Churchill & The Mitfords: An Excerpt by Thomas Maier

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WHEN LIONS ROAR: The Churchills and the Kennedys by author Thomas Maier makes several references to the Mitfords in recounting the history between these two famous political dynasties. Here is a short excerpt:

By 1938, Winston Churchill realized that Hitler’s charismatic brand of evil had infected not only naïve Americans like Charles Lindbergh but also many Britons, including some in his own family.

During this time, Winston implored his daughter Sarah Churchill to visit Paris instead of Munich because, as she later recalled, he worried that his impressionable daughter “might be swept up in the enthusiasm of Fascism, which is what happened to my cousin, Unity Mitford”.

Unity was one of the well-known Mitfords (cousins on Clementine Churchill’s side of the family), who frequently visited Chartwell in the 1920s. While growing up, Randolph felt “very much in love” with Diana Mitford, another of six remarkable sisters in the family. He also counted their brother, Tom Mitford, as his “greatest friend”, one who became part of Randolph’s crowd of friends at Oxford.

The Mitford girls tended toward the radical end of politics, either communism or right-wing fascist causes, and generally disapproved of Winston’s brand of Tory politics. By the mid-1930s, the pro-Nazi sentiments of Unity Mitford, the fourth-oldest of the six sisters, particularly rankled Winston. During a trip to Germany, Unity became obsessed with Adolf Hitler, and the German leader used his bizarre relationship with this mixed-up young woman for his own twisted purposes.

After the Nazis invaded Austria in March 1938, Unity told Winston how “everyone looked happy & full of hope for the future” in that conquered nation. This misguided relative, blind to the hateful frenzy of the Nazi movement, appalled Winston. “A large majority of the people of Austria loathes the idea of coming under Nazi rule,” he corrected her. “It was because Herr Hitler feared the free expression of opinion that we are compelled to witness the present dastardly outrage.”

The Kennedys became aware of Unity’s dalliance with Hitler primarily through the friendship of Kick and her older brothers with the youngest Mitford sister, Deborah. (However, “Debo”, as her friends called her, didn’t share the extreme politics of her older sister.) During a tour of Germany in August 1939, Joe Kennedy Jr. bumped into Unity in Munich. “Unity Mitford is one of the most unusual women I have ever met,” he wrote back to his father. “She is the most fervent Nazi imaginable and is probably in love with Hitler.”

Eventually, despondent over her beloved Führer, Unity shot herself in the head, a botched suicide attempt that left her impaired for years until she died of infection. But in September 1938, when most British officials wanted to avoid conflict with Germany at almost any cost, Winston believed Unity Mitford was just a more virulent example of the growing number willing to appease Hitler. That same month, Churchill condemned Chamberlain for agreeing with Hitler to a peace pact at Munich, calling it a “disaster of the first magnitude”. The agreement soon opened the door for the Nazis to run roughshod over Czechoslovakia, and left them hungering for more lands to conquer. “We have sustained a defeat without a war,” Churchill thundered in Parliament, “the consequences of which will travel far with us along our road.”

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