Question asked on ‘The Chaser’, Australian Quiz Show, February 12, 2019…. What was the name of the English novelist who was the eldest of the Mitford Sisters?”
The contestants passed on answering the question.
On the 8th November, 2018 as we made our way from our hotel towards Marienplatz, we passed what appeared to be preparation for an official memorial for the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night when Hitler made plain to the world that Jewish citizens of Germany were going to be his main target in cleansing the nation. The marquee was situated next to the memorial stone to the Main Synagogue (Hautsynagoge) in Munich that was burnt to the ground during these events. In 2018, the city and the German nation were commemorating the 80th anniversary of the 1938 rampage by NAZI storm-troopers smashing Jewish shops and windows and arresting Jewish citizens, sadly destined for Dachau Concentration Camp. A German Diplomat had been shot the previous day in Paris by a Jewish man and word came to Hitler and Goebbels at a gathering of NAZI elite in Munich’s Old Town Hall where they were commemorating the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. Goebbels raged that there would be “spontaneous anti-Jewish riots.” His prediction came true the next evening. It was hard not to look at the beautiful Alte Rathaus at the end of Marienplatz without wondering about the meetings held there in the 1930s that led to so much suffering for Germans in the years ahead.
One of the puzzles for me when contemplating the growth of the NAZI movement in Munich was the attraction it held for prominent members of the English landed gentry. The most curious example of this, regularly explored in documentaries on Australian television, is the tale of Edward VIII who was king of England for 11 months and then chose to abdicate and marry his American lover, Wallis Simpson. They chose to spend part of their honeymoon in 1937 in Germany and caught up with Adolf Hitler, supposedly as Wallis wanted to experience a ‘State-Visit’. Hitler gave them the use of his holiday retreat, the Berghoff, in the Bavarian alps. During the war the couple were banished to the Bahamas where Edward was made the Governor. Although apparently having no outcome on the war, it was revealed after the war in documents discovered by American troops at Marburg Castle, that serious plans had been made by the Nazis to offer the English people peace with Edward restored to the throne that he had rejected back in 1937. How important this piece of history is held in the British psyche is shown by an episode in the TV series ‘The Crown’ where one episode shows the young queen Elizabeth remonstrating with the ageing Edward about the contents of the Marburg Files that have come to her notice.
In 2019 we still remember that other prominent English family, the Mitfords, as the question posed (at the start of this article) in a television quiz show reveals. The answer to the Chaser’s question was ‘Nancy Mitford’, the eldest of the six Mitford sisters whose most respected novel was called ‘Love in a Cold Climate’. The Mitford sisters were the equivalent in the 1930s of tabloid stars today. Another sister Diana, after her divorce from the heir to the Guinness fortune, married Sir Arthur Mosely in 1936, leader of the British Union of Fascists, at the home of Joseph Goebels with Adolf Hitler as guest of honour. But it was Unity Valkyrie Mitford who caused great consternation to the British Government and Press for her deliberately developed relationship with Adolf Hitler in Munich. Unity lived for extended periods of time in Munich in the early 1930s and she became fascinated with Hitler and the Nazi state he was creating in Germany. She spent regular days loitering in the Osteria Bavaria, his favourite café in Munich, hoping to be noticed by the dictator. She was eventually invited to join his table and this began a five-year period where she became his regular confidante. This famous café, about three blocks from the English Garden, is now called the Osteria Italiana and is still a popular venue in Munich.
We decided that we would spend the morning of our last full day in Munich having a look around the ‘English Garden’. In checking the details on the internet of this large green space that starts close to the city centre and runs along beside the Isar River, I discovered that it was meant to be one of the largest urban parks in the world. Like with so many other features of modern life, somebody on the internet had made a list of the urban parks in the world and graded them on size; the English Garden of Munich comes in at Number 122. Started in 1789, the park is called Englischer Garten because its style had become the fashion, based on the sprawling landscapes around English Noble houses, that supposedly mimicked nature; it replaced the more formal styles of the French symmetrical garden. We were told it was a great place to visit in Munich and doing it by bike was the best way to see all its attractions. Although Munich does have a street hire bike scheme, it seemed more efficient to hire all our bikes together so we went to the bike shop at the back of the Vicktualien Markt and made our way across towards the Hofgarten where we found the entryway into the Garden.
