- - Monday, August 17, 2015



By David R.L. Litchfield

The History Press/Trafalgar Square, $18.95, 349 pages, illustrated


It is no exaggeration to say that in 1940, Unity Mitford was probably the most hated woman in Britain. One of the celebrated Mitford sisters so beloved by gossip columnists and sensational journalism, she was not only a dedicated Nazi but had made it her personal mission to go to Germany in the mid-1930s and become part of Hitler’s inner circle. That she should have succeeded in doing just that is perhaps even more remarkable than the fanaticism which inspired it. Supposedly distraught at the outbreak of war between her native and adopted lands, she shot herself in the head, failing to kill but severely wounding herself. Her devoted fuhrer arranged for her to be sent to neutral Switzerland, where her family collected her and brought her back home. Here this unrepentant traitorous Hitlerite was allowed to live out her days undisturbed let alone unpunished: hence the hatred of her fellow Britons.

Over the years, though, furious enmity was gradually replaced with denigration increasingly mixed with pity, especially after she died from her wound in 1948. One of the strengths of this scathing account of Unity Mitford’s depravity is its efforts to correct a whitewashing of this sociopath by her family and by writers enthralled and misled by them. The vicious anti-Semitism and enthusiastic Nazism were attributed to a mixture of eccentricity, innocence, silliness and general lack of education, intelligence and cognitive powers.

The author, David Litchfield, dismisses this and shows quite convincingly that she was a deadly serious — with the emphasis on deadly — fanatic who was absolutely sincere in her rebarbative views and definitely knew just what she was doing. He claims special knowledge through his grandmother who was part of her Nazi circle in prewar Munich and his mother, whose father was a doctor in the village where the Mitford family lived when Unity was growing up. But there is plenty of other straw in the solid bricks of this book, including statements by Unity in the public record.

For it is all too obvious that Unity Mitford was not merely a poseur. There was nothing banal about her adherence to evil and even the redoubtable David Pryce-Jones, whose 1977 book “Unity Mitford: An Enquiry into the Frivolity of Evil” so upset her surviving sisters, was too soft on her. There was nothing frivolous about her moth dance around the Nazi flame. Writing to Julius Streicher’s infamous Jew-baiting newspaper Der Sturmer in June 1935, this was what she had to say:

“England for the English! Out with the Jews! With German greeting, Heil Hitler. P.S. Please publish my whole name. I want everyone to know that ‘I am a Jew-hater.’ “

Lest you think this is all just hatred frothing at the mouth with no link to action, consider this vignette served up by Mr. Litchfield. Rejoicing in the acquisition of an apartment in Munich “requisitioned” from its Jewish owners in the aftermath of Kristallnacht, “while Unity was making plans for redecoration and furnishing, the terrified Jewish owners had still been present prior to their forcible dispossession. Witnessing their fear and despair would presumably have entertained Unity and increased the flat’s attraction for her no end.”

I have to say that having read just about everything written about the Mitfords, I find that much if not all of what Mr. Litchfield writes here rings true. His account of how Unity became an intimate part of Hitler’s inner circle, one of the few to use the familiar “du” in addressing him, is gripping and for the most part convincing. The most sensational claims, concerning her promiscuous, orgiastic sex life with members of the SS and Hitler’s voyeuristic interest in her highly colored accounts of this in her tete-a-tetes with him, presumably come from what he takes to be his grandmother’s special knowledge. Who is to say that she was not correct? Certainly, in light of what the many sober, authoritative biographies of Hitler tell us about his perverted sexual history, these encounters are more believable than the facile judgment that Unity and the fuhrer simply enjoyed an affair.

Ironically, given the Mitford family’s long campaign to explain away Unity as a lovable eccentric, it is her eldest sister Nancy who provides the neatest insight into her character. With her famously sharp but accurate way with words, she nailed her sister with her nicknames for her: “Stoneyheart,” and the even more devastating “Head of Bone and Heart of Stone.” Mr. Litchfield may quarrel with the boneheaded part given his surprisingly high estimation of her intelligence, but even he would not quarrel with its connotation of obstinate thick-headedness. Of the hard-heartedness, there can be no disputing.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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