Drexel, Constance (1894–1956)
Drexel, Constance (1894–1956)
German–born American journalist who gained notoriety as a broadcaster for Nazi Germany during as a broadcaster for Nazi Germany during world war II. Born in Darmstadt, Germany, on November 28, 1894; died in Waterbury, Connecticut, on August 28, 1956; daughter of Theodor Drexel and Zela (Audeman) Drexel; never married.
Naïvely allowed herself to carry out assignments for Nazi propaganda agencies (1930s); began broadcasting from Berlin (1940); arrested by American troops in Germany (1945); had a treason indictment against her dismissed for lack of evidence (1948).
Constance Drexel was born in Germany in 1894; her father was a wealthy German from Frankfurt am Main, while her mother had been born into a wealthy Swiss family of watch manufacturers. The family moved to the United States when Constance was one year old, and in 1898 she obtained U.S. citizenship when her father became a naturalized American. Constance Drexel's early years in the town of Roslindale, Massachusetts, were pleasant, and she and her parents divided their time between America and Europe. She attended schools in four different countries, including studies at the Sorbonne.
Drexel's near-idyllic life ended, as it did for millions of others, in the summer of 1914, while she was living in France with her mother and sister. One of the first American women to volunteer her services as a French Red Cross nurse, Drexel worked in a hospital in the town of Domville. Writing of her experiences in an article published more than a decade later, she recalled the horrors trying to relieve the sufferings of mutilated and dying men: "I began to realize that this was only part of the price, that all the horrors I saw and heard were far, far easier to bear than the slow, cruel, killing price that war demands of women. When I came back to Paris late in December of that year … I held a firm conviction—I still hold it—that women were even heavier sufferers from war than men. I put this feeling into some magazine articles—I had begun to write for publication."
Drexel made her debut as a professional journalist in April 1915 when she traveled to the International Woman's Congress that met in the neutral Dutch city of The Hague. Working closely with Jane Addams , head of the American delegation to the conference, Drexel sent extensive cable dispatches to the New York Tribune. An ardent suffragist as well as an opponent of U.S. involvement in World War I, Drexel endorsed the candidacy of Woodrow Wilson, appearing personally at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in August 1916. At the same time, her writings clearly revealed a strongly pro-German bias. She wrote admiringly of how German women of "'Kinder, Küche und Kirche' fame have shown surprising capacity in handling all sorts of relief work." By 1918, with the U.S. at war against Imperial Germany, Drexel's pro-German attitudes had become well known to federal officials, who chose to deny her a passport to travel to Europe.
Refusing to abandon her journalistic career, Drexel was finally able to travel to Europe after the signing of the armistice in November 1918. She covered the Paris peace conference, sending daily articles to the United States, at the same time also appearing in print regularly in the European edition of the Chicago Tribune. Working closely with several international women's organizations, her vigorous lobbying efforts made it possible for a women's equality clause to appear in article 7 of the newly adapted League of Nations Covenant. Ardently hoping as did millions of her generation that World War I had truly been "a war to end all wars," she was convinced that women would play a crucial role in the future in keeping the world from ever again committing the folly of igniting another global conflict. By the mid-1920s, however, she had become disillusioned about the extent of women's power in the political arena. In 1926, she wrote about how she "should have preferred to continue my journalistic work covering the interests of women in politics, but frankly, they were not doing enough to make it worthwhile." Announcing that she would henceforth spend at least half of her time in Europe, Drexel noted that she was particularly interested in reporting on the progress of the League of Nations.
As a freelance writer, Drexel was free to comment on any number of subjects that struck her fancy. At times, her assessment of the level reached by American civilization in the 1920s was highly critical. Writing in 1924 about an evening she spent in a Parisian restaurant, she noted that, "Hardly had we finished our coffee and liqueurs when the jazz orchestra struck up: 'Yes, we have no bananas.' There must have been 20 nationalities among those who got up to dance to that tune, everybody laughing and humming the words. … We may be absent from the [League of Nations] conference table, but we are present in the cabaret and the dance hall." Drexel's passionate belief in the League of Nations as a means of preventing a future world war was at the heart of her journalistic activities in the 1920s and 1930s. She was one of the best-known woman in the field of international journalism during these years and was able to combine her journalistic work with the roles of carrying out freelance writing assignments, campaigning for world peace, and being a world traveler.
The world Depression that began in 1929 with the collapse of the New York stock market did not discourage Drexel, whose career remained on track during these years. Having covered the Geneva Arms Conference in 1932, she returned to America to enjoy words of praise about her reports from such well-known public figures as Columbia University president Nicholas Murray Butler and Idaho Senator James P. Pope. Pope and Drexel remained optimists in a time of cynicism and despair, and in the spring of 1935 Senator Pope placed before the U.S. Congress a blueprint drawn up by Drexel based on the global disarmament principles of the Kellogg-Briand Pact of some years earlier. Despite the effort that had gone into this legislative offensive, and her considerable prestige in the international press corps, Drexel's peace efforts were politely ignored by politicians as the world slid toward catastrophe.
Drexel believed, as did many others in public life, that the Versailles treaty of 1919 had been harsh and self-defeating as regards the Germans. The Nazi seizure of power in 1933 brought the question of Germany to center stage of international relations. She felt that not only her German birth but her mastery of the German language as well as an intuitive awareness of German cultural values provided her unique qualifications to assess the new situation. A critic of America's laissez-faire civilization which was now in shambles, she detected in Adolf Hitler's New Germany a society determined to bring about major social reforms based on a spirit of national unity and solidarity. Joseph Goebbels' Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda issued invitations to Drexel, who eagerly accepted. Never affluent, she welcomed the income from writing assignments from Goebbels, who saw to it that the gullible American reporter was shown only the successes of the Third Reich.
