There was nothing exceptional about Diana’s encounter with Adolf Hitler when she met him on the 11th March 1935. Summoned by Unity, who succeeded in befriending the Fuhrer and worming her way into his inner-circle, Diana flew to Paris, collected the elegant Voisin Oswald Mosley had bought for her, and motored to Germany. The events, before she encountered the Fuhrer, seemed far more memorable when she became stranded in heavy snow in the Black Forest and a passing peasant and his horses pulled her to safety.
Upon entering the Osteria Bavaria, Hitler’s favourite restaurant in Munich, Diana discreetly remarked, ‘Look at him [the Fuhrer] in his mackintosh.’ From that low-key impression, she observed he ‘appealed in equal measure to women and to exactly the sort of men he needed’. At the time, Diana could not speak German aside from a phrase or two, and she relied on Unity to translate. Although, on that particular day, there was more silence than conversation, and they stuck to polite small-talk. She claimed that she never heard Hitler rant, or go off on a political tangent.
However, the year before this meeting with Hitler, Diana had indeed witnessed his s showmanship in person when she and Unity visited Munich on a whim because Putzi Hanfstaengl, a friend of her former in-laws, promised to introduce them to the Fuhrer. Having exaggerated his accessibility to Hitler, he produced two tickets to the Parteitag, and later refused them entry to Hitler due to their heavily made-up faces. ‘I can’t do without my lipstick,’ Unity said. A year had passed since this false start, Unity had moved to Germany, and during a visit from Diana they looked up Hanfstaengle ahead of the second Parteitag, but he was less than accommodating and claimed to have no tickets. Having gone to Nuremberg, both women discovered the town was overrun by Nazis and their supporters, and faced with the realisation there were no hotel rooms and no tickets, Unity spied an elderly man wearing a special badge. The badge in question indicated he was one of the Nazi Party’s first members and, schooled on all things to do with Hitler, Unity approached him and confided their misfortune. He duly located a room and found two tickets. They went to the Pateitag, now an elaborate militant display with special effects and blood-and-thunder music. She was lost in translation, but Hitler’s passionate delivery and the crowd’s enthusiasm inspired her to relay his mass appeal to Mosley, whose party was beginning to flounder. In the near future, when she learned German, Diana understood Hitler’s message, it was clear to her, whether she believed it or not, just what he had planned for the Jews when he spoke of his Nuremberg Laws. She overlooked the rampant antisemitism of the speeches to focus on his aspirations for a great and powerful Germany, just like Mosley envisioned for Britain. She was, as her biographer Anne de Courcy wrote, very good at closing her eyes to anything she did not wish to see.
So, from the very first meeting on the 11th March, Diana dissociated Hitler-the-madman from Hitler-the-person, and it was the latter she claimed to have been fond of.
During the visit, Diana observed Hitler had simple tastes, apparent over luncheon at the Osteria Bavaria when he ordered ‘eggs and mayonnaise, and vegetables and pasta, and compote of fruit or a raw grated apple, and Fachingerwasser’. Diana was further impressed by his European manners: he kissed her hand, bowed his head and did not sit down until she was seated. This, she felt necessary to mention in her autobiography, A Life of Contrasts, given the ‘acres of print about Hitler in which his rudeness and bad manners to everyone are emphasised’. Hitler fascinated Diana with his greyish blue eyes, so dark that they often appeared brown and opaque, and like those who possess sinister intentions, he charmed her.
The charm was in abundance; he admired Unity and Diana, the latter in her chic Parisian clothes. And, unlike many in his company, the sisters were not intimidated by him and they conversed freely, often punctuating their sentences with Mitford jokes and witty nuances. To dispel the myth surrounding Unity’s head-over-heels infatuation with Hitler, Diana wrote: ‘Unity was never awed in her entire life. She said what came into her head.’ It was this candour which made the Fuhrer laugh, and in return,‘he inspired affection’.
After the short stay in Munich, Diana and Unity drove to Paris, each taking turns to drive the Voisin. Paris never appealed to Unity the way it did to Diana, and after exhausting the museums and galleries, she left for Germany.
That brief meeting, eighty years ago today, marked a watershed moment in Diana’s life and the decisions that would ultimately seal her fate. Unity, the channel to Hitler, spoke glowingly of Mosley and his British Union of Fascists. When she reported that Hitler showed an interest in meeting Mosley, Diana jumped at the opportunity to form an alliance between the two men.
It does not take a genius or a well-versed Mitfordian to predict what happened next.