Research Project

For two centuries, between the French Revolution and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the model for military mobilization in Europe was associated with the nation-state and conscription. Citizens played a key role in the defence of their state: the nation-state was considered the primary political unit of the international system and citizens were usually expected to fight for their own state. But non-state mobilization did not disappear. As Nir Arielli and Bruce Collins showed, the history of military mobilization does not fit neatly into national boxes. Transnational war volunteers have existed for decades between the 19th and the 20th century and have played a central role in many European wars.

In August 1936 the Italian anarchist Lanciotto Corsi was 43 years old and had been living in France for five years. He had a wife, five children and a precarious job in Marseille. He decided to go to Spain, where a civil war had started a few weeks earlier. In Barcelona, Corsi joined an international group fighting on the Aragonese front. He wrote to his wife that he went to Spain to fight fascism, as, for the moment, it was impossible to do it in Italy.Why did a mature man decide to leave his family and his job to go to fight in a foreign country?

Between WWI and WWII, within the anti-fascist movement, thousands of Europeans were spurred into action by the political struggles in their home societies. The Spanish Civil War represented one of the latest causes because of which many people decided, voluntarily, to fight for. Around 40,000 international volunteers fought against Franco’s troops.

THE INTERNATIONAL BRIGADE DURING THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR, DECEMBER 1936 - JANUARY 1937 (HU 71615). Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205020837

THE INTERNATIONAL BRIGADE DURING THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR, DECEMBER 1936 – JANUARY 1937 (HU 71615). Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205020837

The image of these volunteers is preserved in many books, movies and, in general, in public memory. Men in the International Brigades were “ordinary”, neither mythological heroes nor Kremlin mercenaries. Historians offered several explanations for this phenomenon: many a volunteer decided to go to Spain for one or more of the following reasons: ideological conviction, feeling of solidarity towards the Spanish people, adventurism, boredom, personal problems at home and, considering the lingering effects of the depression, escape from unemployment. Central to ideological war volunteering is the question of motivation and is strictly subjective; we can define these volunteers as “soldiers of conscience”.
This project’s aim is to examine contingent reasons for war volunteering and to study its long-term dimension in southern Europe. Even if material incentives seem to have been a recurring motivation from the early modern period onwards, we contend that individual motivations such as patriotism or political idealism, played a central role in conjunction with the persistence and the “reactivation” of former volunteers’ legacies and memories. In our opinion volunteering during the Spanish Civil War formed part of a long tradition in southern Europe, dating back to the 19th century.

This project’s overall objective is to carry out a transnational study of the legacies and the survival of the myth of the so-called Garibaldinism between the experience of the the Italian unification (1861) and the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Following both a social and cultural history perspective, it will analyse how the legacy of Giuseppe Garibaldi in Southern Europe was very strong and was linked with social and political claims. In our approach Garibaldinism will refer to a political and cultural phenomenon aimed at encouraging a board and consciously “popular” type of aggregation strictly linked to the tradition of armed voluntarism and the attempt to form an ideal homogeneous block that goes beyond the single ideological matrices and political formations of which it is composed. Between 19th and 20th Century several European generations, the last was the antifascist one, claimed for themselves the cultural, political, and ideal heritage of Garibaldinism. There were radical volunteers wearing the traditional red shirt in Poland (1863), at Crete (1866-67), in France (1870-71), in the Balkans (1876), in Greece (1897), in Serbia (1912 and 1914), in France again (1914) and in Spain (1936-39). A significant part of those volunteers were republicans, anarchists or socialists.

There are three main questions addressed by this research project:

  • Is it possible to identify a long-term tradition of international armed volunteering linked with political radicalism between the 19th and the 20th Century?
  • Is it right to speak about a transnational Garibaldinism?
  • Is it possible to identify Garibaldinism as a bridge between different radical political creeds (e.g. Anarchism, Socialism and, later on, Communism)?
Ravenna : Lieutenant-General Sir Richard McCreery decorates Bulow, the Partisan Leader, with the Medaglio d'Oro for conspicuous personal bravery (Art.IWM ART LD 4966). Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1750

Ravenna : Lieutenant-General Sir Richard McCreery decorates Bulow, the Partisan Leader, with the Medaglio d’Oro for conspicuous personal bravery (Art.IWM ART LD 4966). Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1750