BOOK: Diana Mosley, "A Life of Contrasts"
Diana Mosley: A Life of Contrasts. (First ed.: 1977.) Gibson Square Books, 2003. 190393320X. 280 pp.
The Mitford family is another thing of which I first read in David Cannadine's Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, who paints a fascinating picture of the Mitfords as an example of the various ways in which the aristocracy responded to the inexorable process of decline of their class (ch. 11, sec. iv). Diana was perhaps one of the more notorious of the Mitford sisters. She maried Oswald Mosley, the founder of British Fascism, and remained for ever a supporter of his political opinions and efforts. Also notorious was her friendship with Hitler and some other persons from his circle (e.g. Magda Goebbels). Seeing her presentation of these opinions and acquaintanceships is surely one of the main points of interest in this autobiography.
The other thing is
that she was a member of the upper classes, the sort of people who apparently
spend most of their time visiting each other, having dinners and saying clever
things. Thus she met a large number of well-known people, and an even larger
number of not-quite-so-well-known ones, and the book contains many anecdotes,
amusing bits of conversation, and so on; I rather enjoyed this, though I can imagine that some readers might eventually
get annoyed by the constant name-dropping, especially since many people are mentioned
without being properly introduced, as if it was simply obvious who they are.
There seems to be something slightly snobbish in this; merely being a titled aristocrat
and/or a minor literary personage does not in general suffice to make a person's
name really well-known to the public; I guess that even in 1977, when this autobiography was first published, many of
the names were obvious only to a relatively limited subset of readers, i.e. those
who were familiar with the kind of social circles that Diana usually moved in
(and perhaps the avid readers of tabloids
It was in the passages dealing with Mosley, fascism, and Nazi Germany that I most wished for some sort of editorial commentary; one imagines that many details in these passages may be somewhat biased or slanted, but it's hard to tell exactly which and how. This is where a good editor could be really extremely helpful. For example, she says that Mosley's New Party evolved into a fascist movement, complete with black shirts and paramilitary formations, mainly to be able to defend themselves against violent opponents who formerly often interrupted Mosley's public meetings (ch. 10, p. 93). Perhaps it's quite true, perhaps not, but I really have no way of knowing other than by reading more books on this subject, which I'm not sure if I really want to do.
In 1933, Diana and her sister Unity attended the Parteitag in Nuremberg, a four-day celebration organized by the Nazis soon after their seizure of power. “The gigantic parades went without a hitch” (ch. 11, p. 103), and yet in the next paragraph she complains that the English newspapers portrayed the event as militaristic. How can gigantic parades not be militaristic? People do not spontaneously form neat rows and march back and forth for no obvious reason; they have to be herded and drilled and coerced to do it, and the spirit that animates such an undertaking is the very essence of militarism: regimenting people into rigid formations and ordering them about.
Chapters 12 and 15 contain several interesting observations about Hitler, based on her conversations with him. Apparently he was quite a civil and polite person in such situations, quite unlike the way in which he was portrayed by many writings in the Allied countries not only during but also after the war. Again some impartial editor's comments would be welcome here, but I am inclined to believe her, for there is after all no reason that a person should be unable to behave politely in his personal life even though he is responsible for the murder of millions of people. After all, Hitler wouldn't be the only such case; there were plenty of “desk murderers” in Nazi Germany, and no doubt a few specimens of this group could also be found in many other totalitarian countries, or indeed in any large buraucratic institution which, as a whole, performs acts of great evil.
Chapter 12 also contains several observations in which well-known persons such as Churchill and Lloyd George express approval of at least some aspects of Hitler and his policies (p. 118). On the one hand there is of course nothing wrong with admitting that a regime such as Hitler's may also have had its good sides, although at the same time one surely has to agree that whatever these good sides were, they become utterly insignificant when compared to its negative aspects; there does therefore appear to be not much use in e.g. praising Hitler for the economic recovery of Germany in the first years after his seizure of power, if at the same time we are prepared to condemn him for having plunged much of the world into war and ruin, into genocide and assorted wide-scale slaughter. And besides, I vaguely recall having read or heard somewhere that Germany's economic recovery in the first years of Hitler's regime was not really sustainable, but had to result in war sooner or later, or return into a state of depression. What is more, even if Hitler's regime genuinely brought about a recovery of the German economy, surely other countries eventually also recovered without having to install such a horrible dictatorship. Anyway, this is another point where an editor's comments would be useful.
