Mildred Elizabeth Gillars (November 29, 1900 – June 25, 1988), nicknamed “Axis Sally” along with Rita Zucca, was an American broadcaster employed by the Third Reich in Nazi Germany to proliferate propaganda during World War II. She was convicted of treason by the United States in 1949 following her capture in post-war Berlin.
During World War II, the Allies and the Axis powers made heavy use of radio for propaganda purposes. Most of this spin was aimed at their own populations, but some was tailor made for consumption by enemy soldiers and civilians. Both sides recruited native speakers to broadcast radio messages to the opposition in the hopes of spreading disinformation and sowing discontent. These mysterious radio personalities became minor celebrities during the war, and some were even arrested and branded as traitors when the fighting ended. Find out more about six World War II broadcasters who used the radio waves as a weapon.
Several American Nazi sympathizers worked as broadcasters for German state radio, but perhaps none was as famous as Mildred Gillars. Born in Maine, Gillars was a former Broadway showgirl who moved to Berlin in 1934. She remained in Germany after the war broke out, and eventually became one of the Third Reich’s most prominent radio personalities with “Home Sweet Home,” a propaganda show directed at American troops. Gillars broadcasted under the radio handle “Midge,” but American GIs soon gave her a more infamous nickname: “Axis Sally.”
Gillars’ Axis Sally spoke in a friendly, conversational tone, but her goal was to unsettle her listeners. One of her favorite tactics was to mention the soldiers’ wives and girlfriends and then muse about whether the women would remain faithful, “especially if you boys get all mutilated and do not return in one piece.” Prior to the Allied invasion of France, she also starred in a radio play, called “Vision of Invasion,” as an American mother whose son needlessly drowns during the attack. Like a lot of propaganda, Gillars’ radio shows rarely had their desired effect—many GI’s only listened because they found them funny—but she was still considered a traitor by the U.S. government. When the war ended, the voice of Axis Sally was arrested and eventually spent 12 years behind bars.
American Mildred Elizabeth Gillars had moved to Germany in the 1930s and found a job at Radio Berlin in 1940. During World War II, she broadcast pro-Nazi propaganda designed to sow dissent in America and to demoralize Allied troops, earning the nickname “Axis Sally.”
She was arrested in 1948 and taken back to the U.S. to face treason charges. While on trial, she claimed that she had only agreed to do the broadcasts out of love for her husband, German foreign service officer Max Otto Koischwitz.
She blamed the U.S. Embassy in Berlin for taking away her passport in 1941, which she said forced her into a position where she had to sign a German oath of allegiance. She also apparently tried to gain sympathy by painting a picture of herself as a woman who struggled through life in the United States.
Gillars’ trial was of great interest to the American public. The New York Times described her life and love affair with Koischwitz as having “soap-opera quality.” Gillars herself was described during her trial as “a theatrical figure in tight-fitting black dresses, long silver hair and a deep tan. She had scarlet lips and nails.”
Gillars was found guilty of treason and sentenced to 10 to 30 years in prison. Upon hearing the verdict, she remarked, “I wish those who judge me would be willing to risk their lives for America as I did.”
The US attorney general dispatched prosecutor Victor C. Woerheide to Berlin to find and arrest Gillars. He and Counterintelligence Corps special agent Hans Wintzen only had one solid lead:
Raymond Kurtz, a B-17 pilot shot down by the Germans, recalled that a woman who had visited his prison camp seeking interviews was the broadcaster who called herself “Midge at the Mike”According to Kurtz, the woman had used the alias Barbara Mome. Woerheide organised wanted posters with Gillars’s picture to put up in Berlin, but the breakthrough came when he was informed that a woman calling herself “Barbara Mome” was selling her furniture at second-hand markets around town.A shop owner who was found selling a table belonging to Gillars was detained, and under “intensive interrogation” revealed Gillars’ address.When she was arrested on March 15, 1946, Gillars only asked to take with her a picture of Koischwitz.
She was then held by the Counterintelligence Corps at Camp King, Oberursel, along with collaborators Herbert John Burgman and Donald S. Day, until she was conditionally released from custody on December 24, 1946. However, she declined to leave military detention.She was formally re-arrested on January 22, 1947 at the request of the Justice Department and was eventually flown to the United States to await trial on August 21, 1948.
Gillars was indicted on September 10, 1948, and charged with ten counts of treason, but only eight were proceeded with at her trial, which began on January 25, 1949. The prosecution relied on the large number of her programs recorded by the Federal Communications Commission, stationed in Silver Hill, Maryland, to show her active participation in propaganda activities against the United States. It was also shown that she had taken an oath of allegiance to Hitler.The defense argued that her broadcasts stated unpopular opinions but did not amount to treasonable conduct. It was also argued that she was under the hypnotic influence of Koischwitz and therefore not fully responsible for her actions until after his death. On March 10, 1949, the jury convicted Gillars on just one count of treason, that of making the Vision Of Invasion broadcast. She was sentenced to 10 to 30 years in prison.and a $10,000 fine. In 1950, a federal appeals court upheld the sentence.
Gillars served her sentence at the Federal Reformatory for Women in Alderson, West Virginia. She became eligible for parole in 1959, but did not apply until 1961.She was released on June 10, 1961.
Having converted to Roman Catholicism while in prison, Gillars went to live at the Our Lady of Bethlehem Convent in Columbus, Ohio, and taught German, French, and music at St. Joseph Academy, Columbus.
In 1973 she returned to Ohio Wesleyan University to complete her degree.
Gillars died of colon cancer at Grant Medical Center in Columbus on June 25, 1988