Is Unity Mitford's Hitler crush more laughable than Hollywood’s embrace of Hugo Chávez?
The ideologically exotic suitor
Is Unity Mitford's Hitler crush more laughable than Hollywood’s embrace of Hugo Chávez?
The Mitford girls numbered among their social circle the Queen, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Adolf Hitler and Hillary Rodham Clinton. While two of the six sisters made conventional English upper-class marriages—one to a duke, one to a bisexual—the others were more exotically smitten: one wed a Communist, another a Fascist, a third had a lifelong pash for the “randiest man in France” (an extremely competitive title), and the fourth had a tremendous crush on der Führer himself (the least randy man in Germany, by most accounts).
I met two-thirds of the sextet over the years and can attest to their good company: they were all very funny, and all natural writers. The new book The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosley (Diana Mitford’s daughter), is a huge tome that you feel on picking up must surely wear out its welcome very quickly. But, in fact, the gels keep it up right to the end. In the final section, the sole surviving sister, Deborah, the Duchess of Devonshire and a sometime colleague of mine at the London Spectator, visits Graceland, the home of her favourite singer, and marvels at the Jungle Room broadloom—“Green carpet 2 inches long, (thick) & the same on the ceiling”—and Elvis’s display of his gold records, “arranged along long walls in patterns just like swords in a Scotch castle.”
Still, that’s the kind of observation you’d expect aristocratic ladies to be good at. It’s slightly more surreal to encounter the style applied to the great swirling tides of history. The Mitfords contains the all-time daffiest account of June 30,1934, the night of the
long knives, when Hitler settled his scores with Rohm and the SA. The following day— Sunday, July 1—Unity Mitford sat down to write to her sister Diana from Munich: “Darling Nard,
Thank you so much for your letter, & the cutting about Tilly’s divorce. I’m so glad Edward won, although I hardly know him, because I do think she was a little brute to say such horrid things about him.”
That’s a reference to the Austrian dancer, Tilly Losch, who a couple of years earlier had introduced Dancing in the Dark on Broadway. Miss Losch was suing for divorce from the poet Edward James on the grounds of his homosexuality and much else. Mr. James had countersued, accusing his wife of an affair with Prince Serge Obolensky.
Well, so much for the divorce-court chit-chat. After a bit more society talk, Unity turns to the events of the night before:
“Several huge columns of SS, SA & Stahlhelm marched past us to the Brown House [Nazi headquarters in Munich], & huge lorries full of sandbags with SS or Reichswehr sitting on top, & there were SS men dashing about the whole time on motorbikes & cars. It was all very exciting... Today no-one can talk of anything else, & there is a rumour that Schleicher & his wife, Rohm & Heines have all killed themselves. I wonder if it is true.” Er, not exactly. Rohm, Heines and their staff were dragged from their beds and shot. Kurt von Schleicher, former chancellor of Germany, and his fräu were murdered in Berlin. Still, Unity had no doubt who was suffering the most on the morning after:
“I am so terribly sorry for the Führer—you know Rohm was his oldest comrade & friend, the only one that called him ‘du’ in public. How anyone could do what Rohm did I don’t know. It must have been so dreadful for Hitler when he arrested Rohm himself & tore off his decorations. Then he went to arrest Heines & found him in bed with a boy. Did that get into the English papers? Poor Hitler. The whole thing is so dreadful.”
A day or two later, Unity writes to another of her sisters:
Thank you ever so for your letter. How lovely, are you really going to give a party when I get back?”
Etc, etc. But eventually she gets to the political scene:
AT LEAST UNITY MITFORD WAS A GENUINE GIGGLY GIRL. WHAT WAS PIERRE TRUDEAU’S EXCUSE WHEN HE CHEERED ‘VIVA CASTRO!’?
“Poor sweet Führer, he’s having such a dreadful time. Well now I must go...
