Admiring the Mitfords

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Tina Brown

In September, veteran editor Tina Brown reviewed The Six, a new joint biography — no, not of the half-dozen famous French composers who went by that collective monicker — but of Britain’s notorious Mitford sisters, some of whom we’ve been discussing this week. Brown wondered:

Why did [Diana] and Unity find the shimmer of totalitarian violence so attractive? Why were they dazzled by the glamour of authoritarianism…? Why were even their milder siblings — placid Pam, brother Tom, and their refined, aloof mother, Sydney — also fascist sympathizers…? Why was Jessica drawn to — or blind to — Stalin’s nominally left-wing brand of murderous tyranny?

These were, of course, sensible questions (even though the bit about Stalin being “nominally left-wing” was an absurd, transparently feeble effort by the left-wing Brown to delink Stalin from “the left”). But they were followed by an utterly outrageous question: “So which of ‘The Six’ does one come to admire?”

Admire?

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Hadley Freeman

Brown isn’t alone in thinking that there’s actually something worth admiring about these women. Alas, any number of biographers, memoirists, and others have spoken of the Mitfords in similar terms. One of them is Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman. Two years ago, she confessed to her own intense admiration for the Mitfords – and further confessed that she was uneasy about feeling such a powerful fondness for them.

Why was Freeman uneasy? Because Jessica was a Stalinist and the others were Nazis (or at least Nazi sympathizers to some degree or other)? No. Freeman was uneasy because she was worried that admiring the Mitfords is “seen as something girlish, shallow and immature, like having an over-developed fondness for ponies, or wanting to be a ballerina.”

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The Mitford family

Freeman went on – and if you’re reading this standing up, please sit down:

As a middle-class American – and Jewish, to boot – I should be repulsed by the Mitfords. That I’m not is because they collectively represent something much greater than their (fascinating) biographical details….To me, and I suspect to a lot of other women (for it is mainly women) whom they fascinate, they remain an exciting reminder of a woman’s ability to shape her own life, for better or worse, uncowed by familial and social expectations and restrictions.

Yes, you read that right: the ultimate lesson of the Mitfords’ lives – the lives, that is, of these slavish, foolish, pathetic acolytes of Hitler and Stalin – is all about female empowerment.

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Nancy Mitford

Freeman continued: “Decca went from being a pampered, uneducated aristocratic child to a fierce civil rights campaigner in the US.” Well, yes, Jessica (Decca) did involve herself in the U.S. civil-rights movement – but she did so because she, like her Kremlin masters, saw CPUSA participation in that movement as advancing the larger cause of spreading Communism in the Western world. As for Diana, wrote Freeman, she “remained unapologetically devoted” to her husband Oswald Mosley “to the day he died.” Yes, Diana loved her husband, the most dangerous Fascist in British history – and she also kept praising Adolf Hitler until the day she died. Nancy? She “lived a somewhat lonely life in Paris, writing novels.” Hoffman delicately omits to mention Unity, presumably because Unity’s devotion to Adolf Hitler was so fanatical that even Hoffman can’t find a way to prettify it.

“How many of us,” Hoffman asked, after offering up these perverse thumbnail portraits,

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Unity Mitford with Hitler

can say that we pursued such individualistic lives, utterly unshaped by our parents and unlike our siblings?….it might sound odd to say this about a family spiced with such bitter ingredients as Hitler and loss, but what the Mitford sisters represent is courage and freedom.

Hoffman was right about one thing: yep, this did sound odd. More than odd.

mitford_1441145cFor this was, in fact, a family of sisters who hated freedom, and made no secret of it. Indeed, if Unity, Diana, and Jessica hadn’t made so much noise about their hatred of freedom and love of totalitarianism, chances are they’d hardly be remembered today. Yes, the West’s twentieth-century struggle to defend liberty against the scourges of Nazism and Communism yielded up a great many examples of remarkable courage in the cause of freedom: the rows of grave in military cemeteries across Europe testify to that. To use these same words to sum up the lives of the vile Mitford maidens is, it must be said, nothing less than obscene.

The Red Mitford

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The Mitford family

In the last couple of days, we’ve examined the lives of Unity and Diana Mosley, the celebrated British sisters who became friends and fans of Adolf Hitler. Today we’ll look at their sister Jessica (1917-96), whose love of totalitarianism, unlike theirs, had a crimson tinge. In 1937, Jessica – known to intimates as “Decca” or “Dec” – eloped to Spain with her “wastrel” cousin Esmond Romilly, who had decided to join the International Brigade and fight for the Soviet-supported Republican side. Two years later Jessica and Esmond moved to America, indifferent to the looming war until Germany invaded their beloved Soviet Union, an act that inspired Romilly to join the Canadian Air Force. He was killed in action in 1941, after which Jessica found a government job in Washington and married her second husband, a “’Red’ labor lawyer” (to quote Christopher Hitchens) named Robert Treuhaft.

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Jessica with her second husband, Robert Treuhaft

Like Jessica, Treuhaft was a Communist. She became a U.S. citizen not because she loved America but so that she could join the Party and work towards America’s destruction. She and Treuhaft moved to Oakland, California, where they took part regularly in Party activities. They remained active CPUSA members for fifteen years, staying within the fold even after 1956, when the Soviets invaded Hungary and Nikita Khrushchev spelled out the horrific crimes against humanity that his predecessor, Josef Stalin, had committed in the name of the Revolution. Jessica (who defended the brutal Soviet incursion into Hungary as a means of preserving the “socialist system” against a “fascist coup”) had two children, but later admitted to a friend that she was so “preoccupied with CP politics when they were growing up” that “while I was v. fond of them, I didn’t pay too much attention to them when they were little.” 

