Article published on September 18, 2015. Reviewed by Mike Stafford
Mike Stafford found Harry’s book highly relevant for a younger generation wanting to know about their history and was able to ask Mr Smith the questions that had piqued his interest.
MS: Love Among the Ruins is a fascinating story in its own right, but it also feels very much like a lesson that needs learning by the generations after your own about the importance of human decency. What motivated you to write it, was it a personal process, or did you approach it as part of your social activism?
HLS: I think my greatest motivation to write Love Among the Ruins was to preserve that pivotal moment in Europe’s history right after the war along with my own personal life story. Moreover, it was an important piece of history to preserve because no ordinary member of the armed forces ever wrote a detailed account of the allied occupation of Hamburg until I did. I wanted people to remember both the good and the bad that was done in Germany while we occupied it after the war.
MS: When you and Friede first met, it was illegal for you to marry, and yet you ultimately spent many years as husband and wife, till death do you part. Does love truly conquer all?
HLS: I don’t think love conquers all unless it comes with two other ingredients: respect and friendship. Human relationships are as fragile as glass, so unless each person in it approaches their affair with tenderness and the ability to laugh at their own faults, the attachment to each other will diminish once the strains of life start eating away at the romance.
MS: In Love Among the Ruins there’s a sense that Nazism was something forced on powerless ordinary people, rather than it being a movement that enjoyed their committed support. Was that your experience of everyone in Hamburg?
HLS: First of all, there was a fair number of committed Nazis in Hamburg, but by war’s end most of them were trying to hide their former allegiance to that ideology of hate. In my view the followers of Nazism could be divided into 3 categories; the first would be the diehard fanatics who truly believed they were the master race; the second set of Nazis would be the opportunists who saw it as a fast ride to the top of their career or a way to advance business opportunities, and the last and most numerous type of Nazi was the ordinary bloke that doesn’t have a strong opinion on anything but [wanting to avoid] making waves.
I also believe that most people aren’t political, and are only concerned with getting on with their lives and having a good standing in their community, whether that be at work with their friends or family. In my opinion economics and the fate of birth are the two biggest determinants of one’s politics. But because the world was turned upside down by the First World War and Germany was a society in ruin by the 1930s, people just wanted a government that could keep the lights running and make them feel good about themselves. Generally, people don’t recognize evil because it gradually creeps up on them and then corrupts them in either small or large degrees depending on their standing in society. Sadly the same holds true for today’s societies because evil seems to be all around us as it once was in 1930s and 1940s.
MS: For someone of my generation, it’s easy for us to look back at what yours endured and achieved during WWII and think of the ‘Greatest Generation’ as being extraordinary people, built differently to those that came before or after. Do you ever think that way yourself, or do you very much see you and your peers as ordinary people in extraordinary times?
HLS: My generation became adults in a most extraordinary time and we were tested first in the Great Depression and then the battle fields of World War Two. But to say we were the Greatest Generation isn’t correct, because if we had been the crisis that our grandchildren’s generation are facing today wouldn’t exist. I am extremely proud that my generation – after the horrors of the Second World War – built the welfare state but also ashamed that we didn’t address other issues like the rights of women, minorities and third world nations with the same vigour as poverty and health care. It’s absurd to call my generation the greatest when 20 years after our victory over Nazism many in my generation were petrified by the Cultural Revolution our children had started. Although having seen how the baby boomers pulled up the drawbridge when it came to social services, affordable housing and education perhaps we had every right to be afraid of their intentions.
So, my money for Greatest Generation goes to the millennials because I think they will have the courage to take the best ideas from both my generation and their parents to help build a better society for everyone.
MS: Many people look back on their early romance with their partners as an idyllic time, worth re-living again and again. Despite the desperation and bleakness of the time, is that how you look back on your courtship with Friede?
HLS: It’s always a fault of the old and the not so old to look back at youth through the imperfect but warm light of memory. For me it was a wonderful time because I felt that I was finally getting a chance at happiness after the misery of the Great Depression. But each episode in our life’s journey must be savoured because they all have moments of wonder and joy.
MS: So far you’ve written memoirs of your poverty-blighted youth, up to the end of WWII. Can we expect to see any other periods in your long life committed to print, or are you working on other projects now?
HLS: I am working on another book at the moment which is about how over the next five years we must survive austerity with our dignity intact and an action plan ready because come 2020 the Tories will be voted out of office. I am sure after that I will have the chance to write another book about my early life. I’d also like to write a book about my son Peter who was an artist of some renown as well as a mental health advocate. Tragically, he died from IPF at 50 in 2009.
MS: Looking to the present, we’re in the middle of a refugee crisis that is being called the worst since the end of WWII. As an activist and a man who has lived through both, what would you like to see done to solve it?
HLS: This is a difficult question to answer but it is my absolute belief that we can begin to end this madness if the world powers reform their tax laws to insure that corporations and wealthy individuals are paying their fair share of taxes. Simply put, the right wing always likes to tell us that there isn’t enough money to fix the refugee crisis or the inequality crisis or the global warming crisis. But the reason why we don’t have the money to sort out those issues is because our nations have allowed the rich and their corporations to create a tax code that benefit the 1% at the expense of the 99%.
Moreover, we have to break the control corporations have over our domestic and foreign policy. It’s absurd for anyone to tell me that our sale of £12 billion worth of armaments to dictators isn’t a factor in the refugee crisis.
MS: Finally, you are a man of the left who saw Attlee’s government come to power in the year the book was set. Seventy years on from that transformative administration, do you think the nation is ready for a Corbyn premiership?
HLS: By 2020 the nation will be ready to elect a Labour government with Corbyn as our Prime Minister. By then people will know that they have no other choice but to elect a politician who believes in a government for the people and by the people. Sadly I believe the 5 more years of austerity will cause so much heartache to even the middle class that people will realise their own chance for a decent life is to return to a civil society based upon a comprehensive social safety network.
Love Among the Ruins by Harry Leslie Smith