Richard Smith: Kissing the hand that Hitler kissed

Richard SmithIn the early 80s I kissed a hand that Hitler had kissed. Once I realised what I’d done I felt like spitting, but I didn’t. This is how my physical connection with one of history’s monsters came about.

In those days I was the BBC Breakfast Time doctor. Twice, sometimes thrice, a week I would appear on television, chatting about constipation, breast feeding, cancer, worms, phobias, or whatever. As required, I was relentlessly cheerful. (I had some strange, but also educational experiences, which I describe briefly in a chapter on medical journals and the media in my book “The Trouble with Medical Journals.”)

Every day there was a main guest who would pop up again and again throughout the three hours of the live programme. One day it was Diana Mitford, the third of the famous six Mitford sisters. She must have just published a book. Most guests on the programme were selling something.

Diana Mitford was notable not only for being one of the Mitford sisters, but also for being married to Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British fascists, and for having had Hitler at her wedding in 1936. Some reports say that Hitler was the only guest. Mitford was also friendly with Winifred Wagner, the effective head of the Wagner family from 1930 to 1945, and Joseph Goebbels’s wife Magda, who poisoned her six children in the final days of the war because she couldn’t bear the thought of them not being able to grow up in Hitler’s Germany. MI5 wrote of Mitford “She is said to be far cleverer and more dangerous than her husband and will stick at nothing to achieve her ambitions.”

I’m reminded of meeting her because I’m reading Nancy Mitford’s letters, and I’ve learnt that Diana Mitford left her first husband for love of Mosley even though he couldn’t marry at the time. I’ve learnt too that Evelyn Waugh wrote that her beauty “ran through the room like a peal of bells.”

When I met her she was in her 70s and had that effortless charm so common in the British upper classes. She certainly charmed me.

The presenters kept trying to press her on Hitler, but she evaded their questions with no difficulty.

“What was he like?”

“He was charming, like so many continental men.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, men from the continent will always kiss your hand when you met them. Englishmen will never do that.”

This was the challenge that set me on the path to kissing her hand. I was representing all Englishmen. So when the broadcast ended I kissed her hand and told her how pleased I was to have met her. She gave me a beautiful smile.

Kissing hands has great symbolic significance. British prime ministers “kiss hands” with the monarch when they are appointed. Catholics kiss the hand of the Pope, so establishing a direction connection with St Peter and hence Christ. Members of the mafia kiss the hand of the don to show he is boss. Hand kissing signals respect and fidelity.

Almost immediately after I’d kissed Diana Mitford’s hand I thought how Hitler must have kissed that hand. She never said so specifically, but the message was clear. Presumably (I now reflect) Goebbels, other Nazi leaders, and perhaps even Wagner’s son Richard, although he died in 1930, might have kissed her hand.

Why did I feel the need to spit? I suppose that I felt that I might be tainted, infected with evil. Nonsense, of course, but even those of us who pretend to be rationalists can’t quite wipe a belief in sorcery from our souls. Now I feel a small pride in my trivial connection with history, which is why I’ve written this blog.

Richard Smith was the editor of the BMJ until 2004 and is director of the United Health Group’s chronic disease initiative.