At the end of the same chapter there are also some comparisons of the sort that is very popular among all kinds of opponents of communism, whether they hail from the far right (as in this case) or from a more traditional free-market capitalist point of view: all these people enjoy condemning communism by pointing out that the likes of Stalin and Mao are responsible for more deaths than Hitler and other right-wing dictatorships. This argument is sometimes used simply to condemn communism, and sometimes to conflate left- and right-wing totalitarianism as somehow equally bad and use this as an excuse to condemn them both (often in favour of something which, on closer inspection, turns out to be a free-market fundamentalism which is hardly much better than the totalitarian systems previously condemned). I still doubt if, proportionally to the size of the populations they dealt with (China and the Soviet Union are after all much larger than Germany, as well as much more populous), Mao and Stalin genuinely killed more people than Hitler. But even if that were the case, it has to be said that at least communism is based on a positive ideal, an ideal genuinely worth striving towards: that of equality and a fair division of labour as well as the fruits thereof, enabling everyone to live a life of peace, happiness, and repose. In contrast to that, the main goals of nazism have been from the outset negative: they relished Social Darwinism, a ruthless struggle in all walks of life, the extermination or enslavement and exploitation of other nations and territories, a hierarchical society with dictatorship on all levels (the “Führer principle”); theirs was a system which utterly disregarded the individuals and their quality of life, treating them merely as so many cogwheels whose sole role is to keep the mechanism that is the nation going. Nazism was unable to conceive of any ideal or goal other than survival of the fittest, and the Nazi leaders hoped that they and their nation would turn out to be the fittest. What would such a system achieve? Russell's very reasonable criticism of Plato's utopian Republic (another notoriously totalitarian state) applies equally well here: “the answer is rather humdrum. It will achieve success in wars against roughly equal populations, and it will secure a livelihood for a certain small number of people. It will almost certainly produce no art or science, because of its ridigity; in this respect, as in others, it will be like Sparta. In spite of all the fine talk, skill in war and enough to eat is all that will be achieved.” (History of Western Philosophy, ch. xiv). Communism strived towards ideals infinitely loftier and more desirable than that; and although it is true that it has been sadly derailed, and that it descended into misery and tyranny almost everywhere where it has been seriously tried, yet we must admit that at least it strove towards the correct goals. All that was missing was a way to prevent the power-hungry bureaucrats and dictator wannabes from redirecting the communist efforts towards their own selfish ends. Nevertheless genuine communism remains an ideal supremely worth striving towards, and if we lose sight of it and become completely immersed merely in the day-to-day efforts of survival, economic competition and the pointless technological progress of today, humankind cannot achieve any genuine progress towards a state of happiness and a life free of care, upheaval, and exploitation. It is impossible to expect such progress from a system based, such as e.g. the free-market capitalism of today, entirely on the vilest and basest human instincts: greed, selfishness, and the desire to dominate over others. (P.S. A nice essay on the communism-vs-fascism debate: Sobotna priloga, 12. feb. 2005, str. 8-9.)
At the end of ch. 13 (pp. 124-5) there are some interesting comments about the Saarland plebiscite of 1935. A vast majority of the population voted to unite with Germany, even though they knew that Hitler's regime had been in power there for the last two years. Apparently much of this support was genuine rather than a result of coercion or manipulation, as has been claimed by some English newspapers at the time. This may well be true; it is, after all, well known that, by and large, Hitler had wide support among the German people all the time up to the point when the war started to turn against them. Nevertheless I hope I'll learn more about the Saarland plebiscite at some point; it would be fascinating to see just how exactly did the people feel about Hitler's regime at that time (apparently they must have seen it in a largely positive light, otherwise they wouldn't have voted to join Germany). Still I can't quite agree with the reasoning on p. 124, which seems to regard the fact that the German people genuinely supported Hitler as some kind of mitigating factor, as something which speaks in his favour. Surely a person as fond of undemocratic systems as she was should have realized that sometimes, frankly speaking, the people just don't know what's in their best interest, and the fact that a people support their ruler doesn't at all mean that the ruler isn't doing horrible things, or that he shouldn't have been done away with at the earliest opportunity, or that he isn't leading their country to ruin. No, the people's support for the dictator doesn't exonerate him; it only means that the people must to some extent share the guilt of his crimes.
