On 8 August 1914, four days after the declaration of war, Unity Valkyrie Mitford was born, the fifth child and fourth daughter of David and Sydney Freeman-Mitford, who admired the actress Unity Moore. Grandfather Redesdale suggested Valkyrie, after his friend Wagner’s Norse war-maidens. The fact that Unity Valkyrie had been conceived in the town of Swastika, Ontario, where her father was prospecting for gold, made it all the more portentous.
A few weeks after her birth, Unity and her mother (‘Muv’) joined ‘Farve’, who was with his regiment in Newcastle. His quarters were so cramped that Unity was laid to sleep in a drawer. But this was nothing to the hot-house atmosphere of life in rural Oxfordshire, where the family went to live after the deaths of David’s elder brother in 1915, and his father in 1916, when he became the 2nd Lord Redesdale. Two more, equally spirited daughters were born by 1920 — Jessica, then Deborah, joining Nancy, Pamela, Tom, Diana and Unity.
The intensity of their family life made the Mitfords, like the Brontës, create a world of their own. Six variations of the same face and voice, the sisters were each distinctive but all confident, vivid and driven, a dangerous combination for girls who were finished but not educated. Unity was the boldest, and at 6ft 1in the tallest; she lived to shock. To a cousin she was ‘the great, white hope, far and away the most loved, they caught from her all the excitement’. In 1929, in an effort to control her, Unity was sent to boarding school but she was soon expelled — twice.
When the sisters ever mentioned expulsion, Muv would say, ‘No, darling. Just asked to leave.’ She would take her pet rat, Ratular, or her snake, Enid, to dances, and developed a craze for attending boxing and wrestling matches. If she had any ambition, it was to sing Elsa in Lohengrin.
Through the 1930s the daughters took flight. In 1932, Unity joined the British Union of Fascists, founded by Diana’s lover (and later husband) Oswald Mosley. She donned a black shirt and never looked back. In 1933 she was selected by the BUF to attend a Nuremberg rally; on 1 September she heard Hitler speak. An obsession had begun. ‘The first moment I saw him I knew there was no one I would rather meet.’ In May 1934, she settled in Munich to learn German.
Her days in Munich, apart from lessons, were spent sightseeing and dining with friends, but mainly sitting for hours in the Osteria Bavaria waiting for the black Mercedes to draw up and for Hitler to emerge. She would sit and stare for hours. The Führer would nod in passing, then at last, on 9 February 1935, he asked her to join him at his table — ‘the most wonderful and beautiful day of my life’. As she told ‘Farve’, they spoke of England (she said he should visit), Noël Coward’s Cavalcade, his favourite film; Bayreuth; his road-building programme; and that Jews should not be allowed to make two Nordic races fight each other. Otherwise, all Unity recorded was that he was sweet and wonderful.
A niece of her friend Janos von Almasy who read Unity’s diaries told her biographer David Pryce-Jones of ‘horrible platitudes. I read them and could hardly believe it was possible. To have been there and taken in so little!’
Over five years Unity met Hitler 140 times, an extraordinary number considering he had a Reich to run. In seeking to explain Hitler’s attraction to Unity and her sister, Diana’s biographer Jan Dalley cites a poor boy’s enthralment to high-born women, the perfect Aryan looks, the Wagnerian connections — and their chatter. After Farve, what was to be afraid of? No one in Germany spoke to Hitler the way Unity did.
While Unity would have leapt at the chance, there is no evidence that they were ever lovers. The Führer told Leni Riefenstahl that he could never have an intimate relationship with a foreigner, so the Hon Mrs Adolf Hitler was never likely. Unity may have had affairs with a few SS adjutants, and Count Almasy, but they were passing fancies.
In June 1935 her obsession reached a dreadful nadir. Unity wrote a letter to Julius Streicher’s propagandist Der Stürmer: ‘the English have no notion of the Jewish dangers… England for the English! Out with the Jews!’ An impressed Streicher asked Unity to a midsummer festival at Hesselberg where she addressed a crowd of 200,000.
Nancy wrote to her, ‘Darling Stony-heart, we were all very interested to see that you were the Queen of the May this year at Hesselberg. Call me early, Goering dear/ For I am to be the Queen of the May.’ She followed up with news that she had discovered a great-grandmother Fish, who made them one-16th Jewish. Jessica wrote to say she hated what Unity had written but loved her nonetheless. In her memoir, Hons and Rebels, she wrote, ‘I felt she had forgotten the whole point of hating, and had once and for all put herself on the side of the hateful.’
If Unity wanted to impress her ‘Uncle Wolf’, she had succeeded. Hitler offered her a choice of apartments from those requisitioned from Jews after Kristallnacht; the owners of the one she chose sobbed as they watched her comment on the curtains.
On 3 September 1939, as Chamberlain declared war, Unity went to Munich’s English Garden. She pulled out her little pearl-handled pistol and shot herself in the temple. She could not even get that right. The bullet lodged in her brain. The hospital room where she lay unconscious for weeks was full of flowers from Ribbentrop, Goebbels, a number of gauleiters — and Hitler. Suicide was not unfamiliar to his loved ones: his adored half-niece, Geli, had killed herself and Eva Braun had made two attempts. He visited twice, the second time on 8 November (the day he narrowly escaped assassination). Unity told him she wanted to return to England for a few weeks. He paid her hospital bills and for her repatriation to Switzerland from where, in January 1940, Muv and Deborah brought her home.
She learned to walk again but was incontinent and childish. She resumed singing and dabbled in a succession of religions. The sisters provided regular respite. ‘Am I mad?’ Unity had asked Nancy. ‘Of course you are, darling Stony-heart,’ she replied, ‘but then, you always were.’
Towards the end of May 1948, the bullet that had lain in her brain finally moved and did its job. She died of meningitis a few days later, strangely the very date Nancy had given as the death of Linda Radlett three years earlier in her classic The Pursuit of Love. For the family, as with Nancy’s heroine, ‘a light went out, a great deal of joy that never could be repeated’. Decca, the one who most loathed her views but loved her most, mused, ‘Why had she, to those of us who knew her, the most human of people, turned her back on humanity?’