Unity Mitford, The English Society Girl Who Loved Hitler
Unity Mitford first came to public attention as a debutante, a society beauty, during the 1930s. She was a member of a family of modern-thinking, high achieving girls, who scandalized and titillated the establishment with an exciting concoction combining British hauteur, sublime literary skill and wild and extreme political activities.
Unity achieved her peak of notoriety in the mid 1930s when she became a fervent supporter and admirer of Adolf Hitler and went to Germany to spend years as his adoring disciple. She achieved legendary status when she shot herself in a Munich park at the outbreak of The Second World War.
Although the bullet entered her brain, Unity survived and was allowed by Hitler to return to Britain. She lived out the last few years of her life as a brain damaged invalid.
She was born Unity Valkyrie Mitford on 8 August, 1914, into an unconventional British aristocratic family. In order to take a look at and fully understand Unity's life, it is worth examining her parents and siblings in more detail.
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An Amazing Family
The father was David Freeman-Mitford, later Lord Redesdale, whose family could trace its origins back to the eleventh century Norman settlement of England. In 1904 he married Sydney Bowles who was the granddaughter of Thomas Bowles who established the two well-known London society magazines, "Vanity Fair" and "The Lady" in the late 1890's. They had seven children, six girls and a boy, all of whom achieved public distinction or disgrace in varying degrees. In the above picture, taken in 1925, are, back row Nancy and Thomas, middle, Diana and Pamela, and front, Unity, Jessica and Deborah.
Nancy Mitford (1904-73)
A moderate socialist, she became a highly successful authoress, writing eight novels (the most well known of which are 'Love in Cold Climate', 'The Pursuit of Love' and 'Don't Tell Alfred'), affectionately satirizing upper-class life in England and France, as well as several biographies. She had a longstanding relationship with French politician and statesman Gaston Palewski and lived in France much of her adult life.
Pamela Mitford (1907-94)
The 'quiet one' was overshadowed by her brilliant sisters in childhood. The poet John Betjeman fell in love with her and one of his most famous poems is about her - but she married a brilliant scientist, Derek Jackson. Both she and her husband had pro-Nazi views. After divorcing her husband she lived the remainder of her life with a woman.
Unity was a strong-willed, rebellious child with a wild sense of humor. After being asked to leave two private schools for indiscipline, she received her education at St Margaret's School, in Bushey in southern England.
Although she was a striking looking girl she found it difficult to live with her large family of high achieving sisters and she liked to shock people as a way of drawing attention to herself.
When she "came out" into society as a debutante in 1932, aged seventeen, she gained a reputation as a joker and was known to occasionally take a pet rat to society dances.
Major Thomas Mitford (1909-45)
Tom Mitford was the only son. Brilliantly articulate, he was educated at Eton, and used to pay his sisters a shilling an hour to argue with him to practice his debating skills. He went on to become a barrister, and at the outbreak of the Second World War joined the Army, but was shot in Burma nine weeks before the war ended. He never married and was reputed to have had many gay affairs
Diana Mitford (1910-2003)
The beautiful Diana became a social icon in 1929 when she married Bryan Guinness, heir to the Guinness fortune. After falling in love with Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Fascist party in 1932, she subsequently left Guinness, in the society scandal of the year, to set herself up as Mosley's mistress. Because of this she spent much of the second world war in a prison cell with Mosley. She supported him totally from that time on and when he died in 1970 she mourned him for the rest of her long life
She inherited her family's love of politics and as a young teenager she developed an anti semitism and love of the far right wing when her elder sister, Diana, left her husband, aristocrat and writer Bryan Walter Guinness, and began an affair with Oswald Mosley (pictured, right) who had just founded the British Union of Fascists.
Unity discovered that far right politics was the ultimate weapon she needed to shock people. She joined Mosley's Fascist group and often went around in a black shirt uniform. She liked to turn up at meetings of left wing groups and do the fascist salute and heckle the speaker.
The Five Eldest Sisters
Jessica, Nancy, Diana, Unity and Pamela
When Hitler acceded to power in Germany in 1933, Unity announced her intention to go to Germany, to learn the language, and meet the FÃ¼hrer himself. Bizarre as this sounded, she was given permission to go by her parents and in the same year she and Diana saw Hitler for the first time when they travelled to the 1933 Nuremberg Rally as part of the delegation from the British Union of Fascists.
Diana and Unity in NurenbergThis first sight of the Fuhrer turned Unity's conviction into worship and from then on she devoted her life to meeting Hitler and being part of his life. She told her family, "The first time I saw him I knew there was no one I would rather meet."
Unity returned to Germany in the summer of 1934, and enrolled in a language school in Munich close to the Nazi Party headquarters. Within a year, when she returned home for a visit, she had accomplished her two main objectives. She had learned to speak good German, and had met not only Hitler, but the rest of his entourage including Himmler, Goering, Hess and Goebbels.