The end of ch. 13 also contains some examples of the sort of rather unsavoury reasoning that perhaps contributed the most to allowing the horrors of regimes such as Hitler's to take place. “As to the Jews [...] most Germans probably hoped they would remove themselves to some other part of the globe. World Jewry with its immense wealth could find the money, and England and France with the resources of their vast empires could find the living space, it was imagined.” In the end, apparently, it's all the Jews' fault anyway: their protests against the treatment of Jews in Germany “hardened the hearts of the many Germans who were well-disposed towards them. The anti-Jewish laws were passed in Germany in the thirties with the object of inducing the Jews of leaving the country.” This is perhaps one of the most disagreeable passages of the entire book. Here we have the belief that, if the majority population of some country takes it into their heads to get rid of a certain minority, it's perfectly acceptable to do so; it's quite OK to start persecuting this minority in the hope that they will eventually get tired of the maltreatment and emigrate; it's quite OK to expect other countries and the minority's compatriots to accommodate the expelled population and bear the financial costs of the whole operation. This bizarre disregard for the fact that nations are not faceless monoliths, but consist of individual people with their individual fates, lives, opinions, homes, and aspirations, is truly shocking. Did it never occur to her that it is simply wrong to force someone to leave his home and emigrate, even though he has done nothing wrong and his family may have lived in the same spot for ages? And to start oppressing and persecuting him if he refuses to leave? And to expect other countries and other people, who have no personal connection with him, to make room for him and cover the costs of his move, and to blame them for his demise if they refuse to do it and our persecution of him ends in his death? Elsewhere in the book she describes how unhappy she and her husband were when they were imprisoned for some time during the war, and later not allowed to live in London for some time, even though they had committed no crimes; and yet here she proposes that large numbers of people should be required not merely to move a few miles away or avoid a certain part of the country for a while, but to emigrate to a completely different part of the world, to countries with which they have no connection, and leave behind everything to which they had hitherto been accustomed, merely because the majority population of their country has adopted an irrational desire for their removal. This lack of empathy is truly astounding. It recurs in ch. 16, p. 143: plebiscites “were probably the only way whereby war could have been avoided, and where ethnic groups were mixed the losing group should have been offered rich inducements to move into its own mother country. Those who refused would do so with their eyes open.” This last sentence is particularly shocking. Once again it seems OK to tell people to get the hell out or put up with persecution. As for the “rich inducements”, surely there are many examples in history showing that such promises generally come to nothing. It must be said in her defense, however, that this concept of expulsion and exchange of populations was still considered a reasonable thing in the period not only between the wars but also immediately after the second world war. Still, from a present-day point of view, surely one must agree that the only acceptable approach is to let people live where they are and in the way they want to, rather than force them to choose between emigration and assimilation (or worse).
In ch. 15, pp. 135-6, there are some very disparaging comments about Czechoslovakia; it was “an invention of the peace treaties incorporating not only Czechs and Slovaks, who detested one another, but also a large German-speaking minority, chunks of Hungary and an area where the majority of the inhabitants were Poles. The fact that this rickety country fell apart was no more surprising than that trouble came in Northern Ireland from similar causes”. It's certainly true that Czechoslovakia was only formed at the end of the first world war and its borders were in many ways a result of wheeling and dealing at the Versailles peace conference (where the Czechs and Slovaks were quite good at lobbying, and were, unlike e.g. Hungary or Austria, treated by the entente powers as allies rather than as defeated enemies); however, many borders in central and eastern Europe were notoriously difficult to determine, and it would be impossible to satisfy everyone. See e.g. Margaret Macmillan's Peacemakers: The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War, which cites many examples. The population of some area might consist of such a mixture of two nations as couldn't be nicely separated by a border; one nation may predominate in the cities and the other in the countryside, for example; or giving some territory to the country whose nation predominates in it might have deprived some other country of some vital traffic connection, some strategically important area or some economic resources without which it couldn't be viable. Giving the Sudetenland to Germany instead to Czecholovakia would make the latter impossible to defend (as of course both sides well knew). Philip St. C. Walton-Kerr's 1939 book Gestapo shows the efforts of the German secret agents to stir up discontent among the German minority in the Sudetenland. They also encouraged the aspirations of the Slovaks; although these had pressed for more autonomy before, it was only after the weakening of the Prague government at Munich that the disintegration of Czechoslovakia seemed possible. Even so, their declaration of independence and subsequent request for German military “protection” were directly a result of German instructions and pressure (Ian Kershaw, Hitler 1936-1945 Nemesis, ch. 4, sec. iii). In short, were it not for the meddling of its neighbours, chiefly Germany, this “rickety country” might have kept going for many more years.
