Richard Lucas examines one of the most infamous characters of the Second World War in his biography of Mildred Gillars, better known as "Axis Sally: The American Voice of Nazi Germany." (Casemate, 321 pages)
The author insists that he is not presenting "an apologia of a convicted traitor." While not defending her actions, he examines the circumstances that to her notoriety.
In an era when divorce was taboo, Mildred was born to a mother who would eventually divorce twice. Her step-father was an alcoholic who sexually abused the young Mildred.
This would foreshadow a life-long pattern of disastrous relationships with older men.
She dropped out of college, at the urging of her drama coach, to pursue an acting career which never materialized. By 1929, she was reduced to posing as an artist's model.
That same year, she travelled to Paris and in 1934, Mildred and her mother made their way to Berlin.
In 1940, she joined Reichsradio. At the German radio company, she met the man who would entice her into broadcasting propaganda for the Nazi regime, a married man whom she considered to be the love of her life, Professor Otto Koischwitz.
Koischwitz was her "svengali" who persuaded her to join him in broadcasting even more virulently pro-Nazi programs. As tensions between Germany and America grew, Mildred ignored pleas to return to America and chose to stay with her beloved Professor.
After Pearl Harbor, Mildred was forced to sign an oath of loyalty to Germany. The failed actress turned Nazi broadcaster was earning as much as 3,000 Reich marks ($1,900) a month at her peak for propaganda which typically blamed Roosevelt, the Jews and British, for the war.
Whether blinded by love or financial success, Ms. Gillars was quite willing to ignore the plight of the German Jews who were being rounded up for deportation and her programs were laced with vile anti-Semitism.
Excerpts of her broadcasts aimed at demoralizing the GIs were difficult to read as she tauntingly described their horrible injuries.
Mr. Lucas mentions other American propagandists, including "Tokyo Rose," Iva Toguri, who shared the same federal prison as Ms. Gillars and would eventually be pardoned by President Ford. New Yorker Rita Lucca, who became the "Axis Sally" of Rome, escaped punishment in America after the war by having renounced her American citizenship. Lord Haw Haw, born William Joyce, was seized by the British and executed after the war, though he was an American.
Mildred Gillars would eventually be convicted of just one of the original ten charges filed against her. Her trial pitted the right of free speech against the crime of treason which is defined as giving "aid and comfort to the enemy."
In his summation, Judge Curran rejected that she did so under duress and dismissed her defense that she was under imminent threat of being sent to a concentration camp.
She would serve over fifteen years in a federal penitentiary.
To many, especially to some of the American POW's she visited during the War and used as pawns in her propaganda, that punishment seemed light. Yet the author points out that Joachim Peiper, the commander of the Nazi guard responsible for the infamous Malmedy massacre, served just fifteen years of a 35 year sentence.
To combat the reality of the Soviet threat, the U.S. government was well on its way to rehabilitate former Nazis. Gillars never sought a pardon for her crimes and insisted to the end that she had not betrayed her country.
The human drama which is history is filled with tragic contingencies or "what ifs."
One wonders what might have been had Mildred Gillars not been the victim of an incestuous and dysfunctional family. Might she have finished college or married her college sweetheart? Would she have been so desperate for the limelight that she was willing to perform on such a morally bankrupt stage?
Most likely, she would not have made her fateful journey to Berlin where this failed actress would become the voice of another failed artist, a washed up painter who devolved into a brutal dictator, Adolph Hitler.