I have to admit that our visit to this beautiful landscaped garden was not only for its beauty, but it is also where Unity Mitford, Hitler’s English friend and model of Nordic/Aryan beauty, attempted suicide in September 1939. Hitler had just invaded Poland; Britain and France had declared war on Germany and Unity Mitford realised that her dream of a British/German alliance was not to be. Living not far away, she went to the Garden and shot herself twice in the head with a pistol supposedly given her by Hitler himself. Unfortunately, she did not manage to end her life and she was rushed by train out of Germany to be looked after by her family in England until the bullet began moving 10 years later, triggering her death.
There was no memorial to Unity Mitford in Munich’s English Garden but it was a place where she took her English visitors when they were visiting Munich in the 1930s. Socialising at the beer garden around the Chinese tower was one of her regular pastimes. Our tour of the garden nearly eighty years later was an entertaining bike ride, the only problem being the huge numbers of relaxed Munich citizens out for a Sunday walk with their children, clogging the paths of the garden, unaware of the danger to their life and limb from our group’s less then safe bike-riding. One of the famous features of the English Garden today is the presence of a surfing spot that attracts both young surfers and plenty of impressed onlookers. They appear to have done some ‘plumbing’ work on a small branch of the Isar which has created a small wave that dare-devils with a surf-board can drop onto.
Unity Mitford was a prolific letter writer to her family and friends, occasionally sending instructional letters about Hitler to leading English politicians of her day. Her views in her letters provide an almost alternative reality to the events in Munich from 1934-39. None of the viciousness of Hitler or his NAZIs could shake her faith in his persona. She saw him as “…the lone hero, an ideal he drew from Karl May’s Wild West novels, Wagnerian operas, and World War I propaganda posters that had appealed to him during his time in the trenches. This hero sacrificed everything for his nation. The noble knight was a lone wolf.” (Kathryn Steinhaus 2011)
For example, one classic example of Hitler’s viciousness towards both friends and foes alike is provided by that other event in Munich infamy, the ‘Night of the Long Knives’. Hitler had decided that his Brown Shirted stormtroopers, who were so significant in the early days of Nazism, were no longer controllable by him and so their leader, Ernst Rohm, had to go – along with his ‘soldiers’! They were rounded up by the SS and were summarily purged in the usual Hitler fashion. Unity Mitford was a witness to these events and clearly had little empathy for the old street fighters who put Hitler where he was. Here is an example of her reaction to the news of Hitler’s vicious decisions from one of her letters home.
For the last two days storm clouds have been gathering over Munich— that sounds dramatic but it really was like that—and last night they broke. I had heard that all S.S. men were confined to their homes in case they were required, and last night after dinner the servants were full of strange rumours, so I immediately walked into the Town to see what could be seen. A huge crowd was gathered round a printed sheet on the wall of a house in one of the chief squares in Munich and a man was reading it aloud, so I went and listened, and I just managed to hear that Röhm had been expelled from the Party and arrested. I then went straight to the Brown House [Nazi Party headquarters] as I knew any excitement would be there. The streets were lined with S.A. men S.S. men and Stahlhelm and the street in which the Brown House is was guarded by S.S. (Quoted in Kathryn Steinhaus; Valkyrie: Gender, Class, European Relations, and Unity Mitford’s Passion for Fascism)
The Marienplatz in Munich’s old town is an amazing place today and it is no wonder it is bustling with 21st century tourists. There is a lot to see in this area of Munich, not just memories of its NAZI past but its long history of beautiful architecture that still dazzles today. The New Rathaus is the gem in the crown of Marienplatz and needs thorough study by all modern visitors, even if the Glockenspiel show in the tower interfere with your contemplation due to the huge crowds that gather to view it.
To finish off this short glance at memories of the rise of fascism in 1930s Munich through the lens of Unity Mitford, it is important to note that her more famous older sister, Nancy, took a very different approach to the rise of Nazism. She wrote a book in 1934 called ‘Wigs on the Green’, which poked fun at supporters of British fascists and upset her sister Unity greatly. Nancy’s reply to one of Unity’s annoyed letters captures the spirit of British satire that lived on exuberantly after World War 2 for the rest of the twentieth century.
Darling Stone-Heart Bone-Head,
I am very glad to hear that you are returning anon. Do leave your rubber truncheons behind & pump some warm palpitating blood into that stony heart for the occasion. I have taken out all reference to the F. (not the P.O.F., the other F.) in my book, & as it cost me about 4/6 a time to do so, you ought to feel quite kindly towards me now.
Head of Bone
Heart of Stone
I will finish this poem later
Love from your (undoubtedly) Genius Sister. (IBID: Kathryn Steinhaus)