I was given a copy of the Mitford sisters’ collected letters, and have sunk, enthralled, into its currents, occasionally surfacing, sputtering and expostulating, to read whole chunks out loud to the nearest victim. The nicknames and the silliness no longer come as news. Even Nancy’s prolonged death from cancer was something I knew about, though it is much more affecting in real time, so to say. But the letters of the fascist sisters, Diana and Unity, in the Thirties, came as a real shock. Knowing someone was a Nazi is entirely different from reading the unmediated reactions of a Nazi to the world around them. Here is Unity after and evening with Hitler:
The next evening, the Führer got into quite a rage twice; the first time with Kannenberg,1 for whom I felt heartily sorry! The second rage, however, was over Reichsminister Gürtner & the new laws he is making. He got angrier & angrier, & at last thundered — you know how he can — like a machine-gun – ‘Das nächste Mal, dass die Richter so einen Mann freilassen, so lasse ich ihn von meiner Leibstandarte verhaften und ins Konzentrationslager schicken; und dann werden wir sehen, welches am stärksten ist, the letter of Herr Gürtner’s law oder meine Maschinen Gewehre!’2 It was wonderful. Everyone was silent for quite a time after that.
It is no doubt very wrong of me to suppose that there are people in the Cheney circle who feel very sorry for the cook when he is chewed out unfairly. Because, after all, they do not send disagreeable judges to be tortured in concentration camps for failing to send others there. This is an important distinction.
Then there was the scandal that touched Unity’s life earlier that summer. She writes to Diana, who would completely understand:
What I couldn’t tell you on the telephone was this. You remember my little friend from Vienna who you said was like an Indian, & his pretty blonde fiancée who asked the Führer for an autograph in the Osteria. Well yesterday she telephoned & said could she come & see me for five minutes, but her fiancé mustn’t know anything about it. So this morning she came, & she was here when you telephoned. You know Heinz, her fiancé, was a member of the SS in Vienna — I believe since 1932. He was a tremendously enthusiastic Nazi & really risked everything for the cause during the Schuschnigg Regime. Well it seems that just after the Machtübernahme his father, also a member of the Partei, who had brought him up to be very ‘nationaldenkend’ [nationalistically minded], told him that both his (Heinz’s) mother’s parents were Jewish. Of course poor Heinz was completely erledigt [shattered] when he heard it, & wanted to shoot himself at once, which it seems to me would have been the best way out.
I begin to sympathise with the husband of Cynthia Heimel, who made a special pilgrimage to Swinbrook on their honeymoon to piss on Unity’s grave. The marriage didn’t last but the gesture deserves to be remembered.
The other great shock of these memoirs was to discover that Unity’s main lover was an Austrian in whose family castle I have stayed — it’s now a sort of very upmarket B&B, run by the daughter and son-in-law of the Count Almasy who knew her. Strange to think of the night there resounding once with Mitford shrieks.
There is something about Austrian castles, is there not? The other one we atayed in on that holiday is now owned by Seyss-Inquart’s godson.
1 His cook
2 ‘Next time the judges let that sort of man free, I’ll have him arrested by my bodyguards and sent to a concentration camp; then we’ll see who is stronger, the letter of Herr Gürtner’s law or my machine guns!’