In the offices of the youth hostels association of Northern Ireland (HINI), they hold an album of photos, in old brown fabric. The album is full of pictures taken in a post-war world out of which people climbed, away from the horrors of total war, holocaust and nuclear armageddon.
The people in these photos have bright smiling faces. They’re young, thin and muscular. Not one of them was overfed or obese.
In 1948 they had travelled from homes in Northern Ireland and from elsewhere in Britain to work along side young people in Germany. They went to rebuild youth hostels there.
The world around them was full of threat and danger. Food was short and the results and prospects of future war were frighteningly real as the former Allies and Russia lurched towards the Cold War.
No one is able to say who took the photos but the pictures, and the story they tell, of the revival of post-war youth hostels in Europe, shows how the hopes and dreams of youth hostels emerged among ruins.
Young people came from Belfast, Liverpool, Welwyn Garden City and from many other places in Britain and Northern Ireland. They could have ignored the fate of youth hostels in Germany. They could have given up on the ideal of international friendship in youth hostels that had been so alive before the war.
After all, the Nazis had taken over youth hotels in Germany. They had taken youth hostels into their own youth organisations, the Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls.
For a while, Richard Schirrmann, the man who invented youth hostels, had gone along with the Nazi’s ideas and had continued to work with them. Youth hostels throughout Europe did so too, except for a few brave individuals. It was the story of the thirties and of pre-war appeasement of the Nazis and their racist ideas.
Once the war ended, many youth hostel members wanted nothing to do with Germany, its hostels and its members. They shunned Schirrmann when he appeared at the first post-war international meeting in Scotland, at Loch Lomond in 1946.
One declared that he couldn’t abide hearing German spoken. They resolved to have nothing to do with Germany, until Germans had paid the price for the second world war.
The young people who went to rebuild youth hostels in Germany put an end to that spirt of revenge. They recreated the old ideals of hostels, of friendship and peace, and ensured that youth hostels survived.
In 1948, the same year that some of these photos were taken, the international federation of youth hostels readmitted German youth hostels and Richard Schirrmann was welcomed back at a rally in the Irish Republic, in the Wicklow Hills. His mistakes were forgiven and the damages of the past mended.
I’ve come upon these stories through researching the life of Jack Catchpool. He organised many of these work camps and I was pleased to find, among those at the camp in Hannover in 1948, his daughter, Heather. These are the coincidences of history I love.
You’ll be able to read more about this period of youth hostel history in my biography of Jack Catchpool due out spring next year.
Thank you to HINI for sharing the album and for the kind permission to use these photos. You can read more about the album and its history here.