In ch. 16, p. 144 Poland receives a scarcely better treatment. She mentions Lloyd George's disapproval of the Versailles “arrangement which divided Germany and put millions of Germans into Polish frontiers”. But what else could be done? There were also many Poles within German frontiers, which doesn't seem to bother her. The areas given to Poland were predominantly Polish; and without dividing Germany, Poland could not have had access to the sea, which would have made it economically unviable (or completely dependent upon Germany).
In the years before the war, Oswald Mosley (as well as Diana) supported the notion that Britain should arm but try to stay out of any wars unless its empire was directly threatened (ch. 15, p. 136; ch. 16, pp. 144, 147). “Win or lose it [war] was bound to diminish not only England and France and Germany, but Europe itself.” (P. 144.) This is in a way true; had Britain and France not been exhausted by the war, their colonial empires might have kept on going for longer than they had. But in the long term the colonies would have gained independence anyway (once the colonized nations awake and start clamouring for independence, there would be no way for a Britain or a France to hold them back, except perhaps by instituting a regime of brutal tyranny not much better than the one introduced by the Nazis in their occupied territories in eastern Europe); and besides, how can we defend imperialism and the exploitation of colonies merely for the sake of Europe and its countries being more powerful than otherwise? Besides, it's doubtful if avoiding war would have helped anyway. If two countries are equally well developed but one is larger and more populous, it will be stronger both economically and militarily, perhaps culturally as well, and it will have a better position to develop more quickly in the future. Thus it happened in the late 19th century that German economy overtook Britain's in many ways, and there wasn't a whole lot that Britain could do about it, since it simply had much fewer people than Germany at the time. Likewise in the mid-20th century, even if the European countries had avoided war, they would likely still be eclipsed by the power of the United States and the Soviet Union. The largely undeveloped colonies wouldn't have been of any use to them in this struggle either.
And besides, I cannot quite understand the reasoning behind this policy of Mosley's to advocate avoiding war until Britain is directly threatened. If Britain and France didn't get involved in the war, it would be over in a few weeks, Hitler would take his half of Poland and spend the next year or so consolidating his position; by then all of central and eastern Europe would consist of territories either under his direct control, or under that of his satellites. Of course Germany's appetites would not be satisfied by this; he might turn to some of the smaller countries in western or nothern Europe then, or perhaps attack France (should Britain still stand aside?); or perhaps he would feel strong enough to attack the Soviet Union, and he might just have succeeded (we see how close he came even though part of his forces were busy elsewhere and the Soviet Union had some help from its allies). Germany would then annex large parts of the Soviet Union, perhaps as far as the Urals, and would finally be in a position to become a world-class superpower (cf. Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich: A New History, ch. 7, “Other People's Wars”). By then, Britain and France would be quite insignificant compared to Germany, and their opinions would be irrelevant. Sure, Hitler had promised to respect the integrity of the British Empire; but if he now decided to break his promise, as he had broken so many others before, Britain would be in no position to object. No, 1939 was in fact high time to start a major war against Hitler; if it had been started a couple of years earlier things would have been much easier, and if it had been started later (or not at all) things could have turned truly disastrous.
Chapter 17 is interesting and deals with her and Mosley's experiences in prison, where they were kept for several years during the war under a wartime regulation which allowed people to be imprisoned indefinitely without trial if they were suspected of being potentially disloyal. Apparently the British authorities were convinced that Mosley and his supporters could work for German interests or form a kind of fifth column, although Mosley explicitly called on his supporters to fight against Germany in the case of an invasion (ch. 16, p. 152; ch. 31, pp. 256-6). I personally think that important civil liberties such as the right to a fair trial and the right to criticize one's government should not be suspended during wartime; in fact they should be defended particularly carefully during wartime, for wars are always a period when militaristic thinking and its accompanying tendency towards oppression and tyranny grow in influence. Besides, if things were as described in this book, it seems that the British government really did not have a good enough reason to imprison Mosley (let alone his wife!) as a potentially disloyal subject, let alone keep him imprisoned for such a long period (several years). I guess that at some point it would be good to try to find some book about Mosley and his fascist party from some more impartial source.
