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1 March 2022

Fraternity in combat: how international volunteers shaped Europe

Liz Truss’s comments on Ukraine have served to remind us of a long and radical tradition of militant solidarity.

By Gavin Jacobson

Liz Truss is an unlikely entry in the annals of radical internationalism, a figure in ideological league with past revolutionaries such as Maximilien Robespierre, Giuseppe Mazzini, Maurice Thorez, Ho Chi Minh and Jean-Paul Sartre. But on 27 February, when the Foreign Secretary declared her support for anyone who volunteered to fight with Ukrainians against the Russian invasion, she became an unwitting voice in a long and radical tradition of militant solidarity. “The people of Ukraine,” Truss said, “are fighting for freedom and democracy, not just for Ukraine but for the whole of Europe.”

Truss’s apparent leftist turn is both new and temporary: never, for example, has she linked the freedom of her constituents to the freedom of Palestinians living under occupation. Nor have there been calls to organise citizen armies to liberate the Uyghurs or assist Myanmar’s dying democracy movement. For Truss and her colleagues, solidarity stops at Europe’s edge. But her comments about Ukraine remind us of a forgotten history of fraternity, what the French revolutionary Robespierre in the 1790s called “the obligation of brotherhood”: the necessity of thinking about one’s own liberty in relation to the liberty of others.

The most famous example of this ideal in practice is the International Brigades. Formed during the Spanish Civil War, the Brigades consisted of around 35,000 people who travelled to Spain from more than 60 countries to fight in support of the anti-fascist forces. Like Ukraine, Spain stood at the political periphery of Europe, but between 1936 and 1939 it became a crucible in which the ideological confrontations of the preceding 20 years — nationalism vs internationalism, modernity vs conservatism, proletarian vs proprietor, democracy vs fascism — reached a crescendo in Europe’s decades-long civil war.  

The International Brigades had their own fraternal antecedents. It was around 1815, after Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, that former officers of the French Grand Army travelled the world looking for hot spots of national liberation. The cult of Byronic heroism and the romantic sense of adventure, enriched through time fighting in the faraway borderlands of the Empire, gave them a permanent desire for action. When France invaded Spain in 1823 to overthrow the Trienio Liberal and restore the monarchy, republicans from Paris to Poland hastened to the country to defend the liberal regime. Arriving in Barcelona, one volunteer described the thousands of foreign exiles, revolutionaries and deserters who had come to fight, “those burning with zeal for a cause they believed was their own”.

The royalist forces prevailed. Defeated yet battle-hardened, the republicans found themselves cast into exile. They eventually played key roles in the insurrections of the early 1830s against Europe’s conservative orders. In Paris, the uprising against the Bourbon monarchy involved many foreign revolutionaries. One contemporary observed how “the Spanish, the Portuguese and the Italians: exiled from their homelands for not being able to bear the despotism that reigned, did not miss this opportunity to strike a mortal blow to absolutism; and even those English, setting aside the old and stupid quarrels of the past, fought for the cause of the French as if it were their own.” This fraternity in combat was also apparent during the Polish uprising of November 1830, an armed rebellion against the Russian Empire. Monies and materiel were raised in Europe’s capitals in support of the insurrection, while volunteers organised themselves to travel and fight for Polish independence.

The year 1848 was another exceptional moment of international border crossings when, according to the English Chartist William James Linton, “a beacon of fire had lit upon the Alps to rouse the whole of Europe”. Movements such as Mazzini’s Young Europe — an international association committed to revolution in the name of democracy and European federalism — flourished in the underground. Mazzini himself became a lodestar for liberal dissidents who denounced the doctrine of non-intervention with respect to oppressed peoples. “How can we admire the conduct of a nation,” Mazzini wrote of Britain, “that remains indifferent and looks on, while everywhere beyond its frontiers men are dying for an idea, killed by tyrants with an unjust ambition, as if it were a show of gladiators?”

For the Cheltenham-based journalist WE Adams, Mazzini’s concern for unifying thought with action made him “the greatest teacher since Christ”. For Linton, an engraver and key member of the Chartists, the Italian revolutionary possessed “the faculty for inspiring love”. Indeed, many were inspired to rush to the assistance of the Roman Republic that Mazzini declared in 1849 after Pope Pius IX had fled to Gaeta. It was short lived. Europe’s Catholic powers mobilised to crush the infant state, as Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi organised the defence of the city. The American journalist Margaret Fuller wrote at the time, “Rome is barricaded, the foe daily hour expected. Will the Romans fight? Outwardly they express great order. The chamber of deputies has warmly and unanimously voted to resist. At the review of the civic guard yesterday they have great promise, yet somewhere I doubt them all.”

For Linton, writing from his home in the Lake District — which during the mid-late 19th century became a refuge for European radicals on the run — the fall of the Roman Republic in 1851, and the Russian Empire’s continued oppression of Poland, proved the need for physical force wielded by conscientious volunteers. “While there are wolves and Cossacks,” he wrote, “it is our duty to defend the wronged and the innocent against them, though it be with sword and fire, though it be to the death.”

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For English republicans such as Linton, fraternity manifested itself less in armed revolutionary struggle and more in the provision of sanctuary for European exiles. This was partly owing to the country’s physical separation from the continent, but it was also due to the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1870, which still bans Britons from fighting in wars for another state — something Truss neglected in her support for volunteer fighters. 

But English radicals could provide refuge for others. Indeed, banishment did not mean the end of resistance and revolution against empires and monarchies. It was the setting in which energies could be restored, plans for insurrections revised and hope for the future rekindled. As Victor Hugo wrote to a fellow republican poet-in-exile, “Oh, my dear comrade in thought and action, let us not lose heart. Let us persist, let us struggle on, let us redouble our efforts, let us persevere in the war against unrighteousness, hatred and darkness.”

