On her birthday it is time to look back at Marlene Dietrich’s WWII efforts.
Marie Magdalene “Marlene” Dietrich ( 27 December 1901 – 6 May 1992)was a German actress and singer who held both German and American citizenship. Throughout her unusually long career, which spanned from the 1910s to the 1980s, she maintained popularity by continually reinventing herself.
In the 1920s in Berlin, Dietrich acted on the stage and in silent films. Her performance as Lola-Lola in The Blue Angel (1930) brought her international fame and resulted in a contract with Paramount Pictures.
Dietrich starred in Hollywood films such as Morocco (1930), Shanghai Express (1932), and Desire (1936). She successfully traded on her glamorous persona and “exotic” looks, and became one of the highest-paid actresses of the era. Throughout World War II, she was a high-profile entertainer in the United States.
Dietrich was known to have strong political convictions and the mind to speak them. In interviews, Dietrich stated that she had been approached by representatives of the Nazi Party to return to Germany but had turned them down flat. In the late 1930s, Dietrich created a fund with Billy Wilder and several other Germans to help Jews and dissidents escape from Germany.
In 1937, her entire salary for Knight Without Armor (450,000) was put into escrow to help the refugees. In 1939, she became an American citizen and renounced her German citizenship. In December 1941, the U.S. entered World War II, and Dietrich became one of the first celebrities to help sell war bonds.
She toured the US from January 1942 to September 1943 (appearing before 250,000 troops on the Pacific Coast leg of her tour alone) and was reported to have sold more war bonds than any other star.
During two extended tours for the USO in 1944 and 1945, she performed for Allied troops in Algeria, Italy, the UK and France, then went into Germany with Generals James M. Gavin and George S. Patton.
When asked why she had done this, in spite of the obvious danger of being within a few kilometers of German lines, she replied, “aus Anstand“—”out of decency”.Wilder later remarked that she was at the front lines more than Eisenhower. Her revue, with Danny Thomas as her opening act, included songs from her films, performances on her musical saw (a skill she had originally acquired for stage appearances in Berlin in the 1920s) and a pretend “mindreading” act. Dietrich would inform the audience that she could read minds and ask them to concentrate on whatever came into their minds. Then she would walk over to a soldier and earnestly tell him, “Oh, think of something else. I can’t possibly talk about that!” American church papers reportedly published stories complaining about this part of Dietrich’s act.
In 1944, the Morale Operations Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) initiated the Musak project, musical propaganda broadcasts designed to demoralize enemy soldiers. Dietrich, the only performer who was made aware that her recordings would be for OSS use, recorded a number of songs in German for the project, including “Lili Marleen”, a favorite of soldiers on both sides of the conflict.Major General William J. Donovan, head of the OSS, wrote to Dietrich, “I am personally deeply grateful for your generosity in making these recordings for us.”
At the war’s end in Europe, Dietrich reunited with her sister Elisabeth and her sister’s husband and son. They had resided in the German city of Belsen throughout the war years, running a cinema frequented by Nazi officers and officials who oversaw the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Dietrich’s mother remained in Berlin during the war, her husband moved to a ranch in the San Fernando Valley of California. Dietrich vouched on behalf of her sister and her sister’s husband, sheltering them from possible prosecution as Nazi collaborators. Dietrich would later omit the existence of her sister and her sister’s son from all accounts of her life, completely disowning them and claiming to be an only child.
Dietrich received the Medal of Freedom in November 1947. She said this was her proudest accomplishment. She was also awarded the Légion d’honneur by the French government for her wartime work
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