She seems to be mildly critical of the Nuremberg trials, and suggests that “the Allies should [...] have thrown in a few war-crimes of their own, in order to make the whole thing seem more like even-handed justice and less an isolated act of vengeance” (ch. 18, p. 186). I think this is a very reasonable idea; the way that war crimes are defined nowadays, it's practically impossible to conduct a war without committing at least a few war crimes. Even if (as nobody doubts) the Allies had commited very few compared to what had been done by Germany, they could not be completely disregarded by a truly impartial war trimes court. I must admit that I personally am somewhat uncomfortable with the whole concept of war crimes; above all, since there is no higher power to enforce a prohibition of war crimes evenly, such a prohibition would inevitably be ignored by the stronger countries and only used by them as a tool with which to twist the hands of weaker ones. One that I find especially absurd is the notion of “a crime against peace”, whereby merely starting a war is by itself already considered a war crime. Surely, if a nation has decided that the continuation of peace under the present conditions looks less enticing than the prospect of war (perhaps a short one, to be followed perhaps by marked improvements in their situation), it will go to war. To consider this a crime is to suggest that any peace, no matter how unacceptable to one of the parties involved, is better than any war; a claim which, to me at least, seems highly problematic.
In ch. 19, p. 187 there is an interesting anecdote about how the young Goethe was on friendly terms with the French officers who had occupied his home city of Frankfurt during the Seven Years' War, and how this didn't seem to outrage anyone much at the time, whereas nowadays analogous behaviour would probably have been branded as vile collaboration. I often feel that warfare of the 18th and early 19th century seems somehow remarkably civilized and orderly to us nowadays; the soldiers meet on the battlefield, nearly arrayed in long lines, shoot at each other for a few hours, then call a truce and march out to collect their dead, and so on. The civilian population often seems to have been not much affected. I wonder how much truth there is in this view; probably not very much, wars have always been exceedingly nasty affairs, although it is possible that the rise of nationalism in the 19th century and the concept of total war in the 20th (not to mention the technological progress) have made wars even more horrible than they used to be.
From various passages in the later chapters, it seems that several post-war British governments made efforts to prevent Mosley from appearing on television or trying to continue his political career, and even from leaving the country (by refusing to issue passports to him and Diana); pp. 187, 193, 200-1. If this is true, it seems an exceedingly silly course of action. Surely he had so few supporters by this time that there would be no harm in letting him be. At the same time it often seems that Diana's complaints about the government are just an expression of patrician arrogance against those who are primarily interested in the common people; she refers to “the myriad trivial annoyances inseparable from life in England under a Labour governmen” (ch. 20, p. 200; and see also ch. 23, p. 215).
After the war, Mosley starting advocating the idea of a united Europe (ch. 20, p. 201). However, for a while, Britain still hoped to remain a great power in its own right, and Mosley's ideas were therefore unpopular (ch. 23, p. 218). He also opposed immigration into Britain, particularly of coloured people (ch. 24, pp. 228-230); he was much criticized for this, although he “had always insisted that the immigrants must be decently treated once they are in the country”. I guess the reason is that if one publicly advocates that no more immigrants should come, but the ones already here should be treated decently, this is a distinction much too subtle to be understood by the white working-class louts that are the most likely supporters of such a politician. They will see in his message simply a confirmation that the coloured immigrants are undesirable scum, and an encouragement to not only oppose further immigration but also to persecute the immigrants already in the country.
