|Born||8 August 1914
London, United Kingdom
|Died||28 May 1948 (aged 33)
Oban, United Kingdom
|Cause of death||Meningitis|
|Parents||David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale and Sydney (née Gibson-Bowles)|
She came from a large family with five sisters and one brother. Her biographer, Jane Dalley, believes that, "Unity found life in her big family very difficult because she came after these cleverer, prettier, more accomplished sisters." While another biographer, David Pryce-Jones, added:
|“||If you come from a ruck of children in a large family, you’ve got to do something to assert your individuality, and I think through the experience of trying to force her way forward among the sisters and in the family, she decided that she was going to form a personality against everything.||”|
Mitford appears to have turned to right-wing politics as a way to distinguish herself within the family. As Dalley states:
|“||I think the desire to shock was very important, it was the way that she made herself special. When she discovered Nazism and discovered that it was a fantastic opportunity to shock everybody in England she’d discovered the best tease of all.||”|
Her younger sister, Jessica, with whom she shared a room, was a dedicated communist, so the two drew a chalk line down the middle of the room. One side was decorated with hammers and sickles and pictures of Lenin, and the other decorated with swastikas and pictures of Adolf Hitler. Dalley explains, "I mean they were kids virtually, you don’t know how much it was just a game, a game that became deadly serious in later life."
Mitford had her debut in 1932 and that same year her elder sister Diana abandoned her husband for an affair with Oswald Mosley who had just founded the British Union of Fascists. The sisters’ father was furious at the disgrace and forbade the family from seeing either Diana or The Man Mosley. The rebellious Unity disobeyed and that summer met with Mosley at a party thrown by Diana where she was promised a party badge.
Oswald's son, Nicholas, has stated that:
|“||Unity became a very extrovert member of the party, which was her way. I mean anything Unity took up she sort of overdid it straight away. And the one thing that she did. So she joined my father's party and she used to turn up, she used to go around in a black shirt uniform, and she used to turn up at communist meetings and she used to do the fascist salute and heckle the speaker. That was the sort of person she was.||”|
Nicholas goes on to say that although his father admired Unity's commitment he said that, "She wasn’t doing him any good, because she was making an exhibition of herself."
Unity and Diana travelled to Germany as part of the British delegation to the 1933 Nuremberg Rally where they saw Hitler for the first time. Unity later said, "The first time I saw him I knew there was no one I would rather meet." Mitford biographer Anne de Courcy confirms:
|“||The Nuremberg rally had a profound effect on both Diana and Unity. I mean it was so dramatic and gripping and everybody was obviously listening and the Hitler all by himself walking up on to the stage. Unity was already, as it were, convinced about Hitler, but this turned conviction into worship. From then on she wanted to be near Hitler as much as possible. She wanted to be in Germany as much as possible.||”|
Pryce Jones concludes; "Diana's relationship with Mosley is a very big fact of Mitford life, and what should Unity do about it? So it looks to me as if one thing she could do about it is go one better."
Unity returned to Germany in the summer of 1934, enrolling in a language school in Munich close to the Nazi Party headquarters, and set out to meet with her idol. As Dalley confirms "She was obsessed with meeting Hitler, so she really set out to stalk him." Pryce Jones elaborates:
|“||She set her mind on getting Hitler, and she discovered that Hitler's movements could be ascertained. It's one of the extraordinary things about Hitler's daily life that he was so available to the public. You knew which café he’d be in, you knew which restaurant he’d be in, which hotel, and he would just go and meet people over sticky buns and cakes, and it was possible to meet him like that. And he was in the habit of eating in the Osteria Bavaria in Munich and she started sitting in the Osteria Bavaria everyday. So he would have to come into the front part of the restaurant where there was this English girl.||”|
After ten months Hitler finally invited her to his table where they talked for over half-an-hour with Hitler picking up her bill.
In a letter to her father Unity wrote:
|“||It was the most wonderful and beautiful [day] of my life. I am so happy that I wouldn’t mind a bit, dying. I’d suppose I am the luckiest girl in the world. For me he is the greatest man of all time.||”|
Hitler in turn had also become obsessed with the young blonde British student and her curious connections to the Germanic culture including her middle name, Valkyrie, and her grandfather, Algernon Freeman-Mitford, 1st Baron Redesdale, who was a friend of one of Hitler's idols, Richard Wagner, and translated the works of another, Houston Stewart Chamberlain. As Dalley explains, "Hitler was extremely superstitious, and he believed that Unity was sort of sent to him, it was destined." Mitford subsequently received invitations to party rallies and state occasions, and was described by Hitler as "a perfect specimen of Aryan womanhood."
