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.)

Reading Jan Dalley’s very scrupulous if slightly solemn book, I was visited by the same sense of pervasive pointlessness. Here again one encounters teak-headedness and conceit among the overdogs. Here again one learns how vulgar bigotry can be veneered with sophistication. And here again one encounters a Waugh. Auberon’s father dedicated his novel Vile Bodies, and his travel-book Labels, to Bryan and Diana Guinness. He was certainly in love with the latter and probably derived the scene in A Handful of Dust about the complaisant husband’s fakery of a compromising situation in Brighton from Bryan Guinness’s willingness to undergo the same indignity when the time came to hand on his wife to Sir Oswald Mosley. How amusing it now seems that this was all done, in the jargon of the day, so as to ‘avoid scandal’. But then, how minuscule appear the self-evidently scandalous doings of any of this ‘set’, compared to what we have since learned and understood.

The book opens and closes in Holloway Prison, where in a princess-and-the-pea setting that by no means denies sympathy to its subject, a society beauty is immured among coarse and unfeeling types, and made to lie on a verminous mattress on a damp floor. Here, I feel, we should better consult Decline and Fall, where Paul Pennyfeather languishes in Dartmoor, taking the rap for the exquisite but evil Margot Beste-Chetwynde, and reflects on

the undeniable cogency of Peter Beste-Chetwynde’s ‘You can’t see Mamma in prison, can you?’ The more Paul considered this, the more he perceived it to be the statement of a natural law. He appreciated the assumption of comprehension with which Peter had delivered it. As he studied Margot’s photograph, dubiously transmitted as it was, he was strengthened in his belief that there was, in fact, and should be, one law for her and another for himself, and that the raw little exertions of 19th-century Radicals were essentially base and trivial and misdirected. It was not simply that he saw the impossibility of Margot in prison; the bare connection of vocables associating the ideas was obscene.

Of course Peter Beste-Chetwynde was a promising adolescent, whereas Diana Mosley’s breasts were swollen with milk for a newborn when she was abruptly interned in July 1940 and made to share limited sanitary facilities with the lower-class female members of the British Union of Fascists. (This being good old Blighty, some of the other internees were political refugees from the Third Reich, who had been locked up on what you might call general ‘better safe than sorry’ principles.)

Dalley evokes the general unease felt by Churchill’s Government – after all, he was a friend and a sort of relative – the prurient interest taken by the popular press and the vindictiveness displayed by the Communists, who had not by 1940 quite adopted Mosley’s view that this was a patriotic war in which all good Blackshirts should enlist under the colours of Empire. (After the Communist Party did adopt its red-shirt version of this line, the Mosleys were released, causing another storm in the Daily Worker’s chipped teacup.) The entire absurdity is well caught in the observation of a Holloway wardress named Miss Davies, who years later told a prison visitor: ‘Oh, we’ve never had such laughs since Lady Mosley left.’ (‘Nina, what a lot of parties!’) We are confronted, here, with the worst and not the least bright of the ‘Bright Young Things’: with a vile mind and a gorgeous carapace, and with a maddening class confidence allied to a tiny, repetitive tic of fanaticism. It’s easy to see how Diana Mitford/Guinness/Mosley attracted the obvious clichés about ‘The Huntress’ and ‘The Nymph’. Anyone with her first name, and a pleasing profile to boot, can earn such leaden gallantries, as Earl Spencer, that other upper-class thug, not long ago demonstrated afresh to the gaping peasants of the tabloid press. Though she never went to the length of adopting a black toy boy, as the fictional Margot did with ‘Chokey’, la Mosley certainly attended her share of bals nègres at Nancy Cunard’s. She kept a circle of gay male friends, from Gerald Berners to Cecil Beaton, at a time when homosexuals were being whacked to a pulp in German and Italian prisons. When occasion demanded, she could speak with conviction about the ‘old gang’ of politicians, and about the woes of the unemployed. But something else made her different from dozens of other women and men of her class, who didn’t share her Bloomsbury connections but did echo her enthusiasm for the New Order and the New Germany. Just this: she kept it up longer than most of them did and in more arduous conditions. In a fashion, she keeps it up still. It’s always seemed very obvious to me, and I’m confirmed in my view by a number of Dalley’s findings, that her core obsession must have been with the Jews.

Anti-semitism is a prejudice that may sometimes be, but usually is not, lightly worn. It has great appeal to pseudo-intellectuals and pseudo-aesthetes, such as she was and is, because it has great gossipy power and can draw on history and mythology and concepts like blood and gold. It can seem to explain a lot. And it can form a bond between upper-crust types and the plebeians, a bond of sturdy race and nation against the clever and the tricky and the ‘hard to place’: the very ‘socialism of fools’ that August Bebel identified and that the Mosleys tried to carry into practice.

