Why on earth are you writing about Unity Mitford, I used to be asked in the course of researching her biography. All she ever did was to make an exhibition of herself as a Nazi and anti-Semite. Settling in Germany and learning German, she had picked Adolf Hitler up in February 1935 by the simple expedient of sitting day after day with a friend, Mary Wooddisse from Nottingham, in the Munich restaurant where he liked to spend time with his cronies. He sent Wilhelm Brückner, one of his adjutants, over with an invitation to join his table, and fantasy became reality. While peace lasted, these two ideological soulmates met frequently in Munich, Berlin, and the Eagle’s Nest retreat of Berchtesgaden. Eager to please and flatter him by word and deed in private and in public, she undoubtedly touched what passed as the heart of that emotionally handicapped freak.
Born in the opening week of World War I, she was christened Unity Valkyrie, both names loaded with premonition. Lord and Lady Redesdale, Farve and Muv to her, and their one son and six daughters were just in time to enjoy the privilege of the British upper classes to do as they pleased and plead eccentricity if they went off the rails. None of them ever had contact with the workaday lives of other people. Shifting alliances and enmities were the constant feature of a family so numerous and enclosed in itself; sister Nancy Mitford’s novels reduce this hothouse competition to an ongoing comedy of manners. One of Unity’s nicknames was Bobo, and photographs show her growing into a heavy blonde Valkyrie whose set expression conveys resolve to keep up with her more beautiful and more intelligent sisters. If she had any talent at all, it was for drawing. The sample of her letters and diaries that came into my hands did little or nothing to clarify how and why devotion to Hitler had come to fill her whole being or what she may have hoped would be its outcome. The language is embarrassingly childish, her writing unformed, with a line through the letter s that gives it the look of a dollar sign. She shows no powers of observation or description, and worse, no self-consciousness.
Four years older than Unity, her sister Diana was a role model. Running away from her first husband to live with Sir Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists, Diana became perhaps the most prominent Nazi and anti-Semitic woman in Britain. Unity went one better. Three months after she had entered Hitler’s inner circle, Julius Streicher, one of Hitler’s veteran comrades-in-arms and publisher of the anti-Semitic magazine Der Stürmer, invited her to speak at the Midsummer Night celebration of Nazism that he organized annually on the Hesselberg, a slope of a hill near Nuremberg. Having praised Streicher, she sent a personal credo to be published in Der Stürmer containing the words: “I want everyone to know that I am a Jew-hater.” Charlotte Mosley, Sir Oswald’s daughter-in-law, has edited The Mitfords: Letters between Six Sisters, and in one to Diana dated February 8, 1936, Unity quotes Hitler telling her in confidence, “in two years time the German army will be the strongest, not only in Europe but in the world [sic].” All she is able to summon by way of comment is, “Isn’t it wonderful.” She knew nothing at first hand about Jews or military matters.
Count János Almásy was a good-looking ladies’ man as well as a Nazi who flew the swastika over his castle in the Austrian Burgenland. He courted Unity, and several neighbors remembered hearing at the time his complaints that she rebuffed his advances and he could not understand why. It may be that she had some ideal of keeping herself for Hitler. Unity and Eva Braun, the mistress whom Hitler married at the end of his life, have left a record of mutual jealousy. Suspicious of Unity and her possible intentions, Hitler’s adjutants would devise pretexts to enter the room whenever she was alone with him. Unity’s letter of March 29, 1939, again to Diana, captures her unquestioning adoration: “I had lunch with the Führer on Sunday and Monday, and he asked me to send you viele Grüsse [many greetings]. Both days he was in his very sweetest mood, particularly on Monday, he held my hand most of the time and looked sweet and said ‘Kind’ [child] in his sympathetic way because he was so sorry about England and Germany being such enemies. However he said nothing but wonderful things about England and he completely gave me faith again that it will all come right in the end.”
And now, long after I had amassed the available evidence of her life, out of the blue a stranger sends me an e-mail with a rather unpromising story about an old tin full of Unity Mitford papers. A friend clearing a house had wished it on to him. A retired cab driver, he had had to ask his local librarian who Unity was; she did not know either. Google came up with me, my book, and my website.
In a spirit of doubt, I drove about a hundred miles northwards from London. A whole industry is busy faking Nazi documents for an uncritical market. Inside this tin were a couple of typed pages concerning provenance. Returning to England after attempting to kill herself, Unity had managed to keep hold of papers that mattered to her. When she died, it appeared, Lady Redesdale had made a present of the lot to a local woman who had taken pity on Unity. The unworldly Lady Redesdale had been converted to Nazism by Unity, but the gift of papers certain to fix the future image of Unity was surely rather too unworldly a gesture. Mother and daughter’s names, furthermore, were misspelled as Lady Reidsdale and Lady Unity Valcery Mitford.