Hitler and Mitford had become very close, with Hitler reportedly playing Mitford off against his new girlfriend apparently to make her jealous. The girlfriend, Eva Braun wrote of Mitford in her diary:
|“||She is known as the Valkyrie and looks the part, including her legs. I the mistress of the greatest man in Germany and the whole world, I sit here waiting while the sun mocks me through the window panes.||”|
Braun regained Hitler's attention after an attempted suicide and Mitford learned from this that desperate measures were often needed to capture the Fuehrer's attention.
Mitford attended the Nazi Youth festival in Hesselberg with Hitler's friend Julius Streicher, where she gave a virulently anti-Semitic speech. She subsequently repeated these sentiments in an open letter to Streicher's paper Der Stürmer which read:
|“||The English have no notion of the Jewish danger. Our worst Jews work only behind the scenes. We think with joy of the day when we will be able to say England for the English! Out with the Jews! Heil Hitler! P.S. please publish my name in full, I want everyone to know I am a Jew hater.||”|
The letter caused a public outrage back in Britain but Hitler rewarded her with an engraved golden swastika badge, a private box at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and a ride in a party Mercedes to the Bayreuth Festival.
From this point on Mitford was inducted into Hitler's inner circle. In 1938 when Hitler announced the Anschluss she appeared on the balcony in Vienna with him and she was later arrested in Prague for distributing Nazi propaganda. Pryce Jones reports that, "She saw him, it seemed, more than a hundred times, no other English person could have anything like that access to Hitler", and the suspicions of the British SIS were aroused. MI5 head Guy Liddel wrote in his diary:
|“||Unity Mitford had been in close and intimate contact with the fuehrer and his supporters for several years, and was an ardent and open supporter of the Nazi regime. She had remained behind after the outbreak of war and her action had come perilously close to high treason.||”|
A 1936 report went even further by proclaiming her "more Nazi than the Nazis" and stated that she gave the Hitler salute to the British Consul General in Munich, who immediately requested that her passport be impounded. Worst of all when, in 1938, Hitler found an apartment in Munich for her by planning to dispossess a Jewish couple, Mitford is reported to have callously visited the apartment to discuss her decoration plans while the soon-to-be-dispossessed couple still sat in the kitchen crying over their imminent fate.
|“||One tacit agreement prevailed: No one must mention politics. The sole exception was Lady [sic] Mitford, who even in the later years of international tension persistently spoke up for her country and often actually pleaded with Hitler to make a deal with England. In spite of Hitler's discouraging reserve, she did not abandon her efforts through all those years.||”|
Mitford summered at the Berghof where she continued to discuss a possible German-British alliance with Hitler, going so far as to supply lists of potential supporters and enemies.
Her dreams of an alliance began to crumble however and at the 1939 Bayreuth Festival Hitler warned Unity and Diana that war with England was now inevitable and that they should return home. Diana returned to England where she was arrested and imprisoned while Unity chose to remain in Germany. After Britain's declaration of war on Germany on 3 September 1939, Unity was distraught. Diana told an interviewer in 1999:
|“||She told me that if there was a war, which of course we all terribly hoped there might not be, that she would kill herself because she couldn’t bear to live and see these two countries tearing each other to pieces, both of which she loved.||”|
Surviving the suicide attempt she was hospitalised in Munich, where she was visited by Hitler who paid her bill and arranged for her return home. In December she was moved to a hospital in Bern in the neutral country of Switzerland where her mother and youngest sister, Deborah, went to collect her. In a 2002 letter to The Guardian Deborah relates the experience:
|“||We were not prepared for
what we found - the person lying in bed was desperately ill. She
had lost two stone, was all huge eyes and matted hair, untouched
since the bullet went through her skull. The bullet was still in
her head, inoperable the doctor said.
She could not walk, talked with difficulty and was a changed personality, like one who had had a stroke. Not only was her appearance shocking, she was a stranger, someone we did not know. We brought her back to England in an ambulance coach attached to a train. Every jolt was agony to her.
Mitford returned to England with her mother and sister in January 1940 amid a flurry of press interest and her comment, "I’m glad to be in England, even if I’m not on your side", led to public calls for her internment as a traitor, but thanks to the intervention by Home Secretary John Anderson at the behest of her father she was left to live out her days with her mother at the family home at Swinbrook, Oxfordshire. Under the care of Professor Cairns, neurosurgeon at the Nuffield Hospital in Oxford, "She learned to walk again, but never fully recovered. She was incontinent and childish."