The tradition of crossing borders to fight in wars continued into the late 19th century, when foreign paramilitary groups travelled to France to defend the Republic against the Prussian invasion in 1871. Volunteers from Spain, Poland, the US, England and Ireland took up arms as part of the Government of National Defence. Many, such as those volunteers from Poland, regarded the fight against Prussia as a continuation of their struggles against empire back home. Many veterans of the January Uprising of 1863-1864 — a Polish-Lithuanian guerrilla insurgency against the Russian army — believed they could contribute to the French war effort because of their experience fighting imperialism in Poland. It seemed obvious to them that their own struggles for independence couldn’t be isolated from the battles being waged against militarism elsewhere.

Bands of foreign volunteers also took up arms during the First World War. The Fourth Regiment of the First Foreign Legion — commonly known as the Garibaldien Legion — was made up of around 2,300 foreigners, led by the descendants of Garibaldi, and fought for France against Germany. Like their 19th-century progenitors, the Garibaldiens saw the fate of France as linked to the fate of their home nations – first France then Trento and Trieste! An editorial in L’Humanité rejoiced in 1914 that these combatants were “animated by a noble impulse to defend the Fatherland and fraternise with their Latin sister in order to repel the common enemy. Supervised by French and Italian officers, they train to fight alongside one another, and confident in their strength and courage, expect victory.”


It wasn’t just in Europe that people saw their freedom as being linked to freedom (or its suppression) elsewhere. As the Cambridge historian Tim Harper shows in Underground Asia (2020), anti-colonial movements from the early 20th century were guided by Asian radicals who were multilingual, steeped in the ideas of anarchism and Marxism, and who regarded the struggle against empire as a truly transnational undertaking. Through their collective struggles against British, French, Dutch and Portuguese imperial authorities, radicals came to see “Asia” as a single field of revolution. Many believed that the post-imperial future would be a borderless world.

This link between combat and political vision was especially pronounced in the French resistance to the Nazi occupation during the Second World War. From the mid-1930s, the rise of fascism forced many people to leave their countries and seek refuge in France (hardly the free and fraternal sanctuary that many had hoped). It was from France that many Italians, Spanish, Austrians, Czechs and others took up arms to liberate Europe from fascism. Some of the most daring acts of sabotage, ambush and assassination against the German occupiers were carried out by foreigners such as the Manouchian Group, which was comprised of Hungarians, Italians, Poles and Romanians.

French Resistance fighters target Nazi snipers, date unknown. Photo: Bettmann

As before, most saw the struggle to liberate France as the first act in the liberation of their own countries. “For me, this war represents a continuation of Spain,” said one Spanish brigader fighting in the resistance. “I prefer the wide horizon of the battlefield than the limited space of the concentration camp, the fraternity of the combatant than the hostility of the fellow sufferer.” It was also in the act of resistance that people came to articulate and develop political ideas and plans for the future.

War and revolution did not entail the suspension of political theory, of thinking about how societies might be organised. These were the moments in which concepts of sovereignty, liberty and international relations were actually devised. “The republican idea,” wrote the 19th-century socialist Louis Blanc, “was in its phase of combat.” In the 1830s groups such as the Société des amis du peuple, which raised money to send people to support an uprising in Belgium, debated the question of intervention and non-intervention in foreign conflicts. During the siege of the Roman Republic European fighters developed theories of war and cosmopolitanism. In the Franco-Prussian War resistance groups such as the Ligue du Midi expounded principles of citizenship and local democracy — doctrines that would eventually underpin the territorial laws of the French Third Republic. And in the Second World War the National Council of Resistance in France, created under Nazi occupation, embedded a vision of post-war France in its programme of resistance. As one resistant said, “to create is to resist and to resist is to create”.

Concepts such as liberty, equality and democracy — the ideals on which European and non-European societies are based — have never been remote and free-floating abstractions generated during the quietude of peace. They were elaborated, debated and pronounced in combat and represented urgent responses to the circumstances of war and death. It should not be a surprise that the Ukrainian government has formally applied for EU membership — a moment that would amount to nothing less than a changed geopolitical order — while under heavy fire.


What of fraternity in combat today? Should the Truss doctrine be taken seriously? Her own government has distanced itself from her remarks, rightly fearing that volunteering to help take on the Russian military is too dangerous. The professionalisation of modern armies and the advanced weaponry deployed on the battlefield make travelling to fight as an aspirant resistant a lethal prospect. This is the reason why the modern brigader is more likely to be someone sat in front of a computer wielding codes from a distance than a rifle on the front line. 

The other reason is that far from heralding an age of hyper-fraternity, of genuine internationalism and revolutionary commitment, the internet and social media have emptied these concepts of any real meaning. In his essay “The Republic of Silence” (1944) Sartre wrote that “the choice each of us made of his life and being was an authentic choice, since it was made in the presence of death”. His existential point, which he had also articulated in his novel Nausea (1938) and story The Wall (1939), was that personal responsibility is a necessary condition for human freedom. It is up to us to act. But social media makes it too easy to simply declare “#solidarity” or “Je suis Kyiv” and move on. As the French philosopher Régis Debray once put it, “one is not born a brother, one becomes a brother”. If fraternity is to mean anything today, we must start by remembering that meaningful political action will always be licensed by the generations who came before us, by those who acted.

[See also: Valiant Ukrainians put much of Europe to shame]

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