This week is the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, and a lot of noteworthy things happened during the fall of the Third Reich. One of them is not nearly as well-known as the others, but still fascinating in its own right. On May 6, 1945, a woman with an American accent made a broadcast on a crackly, static-choked feed from Berlin, which had just fallen to Soviet troops. The broadcast was pro-Nazi, but it hardly mattered anymore; Hitler was dead, many other Germans had committed suicide and the Nazi regime was on the verge of surrendering unconditionally to the Allied powers, which they did two days later. The woman, quite familiar to many American radio listeners, was known as “Axis Sally.” The May 6 broadcast was her last. When it was over she vanished fading into the chaotic backdrop of Berlin that was now a pile of rubble under Soviet occupation, still full of the dead and the dying remnants of Hitler’s regime.
“Axis Sally’s” true name was Mildred Elizabeth Gillars, and she had a fascinating life story. She was born in New England, studied at Ohio’s Wesleyan University in the late 1910s and early 1920s, and wanted to be an actress or musician. She studied piano and tried to get a career going in vaudeville, eventually moving to New York City. During the late 1920s and 1930s she drifted between the U.S. and Europe. She came to Berlin in 1934 and eventually fell in love with a naturalized German citizen, Paul Karlson. She doesn’t seem to have been a fanatical Nazi. Her purpose in coming to Berlin was to study music and look for a job, not to shill for Adolf Hitler.
Here is one of Mildred Gillars’s broadcasts, from May 1943. NSFW: contains anti-Semitic statements.
In September 1939, when Germany went to war with Great Britain, the Nazi propaganda office run by Joseph Goebbels immediately embarked on a program of beaming wartime propaganda in English to places it could be heard by British, Australian and Canadian citizens. The Reichs-Rundsfunk-Gesellschaft (RRG), or German national radio service, started to recruit English-speaking Nazi sympathizers to go on the air. One of the first was William Joyce, known as “Lord Haw Haw.” Although she was not hired to do propaganda, Mildred Gillars was hired as an announcer by RRG in 1940. At her place of work she met the mysterious Max Koischwitz, who was born in Germany but had lived extensively in the U.S., and in fact once taught at Columbia University. Koischwitz was involved in propaganda, which in the latter part of 1940 began targeting Americans. German propaganda sought to discourage the U.S. from aiding Britain in the war, and much of it, as could be expected, was virulently anti-Semitic. Angry tirades against Franklin Roosevelt were staples of RRG’s overseas propaganda programs, many read by Koischwitz himself.
In 1941 as war appeared imminent the U.S. State Department warned Americans to leave Germany. Gillars, still engaged to Karlson, refused; she claimed that he said he wouldn’t marry her if she returned to America. This wound up being a moot point, for Karlson was soon killed on the Eastern Front. She claims she had second thoughts about staying, and broke down crying after Japan attacked the U.S. on December 7, 1941. But, with no way to get back to the U.S. which was now an enemy of Germany, she signed a loyalty oath to Adolf Hitler and went back to work for the Nazis. But Gillars’s version of the story may be self-serving. Perhaps she wanted to stay: it is clear that at least by some time in 1942 she and Max Koischwitz were lovers, and he put her on the air to spin records and spew propaganda.
Here is another recording of Gillars. Unfortunately the audio is less clear.
Gillars went by several nicknames, some her own idea, others not. She often signed on as “Midge at the Mike,” playing records of swing music to make American GI’s homesick, then delivering diatribes warning them that their wives and girlfriends back home were cheating on them, and somehow it was all the fault of FDR and the Jews. Koischwitz wrote her copy. As American troops began streaming into Europe in advance of D-Day they often tuned in to “Midge’s” broadcast and gave her nicknames of their own. “Axis Sally” was at least one of the G-rated ones. In fact Axis Sally was a big hit among American troops, many of whom howled with laughter at the obvious clangers she delivered on-air. Others were annoyed and furious that an American woman (at least they presumed she was American) had sold out to Hitler.
Gillars and Koischwitz aimed their broadcasts not just at American troops, but at the home front as well. After June 1944 when large numbers of Americans were being killed or captured on the European continent, Gillars would interview P.O.W.s, then Koischwitz would edit the tapes to make it sound like they were sympathetic to the Germans. The heyday did not last long, however. In August 1944 Max Koischwitz died in Berlin of heart failure. Gillars wasn’t nearly as good as coming up with the copy, and the death of her lover seems to have sapped her energy. She limped through the rest of her broadcasts until the bitter end, finally signing off on May 6, 1945.
With the war over, the U.S. Justice Department desperately wanted to get their hands on Axis Sally–they did not know her real name–and prosecute her for treason. But she’d vanished into the rubble of Berlin and kept a low profile. One of the GI’s she’d interviewed, however, told the prosecutors that he thought he remembered a pseudonym she used, Barbara Mome. As it turned out, a woman with that name was selling secondhand furniture at shops around Berlin to try to make ends meet. A furniture seller, interrogated by U.S. occupation troops, gave up “Barbara Mome’s” address. On March 16, 1946, they caught up with her, arresting her as she returned to her home in the British occupation sector. Gillars spent more than two years in a prison camp in Frankfurt before being sent back to the U.S. for trial in 1948.
Here is actual footage of Mildred Gillars arriving in Washington, D.C., in military custody, to stand trial for treason.
In early 1949, Mildred Gillars went on trial on eight counts of treason. Her defense alleged, in part, that she’d acted under the hypnotic influence of Max Koischwitz, who was portrayed as a Svengali-like figure. The jury didn’t buy it, but interestingly they only convicted her of one of the eight counts of treason. Axis Sally went to the big house for 10 to 30 years. She ended up serving 12, and was paroled in June 1961, by which time she had become a Catholic. In fact she eventually became a nun. She died in Columbus, Ohio in June 1988 at the age of 87.
Who was the real Mildred Gillars? Was she a dedicated Nazi who served the Führer out of genuine conviction? Was she a zombie-like drone radio-controlled by her boyfriend, Max Koischwitz? Or was she just a frustrated starlet who, after a lifetime of drifting, wound up taking a part that just happened to involve shilling the swastika? As she left very little evidence behind as to her true motivation, we will probably never know. But certainly she is one of the more interesting women of World War II.