In the late 1940s very few people knew the name Mildred Gillars, but the whole world seemingly knew her nickname: Axis Sally.
Part of the reason she remained famous, or rather infamous, in the years after the war was that the United States government — in the throes of the Cold War —had decided to put her on trial for treason. The government’s indictment charged her with 10 counts of treason, but its legal arguments we’re confused and even contradictory. So was her defense.
But that’s getting ahead of the story.
Mildred Gillars was born in 1900 in Ohio. She grew up wanting to be an actor, a dancer, or something that would make her famous. She ultimately achieved that goal, but certainly not in a way that anyone could have imagined.
Gillars had a way of falling in and out of love, and it was usually with the wrong person. She was unable to establish an acting career for herself in New York City, and in the early 1930s, she left for Europe. She eventually found herself in Germany, and she managed to land a job with the German State Radio.
She remained in Germany as it sunk into the grip of National Socialism and began to spin inevitably toward war. In 1941, United States Embassy in Germany began advising American citizens to leave the country, but Gillars decided to stay. She was engaged to a young American who had become a naturalized German citizen, and he told her that he would not marry her if she returned home. Shortly after that, Germany invaded Russia, and the young man was sent to the Eastern Front where he died in combat.
Gillars had no choice but to continue her work had to try to navigate her dangerous situation as best she could. She met another American who had also become a German citizen, Max Otto Koischwitz. Koischwitz was a leading figure in Germany’s propaganda machine, and he recruited Gillars to be the star voice for a program directed at American GIs called Home Sweet Home.
The purpose of the program was to damage the morale of the soldiers and remind them of the things they were missing back home.
Another show in which Gillars was the star was called Midge at the Mike. In this show, she interspersed American music with the Nazis’ racist and anti-Jewish propaganda, and she made many despairing remarks about American President Franklin Roosevelt.
Gillars acquired the name Axis Sally when another American female used the name “Sally” to broadcast anti-American propaganda from Rome. The two were often confused by American GIs. Gillars’ most famous broadcast came shortly before D-Day in 1944 when she played the part of a mother in Ohio who wakes up screaming after dreaming that her son had been killed as part of the D-Day invasion force.
When the war was finally over, Gillars disappeared into the chaos of Germany. American army officers had not forgotten about her, however, and they conducted an intensive search for nearly a year before she was located and arrested in March 1946. During the next two years she spent most of her days in American custody and was finally indicted and brought to trial for treason in late 1948.
The trial was closely covered by newspapers and radio reporters and caused a sensation. Gillars headed to the spectacle by dressing flamboyantly, showing off her mountain with blond hair, and treating the whole thing like a Broadway production with her as the star. Her defense centered on the argument that she had done nothing illegal and simply exercised her first amendment rights by expressing unpopular opinions.
Ultimately, the jury found her guilty on only one count of treason, and she was sentenced to 10 to 30 years in federal prison. She served a little more than 10 years of that sentence and was released in 1961.
During her time in prison, she converted to Roman Catholicism, and when she was released, she returned to Ohio. She eventually became a teacher in a convent school and lived quietly until her death in 1988.
A new movie about Gillars, starring Al Pacino and Meadow Williams and focusing on her treason trial, will be released in late May 2021. The title of the movie is American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally.
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