During my recent travels, my light reading consisted of several thick books on the Mitford girls, the six daughters of David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale and his wife Sydney (née Bowles).
Diana Mitford became the wife of Sir Oswald Mosley. Unity Valkyrie Mitford became Hitler’s confidante. Jessica became a Communist journalist. Nancy became a novelist and biographer. Deborah, who is still alive at 92, became the Duchess of Devonshire. Pamela, the least famous daughter, shared the politics of Diana and Unity but was best known as a poultry farmer.
The Mitford girls were impossibly glamorous, talented, accomplished, headstrong, and brilliant. Their aristocratic birth and connections, as well as their personal initiative, thrust them to the heart of European politics and culture. Thus their biographies also constitute a highly entertaining history of the 20th century.
My favorite Mitfords are, of course, Diana and her younger sister Unity Valkyrie, who was born 98 years ago today. Unity Mitford was conceived in Canada in the town of Swastika, Ontario. She was named Unity because of her parents’ desire for Anglo-German unity: they hoped for a swift, peaceful, negotiated end to the First World War, which had just broken out. Her middle name, Valkyrie, a Norse warrior maiden, was given to her because of her paternal grandfather’s friendship with Richard Wagner and Wagner’s son-in-law, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, whose writings influenced Hitler’s understanding of Jews, race, and history. When Hitler learned these facts from Unity, he interpreted their meeting as providential.
Unity became interested in Fascism and National Socialism through her older sister Diana, who was first the mistress then wife of Sir Oswald Mosley. (They were married in 1936 in Berlin, at the home of Joseph Goebbels, with Hitler as the guest of honor.) Unity was an ardent and tireless street activist for the British Union of Fascists. In 1933, she attended the first Nuremberg Rally, where she fell under Hitler’s spell. In 1934, she moved to Munich, where eventually she made Hitler’s acquaintance and moved rapidly into his inner circle, enjoying unusual access and confidence for a foreigner. Whispers of a sexual affair have never been confirmed, but Unity’s presence in Hitler’s circle led to a suicide attempt by Eva Braun.
For those who wish to know more about the Mitfords, I recommend Jonathan and Catherine Guinness, The House of Mitford: Portrait of a Family ; Mary S. Lovell, The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family ; Charlotte Mosley, ed., The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters ; Anne de Courcy, Diana Mosley ; and David Rehak, Hitler’s English Girlfriend: Unity Mitford and the Fascist Connection . None are free of silly psychological speculations and tendentious editorializing about Fascism and National Socialism, but fortunately the facts speak for themselves.
I also recommend, with the same caveats, a very entertaining documentary about Unity, Hitler’s British Girl, linked on our Video of the Day page here .
Finally, I wish to thank Leo Yankevich and Juleigh Howard-Hobson for their poems about Unity, which I wrung from them under false pretenses. A friend told me that today is Unity Mitford’s 100th birthday, when in fact it is her 98th, something I learned only after requesting their poems.
Unity Mitford’s short life is fascinating not merely for what she was but also for what she could have been — and what could have been for all of us. For the lives of both Diana and Unity are entwined around one of the great “what ifs” of European history: What if the Second World War could have been avoided? Diana and Unity Mitford were merely the most glamorous of the many prominent and accomplished Englishmen and Englishwomen who worked to secure the Anglo-German friendship that Hitler so ardently desired.
When Britain started the Second World War by declaring war against Germany on September 3, 1939, Unity Valkyrie Mitford took a pistol given to her by Hitler, went to the Englischer Garten in Munich, and shot herself in the head. Astonishingly, she did not die immediately. Her wound finally took her life only in May of 1948, after she had lived to see all the horrors she wanted to avoid through death.