What a Lot of Parties

Christopher Hitchens

  • Diana Mosley: A Biography by Jan Dalley
    Faber, 297 pp, £20.00, October 1997, ISBN 0 571 14448 9

In the autumn of 1980 I was leafing through the latest number of Books and Bookmen and came across a notice of Hans-Otto Meissner’s biography of Magda Goebbels. The reviewer was Diana Mosley. Fair enough, I thought, she had at least known the woman. Indeed, as she put it herself: ‘I knew Magda and Dr Goebbels quite well. She was charming and beautiful, he was clever and witty.’ Eschewing bleeding-heart compassion, yet unusually ready to put in a humane word for the unfit, she found the kindest context for the dwarfishness of her hero, who she described as ‘a small man, not much smaller than Napoleon. He limped because of a club foot, as did Byron. Very clever, he got a scholarship to Heidelberg where he acquired his doctorate.’ Lady Mosley burbled on in this vein for a bit, spicing things up with references to Goebbels’s ‘inspired oratory’. Concerning Kristallnacht she was scrupulously non-judgmental, concluding that ‘his guilt must rest on supposition.’ I remember wondering how she would tackle the ticklish question of the immolation of the Goebbels kinder. Here is how she grasped the nettle: ‘Everyone knows the tragic end. As the Russians surrounded Berlin, the Goebbels painlessly killed their children and then themselves. The dead children were described by people who saw them as looking “peacefully asleep”. Those who condemn this appalling, Masada-like deed must consider the alternative facing the distraught Magda.’ At this point, I threw the mag to one side and seized a pen. It’s true that the shaggy fundamentalists in the Josephus yarn did put their families to the sword before falling on their own, but still ... So I wrote a piece for the old New Statesman, emptying the vials over Books and Bookmen and saying rather pompously that I wouldn’t turn in my next review for it until the editor had repudiated the Mosley/Masada trope.

Then several things happened. The owner of Books and Bookmen, an operator by the name of John Dosse, took the opportunity of emulating the Masada faction and the Goebbelses, and committed suicide himself. I received a moist letter from the editor of the magazine, written in the tone of ‘I hope you’re satisfied now.’ I was accused in print, by Auberon Waugh, of having more or less driven Dosse to his death by my vile polemics and of having cruelly lampooned his name as ‘Dose or Dosser’. And I got letters from both Mosleys, on writing paper from their preposterous address in Orsay, Temple de la Gloire. I curse myself for having lost the one from Sir Oswald, containing his usual disclaimers about ever having been a Nazi or a traitor, because he had only weeks to live and it may have been among his last efforts. The one from his fragrant wife survives, and reads as follows:

Mr Hitchens, in his attack upon me, says that I regretted the defeat of Germany in the Second World War. On the contrary, in my view the greatest tragedy for us would have been the defeat of our own country. My opposition to the war in 1939 was based on the fact, as obvious to many people then as it is to everyone now, that it was a war we could not ‘win’. The winners were the Soviet Union and America: Europe was the loser.

This was a silly letter, containing the same essential contradiction (the Goebbelses’ action at once ‘appalling’ and entirely forgivable) as had the original silly review. In fact, the whole episode was rather petty and absurd, for all that it got people going for a week or two. (I was relieved in spite of everything when it came out that Dosse had killed himself over some more private misery, and before he could even have scanned my poor barbs.)

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