Why Do Foreign Fighters Fight? Understanding Transnational Mobilisations In Comparative Context

Fraser Raeburn | 9 August 2021

Military History / Modern / Modern History / War

International Brigades Mural, Belfast. Courtesy of Keith Ruffles, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:International_Brigades_Mural_-_panoramio.jpg (Accessed 8 August 2021)

Foreign fighters – those who take part in conflicts independently of their home governments, for reasons other than financial gain – have become a highly visible global phenomenon over the past decade. In particular, their prominent involvement in the Syrian Civil War and other conflicts across the Islamic world has drawn the attention of scholars and governments alike. Not only are they a potentially unpredictable factor in intensifying and prolonging conflicts, the real and perceived risk of domestic terrorism perpetuated by returnees has caused considerable public concern in their countries of origin.

While foreign fighters are now most closely associated with these contemporary events, as has been pointed out by scholars such as Nir Arielli, this is a phenomenon with long historical roots. Even as the norm emerged in the late eighteenth century that soldiers owed their loyalty exclusively to the nation state, there have been those that sought to fight for a different kind of cause. Among the most famous was Lord Byron, who was among hundreds of volunteers who flocked to fight in the Greek War of Independence (1821–9), setting a romantic example emulated many times across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The romantic ideal of fighting for one’s beliefs has meant that much of the historical scholarship on foreign fighters has gravitated towards ideological belief as the chief explanation for an otherwise seemingly irrational decision to fight a war for people they didn’t know, in countries they’d often never visited. Even for contemporary volunteers whose cause is viewed with considerably less sympathy than their historical counterparts, explanations for mobilisation and motivation still hinge on their ideological beliefs.

There is little doubt that ideology is relevant for understanding foreign fighter motivations. Yet belief alone has never quite sufficed to offer a completely convincing explanation for why foreign fighters choose to fight. Part of the issue is purely methodological – if scholars want to embark on comparative histories of the phenomenon, then a focus on ideology is an analytical straitjacket, given that different contingents were fighting for very different beliefs.

Even within the scope of particular mobilisations, however, abstract ideological belief alone offers only a partial explanation. In the case of the Spanish Civil War (1936–9) – which saw the largest participation of foreign fighters of any twentieth century conflict – there may be little doubt that the vast bulk of volunteers were committed anti-fascists. Yet anti-fascism was hardly an uncommon political belief by the late 1930s, so why did only some anti-fascists actually go to Spain?

Even when it comes to explaining individual decisions, it has been increasingly acknowledged in recent scholarship that even those with genuine ideological beliefs were also subject to a range of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors that shaped their decisions, ranging from the breakdown of relationships at home to state harassment and persecution of unwanted political, religious or ethnic minorities. Such frameworks allow for richer individual understandings of motive, but stop short of overarching explanations, since such individual circumstances are rarely generalisable or indeed uniquely applicable to foreign fighters.

A solution to this historical problem may lie in reconsidering the broader patterns of foreign fighter identities. Foreign fighters are often seen as eclectic collections of individuals, marked by large personalities and independent spirits, typified by Byron himself. There is little doubt that this holds true for many smaller mobilisations, with only those with the personal and financial means to act alone able to fulfill their impulse to volunteer.

This sense of volunteers as complex, unusual individuals has only been heightened by biographical studies focusing on complex push and pull factors. Yet for larger-scale mobilisations such as during the Spanish Civil War, such detail obscures important connections and continuities between volunteers. Rather than a heterogeneous collection of eclectic individuals in a Byronic mould, they were defined as much by their similarities than their differences.

In the Spanish case, it is especially striking just how many of the volunteers already knew one another before they left for Spain, with it being common to volunteer alongside friends, colleagues and family members. This reflected the reality that recruitment was not happening among the population at large – even the proportion of the wider population that opposed fascism – but rather within very specific social and political networks, networks which helped in turn to facilitate their journeys to Spain.

This observation provides a missing puzzle piece that can help explain the varying scale of foreign fighter mobilisations across contexts. It means that unlike the pervasive assumption that volunteering was a deeply personal, internalised choice driven by individual beliefs, in cases such as the Spanish Civil War it was a group decision, driven by collective understandings of the conflict and the appropriate response.

This means that in some cases at least, volunteering had a social as well as ideological element. Choosing to fight was not just a matter of fulfilling a personal imperative, but also a matter of social standing. While peer pressure may have played a role in some cases, perhaps more important was the enthusiasm generated by the thrill of taking bold collective action, sweeping along the uncertain in an atmosphere of emotionally-charged comradeship.

For scholars looking to compare foreign fighter mobilisations across time and space, the question becomes how certain causes and movements were able to foster such tightly-knit political communities across borders. Not all belief systems and modes of organisation have leant themselves to such radical forms of mobilisation, yet when the right factors align, remarkably large proportions of smaller movements could be persuaded to fight for a distant cause.

Dr Fraser Raeburn is a historian based at the University of Sheffield, specialising in cross-border mobilisation and activism in twentieth century Europe, with a particular interest in transnational responses to the Spanish Civil War (1936-9). His first book, Scots and the Spanish Civil War: Solidarity, Activism and Humanitarianism was published by Edinburgh University Press in 2020. Alongside teaching and research, he has helped run the AskHistorians public history project since 2019, and tweets regularly at @FraserRaeburn.