‘History This Week’
Ohio Wesleyan History Professor Discusses Germany’s ‘Axis Sally’ on Popular Podcast
On March 10, 1949, Mildred Gillars is found guilty in a U.S. courtroom on one count of treason for her work broadcasting as “Axis Sally” on Nazi Germany’s Third Reich Radio. She maintains her innocence, arguing that she is a performer, not a propagandist.
Nearly 30 earlier, Gillars had been enrolled as an undergraduate student at Ohio Wesleyan University, where she studied German, participated in theater performances, and walked around campus wearing an eye-catching combination of knickers and galoshes. How does she go from quirky coed to public enemy?
On the 73rd anniversary of her conviction, the national “HISTORY This Week” podcast shares Gillars’ story with help from Ohio Wesleyan History professor Michael W. Flamm, Ph.D. He has researched and lectured on her life and legacy.
“I often tell students that Mildred’s story illustrates the limits of history,” Flamm tells “HISTORY This Week” host Sally Helm. “We can know what happened, but we can’t know why it happened.”
What is clear is that Gillars longed to escape her abusive childhood and find both fame and economic security. But she leaves Ohio Wesleyan in 1922 without earning her degree, and when she arrives in Germany in 1934, she is still searching for success.
Her fortunes are about to change.
Within a year, Gillars has a good job, providing translations for the German film industry. Then, in 1940, she is invited to audition for Third Reich Radio and is hired on the spot. Reich’s Radio will soon become a vital component in Adolph Hitler’s information war as he pushes his Nazi agenda.
“The Nazis quickly consolidate and take control of the airwaves,” Flamm says. “They insist that everyone in Germany have a radio and that it be tuned to official stations.”
Gillars begins her new job as a music-spinning disc jockey, but her assignments grow more insidious over time, resulting in the U.S. Embassy asking her to resign and return home in 1941. Now a German celebrity, she refuses. The Embassy takes her passport but doesn’t revoke her citizenship – and she doesn’t renounce it.
When Pearl Harbor is bombed at year’s end, Gillars is upset, but is persuaded to sign a loyalty oath to her employer on Dec. 9. The United States enters World War II on Dec. 11.
“She’s sort of caught in this murky twilight zone,” Flamm tells Helm. “She’s not a German citizen. She’s still a U.S. citizen. She does not have a passport. She’s really quite trapped.”
Complicating her situation, Gillars falls in love with her producer, who presses her to branch out into political shows that push the Nazi message overseas. And “Axis Sally” is born.
“To what extent is Mildred a free agent, to what extent is she a puppet … we really, really don’t know,” Flamm says. Still, he notes, “very quickly, Mildred is Reich’s Radio’s highest paid performer. So, for the first time in her life … she can finally support herself and live the lifestyle that she’s always dreamed of having.”
In 1944, one the eve of D-Day, Gillars performs in a radio drama, acting as the mother of U.S. soldier who is heartbroken when her son dies in the invasion. Before she is taken into U.S. custody in 1946, Gillars also will pretend to be a Red Cross volunteer as she seeks to obtain anti-U.S. statements from wounded American soldiers.
Eventually, she is brought back to the United States, where she is tried for treason. She is convicted not for her own words, but for her role in the 1944 D-Day drama – for “words that were written for her, a scripted drama,” Flamm notes. She is acquitted on all other charges, as prosecutors have “ear witnesses” but not the U.S. Constitution-required eyewitnesses.
Gillars is sentenced to 10-30 years in prison, but is released after serving only 12.
“In her few public statements,” Flamm says, she expresses no remorse, no regret for her actions. … but she does, at whatever personal cost, avoid her natural inclination to seek the limelight and instead she complies with the government’s requirements.”
Gillars dies in 1988.
In addition to Flamm, the “HISTORY This Week” podcast features Richard Lucas, author of “Axis Sally: The American Voice of Nazi Germany.” The podcast is available via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other podcast-listening apps.
A member of the Ohio Wesleyan faculty since 1998, Flamm teaches courses in U.S. history from 1877 to the present. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Harvard University, his doctorate at Columbia University, and is a former Fulbright Scholar.
His books include “In the Heat of the Summer: The New York Riots of 1964 and the War on Crime” and “Law and Order: Street Crime, Civil Unrest, and the Crisis of Liberalism in the 1960s.” He also is the creator of “How 1954 Changed History,” an Audible original course available from Amazon.
Learn more about Flamm and studying History at Ohio Wesleyan at owu.edu.history.