Harry Young (B.1901-1996): War and Memory

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Photo taken and edited by the author from the Imperial War Museum North

Recollections of wartime play a great part in Harry’s memoir. As a Comintern, he experienced a unique side to the war that not many would have been privy to, especially coming from a working class background. He spends much time reporting on key communist figures of the time (Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin etc.) and witnessed speeches by these figures that are now historical.

The war changed his beliefs dramatically. From joining the socialist party in his youth, then progressing to the communist party, it’s clear he had very strong beliefs. As mentioned in previous posts, Harry was directly influenced by working class poverty and the struggle of the working-class man (namely his father) so having witnessed a system that was broken he strove for one that put all men on equal ground with better opportunities. This experience of struggle coupled with his desire to leave the country surely was a direct influence on his decision to become part of the CP’s youth division.

Harry writes not only of his beliefs but of how he catered to general opinion in his bookshop; ‘By 1917 Anti-war feeling was growing rapidly and I made quite a stir by stocking and selling all the anti-war newspapers and magazines’. He sold magazines such as ‘Satire’ and ‘Socialist’ and was raided multiple times by Scotland Yard as they were classed as ‘proscribed’ literature. As discussed in ‘life and labor’, Harry’s first jobs were directly linked to the wartime effort as factories were converted to produce cartridges and other weapons-related items. He and others flocked to find jobs that promised a high wage and were sorely disappointed. Such broken promises undoubtedly lowered the morale of the working classes and aided this surge in anti-war feelings.

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A 1922 One Chevronets Banknote. These banknotes helped reduce inflation in Russia and eventually turned the economy back to normality.

He also writes a chapter on the rate of inflation during his time in Russia. This inflation happened at the same time as Germany around 1920/21. He writes that around this time ‘currency had practically ceased to exist’ and workers were paid instead with a food parcel; ‘a ration of four, sugar, bread, fat, tea etc.’ He writes of how his wages were issued to him The money was issued in sheets – just like the sheet of postage stamps; about 40 to the approximate A4 sheet, each separate stamp was one million roubles’ (approximately £40,000 per stamp) During the 4th Congress of Comintern, small sweet cakes were made for purchase at three million rubles each. Whilst waiting to buy a cake for himself, harry recalled his friend ‘enquired of me “Got any millions? Harry”, which I had, and with which i obliged him.’ It is astounding to hear first-hand an account of such hyperinflation, caused directly from the country’s participation in the war. There is a tone of disbelief and humor in this chapter, though he writes little of its effect upon others and whether they suffered because of inflation. By 1923 currency was returned almost to normality. 

In his memoirs, Harry writes little of his true emotions regarding the war. He writes factually a lot of the time though there is a definite sense of nostalgia. Considering the experiences of other authors in the Writing Lives site, Harry experienced far less devastation from the war than many others – however, it is worth speculating the he omitted these details as he chose to be ‘impartial’ in the writing of his autobiography.

 

Burnett, John, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography vol. 2. Brighton: Harvester, 1987. YOUNG, Harry 2-858

 

 

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