A dead give-away, in distinguishing the obsessive or morbid anti-semite from the garden variety, is an inability to stay off the subject. See above the way that ‘Masada’ substitutes for King Charles’s head. See also the testimony that Lady Mosley gave to those who were vetting her in 1940. She announced that she would like to see the German system installed in Britain though (also see her facing-both-ways letter to me above) without an invasion or a British defeat: i.e. as the only uncoerced following of the Nazi example. After uttering this absurdity she was asked whether such a manifesto might include emulating the Reich’s policy towards Jews? ‘Yes, up to a point. I am not fond of Jews.’ Dalley tells us that after Lady Mosley (I find I can’t adopt her convenience name of ‘Diana’) first met the grotesque ‘Putzi’ Hanfstaengl in 1933, he told her that Jews were only 1 per cent of the German nation, that the Führer’s critics never stopped talking about the 1 per cent, but that Hitler was determined to get a better life for the ‘remaining’ 99 per cent. Apparently, this slobbering bit of fallacy so impressed the fair visitor that she keeps on repeating it to this day: a sure indicator of the real deep-seated infection since (all other considerations to one side) she could hardly not notice that the Nazis talked about this same 1 per cent at least 99 per cent of the time. The same tendency to bogus rationalisation was manifested in her oddball son Jonathan Guinness, who was obviously trying his best when asked if it had been difficult at Eton in 1944, what with his mother imprisoned as a Hitler sympathiser and all. No, he replied. The stigma was ‘about on a par with being Jewish’. I think this remark must have come from the maternal hearth and not the genes.

So it isn’t quite accurate to say, as Dalley rather awkwardly phrases it, that ‘in her personal story there is an almost eerie absence of the horrors that underlie all our thinking about Fascism, Nazism and the Second World War.’ Sir Oswald, for example, always tried very strenuously to distance himself from said horrors after 1945 and, though he was unconvincing in his rewriting, at least made the attempt. His widow has never bothered even to feign that effort, and is sometimes too languid and spiteful to conceal her prejudices even now. The subject clearly fatigues and irritates her. A part of her, like the ghastly girl in Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square, was and is secretly gleeful about Fascism. Dalley describes as ‘unusual’ her attendance at a Hyde Park rally in 1935, where she threw up her right hand in a Nazi salute while Clement Attlee was addressing a mild-as-milk protest against Hitler’s early barbarities. It’s improbable that she just stumbled on such an opportunity, or simply found herself taking it. That’s on a par with her claim that Adolf Hitler was chief guest at her wedding because he lived so handily nearby and chanced to drop in. The illicit thrill of evil is the point – a thrill indulged by someone whose own circumstances and life-chances gave no evident cause for complaint.

I once spent some time with Sir Oswald Mosley, in a television green room. He chatted amiably enough, reminiscing away and turning on the charm, and recalling (an event actually mentioned in these pages) that the most disconcerting disruption of any of his speeches took place in Oxford, when some pinko students simply opened newspapers in the front row of the hall and read them calmly throughout his rantings. Then he got on the set, adjusted his mike, set his jaw and delivered (this was 1972) a hideous attack on the arrival of Ugandan Asian refugees. I remember thinking that I had seen both Mosleys – the lounge lizard and the street-corner demagogue – in one afternoon. One can perhaps forgive the dim socialites who only ever saw one version – the dashing ‘Tom’ of the West End – and never saw the other: the snarling ‘Leader’ in the East End. But his wife would have had to know of the duality, and this one would have had to love it, too.

There are some nice new curiosities to paste into one’s album. Visiting Goebbels at an early stage of what became the Abdication crisis, Lady Mosley gave him all the scoop about the Simpson business:

Goebbels and Hitler seemed shocked, but they did not forget that, as Prince of Wales, Edward had spoken publicly in support of Hitler’s social programme. From October onwards the newspapers of America and the rest of Europe were full of the scandal, while the British press kept silent, and Hitler and Goebbels decided to support the King in the same way – Goebbels put a total ban on any mention of the royal goings-on in the German media. After the abdication two months later, Nazi wiretappers intercepted a comment from one British Embassy official, to the effect that the former King would be sure to remember Hitler’s decision with gratitude.

Worth knowing and, for the fans of privacy laws, worth noting. But then, the Mosleys’ connection with the Prince’s Blackshirt chum ‘Fruity’ Metcalfe and his wife Baba (sister to Mosley’s first wife) and their later propinquity to HRH and ‘Wallis’ in France, only serve to emphasise how faded and remote all this stuff has become. I once asked the heavenly Jessica Mitford if she ever had any contact with the Temple de la Gloire branch of her sisterhood. ‘Rather not!’ she snorted. ‘I bowed a bit icily to Diana at dear Nancy’s funeral, but otherwise it’s been utter non-speakers since at least Munich.’ She didn’t seem to feel that she’d missed much and after finishing this book I’m bound to say that neither do I.