By Danielle DeSimone
Actress. Singer. Spy. USO Tour Veteran. Marlene Dietrich was many things to many people, but to our service members overseas during World War II, she was a morale-boosting entertainer willing to go above and beyond – right to the front lines – to support our nation’s military. Through her USO Camp Show tours, she brightened the lives of many soldiers, sailors and airmen, and she became one of the iconic faces of women in World War II. Here are five ways Dietrich supported American troops – and the USO – during World War II:
1. Marlene the Patriot
Dietrich had an impressive, lifelong career as an Academy Award-nominated actress, singer and entertainer. Although she began performing in small, vaudeville skits in Berlin, she would eventually move onto a career in the theater and later the silver screen.
After moving to Hollywood in 1930, she became incredibly popular in American films alongside famous actors such as James Stewart, John Wayne and Fred MacMurray. When the United States entered World War II, Dietrich was one of the first celebrities to join the American war effort. She quickly went on tour across the United States selling war bonds and campaigning for support of the troops among the people at home.
2. Marlene the Spy
In 1937, Dietrich – who was then a German citizen – was approached by Nazi representatives and asked to star in propaganda films for the Third Reich. Supposedly, Adolf Hitler himself personally requested that she support the cause. Dietrich, who was staunchly anti-Nazi, refused. Two years later, she renounced her German citizenship and applied for U.S. citizenship – and the Nazis branded her as a traitor. In British wartime radio broadcasts sent over German airwaves, Dietrich spoke directly to her former countrymen: “Hitler is an idiot.”
Dietrich also worked with the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.), the predecessor of today’s CIA, to record a series of anti-Nazi albums, using propaganda to weaken the morale of Nazi troops. The broadcasts of these songs and interviews were meant to create tension between the Axis Powers. The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey “discovered that the programs were just as devastating to German morale as an air raid.” As these broadcasts continued, more and more Germans and Italians began to doubt Nazi and fascist propaganda, and despite Nazi efforts to outlaw the albums, Dietrich’s “Lili Marlene” song was a hit among Nazi troops.
3. Marlene the USO Entertainer
Dietrich was determined to support American troops and was one of many women in World War II to do so on a USO tour. However, Marlene went above and beyond her peers, showing a true commitment to “her boys” by traveling right to the front lines to perform. Her fellow performers joked that “she was always trying to get us killed.”
Dietrich went on two USO tours during World War II, traveling first to North Africa and Italy, where she was the first entertainer to reach rescued Allied soldiers in Anzio, and then later to France and Germany, with this second tour lasting 11 months, beginning just on the heels of D-Day. Her performances in the now-famous USO Camp Shows involved singing, dancing and a comedy routine with a musical saw, and she usually left Allied troops in fits of laughter.
She fought off bouts of influenza, slept in tents and suffered from frostbite, but in the end, Dietrich put on more than 500 performances for Allied troops throughout the war, many of which were on the front lines. When asked why she risked her life to support American soldiers, she responded, “aus Anstand – Out of decency.”
4. Marlene the Giver
Dietrich clearly was passionate about giving back during WWII, but she went beyond performing on USO tours. She volunteered with service members and others in additional ways, such as serving meals at the Hollywood Canteen, a club started by actors Bette Davis and John Garfield, which offered free food and entertainment for all service members.
Dietrich also spent time at hospitals in the U.S. and overseas visiting injured, ill and wounded military members. As a former German citizen, Dietrich was especially passionate about supporting Jews and dissidents facing discrimination in Germany. She created a fund alongside filmmaker Billy Wilder to help Jews and enemies of the Third Reich escape Germany, and supported these refugees once they had made it out of the country.
5. Marlene the Individual
Dietrich was staunchly against Nazism and fascism, and some historians have suggested that her fierce commitment to activism and support of the American war effort was due to her strong beliefs in individualism and freedom, which she saw threatened in Germany under the Nazi regime.
She was committed to this freedom in everything that she did. From her resolute insistence on traveling to the front lines to support our nation’s soldiers, to daring to wear pants in Paris when it was still illegal for women to do so, to taking on roles that pushed the boundaries of Hollywood, Dietrich was committed to freedom – and the freedom to be herself. It is perhaps because of these beliefs and American ideals that she spent so many years of her life fighting against Nazis and supporting American troops.
-This story was originally published on USO.org in 2019. It has been updated in 2020.
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