The way in which she did it was very simple. She effectively became what is today called a stalker. One of the more extraordinary things about Hitler's daily life at that time was that he was so predictable. He liked to go to the same cafes and restaurants and he made himself available to the public. Unity found out that Hitler and the inner circle of Nazis often dined at the Osteria Bavaria restaurant in Munich. She reserved a nightly table there and each evening waited until they arrived and simply sat and stared at them.
She was very persistent and after many months she was finally invited over to their table and then spoke with Hitler for half an hour. In a letter home she described it as "the most wonderful and beautiful" day and continued, "For me he is the greatest man of all time."
Jessica Mitford (1917-96)
Jessica, known as Decca, became fascinated by pacifism and left-wing politics and ran away at the age of 19 with Esmond Romilly, Winston Churchill's nephew, and then moved to America. After Romilly's death during the war she married again to the radical lawyer, Robert Treuhaft and they both joined the American Communist party. She wrote several books, including 'The American Way of Death', in 1963, which changed the way people felt about the funeral business.
Deborah Mitford (b. 1920)
Deborah, when she was 6, made it clear to all that her ambition was to be a Duchess and that is exactly what she did. At 21 she married Andrew Cavendish, second son of the Duke of Devonshire, and they inherited the enormous Chatsworth Estate which had become very run down. The house has since flourished under her keen business sense and dedication and she has made it one of the premier tourist attractions in England.
Hitler's Inner Circle
Hitler, in turn was flattered by the obvious devotion of the attractive blonde English girl and described her as "a perfect specimen of Aryan womanhood." From then on she became a constant member of their group and accompanied them to party rallies and state occasions as an accepted member of their circle.
She lived for the next five years mainly in Germany. Her flagrant anti-Semitism became more pronounced during this time and in 1936 she wrote a shockingly anti-Semitic open letter in Julius Streicher's newspaper 'Der StÃ¼rmer', with the postscript, "please publish my name in full, I want everyone to know I am a Jew hater." The letter was also published in England and caused widespread revulsion, but she was rewarded by Hitler with an engraved golden swastika badge and a private box at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Hitler and Unity in the English Garden in Munich
Hitler had become used to the company of this "Child" as he called her. She amused him and was light relief in his life. He may even have thought, mistakenly, that, with her background, she might have some influence on British affairs. When Hitler announced the Anschluss in 1938, she appeared with him on the balcony in Vienna and she was later arrested in Prague for distributing Nazi propaganda. In 1938 Hitler found her a flat which had previously belonged to a Jewish couple who had left suddenly. One can only surmise their destination. Unity did not care. She was completely wedded to the Nazi cause, but by the summer of 1939 with Britain and Germany on the brink of war, she was trapped.
The English Garden, Munich
Unity genuinely loved her home country but she loved Germany equally and she persistently pleaded with Hitler to maintain peaceful relations with England. However at the 1939 Bayreuth Festival Hitler warned Unity and the visiting Diana that war with England was inevitable in a very short time and that they should return home.
Whilst Diana did return to England where she was arrested and imprisoned, a distraught Unity decided to remain in Germany, although her family pleaded with her to go home. On September 3rd, 1939, upon hearing that Germany had declared on Great Britain, she shot herself in the head in the English Garden in Munich. She used a pearl-handled pistol which had been given to her by Hitler for her protection.
She survived the suicide attempt but the bullet lodged in her brain. She was taken to hospital at Hitler’s expense, and then he arranged for her to be sent to Berne in Switzerland, from where her mother and youngest sister, Deborah collected her in December, 1939.
"She was completely changed," Deborah recalls in Mary Lovell's 2001 book 'The Mitford Girls'. "Her hair was short and all matted. Because of the wound I expect they couldn't do much about washing and combing it; and her teeth were yellow, they had not been brushed since the shooting. She couldn't bear for her head to be touched. She had an odd vacant expression - the most pathetic sight - but it wasn't just her appearance; she was a completely changed person, like somebody who has had a stroke - her memory was very jagged. She recognised us, though."
Unity never recovered enough to live an independent life. Although she learned to walk again, she talked only with difficulty and was incontinent and childish. A succession of doctors decided it was too dangerous to remove the lodged bullet. She was cared for by her mother and sisters. In 1948 she was taken seriously ill on a visit to the family-owned island of Inch Kenneth and was taken to hospital in Oban where she eventually died of meningitis caused by the cerebral swelling around the bullet. She was aged thirty-four.
She was buried at Swinbrook Churchyard, near the family home. She was a fascinating creature who followed the path less well trodden. She was mourned deeply by her family and friends and still is to this day.