Unity: Extract

In the introduction to the novel, the author explains his intentions of writing about Felicity Benthall and her involvement in Unity, setting out both his credo and his credential

For a writer to have gone to university with an international terrorist is a mixed blessing.  On the one hand, he feels pressure from both his publishers and himself to provide his unique slant on the story, on the other, a reluctance to reopen old wounds.   So much nonsense has been printed about Felicity Benthall that I would dearly like to set the record straight.  And yet a fear of what my investigations might uncover has so far restrained me.  What if a chain of complicity reaches back to the chance remark of a college contemporary’s – or, worse, of mine?   What if an old acquaintance reveals Cambridge to have been as fertile a breeding-ground of fanaticism in the 1970s as it had been forty years before?  I am caught between conflicting abstractions.  Commitment to the truth contends with the determination to spare my friends – and, indeed, my whole generation – from further attacks.

The facts of the matter are plain.  In October 1977, Felicity Benthall, a twenty-three year-old English actress, attempted to blow up the diplomatic representatives of most of the United Nations at a service to commemorate the eleven Israeli athletes murdered at the Munich Olympics five years before.  She succeeded only in killing herself, her uncle the British Ambassador, his deputy, two secret servicemen and the Polish chargé d’affaires.   Immediately after her death, a statement was issued in Beirut by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claiming her as a martyr to its cause.   Meanwhile, in Stuttgart, the Red Army Faction (otherwise known as the Baader-Meinhof group), the small band of revolutionary Marxists whose campaign of terror over the previous decade had plunged West Germany into its greatest political crisis since the end of the Second World War, also claimed that she was acting on its behalf.

Nowhere was the shock of the atrocity more deeply felt than among those who had known – or who thought that they had known – Felicity best.  Try as we might, it was impossible to square the cynic who had drawled that all ideology was a bore with the fanatic who died for a principle that was, in every sense, foreign to her.   Like any other observer – but with an added sense of frustration – we were left to wonder whether her behaviour had been driven by idealism or nihilism:  whether she had been malevolent or mad.  Moreover, by a coincidence which I decline to call an irony, she had been playing the role of Unity Mitford, the English aristocrat whose extremist views led her to fall in love with Hitler.  The film, by Germany’s foremost post-war director, Wolfram Meier, was then abandoned.  Like Sternberg’s I Claudius and Welles’s Don Quixote, Meier’s Unity has become one of cinema’s most celebrated might-have-beens.  The untimely deaths of many of the leading players have contributed to its legendary status, creating the cinematic equivalent of the curse of Macbeth.

That was clearly the opinion of the film’s writer, Luke Dent, who, in the immediate aftermath of the attack, declared:  ‘I know now that a writer must take full responsibility for his ideas, like a scientist with the H-bomb.  There is certain research that is too dangerous to publish.  It should be left in the study or the lab.’