Of all the Mitford eccentricities, it is Unity’s obsession with Adolf Hitler that lingers longest in the national consciousness. Even now, the story of the young British aristocrat who followed Hitler to Germany and eventually attempted death rather than leave him, is the most memorable of all the sisters’ stories. So it’s interesting to note that Unity caused just as much amazement among the men in Hitler’s circle as she did among any of her compatriots.
The arrival of Unity, and later Diana, in Nazi Germany provoked deep suspicion among the men at the top of Hitler’s hierarchy. Himmler, Goebbels and Goering all failed to understand why the Führer was so taken with these two upper-class English girls, and they suspected that their Führer’s judgment was fatally swayed by them.
When I was writing The Winter Garden, the second of my novels featuring Clara Vine, an Anglo-German actress in pre-war Berlin, I was keen to explore the way in which the Mitfords managed to discomfort those at the very top of the regime. The novel is set in 1937, a time when Hitler still held out the possibility that some Grand Alliance between Great Britain and Germany could be formed that would allow him to proceed with extending the German Lebensrum eastwards. In the Autumn of that year the recently abdicated Duke of Windsor and his new wife Wallis Simpson chose Nazi Germany, of all places, for their honeymoon – a choice which left the British government fit to be tied. British Embassy officials in Berlin were instructed that they were not to offer the ex-King anything at all “not even a cocktail sausage”, but the Nazis stepped in to fill the gap, rolling out the red carpet at Friedrichstrasse station and providing the Duke with a packed schedule of opera evenings, factory visits and other PR opportunities for the Third Reich. The fact that Unity and Diana should be in Germany around the same time as the royal couple made it the perfect backdrop for the novel’s spy mission and murder.
Of all the Nazi ministers, it was Joseph Goebbels, the Propaganda Minister, who was closest to Diana and Unity, largely through the friendship between his wife Magda and Diana. The Goebbels had even lent Diana Mitford and Sir Oswald Mosley the use of their Berlin home for their wedding in 1936, with the reception held at the family’s country villa in Schwanenwerder, a short drive away through the Grunewald, where the newly-weds were presented with the complete works of Goethe, and the Goebbels children attended carrying posies of flowers. The following year, in 1937, Diana made another visit to Germany, soliciting funds for a Fascist radio station to be set up in Heligoland, and in between watching Mickey Mouse with the Führer at the Reich Chancellery, she again met up with the Goebbels.
In the end, Joseph Goebbels decided that the Mosleys were a busted flush, and should receive no more Third Reich funding. Yet for the Nazis, Diana and Unity remained an enigma. Were the British ruling-classes really like that, or were the Mitfords eccentric one-offs? Although Magda Goebbels, Joseph’s unhappy wife, was friendly with Diana, Goebbels himself was far less seduced. In his diaries of the time he questions whether the Mitfords truly “spring from the soul of the British people”. It mattered, because if the sisters could be considered true representatives of the English ruling-class, then it meant that Hitler’s dreams of an alliance with Great Britain might be fulfilled. In The Winter Garden there is a scene in which Clara Vine, who as well as an actress is a British agent, is quizzed by Goebbels about the precise nature of the Mitfords. Clara fills him in on some of Unity’s eccentricities, including the fact that she was given to greeting English shopkeepers with the Nazi salute, that she had brought her pet snake to Germany with her, and that a live rat sometimes travelled in her handbag. The bourgeois Goebbels was, in fiction as well as in reality, predictably appalled.
Himmler, the pathological head of the Gestapo, did not concern himself so much with social nuances. As far as he was concerned a woman like Unity was a security risk, and he had her tailed by an SS agent who would follow her round, disguised as a photographer. Even when Unity wrote a piece for a National Socialist newspaper about why she was learning to shoot so that she could kill Jews, Himmler still had his suspicions. Unity’s home-made storm-trooper outfit also failed to sway him.
The feelings of the other Nazi power couple, the Goerings, were equally cool. Unity had eyes only for Hitler so Hermann Goering took little interest. Emmy Goering, a former actress, would refer to Unity as “Mitfahrt” meaning the travelling companion, and made cruel jokes about her ankles.
Perhaps one reason we are so interested in the story of the pro-Hitler Mitfords is because they are rare English examples of a phenomenon that was all too well-known in Germany – the fascination with the Führer. It was a fascination that afflicted women in particular. Each year Hitler received many thousands of fan letters and daily offers from women to bear his children. Every birthday and Christmas an avalanche of cakes as well as embroidered cushions, gloves, and other clothes were sent in. In more eye-catching evidence of devotion, there were incidences when women waiting for Hitler’s car to approach would tear open their blouses to bear their breasts as he passed. Others threw themselves at his car, attempting to do themselves some injury in the hope that the Führer himself would emerge to comfort them.
Hitler, in turn, did not underestimate the importance of women to maintaining the Nazi state. He said: “In my Germany, the mother is the most important citizen.” And he recognized that it was women, not men, who were central in passing on the ideology of the Third Reich to their children. Thus, women attending the National Socialist Bride Schools, which feature in The Winter Garden, were taught a special prayer to say to their future children, in which the words “Our Führer” replaced “Our Father”. They were also instructed to tell fairy stories with the correct, Nazi ideology, which was all about racial consciousness. In the National Socialist Cinderella, for example, the Prince rejects the Ugly Sisters not on aesthetic grounds, but because they are Slavs.
Ultimately, Goebbels’ question about the Mitford sisters – do they spring from the soul of the British people? – was an acute one. Not because they typified the views of the ruling class, but because despite their political differences Unity, Diana, and the others did embody a profoundly British quality. The ability to hold polarized beliefs, while retaining an underlying affection for each other. To thumb their noses at convention. To see each other’s point of view, even while despising it. In their eccentricity, imagination, humour and originality they epitomized Englishness. Goebbels should have paid more attention.
The Winter Garden is published by Simon & Schuster.
Jane Thynne was born in Venezuela in 1961 and grew up with her parents and two brothers in London. After school in Hampton, she spent a year working at the Old Vic Theatre before reading English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She joined the BBC as a production trainee, but after a few years succumbed to a hankering for Fleet Street and moved to The Sunday Times. Jane spent many cheerful years at The Daily Telegraph as media correspondent, but her single most exciting moment in that time was getting a publishing contract for her first novel. Her novels have been translated into French, German and Italian. Black Roses will be published in France by J.C Lattes in 2014 and the second in the Clara Vine series, The Winter Garden, in 2015. The third in the Clara Vine series, A War Of Flowers, was published in the UK by Simon & Schuster in November 2014. It will be published in the US and Canada by Random House in 2015.
As well as writing books, Jane is a freelance journalist, writing regularly for numerous British magazines and newspapers, and also appears as a broadcaster on Radio 4.
She is married to the writer Philip Kerr and they live with their three children in London.
Extracted from The Mitford Society: Vol. II