Axis Sally

In a small cemetery in Lockbourne, Ohio, there is an unmarked grave, the last resting place of Mildred Gillars.

Her story (well told in a book titled “Axis Sally” by Richard Lucas) is of a rootless childhood, a failed acting career in New York, and a rise to infamy as Axis Sally in Nazi Germany. She was born in Maine, but grew up in Ohio where her dysfunctional family eventually settled. Mildred attended Ohio Wesleyan University, but left for New York in her senior year to try to become an actress.

But her acting career never took off. She visited Europe several times, liked it, and stayed there as WWII began, becoming involved with a man working for Reichsradio in Berlin. She hoped they would marry, but he died in 1944 and by then it was too late for her to leave Nazi Germany. She was by then fluent in German, and was rather successful doing American-accented English language propaganda broadcasts, for what was at the time, a generous salary. For a time, she was better paid, and listened to by a wider audience, than she ever would have been in New York.

I do not think she was purely an opportunist, she was certainly not a rabid Nazi, nor was she a helpless victim trapped in a dictatorship from which she could not escape. She stayed in Germany voluntarily despite US State Department notices advising all American citizens to leave Germany. In part, I think, it was because she had nothing to come back to in the USA. So why did she become a part of Reichsradio’s propaganda machine? I believe it was just a series of decisions that step-by-step lead her in the wrong direction.

Sally’s propaganda, like all good propaganda, was usually partly true. On the air, Axis Sally advised Americans that we should help Nazi Germany defeat the encroaching Soviet Union not fight the Germans. And although the US spent the next twenty years trying to keep the Soviets out of western Europe, no one in their right mind would have chosen to make Europe a Nazi state just to keep it from becoming a Soviet state.

Axis Sally was of course not the only American ‘radio traitor’. Tokyo Rose’s story is well known. Others are profiled in a book titled “Berlin Calling.” Interestingly , none of the other American radio traitors working in Germany were ever charged with treason, or anything else. None of them appear to have been devout believers in Nazism, but rather individuals making a living mouthing statements they chose to view as innocuous. Actors who closed their eyes to the right and wrong of the statements they broadcast.

Ironically, I recall the same sort of anti-president statements being made by many people during the Vietnam war protests. Even today I am sometimes surprised (dismayed actually) by the virulence of the anti-president statements I hear ordinary people, friends and acquaintances, making.

But I remind myself that our first amendment freedom of expression is a wonderful thing – as is our freedom to choose who to listen to. Ultimately radio propaganda, like all propaganda, is intended to sway our opinion primarily with emotion. And we always have the choice of accepting or rejecting it.

After WWII ended Sally was shipped to the US and subjected to a badly flawed legal proceeding aimed at a conviction for treason. The trial was lengthy, and was held during a time when Americans had strong feeling about those who could be seen to have helped our enemies. A desire for vengeance was in the air in America – understandable, if not excusable – for American families remembering sons recently killed fighting the Nazis.

Mildred’s trial turned on two points: the definition of treason, and the first amendment right to freedom of expression. Can words alone be treason? And what are the limits, if any, to freedom of expression?

In the end, she was convicted on one count of treason for acting in the Reichsradio play Vision of Invasion. On seven other counts she was found not guilty. She was given a 30 year sentence in the women’s federal penitentiary in West Virginia.

While Sally was doing time in federal prison, the US State Department tried its own radio propaganda. Radio Free Europe broadcast music and news (our version) into the Soviet Union. But by the 1950’s radio’s propaganda power was in decline. How much good was accomplished by Radio Free Europe can never really be measured. Today, when we are inundated with pictures and words on radio, TV, and internet, the idea of effective radio propaganda seems rather quaint.

After Sally’s parole in 1961 she avoided publicity. Having become a practicing Catholic while in prison, she took a job at an Ohio convent as a teacher of German, French, and music. She lived a quiet, almost ascetic life. Those who knew her thought highly of this quiet older woman who never spoke of her past. She was a good neighbor and generous with her time as tutor to high school and college students. She died in 1988, with a total estate of only $3000, all of which was needed to pay her final medical expenses.

Mildred Gillars has disappeared from history, but her persona, Axis Sally, lives on. When a Hollywood script calls for a persuasive, traitorous, WWII era villainess, the ghost of Axis Sally is there. In her youth Mildred Gillars wanted to be an actor, and in a certain sense she succeeded.

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