The British Aristocrats Who Admired the Nazis

Hitler’s Girl (Harper, $29.99) is a groundbreaking history that reveals how, in the 1930s, authoritarianism nearly took hold in Great Britain as it did in Italy and Germany. The pervasiveness of Nazi sympathies among the British aristocracy, as significant factions of the upper class methodically pursued an actively pro-German agenda, is nothing short of shocking. Central to the story is the secret four-year affair between socialite Unity Mitford and Adolf Hitler.  Author Lauren Young talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how Unity, and her cohort formed a murky Fifth Column to Nazi Germany, which depended on the complacence and complicity of the English to topple its proud and long-standing democratic tradition—and very nearly succeeded.  

YZM: It seems that anti-Semitism was more widespread in England, particularly among the upper classes, than was previously known; can you elaborate?  

LY: Undercurrents of anti-Semitism have always been present in most countries with Jewish communities, including Britain.  Like today, the emergence and tolerance of right wing rhetoric during the period of 1930s was emboldening and brought bigotry out of the shadows and into the main stream.  The connection between right wing politics and anti-Semitism is always worth remembering.

YZM: You’ve described strong ties between the royal family and Germany; walk us through that connection? 

LY: The British royal family is, in fact German. They changed their name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor during the First World War when Germany became deeply unpopular in Britain.  

YZM: Do you believe Unity Mitford was Hitler’s lover? What about her supposed suicide attempt?  

LY: Unity captured Hitler’s attention by frequenting his favorite café in Munich until he noticed her.  She subsequently spent more time with him than any other Briton for a period of several years until the war broke out.  Accounts of Hitler’s personal life during his ascent to power are few and fascinating.  A faded postcard of Hitler kept by Unity’s mother, Lady Redesdale after Unity’s death in 1948 is dedicated by Hitler to Unity: “Bobo mein Walkure. Ich bin bei Dir, du seist auch noch so ferne—du bist mir nahe.  Ich werde dich nie vergessen. –To Bobo my Valkyrie.  I am always with you however far away you may be, you are always next to me.  I will never forget you.” 

There are a few theories about Unity’s suicide attempt.  These include that she was actually shot or poisoned by a member of Hitler’s inner circle who feared her influence on him.  The Pathé newsreel footage of Unity leaving the ship when she was repatriated to England puts the suicide theory in some doubt.  Footage of her disembarking the ship on a stretcher, seemingly aware of her surroundings and perfectly coiffed with no visible signs of a head injury, dispute claims of a recent head injury.  Guy Liddell, the Mi5 officer in charge at Folkstone that day and later Director of Counter Espionage also questioned the claim of a suicide attempt in his diary, an observation that was ignored by his superiors.  Liddell’s diary, code name “Wallflower,” was classified and personally guarded by successive Directors General of the secret service and only recently declassified.  

YZM: Why did the British government tolerate these alliances with the Nazis in the 1930’s?

LY: After the devastation of the First World War and the loss of a generation of young men, the British public had little appetite for another war, even in the face of Hitler’s increasingly belligerent stance after he became Chancellor in 1933.  Britain also needed time to rebuild her military.  My book argues that placating Germany, the official Policy of Appeasement, also opened the door to a more nefarious undercurrent.  The “tolerance” of the British government reflected both an adherence to policy as well as a surprising degree of ideological affinity to Hitler and the Reich among a powerful group of people. 

YZM: You’ve written that Edward’s abdication may have had more to do with his Nazi sympathies than with his choice of a wife; can you talk more about this? 

LY: The archives indicate that Edward always considered himself to be German and was sympathetic to the Nazi cause.  Wallis Simpson, an American divorcé and also a likely Nazi sympathizer, provided a convenient excuse to remove him from the throne. Hitler was well aware of both Edward’s affinity towards Germany and his desire to be restored to the throne.  When the Duke and Duchess left the South of France and arrived in Nazi controlled territory in Spain and Portugal in 1940, it presented the Nazis with an opportunity to recruit the former King.  The Nazi high command, at Hitler’s direction, made direct overtures to Edward, offering to reinstate him as King of England when they won the war.  Churchill understood Edward’s vulnerability to the Nazi regime and sent the couple, despite their protests, to the furthest reaches of the Commonwealth as Governor of the Bahamas. This episode about the Nazi attempt to turn Edward was considered so compromising that it was classified and re-classified by successive British governments well into the 1950s.  

YZM: Why did neither the British government nor its intelligence agencies capitalize on Unity’s unfettered access to Hitler?  And why was she not ever brought up on charges of treason? 

LY: The failure of the British government to use Unity’s access to Hitler to their own benefit is one of the central questions of the book.  Additionally, a long list of right wing sympathizers, including Unity’s sister, Diana Mitford Mosley, were put in prison for treason for lesser offenses. There are again a range of reasons why Unity was never prosecuted, although her case was debated in Parliament and forcefully defended. One excuse was her weak state of health due to the alleged suicide attempt, although it took months to corroborate her condition with a medical examination. It is also conceivable that Unity was protected by the powerful cabal that supported Hitler.  

YZM: What is the likelihood that Unity gave birth to Hitler’s son? 

LY: It is entirely possible that Unity Mitford gave birth to Hitler’s son and that he is now an elderly pensioner living out his days in Britain.  I can connect a lot of dots, but I can’t prove it categorically because birth records were not always kept for illegitimate children, especially the illegitimate children of the British aristocracy, during this period.  However, the fact that we can even speculate about the possibility of Hitler’s child born to one of the most prominent families in Britain, presumably with the full knowledge of the British government, is evidence of the complicity of a broad cohort of powerful Britons and emblematic of the profound challenge to democracy that this moment represented.  

YZM: You have written, “…every small assault on democracy counted in pushing the momentum away from a shared sense of Western democratic values.”    What does that mean in terms of the current state of the world? 

LY:  History provides us with a road map to better understand our world today.  It especially requires us to look at familiar events with a fresh set of questions. The period of the 1930s in Britain challenges our understanding of Britain as a bulwark of democracy.  My research has revealed that a broad segment of society was, at the very least complacent and more likely complicit, in a slow burn of democratic erosion as British democracy turned on the head of a pin.  My book argues that we have similar warning flares about democratic challenges in our world today which we choose to overlook at great risk.  From the point of view of Britain on the eve of the Second World War, we are reminded that democracy is not necessarily our legacy.