This is the one of two posts on the notorious Mitford sisters. I have written about Jessica, Deborah and Nancy here, and this post is about Unity and Diana (Lady Mosley), the two dedicated fascists of the family.
Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica, Deborah and their brother Tom were born between 1904 and 1920 to the politician David Freeman-Mitford, the future Lord Redesdale, and his wife Sydney Bowles. The children grew up in a cold and reserved family atmosphere. Nancy would later describe her mother as “abnormally detached” and their father was a formidable man prone to raging at everyone. He once remarked that each child was sillier than the last, and one of his favourite pastimes was chasing his two youngest daughters with bloodhounds. Lord Redesdale was rude to all of Nancy’s friends who came to stay and would shout “don’t these people have homes to go to?” at the dinner table. According to Jessica, their father wouldn’t receive any “outsiders” as guests; that meant that “Huns”, “Frogs”, Americans and Asians were definitely out. Another point of contention was that whilst he sent their brother Tom to Eton and Oxford, he refused to let the girls attend school, maintaining that they would develop thick calves from playing hockey. There was also strife between the siblings. Nancy would torment Deborah; the latter mused in a recent interview, “I should think the social services would be called in now”.
Diana was considered by many contemporaries to be the most beautiful of the Mitford sisters; Evelyn Waugh wrote gushingly that her beauty “ran through the room like a peal of bells”. No-one could foresee the scandal which would go on to envelop her. She married Bryan Guinness, the heir to the huge brewing fortune, and seemed destined for a life of ease and society gatherings. This all changed when she met Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, in 1932. Something about this man, 14 years her senior with a Hitler-inspired moustache, fascinated her. So much, in fact, that she ran away from her husband at the age of 22.
At the time, Mosley was married with children and he made it clear to Diana that he had no plans to leave his long-suffering family. Diana did not let this deter her, however, and installed herself in a flat where Mosley might visit her whenever he could spare time from his work and family duties. Conveniently for Diana, Mosley’s wife died in 1933. Bryan Guinness divorced Diana and three years later, she married Mosley in a civil ceremony attended by Hitler, held in – of all places – Joseph Goebbel’s drawing room in Berlin. Of course, her misconduct didn’t endear Diana to her strict parents. After she ran away from her husband, she was utterly disgraced and Unity was forbidden from visiting her.
Since Mosley’s position necessitated links to Nazi Germany, Diana soon met Hitler and they became friends. She attended the 1937 Nuremberg Rally with Unity and their brother Tom. This friendship, and her fascist principles, led to her and Mosley being interned in Holloway prison for three years during the war. MI5 wrote of Diana, “[she] is said to be far cleverer and more dangerous than her husband and will stick at nothing to achieve her ambitions”. Nancy, motivated by her strong anti-fascist sentiments, actually managed to lengthen Diana’s internment by testifying that she was a “ruthless and shrewd egotist, a devoted fascist and admirer of Hitler and sincerely desires the downfall of England and democracy in general”.
After the war, Mosley was arguably one of the most hated men in Britain. His attempts to revive his political career failed miserably, and the couple moved to Paris. Diana spent her time writing reviews for various newspapers and published an acclaimed biography of her close friend, the Duchess of Windsor. She tried to hide her antisemitism, which the downfall of the Third Reich had not weakened, but she could not help exposing it on occasion. When a a journalist interviewing Oswald let slip that he was Jewish, Diana reportedly “went ashen, snapped a crimson nail, and left the room”. Afterwards she wrote to a friend, saying, “a nice, polite reporter came to interview Tom [as Oswald was known] but he turned out to be Jewish and was sitting there at our table. They are a very clever race and come in all shapes and sizes”.
Yet if Diana was a devoted fascist, her sister Unity took it one step further and became truly infatuated with Hitler, spending years at his side. Unity was a wilful and moody teenager and, disappointingly, ended her first season without a husband. When she expressed a wish to learn German, her parents agreed to let her move to Munich at the tender age of 19, perhaps glad that she was showing any sign of purposefulness. The truth was that she was intent upon meeting Hitler after having seen him from afar at the 1933 Nuremberg Rally.
Once in Munich, she set about trying to encounter her idol. She spent her days stalking him, which was made rather easy by the fact that he tended to frequent certain cafes and restaurants at specific times. She started sitting nonchalantly at tables wherever he happened to be, and after around ten months, her strategies paid off. Perhaps intrigued by her Aryan good looks, Hitler invited Unity to his table where they spent half an hour talking. Unity wrote to her father describing the incident, saying “it was the most wonderful and beautiful [day] of my life. I am so happy that I wouldn’t mind a bit, dying. I’d suppose I am the luckiest girl in the world. For he is the greatest man of all time”.
She gradually became part of Hitler’s inner circle. Biographers have suggested that Hitler was attracted to Unity because it amused him to see this member of the British aristocracy worshipping at his feet. He praised her as “a perfect specimen of Aryan womanhood”, and seemed to see strange coincidences which bound them together. He was struck by Unity’s connections to Germanic culture; her middle name was Valkyrie and her grandfather, Algernon Freeman-Mitford, had been a friend of Richard Wagner and translated the works of Houston Stewart Chamberlain; both men were Hitler’s idols.
Unity used to stride around Munich and Berlin in a black uniform, pictured with Hitler in both formal and casual settings. Rumours flew thick and fast about what Unity got up to with Hitler. Was she his lover? Various biographers have argued that she actually bore his child. David Litchfield claims that she participated in sadomasochistic orgies with SS officers, which she would recount in detail to Hitler. However, there is no good evidence to support any of this. Her family also denied such rumours.
We do know that the two certainly enjoyed a close relationship. Unity’s diary shows that they met at least 140 times between 1935 and September 1939, which is approximately once a fortnight. They were also intimate enough to make Eva Braun jealous, who wrote in her diary, of Unity, “She is known as the Valkyrie and looks the part, including her legs. I, the mistress of the greatest man in Germany and the whole world, I sit here waiting while the sun mocks me through the window panes”. Eva only managed to regain Hitler’s attention after a suicide attempt.
Unity entered fully into Nazi sentiments (a British government report from 1936 described her as “more Nazi than the Nazis”) and was not shy about expressing her antisemitism. In a letter to a German newspaper, she wrote: “The English have no notion of the Jewish danger. Our worst Jews work only behind the scenes. We think with joy of the day when we will be able to say England for the English! Out with the Jews! Heil Hitler! P.S. please publish my name in full, I want everyone to know I am a Jew hater”.
The letter sparked outrage in Britain, but Hitler rewarded Unity with an engraved golden swastika badge, a private box at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and a ride in a party Mercedes to the Bayreuth Festival. Hitler bestowed other gifts on her. In 1938 he offered her an apartment in Munich which belonged to a Jewish couple. She is reported to have visited the apartment to discuss her decoration and design plans, while the soon-to-be-evicted couple sat crying in the kitchen.
Unity was devastated when war was declared in 1938. Despite her closeness to Hitler and love for Germany, she always maintained that she was loyal to Britain, notwithstanding the assertions of MI5 chief Guy Liddell that her actions had come “perilously close to high treason”. She had always hoped for a peace between the two countries, but torn between loyalties to England and Germany, she attempted suicide by shooting herself in the head. The attempt failed and left her brain-damaged. Unity was taken to hospital at Hitler’s expense, and collected from Berne by Sydney and Debo at Christmas 1939. She was permanently changed and died in 1948 after an infection in the head turned to meningitis.