“Heil Hitler! Love Bobo “P.S. No I didn’t fumble with Rohm at the Brown House. He preferred men you know.” It’s easy to laugh at Unity Mitford 70 years on—mostly because it is 70 years on and we know how the story turned out. (She never did: distressed by the outbreak of war between England and Germany, she shot herself in the head.) Yet in its giggly girlish infatuation her letter captures very well the seductiveness of totalitarianism. And at least Unity in her dictator crush was a genuine giggly girl, a bona fide silly kid. What was Trudeau’s excuse when he cheered “Viva Castro!”? And what was the Canadian media’s excuse when they cooed over Fidel’s appearance at Pierre’s funeral? They seemed to regard his presence
as the sole head of state to think the Father Of Our Country’s passing worth an airline flight as some kind of validation of Trudeaupian Canada, rather than a belated confirmation of its irrelevance.
Down south, Jonah Goldberg has a brilliant new book out called Liberal Fascism, which I hope to address at length in the weeks ahead. I note, however, that American liberals, not surprisingly, don’t care for the title. As it happens, the phrase is H.G. Wells’s, and he meant it approvingly. Unity’s dreamboat Führer described himself as “a man of the left.” Her sister Diana’s husband, Oswald Mosley, was a Labour MP who went on to found the British Union of Fascists. Socialism does not inevitably lead to National Socialism, but in the early thirties statism of one degree or another—Socialism, Communism, Fascism, Nazism—was all the rage, and liberal democracy was assumed by all the great thinkers to be inadequate as an organizing basis for society. If you’re lucky, the totalitarian turn-on extends only to the “great thinkers,” from H.G. Wells arguing for a non-democratic “world state” run by scientists and technocrats to Kevin Spacey, Sean Penn and the other Hollywood big shots squealing orgasmically through their photo-ops with Hugo Chávez (“I’m a fan,” Oliver Stone told him). Even when they’re not in thrall to the personality dictators, a big chunk of Western elites have a strange yen for the sterner ways of distant cultures, from Hillary Clinton’s Hallmark sentimentalization (“It Takes A Village,” etc.) of a tribal existence that’s truly nasty, brutish and short to Germaine Greer’s more explicit defence of “female genital mutilation.” Late in life, Miss Greer has finally found a form of patriarchal oppression that gets her groove back as much as National Socialism did Unity Mitford’s.
If you’re unlucky, it’s not just the elites who fall for ideologically exotic suitors. It would seem to me, given how easily the Continent
embraced all the most idiotic “isms” threequarters of a century ago, that it will surely take up some equally unlovely ones as it faces its perfect storm of an aging native population, a surging Muslim immigrant population, and an unsustainable welfare state. Contemplating some of the bleaker alternatives may be why Edouard Balladur, the former French prime minister and a hitherto impeccable Gaullist, has just published a book calling for a “union of the West ’’—Pour une Union occidentale entre l’Europe et les Etats-Unis (a title which seems to exclude the possibility of any membership for Canada). It will take a more viable long shot than that to save Europe from itself.
A year or so back, I wrote a review of Robert Ferrigno’s fine novel, Prayers for the Assassin. I’d all but forgotten what I said until it turned up in the Canadian Islamic Congress’s “dossier” documenting Maclean’s “flagrant Islamophobia” that they’ve submitted to the thought police of the human rights commissions. Welcome to the new Canada, where reviewing a fictional story about fictional characters gets you hauled up in front of government tribunals. Good luck holding that society together, “liberals.” At the time I reviewed it, I was skeptical of Ferrigno’s premise—that a free Western society would voluntarily convert en masse to Islam. A year on, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched, not if you listen to Miss Greer; or the Rev. Ann Holmes Redding, an Episcopal priest at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle who says she’s also a practising Muslim; or indeed the various correspondents to Canadian newspapers so anxious to sign up to the reductive definition of “free” speech understood by certain Muslim lobby groups.
A Western nation voluntarily embracing sharia? Sounds silly. But so does Unity Mitford. Liberal democracy is squaresville and predictable, small-scale and unheroic, deeply unglamorous compared to the alternatives. And kind of boring. Until it’s gone. M
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