Lady Diana Mosley was one of the Mitford sisters, six siblings who were famous for their intelligence, beauty, charm and independence. I came across them when reading Nancy Mitford’s three romans à clef, in which the entire family provides a subject for a comedy of manners.
Two of the sisters, Unity and Diana, became heavily involved in far-right politics. Unity worked her way into Hitler’s close circle and lived in Germany during the late thirties. She could not manage the conflict of loyalties brought about by the outbreak of war and shot herself. The bullet wound was not fatal but it caused significant mental impairment and she lingered on until 1948 when she died at the age of thirty-four. Her flawed idealism makes her fate a tragic one.
Diana married Bryan Guinness, heir to the Guinness brewing fortune, but became infatuated with the charismatic politician Sir Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists, whom she married in 1936. During the War they were both interned under emergency regulations and Diana lost custody of her young children. Neither Diana nor Mosley were ever charged with a criminal offence and, despite their quarrels with the Government over the policies that led to war, their instincts were patriotic even Churchill thought it doubtful they would have become spies or traitors. After the war, they lived mostly in Ireland and France. They maintained their interest in far-right politics, but, in a twist of fate, Mosley recognised very early that the War spelled doom for the British Empire regardless of its outcome, and he became an advocate for a united Europe as a counterweight to the USA and the Soviet Union.
What has caused me to write this blog is that I recently came across the autobiography Diana Mosley wrote in her old age. It is a sparkling read and the author retains in unrepentant feistiness in defence of her take on the world, formed at a time and by membership of a class that most of us would find it difficult to identify with. She lived at the highest level of European society, and her account is filled with names of politicians, artists and aristocrats who are largely unfamiliar to us but were well known in that pre-war era. There is an unselfconscious glamour in the life she describes, but little in the way of introspection or analysis either of herself or others. Almost everything she describes is on the surface. Some of her blind spots are funny. Some are horrific.
Diana reports on at least three occasions and without any sense of irony that she was brought up in “poverty”. The source of this delusion is that she was born during a long period of agricultural depression that affected the income of landowning families. A number of the great houses that graced Edwardian England were demolished during the inter-war years and her father, Lord Redesdale, was caught up in this general trend and he was for ever devising fruitless plans to improve his fortune. Nonetheless, “poverty” for the Mitford sisters meant living on a country estate with servants, a nanny and a governess, not to mention owning other properties, and there was money enough to put their brother Tom through Eton and Oxford. Diana’s benchmark for her impoverished condition is clearly the fabulous wealth of some in the circle in which she moved. Except for a handful of short, conventional reflections on the conditions of truly poor people, she has no real awareness of their existence. She doesn’t meet any except, perhaps, during her imprisonment. She has no thoughts on how to improve their lot except general references to Oswald Mosley’s social programme. Ultimately she lacks the self-awareness that would have prevented her from using ridiculous language to describe her own situation.
Another example of Diana’s self-centred concerns can be seen in her reflections on her imprisonment. I take at face value her description of the physical miseries she endured, and no one can doubt the pain caused by her separation from her children. I also accept that neither she nor Oswald Mosley had committed any crimes and quite likely they did not represent a danger to the country however repellent their politics, and therefore their incarceration was in the strict sense “unjust”. It was motivated partly by political spite and partly by popular opinion (though she has a deluded view of Mosley’s popularity). In her autobiography she is very bitter about this.
So far so good; we can understand and even sympathise with Diana’s bitterness especially with respect to the consequences for her children. However, her imprisonment on purely political grounds is not the only instance of similar injustice mentioned in her book, with the crucial difference that these injustices happen to other people and so she does not see any connection. I refer to the actions of Hitler.
Diana met Hitler on several occasions and was on friendly terms with many leading Nazis including Magda Goebbels. Subsequent events force her to distinguish between the “good” Hitler of the pre-War years when she considers he saved Germany, and the “bad” Hitler of the war years, about whom she has very little to say except to say that his crimes are comparable to or even less than those of Stalin and Mao, and that the British have nothing to be proud of in their mass bombing campaign. One can say a lot in response to this, but I limit myself to commenting that her take on the matter amounts to saying that, if one cannot catch and punish every murderer, it is unjust to catch and punish any of them. That said, her take on Hitler’s appearance and manners is worth taking seriously because something has to explain his hold over other people. She says he had genuine charm, intelligence, politeness and a sense of humour and was physically not unattractive. This or something like it must be true, though irrelevant to his moral responsibility.
The relevance to Diana’s resentment, is that, in explaining her close connection to the Nazis in the 1930s she has to deal with the mass arrests and concentration camps that figured right from Hitler’s seizure of power. This was prior to the extermination camps of the Holocaust but bad enough, and Diana tries to justifyit on the grounds of the disordered condition of Germany in the Weimar period (ignoring any Nazi contribution) which required political arrests to establish and maintain order. I shan’t deal with this in detail, but her comment reveals again, her self-centered blindness. After all, if it was reasonable to round up and imprison innocent people on security grounds in a Germany of 1933 that was at peace, then it was surely reasonable to round up and imprison innocent people on much the same grounds in a Britain of 1940 that was at war? Diana fails to see any similarity.
The most shocking instance of Diana’s moral limitations is contained in her reflections on the end of the war. As one might expect, she disapproves of the Nuremberg trials as “victors’ justice”, without suggesting what should have been done with the likes of Himmler and Goering. Her comment about Magda Goebbels is, however, highly and horrifically revealing. Both the Goebbels, Josef and Magda, committed suicide rather than survive into the aftermath of the war. However, so far as Magda is concerned, it is worth noting that the Nazi wives and children were not seriously persecuted and none were executed, though one would not gather this from Diana, who implies otherwise.
Diana writes: “It was only later when I saw how the living were treated by the Allies that I came to realize that Magda had also been right in her resolve to die with her children.”
The phrasing of this comment is focused on Magda. No details are given of the fate of the Goebbels children, which Diana by her silence seems to regard as unimportant in comparison. Rather Diana, with clear sympathy, identifies with Magda and approves of her action in sharing the fate of her children.
What was that fate? As Diana well knew, Magda Goebbels murdered her six children rather than permit them to survive the war and her own suicide. How can this not be relevant to forming a judgment of Magda and anyone who admires her? Diana’s goes beyond silence and turns a shocking crime into a praiseworthy act.
Diana Mosley’s autobiography has the strange quality of being at the same time an entertaining but distasteful read. Behind the intelligence and charm is the egotistical worldview of a privileged aristocrat with a narrow range of sympathies and a moral blindness that at times looks intentional. I fancy she was an amusing woman one might very easily like if one met her. But she was a bad one.