For several years, from 1937 to 1939, Drexel attempted to restore the luster of her career in the United States. But the Depression made jobs difficult to find, and her pro-German articles as well as her lack of cunning meant that her career was showing alarming signs of decline. She found work in Philadelphia with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Writers' Project. When this assignment ended, she worked as an instructor of French on a WPA Education Project. She also was able to sell some of her pro-Nazi articles to the publisher Richard H. Waldo, an ultra-conservative who regarded Drexel as his favorite contributor to his newspaper syndicate. In 1939, Drexel left suddenly for Berlin. With travel expenses paid by the German government, she gave as an official explanation for her departure the need to care for her ailing mother, who lived in Wiesbaden.
Starting in 1940, Drexel made scheduled shortwave broadcasts every Sunday at 8:45 pm Eastern Standard Time over the German state radio. Introduced to listeners as a noted American journalist (which she no longer was) and as a member of "a socially prominent and wealthy Philadelphia family" (which was also not true), her broadcasts were largely confined to social and cultural matters. Her upbeat message to her listeners was that cultural life was flourishing as never before in Nazi Germany, even in wartime. Her message was one of order, stability, and indeed prosperity in Hitler's Third Reich, with abundant food supplies and a rich mixture of popular and elite culture available to all strata of the population of a united nation. She was grandiloquently introduced on the air as "a Philadelphia socialite heiress," but beyond earshot her cynical superiors in the Nazi radio hierarchy characterized her uncharitably as being "wirklich dumm" (really and truly stupid) and the quality of her work as "schrecklich" (terrible).
The famous reporter William L. Shirer, whose hostility to Nazism was well-known at the time, rarely socialized with Drexel in Berlin but knew enough about her to characterize her as "a sort of forlorn person and a rather shabby journalist." Shirer showed little mercy when he drew a character sketch of Drexel in Nazi Germany as:
an insignificant, mixed-up, and ailing woman of 46 who always had a bad cold, [and who] used to tell me during the first winter of the war in Berlin that she needed money—and wouldn't I hire her as a broadcaster? But she went over to the service of Dr. Goebbels mainly because she had always been pro-German and Pan-German and since 1933 had been bitten by the Nazi bug. The money the Germans paid her no doubt was welcome, but she would have taken mine (which had an anti-Nazi taint) had I been fool enough to hire her.
After Nazi Germany declared war on the United States in December 1941, American citizens resident in the Reich were interned and repatriated by neutral nations. Constance Drexel, on the other hand, was not interned and continued to broadcast over the Nazi radio network. Although the majority of her broadcasts were relatively innocuous in content, occasionally she made what were clearly intended to be political statements. She suggested that American diplomats had encouraged the British government to declare war on Germany in 1939 and characterized President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a man whose policies had made the U.S. entrance into the world conflict all but inevitable. In August 1945, Constance Drexel was arrested by American occupation authorities in occupied Germany. Denying any wrongdoing, she defended herself by stating that during her years as a broadcaster in Nazi Germany she had been "only interested in culture, in Beethoven and music and things like that. … They said I was giving aid and com fort to the enemy. I was always against war. I thought that I was following President Roosevelt's line—you know, harmonizing things." She spent the next year behind bars in Germany.
Although Drexel was released from imprisonment in Germany, a legal cloud hung over her when she returned to the United States in October 1946. She was kept for a time on Ellis Island in New York harbor while legal experts debated her case. A special board of inquiry concluded that despite years of absence from America she had not forfeited her citizenship. As the months slipped by, the U.S. Department of Justice reached the conclusion that in view of the fact that their legal staff in occupied Germany had not been able to find evidence that warranted prosecution of Drexel, the decision to prosecute her would most likely not be made. The matter was finally resolved on April 14, 1948, when the treason indictment against Constance Drexel was dismissed by federal judge David A. Pine.
Drexel slipped into obscurity and semi-retirement, still writing about political issues but rarely finding a publisher. On occasion, she was able to publish pieces that were not controversial, including her edited edition of some childhood letters of Franklin D. Roosevelt to his French governess—suggesting that she had finally made peace with the ghost of her old political nemesis. A sign of American rehabilitation of Drexel—or perhaps simply an indication of forgetfulness about her past actions—was the fact that in 1956 she was appointed to the Woodrow Wilson Centennial Committee. But her enjoyment of these honors was to be of brief duration. Constance Drexel died suddenly on the morning of August 28, 1956, in the Waterbury, Connecticut, home of her cousin Frederick Drexel. A restless cosmopolitan to the end, she had planned to leave the United States for good that very afternoon to take up permanent residence with her mother's family in Geneva, Switzerland.
"Constance Drexel, Ex-Newswoman, Dies; Broadcast for the Nazis During War," in The New York Times. August 29, 1956, p. 29.
Drexel, Constance. "Our Family Album," in Ladies' Home Journal. Vol. 43. January 1926, p. 26.
——. "The Woman Pays," in Delineator. Vol. 87, no. 19. July 1915.
Edwards, John Carver. Berlin Calling: American Broadcasters in Service to the Third Reich. NY: Praeger, 1991.
John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia