Yesterday we began discussing the Mitford sisters, who during the last century were glamorous – and notorious – celebrities in their native Britain. We kicked off the family portrait with Unity (1914-48), who adored Adolf Hitler and ended up becoming his intimate friend.
But Unity wasn’t the only Nazi in the Mitford clan. Her sister Diana (1910-2003) was described by various observers as “the peerless beauty of the family” and as “the nearest thing to Botticelli’s Venus that I have ever seen.” Her admirer Evelyn Waugh, who said that she “ran through the room like a peal of bells,” dedicated his novel Vile Bodies to her. At eighteen she married the heir to the Guinness brewery fortune; but then, in 1932, she met Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists. It was love at first sight.
Their politics were a perfect match. At a 1935 rally in Hyde Park where everyone else was singing “God Save the King,” Diana gave a Heil Hitler salute. Together with Unity, she attended several of Nazis’ annual Nuremberg rallies; in 1936 Hitler (who called her and Unity his “angels”) sent a chauffeured Mercedes to transport her to the Berlin Olympics.
In that same year, after spending four years sneaking around with Mosley behind her husband’s back, Diana divorced Guinness and married her Fascist amour. The wedding took place at the Berlin home of Joseph Goebbels, with Hitler himself in attendance. During the years leading up to the war, Diana explored with Nazi officials the possibility of starting a Germany-based radio station that would broadcast into Britain, mixing popular music with English-language propaganda.
Four years later, back in the U.K., Mosley was thrown in prison. Under interrogation by British authorities, Diana admitted that “she would like to see the German system of government in England because of all it had achieved in Germany.” Unbeknownst to Diana, her sister Nancy had testified against her, calling her even more of a dangerous fanatic than Mosley himself. Diana soon joined her husband behind bars, although her cousin Winston Churchill saw to it that their accommodations were comfortable, if not downright luxurious. (The prison priest called their quarters at Holloway Prison “the Garden of Eden.”) Their release in 1943 caused widespread public outrage.
After the war, Diana and Oswald relocated to a mansion on the outskirts of Paris. Dubbed “La Temple de la Gloire,” it was located near the home of their close friends and political soulmates the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Unrepentant in her Nazism, Diana edited a Fascist magazine; following Mosley’s death in 1970, she continued to support and socialize with the British Union of Fascists. Even as she denied that she and her husband had ever been anti-Semites, she clung to the idea that it wouldn’t have been terribly unreasonable to resettle the European Jews in “somewhere like Uganda – very empty and lovely climate.”
Though some upper-crust Brits spurned her society, she didn’t mind: “Being hated,” she wrote to her sister Deborah in 2001, “means absolutely nothing to me, as you know.” Yet in her last days she pooh-poohed the image of herself and Mosley as postwar outcasts: “The story about us being pariahs and all that, it’s all nonsense really,” she said in 2002. “I’ve never had rudeness or disagreeableness ever….If you met the Communists at dinner, you wouldn’t have a row.” Her Nazi views certainly didn’t keep editors at The Times of London, Evening Standard, and Spectator from assigning her book reviews.
When historian Andrew Roberts interviewed her not long before her death, she still talked like an old Nazi. “Hitler was attractive,” she told Roberts, “though not handsome, with great inner dynamism and charm….I don’t suppose I’ve met anyone quite so charming.” Asked about the Holocaust, she said: “I’m sure he was to blame for the extermination of the Jews….He was to blame for everything, and I say that as someone who approved of him.” What, inquired Roberts, would she do if Hitler were to walk into the room, right then and there? “I should have to be pleased,” Diana answered, “and ask him how it had been in Hell, or Heaven, or wherever he’d been.”
When she died, the obituarists mentioned her Nazism but – in a surprising number of instances – chose to emphasize her charm. The headline of Sarah Lyall’s obit in the New York Times read: “Lady Diana Mosley, Fascist Who Dazzled, Is Dead at 93.” Diana, wrote Lyall, had “presided over a beautifully decorated house, Temple de la Gloire, where she gardened, wrote, read, gave interviews, kept up on London literary gossip and entertained an endless stream of glittery visitors who were, inevitably, thoroughly enchanted by her quick wit, sparkling appearance, and sly sense of humor…she was always impeccably dressed, always a gracious hostess, and always intellectually vigorous.” Some Nazi! The novelist and critic A.N. Wilson, a friend of Diana’s, called her the “most beautiful, most intelligent, and most beguiling of the celebrated Mitford sisters.” And Hitler? All too many of Diana’s necrologists reduced him to little more than a footnote in her glamorous life.