Nuremberg, September 1938: the week-long Parteitag, or Nazi Party Congress, is in full swing. At one session, in the very first row, sits Unity Mitford, indulging to the hilt her groupie’s crush on Hitler. Beside her is an old friend, Robert Byron, unsure how to act. Not wanting to draw attention to himself, he throws out an arm in the Nazi salute, when suddenly Hitler himself stomps by. “My fingers,” he will later recall, “were nearly bitten off by the Führer and I half withdrew my arm, thus assuming a position of grotesque flabbiness.”

The incident is vintage Byron, most obviously in its humor—he was renowned for his raucous wit—but in more serious ways as well. He had wheedled an invitation to the event not out of ghoulish curiosity, still less admiration. To the contrary, he had already concluded, while many in Britain wavered over appeasement, that the Nazis were mad dogs, to be put down...


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