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Josef Stalin

When she left the Party in 1958, it wasn’t because she’d recognized its ideology as evil, but because she felt it had become “rather drab and useless.” Her issue with the Party, then, wasn’t philosophical or moral, but aethetic and practical. (Perhaps the real problem was that Stalin had died in 1953, and, after giving Khrushchev a few years, she finally decided that he just didn’t provide her with the same delicious frisson.) Though she would later say that she could scarcely imagine “living in America in those days and not being a Party member,” she was far happier in America than she’d been in England, which she considered unbearably bleak. (One can only imagine how bleak she might’ve found the Soviet Union, if she’d been forced to actually live there under the system she served.)

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Jessica Mitford in her later years

Her grisly 1963 exposé of stateside funerary practices, The American Way of Death, made Jessica even more famous in America than she’d been as a glittering young thing back in Blighty. She went on to write many other well-received books. When the USSR collapsed, she expressed neither joy nor regret. As with her Nazi sisters Unity and Diana, her politics didn’t keep her from making famous friends – including, in her case, Maya Angelou (herself a longtime fellow traveler) and Washington Post publishers Philip and Katherine Graham.

Nor have her politics kept writers and journalists from treating her with more respect and admiration than some might think she deserves. We’ll conclude this survey of the Mitfords tomorrow with a brief look at this very subject – namely, the tendency of some biographers, memoirists, reviewers, and sundry scribblers to treat the Mitfords’ love of totalitarianism less as a moral outrage than as a curious personality quirk.  

The glamorous Nazi

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.

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Diana Mitford

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.

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Oswald Mosley

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.

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Diana and Unity at the 1937 Nuremberg rally

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.

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Diana and Oswald Mosley

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.”

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Diana with her son Max Mosley, who ended up becoming president of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile

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.”

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Lady Diana Mosley in her later years

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.

“More Nazi than the Nazis”

How can it have taken us so long to get around to the Mitfords? This group of aristocratic English sisters were, in their time, the very personification of useful stoogery. They were to totalitarianism what the Spice Girls were to pop music.

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The Mitford siblings in 1935: Unity, Tom, Deborah, Diana, Jessica, Nancy, and Pamela

Well, not all of them. There were six girls in toto. Pamela (1914-48) was “the boring Mitford”; Deborah (1920-2014) was the respectable one, marrying a duke and ending up being named a Dame Commander by Queen Elizabeth II for her charitable work. Nancy (1904-73) became a famous novelist. There was also a brother, Tom (1909-45), who, after refusing to take arms against the Axis powers because he was himself a fascist, was sent by the British Army to fight in Burma, where he died in battle.

But the other three sisters were – not to put too fine a point on it– pretty horrific. And one of the things that are horrific about them is that many people who should have known better celebrated them as the epitome of fabulousness. Yes, their politics might have been offensive – but oh, how beautiful, elegant, sophisticated, witty, charming, and magnetizing they were!

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Unity Mitford

Just how offensive were their politics? Just for starters, take Unity (1914-48). As some observers have joked, she was destined from conception to be a Nazi: she was conceived in an Ontario town called (of all things) Swastika and, just to top it off, was given the middle name Valkyrie. A beautiful blonde, over six feet tall, she kept a pet rat and pet snake. From an early age, she was a full-fledged Jew-hater and Nazi-lover. Her life goal was to meet Hitler, and she moved to Munich in 1934 so she could learn German and thus be able to converse with him when that magical encounter occurred.

Once in the Third Reich, Unity lost no time networking with the Nazi beau monde. After the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer published a letter in which she proclaimed her anti-Semitism, the paper’s editor, Julius Streicher, was so impressed that he invited Unity to speak to a crowd to 200,000 at a summer festival. He also invited her to his home, where after a dinner party, by her own account, he brought up Jews “from the cellar” and made them “eat grass to entertain the guests.” She gave no sign of finding this spectacle offensive. Far from it.

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Unity Mitford with Julius Streicher

While waiting to bump into the Führer, Unity also began the practice – buckle your seatbelts, now – of inviting groups of SS officers to her flat, where, beneath large swastika banners and surrounded by framed portraits of Hitler, they ravished her in sadomasochistic orgies while the “Horst Wessel Song” (the Nazi Party anthem) played on a victrola. These erotic escapades were conceived by Unity as a kind of “eucharist” – as dark, perverse acts of Hitler-worship.

Then came the day she described in a letter to her father as the “most wonderful and beautiful” of her life: she finally met Hitler. He had heard about her antics with his SS men, and was curious about (which is to say, apparently turned on by) them. She told him that “she only thought of him during these acts, and they were a symbol of her submission to his control.” He told her to keep up with the SS sex sessions, and over the next few years she socialized with the Führer frequently, routinely recounting to him the details of her latest gang-bang.

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Unity with Hitler

Hitler was so fond of Unity that he let her pick out a new apartment for herself from a list of those that had been expropriated by the authorities from their rightful Jewish owners. (Reportedly, “the owners of the one she chose sobbed as they watched her comment on the curtains.”) Hitler also told Unity that the two of them would spend the afterlife together, and he put it in her head that at some point she would have to kill herself so that they could be reunited in Valhalla. She was so close to him, and so fervent in her admiration, that the British Secret Services described her as being “more Nazi than the Nazis.”

It was over lunch in August 1939, only three weeks before the invasion of Poland, that Hitler informed Unity that it was time for her to take her life. A month later, after the war had begun, she shot herself in the head in Munich’s Englischer Garten. But she survived, and Hitler had her and her hospital stretcher put on a train to Switzerland. From there she was transported back to England, where she died in 1948 – three years after her beloved Führer had effected his own translation from this world to the next.