However, up to 11 September 1941 Mitford is reported to have had an affair with RAF Pilot Officer John Andrews, a test pilot, who was stationed at the nearby RAF Brize Norton. MI5 learned of this indiscretion and in October reported it to Home Secretary Herbert Morrison who heard that she "drives about the countryside […] and picks up airmen, etc, and […] interrogates them." Andrews, a former bank clerk who was married with a child, was "removed as far away as the limited extent of the British Isles permits." He was reposted to the far north of Scotland where he died in a Spitfire crash in 1945. Authorities then concluded that Mitford did not pose a significant threat.
She was taken seriously ill on a visit to the family-owned island of Inch Kenneth and was taken to hospital in Oban. Doctors had decided it was too dangerous to remove the lodged bullet, and she eventually died of meningitis caused by the cerebral swelling around the bullet. "Her sisters, even those who deplored her politics and hated her association with Hitler, mourned her deeply." She was buried at Swinbrook Churchyard. Her gravestone reads, "Say not the struggle naught availeth."
On 1 December 2002 following the release of declassified documents (including the diary of wartime MI5 head Guy Liddell), investigative journalist Martin Bright published an article in The Observer that claimed Home Secretary John Anderson intervened to prevent Mitford being questioned on her return from Germany and that the shooting, which "has become part of the Mitford myth", may have been invented to excuse this.
In the article Bright pointed out that press photographers and other observers that witnessed the return of Mitford, and her entourage that he claims included other known Nazi supporters, to Britain on 3 January 1940 said that, "there were no outward signs of her injury." Liddell's diary entry for 2 January states "We had no evidence to support the press allegations that she was in a serious state of health and it might well be that she was brought in on a stretcher in order to avoid publicity and unpleasantness to her family." He had wanted to search her upon her return but had been prevented from doing so by the Home Secretary. On 8 January Liddell notes receiving a report from the Security Control Officers who were responsible for meeting the arrivals that states "there were no signs of a bullet wound."
Mitford's cousin, Lord Redesdale, replied to the accusations by saying, "I love conspiracy theories but it goes a little far to suggest Unity was faking it. But people did wonder how she was up on her feet so soon after shooting herself in the head." Unity's sister, Deborah, was more scathing in her rebuttal stating that the entourage that returned with Unity consisted of herself and their mother and although she doesn’t remember them being searched upon return that Unity, "could not walk, talked with difficulty and was a changed personality, like one who had had a stroke", and that she has detailed records from Professor Cairns, neurosurgeon at the Nuffield Hospital in Oxford, on her condition, including X-rays showing the bullet.
In a subsequent article for The New Statesman Bright admits "In fact, Liddell was wrong about her injuries. She had indeed shot herself and later died of an infection caused by the bullet in the brain."
On 17 December 2007 Bright published an article in The New Statesman stating that following his previous article he had received a phone call from a member of the public with an extraordinary new angle on the story. He claims to have been initially sceptical when the caller, Val Hann, claimed that during the war her aunt, Betty Norton, had run a private maternity hospital called Hill View Cottage in Oxford where Mitford had been a client. According to Hann's family legend, passed from Betty to Val's mother and then on to Val herself, Mitford had checked into the hospital after her return to England where she had given birth to Hitler's love child which had subsequently been given up for adoption.
Bright travelled to Wigginton where the current owner of Hill View confirmed that Norton had indeed run the cottage as a maternity hospital during the war. Furthermore he met with elderly village resident Audrey Smith, whose sister had worked at Hill View, who confirmed seeing "Unity wrapped in a blanket and looking very ill" but insists that she was there to recover from a nervous breakdown and not to give birth. Bright also contacted Unity's sister Deborah who denounced the villager's gossip and claimed she could produce her mother's diaries to prove it. Bright returned to the National Archives where he found a file on Unity sealed under the 100-year rule. He received special permission to open it and discovered that in October 1941, while living at the family home in Swinbrook, she had been consorting with a married RAF test pilot — throwing doubt on her reported invalidity.
Bright then abandoned the investigation until he mentioned the story to an executive from Channel 4 who thought it was a good subject for a documentary film. Further investigation was then undertaken as part of the filming for Hitler's British Girl including a visit to an Oxfordshire registry office where an abnormally large number of birth registrations at Hill View at that time apparently confirmed its use as a Maternity hospital but none were for Mitford, although as the records officer admits many births were never registered at this time. The publication of the article and the broadcast of the film the following week stimulated a media frenzy of speculation that Hitler's offspring could be living in the United Kingdom.