And this passage from p. 230 shows again the same pernicious line of thinking that we saw previously applied to the Jews: “If this problem is ever to be solved it will have to be in a European context, because if their countries of origin are to be induced to receive the immigrants back the inducement will have to be the only one that counts: economic and financial”. Hasn't she learned anything from the second world war? Here we have again this horrible notion that people should be encouraged or induced to move from one country to another, and that distant other countries should be willing to accept them merely because this happens to suit the prejudice of a part of the people of the country in which these immigrants presently live. Naturally enough, if a person emigrated from some poor third-world country and, after much hard work and effort, managed to start his life anew in Britain, he or she will not be interested to move back to his poor native land; he might be induced, if his native country were instantly made as prosperous as Britain (instantly, and not in twenty years' time, when our immigrant will have children who will have no other homeland than Britain), which is impossible. No positive inducement which Britain could realistically be expected to offer could persuade such immigrants to return. Any inducement would therefore have to adopt the form of threats, of persecution, and of economic hand-twisting of the countries which would be expected to receive the returning immigrants. All of this is quite unacceptable and it's somewhat sad that the Mosleys didn't realize this. And besides, their dire warnings about coloured immigration and its consequences for race relations don't seem to have come true; the different races seem to be getting along remarkably well in present-day Britain, perhaps better than in many other countries.
Ch. 26 is a nice comparison of Churchill and Hitler, who apparently “had more in common with one another than perhaps either would have been prepared to admit” (p. 236).
There are some candid admissions of the fact that babies, particularly new-born ones, are ugly (ch. 2, p. 19). I'm terribly glad to finally see somebody who agrees with me in this aspect, and who, unlike me, has the courage to express this opinion in public. Apparently Lytton Strachey had a similar aversion to babies; ch. 8, p. 83.
On the dislike of schools and their “zoo-like smell”; ch. 4, p. 42.
When she got married for the first time (to Bryan Guinness), her mother-in-law was fascinated by Diana's cooking skills, namely her ability to fry eggs: “I've never heard of such a thing, it's too clever!&rduo; (Ch. 7, p. 65.) As they say: you can't make this shit up. If there exists a hall of fame for the best instances of aristocrats turning into their own caricatures, this one should be right at the top next to Marie Antoinette's advice to eat cake if you can't afford bread.
An example of “the grand luxe” from the belle époque: “A carpet of fresh blossoms on her bathroom floor, renewed twice a day” (“her” being Ida Rubinstein, a famous dancer; ch. 10, p. 100).
Apparently the movies of the 1930s were characterized by a “sugary and embarrassing sentimentality”, which she (and many of her friends) hated just as much as the violence of the movies of the 1970s; ch. 12, p. 112.
Another unpopular opinion in which I agree with her is the understanding of suicide. “To that small extent man must be the master of his fate. He did not ask to be born; if his life becomes too tragic or unbearable he has the right to die.” (Ch. 16, p. 151.)
There are many nice rants against “development” which ruins formerly beautiful places and spoils their pristine beauty; piles of concrete that pass for tourist infrastructure on the beaches, huge skyscrapers ruin the skyline of a nice old city such as Paris, industry and pollution threaten Venice, etc.; pp. 72, 90, 213, 249-250. “Commercialism and crowds are more destructive than bombs”, p. 250. I quite agree with that. The only redeeming characteristic of technological progress is that it makes us more comfortable; otherwise it just makes our world uglier and uglier.
There are also some instances of rather sillier conservatism: “Twenty years ago the posts within Europe were dependable” (ch. 23, p. 220) — isn't this the typical old person's complaint of how everything is going to the dogs?
All in all, although this book contains several passages that one cannot help disagreeing with (as has been discussed above), it was a very pleasant read and a great wellspring of amusing anecdotes and reminiscences. On the other hand, from a purely biographical point of view, it has to be admitted that it may be better to refer to some other book if one is interested primarily in a more detailed and probably also more even-handed biographical treatment of Diana Mosley's life; but this is hardly unreasonable, as this book is after all an autobiography. Some time ago, I read Anne de Courcy's biography of Diana (Diana Mosley, 2003), which contains more biographical detail, and The Mitford Girls by Mary S. Lovell, which is a sort of joint biography of the whole Mitford family. They were both quite pleasant to read; however, little by little I am beginning to notice more and more overlap between all these Mitford-related books, which is of course natural since they speak about the same subject, the lives of the same people; but slowly I think I am getting saturated with the subject, and I'm not sure if I will be reading any more Mitford-related books in the near future. Incidentally, many of Nancy Mitford's novels also contain thinly veiled anecdotes from the life of her sisters and herself; they generally make for delightfully hilarious reading.