But here was a sepia photograph of Unity, dated 1938, with her inscription, genuine and slightly creepy in the context of discovery, “For David. Remember me.” Almost certainly the reference is to David Streatfeild, an English expatriate and neighbor and close friend of János Almásy; the two shared an interest in a number of quasi-intellectual subjects. One of the theories he pursued was that Hitler and Unity had recognized at some profound level of the psyche that they were two of a kind, both too self-absorbed to acknowledge the humanity of anyone else.
The next photograph, actually a postcard, was of Hitler. He had written across the top of it: “Bobo, mein Walküre. Ich bin bei Dir, du seist auch noch so ferne — du bist mir nahe. Ich werde dich nie vergessen,” and signed with his illegible squiggle. The translation on the reverse is not in Unity’s hand: “To Bobo my Valkyrie. I am always with you however far away you may be you are always next to me. I will never forget you.” Another photograph, also a postcard, shows Julius Streicher doing his best to strike a heroic pose in a uniform with a swastika armband. His inscription to Unity is obviously intended to be suggestive: “Du bist wunderschön. Du bist mein Ein und Alles. Mein Herz gehört Dir.” This time the translation is in Unity’s hand: “You are beautiful. You are my Everything. My heart will always belong to you.” At the bottom of the card he had added “Hesselberg 1935,” commemorating their moment of shared Jew-hatred. (Hitler broke with Streicher and disgraced him on the grounds that his old comrade had “only one disease and that was nympholepsy.” In his heyday, Diana Mosley had also run after Streicher, changing her opinion 40 years later, as quoted in Letters between Six Sisters: “He was about two feet high and wildly unattractive.”)
Unity’s pencil drawing of Hitler, duly signed by her and titled “Germany’s greatest son,” looks like a careful copy of a portrait rather than one taken from life. Another document is the title page of Mein Kampf, detached from a presentation copy of the 254th edition and dated 1938. “Für meine Walküre Unity,” Hitler wrote, again signing with his hieroglyphic squiggle. The other autographs on the page comprise a Nazi Who’s Who, among them Goering, Himmler, Josef Goebbels and his wife Magda, Ribbentrop, Speer, and Baldur von Schirach. On the page’s margin is the signature of János with three little crosses to signify kisses. Unity had collected and saved visiting cards — 23 in number — from these and other high-ups then preparing the thousand years of the Third Reich. All noted down their private telephone numbers. On his card, Hitler had further advice: “In einem Notfall ring Schaub” — in an emergency, ring Schaub, the adjutant closest to him. Here is the card and private number of Reinhard Heydrich, a most ruthless organizer of genocide. Also Karl Brandt, who was hanged after the war for treating medical experiments as a form of torture, but to Unity he was “My quackie.” “Yum Yum!” she commented on Magda Goebbels’s card, and “Yummy!” on Leni Riefenstahl’s. The name of Hitler’s favorite film director is misspelled, which may explain that when she wrote on her card “Ring soon me,” she was making a joke of getting things the wrong way round. (When I interviewed her, she claimed never to have met Unity.) “Horrible woman” is the comment reserved for Jutta Rüdiger, head of the Bund Deutscher Mädel, and “Bastard” for Wilhelm Brückner. From corner to corner on Eva Braun’s card Unity has inked a disobliging cross.
In June 1939, Hitler arranged for her to acquire an apartment in the Agnesstrasse in Munich and he paid various expenses. In the course of a preliminary visit, she and a German friend, daughter of an industrialist, discussed future decoration as the Jewish owners stood listening frightened and weeping as they realized that they were about to be dispossessed. Unity preserved the letter from the faithful Mary Wooddisse: “Thank you so much for inviting me to your new residence. It’s very grand.” A postscript asks, “Have you invited ‘him’ [sic] over to see it yet?” From that apartment Unity set out for the nearby park on the first day of the war and shot herself there. The bullet lodged in her brain but was not fatal. Hitler put his private train at her disposal; she returned home and Lady Redesdale took care of her, the two of them isolated much of the time on the Scottish island of Inch Kenneth. At some point there during the war, Unity wrote “My Service for Sunday,” a sort of incantation. I took the view that once she had shot herself she was in a limbo beyond value judgments, but Lady Redesdale thought it worth handing to her friend this farrago ostensibly addressed to God. “Make sure that I go to heaven and sit there with the Fuhrer [sic] for ever and ever. Let all his enemies be smitten down especially the jews [sic] which will serve them all right.” Unity’s bullet wound developed into meningitis and she died in 1948.
Incredulity, the sheer improbability of her life, had induced me to write her biography. In the years when Hitler was bending Europe so disastrously to his will, Unity had been closer to him than anyone else of English or other foreign nationality. In these newly discovered documents, remains of sticking tape still attach to the photographs of Hitler and Streicher, and the cards of the chief Nazis all have drawing-pin holes to show that they had once been mounted or framed, a monument to illusion that even world war could not put an end to. Like Hitler, she was to find that fanaticism whose aim is to destroy other people also destroys the fanatic. It is a cautionary tale of our times.