My generation's hard fought lessons are being forgotten
PUBLISHED: 17:41 08 May 2017 | UPDATED: 11:14 28 November 2018
As a young airman, Harry Leslie Smith saw first hand the need for co-operation in Europe, a lesson he thinks later generations have lost
Seventy-two years ago, I witnessed the birth of a new Europe when the blossoms of spring erupted with a melancholic beauty, along the roads that led from Holland to Germany, during the last days of the Second World War.
It was May 1945 and Britain’s long battle against the darkness of Nazism was coming to its final chapter of death and mayhem. Then, I was a 22 year old lad, who had grown up rough on the wrong side of Barnsley, Bradford and Halifax. Yet, despite the fact that I was working class and endured inhuman economic and social injustices during the Great Depression, I still joined the RAF at the age of 18 because I believed in our nation’s democratic institutions.
On May 1 1945, when Hitler was just 24 hours dead, I was deployed along with the other men from my squadron to journey to Hamburg and occupy the Luftwaffe airfield located there. From the back of a lend lease army truck lumbering through northern Germany, I witnessed the dying gasps of Nazism. Along our way death and refugees were strewn to the side of the dual carriageway like a wedding garland that had been tossed out from behind the gates of hell.
I saw all of this with a cigarette dangling from my lip ready to be lit and a tin helmet strapped loosely to my head while the dust of war blowing up from the roadway became caked onto my face. I stared out at this tsunami of forsaken humanity and my heart ached for those refugees and for all that I had seen and done during that long and terrible war.
Yet, I knew that the madness that created this war came from social and economic divisions that had beset Europe in the 1930s. It had created a pandemic of populism and nationalism that raced through Germany, Spain, Austria and Italy killing democracy and all its institutions. Moreover, other countries from France to Hungary were not immune to the siren song that politicians of hate sang in workmen’s clubs and around the dining tables of that era’s 1%.
Even Britain indulged in the fascism of that time because Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts gained prominence for their thuggery on our newsreels of the day.
So, on my odyssey through the Second World War, I didn’t think Europe could rise from its funeral bed of violence, racism and political radicalism.
It’s why in those last days of conflict, I was angry at how much young life had been shed because politicians, big business and the entitled had ignored for too long during the 1930s the evils of nationalism to further their own ends.
So, when I came to Hamburg in May 1945 and I saw in a hungry, tea time light this modern city reduced to rubble from an ugly air war, it’s unfathomable destruction unsettled me. In fact at first glance in the setting sun as our convoy passed I thought its defeated inhabitants looked more like silhouettes than human beings when they darted up like ghosts from the hovels that they had dug from the ruins of their former apartment dwellings.
During those long ago days of May 1945 everyone in Europe from the victors to the defeated ached for peace, like the lonely long for love. It’s why when the guns of war were hushed on May 8, even ordinary young men like me knew that for there to be a proper future for everyone, in Britain and Europe, we had to forge strong and binding ties of amity.
At the end of the Second World War, everyone from ordinary blokes like me to knowledgeable politicians, pundits, educators and people of business knew that the old political formulas that allowed nationalism to supersede commonsense had to change or else civilisation would die.
It’s why the 1945 refugee crisis caused by the war was treated with compassion rather than ignored. It’s why Britain accepted food rationing in part to help feed a starving Germany after the war because to have not done so would have been vindictive and created a political chaos that would have affected our national security.
I was still in Germany and part of the Allied occupation forces when the Marshall Plan saved Europe from internal collapse and Soviet takeover. I saw how intelligent economic investment delivered by government agencies can turn despair into optimism. While I was stationed in Hamburg I met and fell in love with a young German woman who eventually became my wife. In 1948, just when the NHS was being constructed I returned to Britain to live in Halifax with my bride. In the 1940s the city of Halifax was teeming with Europeans who either were refugees from the east or war brides. What was most impressive to me was there was little prejudice against newly arrived migrants after the war.
Most everyone understood that Britain couldn’t insulate itself from the continent like it had done during its imperial past. During that time, I met a man who would be, for almost 60 years, my best friend, until his death in 2007. He was a Polish refugee who had left his native country when the Nazis invaded but with nowhere else to go in 1945 he put down roots in Yorkshire with his Belgian wife. It never occurred to me, my other friends, my family or my neighbours to question his right to reside in Britain with his family.
By the 1950s, my wife and I had saved enough to take a vacation in Europe. I was amazed how the recent peace had changed the continent for the better. Trade barriers were coming down and former enemies began to talk about the mutual benefits that greater co-operation could produce between countries. The concept of the European Union was taking shape as nations not shackled behind the iron curtain realised that building closer bonds with each other was economically beneficial as it helped secure a universal peace.
Our partnership with Europe over the decades created a social democratic ethos that made life better for ordinary workers like me. With measured movements the EU was slowly born over the decades of my life and for someone who had lived through the political and economic chaos of the 1930s and the carnage of the Second World War this was just commonsense.
The Second World War ended over seven decades ago and like the Great Depression it as fresh in my memory as the morning rain. But the lessons my generation taught to the generations born in the bosom of peace and cooperation are quickly being forgotten. Lasting peace can only be achieved and maintained when we strive to be united with other nations through prosperity and social justice. The EU, no matter how imperfect, is still the best vehicle to achieve that for Britain and the rest of Europe.
It’s why in spring 2017 when I hear birdsong break out from the treetops and remember the end of the Second World War, I don’t feel optimism for Britain but fear for its future. Since the EU referendum our nation has been trapped in a winter of fear, doubt and distrust. The reasons for our angst are clear; Britain stands on the precipice of Brexit. This is the most momentous decision taken by this nation since the end of the Second World War and the Government’s inability to admit to the complexity of Brexit is concerning.
It’s why for me Theresa May’s unexpected General Election call for June seems more like cynical politics than leadership. For me the tragedy of Brexit is that it was the blood, sweat and tears of my generation that helped forge a more perfect union between Britain and Europe. Now that appears lost and our country feels shorn of hope because hollow words of rich Tory politicians will never replace the benefits in trade, culture, workers rights, and security we derived from being a member of the EU.
Harry Leslie Smith was a 95 year old author and activist who has written 5 books including Harry’s Last Stand on the history of his generation and today’s political realities.