk about a “flat” world where national boundaries supposedly don’t mean much, the freedoms we enjoy were bought with the blood of those who came before us. I will be interested to see if the Justice Department attempts to get a treason indictment against Edward Snowdon. Just like the World War II radio traitors, Snowdon seems to believe that he knows what is best for the nation rather than the constitutionally elected leaders of this nation. Douglas Chandler, Robert H. Best, and Mildred Gillars all came to that same conclusion and paid dearly for it.
One last question: which is a source of constant debate here at Casemate Publishers. Who do you think would be best to play her in the movie?
I have my own list that includes….
Charlize Theron, Naomi Watts, Catherine Keener, Robin Wright and Jessica Chastain