Foreign Fighters Flock to Ukraine
Carrying on Long, Noble and Often Deadly Tradition
They have been called by various names throughout the ages, Mujahideen, Abraham Lincoln Battalion, foreign fighters and they have traveled around the world to fight, from Spain to Greece and from Syria to Afghanistan.
Their war time value has varied but all were motivated by the same calling to help their brothers to escape civil, religious or ethnic tyranny. The war in Ukraine is no different with 16,000 foreigners to date, having volunteered to fight for Ukraine to drive out the Russian invaders.
Their effects have varied historically, from failing to defeat the Nazi-backed General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War to the Mujahideen aiding the victory in driving the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan.
They ranged from the famous to the notorious, who fought to overturn occupying invaders, defeat fascists, support religious and ethnic brothers and sisters. They were heroic men like Robert Merriman, the California doctoral student who fought and died in the Spanish Civil War as a volunteer with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and was the inspiration for Robert Jordan in Ernest Hemingway’s classic novel, “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
One of the most famous foreign fighters was the great British poet, Lord Byron, who was among hundreds of foreign volunteers who fought in the Greek War of Independence from 1821–1829.
And there was the infamous Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, who joined Mujahideen forces in Pakistan fighting against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and later led a worldwide terrorist network responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks at the World Trade Center.
During the Spanish Civil War, foreign fighters fought with communists to defeat ‘‘fascism’’ while Catholics volunteered to fight ‘‘communism.’’ In the 1948 Israeli-Arab war, American Jews came to the Middle East to join the Israeli army, while members of the Muslim Brotherhood fought separately for the Egyptian army.
Foreigners participating in campaigns abroad is not a new phenomenon. Experts say foreigners joined in at least 70 civil conflicts over the past two centuries, including the Texas Revolution (1835–1836); the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939); the Syrian Civil War in 2011; while more than 20,000 foreign fighters battled in conflicts in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq, and Nigeria.
The Abraham Lincoln Brigade is the most famous and possibly the most controversial of the foreign fighters. The international brigade was organized by the Communist International and named after President Abraham Lincoln who led the U.S. in its fight to end slavery during the Civil War.
The Lincoln Battalion included volunteers from the United States who served as soldiers, technicians, medical personnel and aviators fighting for Spanish Republican forces against the Nazi-supported forces of General Francisco Franco and his Nationalist faction. The Lincoln Battalion integrated white and black volunteers on an equal basis. Of the 3,015 volunteers from the U.S., 681 were killed in action or died of wounds or sickness. They were revered as heroes by the Republican forces but they were scorned by the U.S. government because of their sympathies with the Soviet Union. They were denied enlistment in World war II and after the war, as the Cold War heated up, the House Un-American Activities Committee blacklisted the names of all veterans of the Lincoln Battalion. Veterans were also fired, spied upon, harassed, labeled communists to employers, denied housing and refused passports for decades.
The Lincoln Brigade included anti-fascists like Robert Hale Merriman, who was convinced that defeating Franco would prevent a second world war. A doctoral student from California, Merriman was the son of a lumberjack who fought with the Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War. Merriman was seriously wounded during the infamous battle of Suicide Hill, where Republicans were tremendously out-manned and out-gunned by the Franco forces. Merriman recovered but he was either killed or executed during another battle, while commanding the Abraham Lincoln Battalion. He was 26.
There was African American, Oliver Law, a Texas-born labor organizer and communist who was killed at age 36. Law served in the U.S. Army and later worked in a cement plant, drove a taxi and was a longshoreman during the Great Depression when he became heavily involved in the International Labor Defense and joined the Communist Party. Law helped organize mass protests against Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia at the Second Italo-Abyssinian War and was arrested speaking at a demonstration in Chicago on Aug. 31, 1935. A year later, he joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and was killed on July 9, leading his men in an attack on Mosquito Crest.
Milton Wolff was a veteran from Brooklyn, N.Y., who survived the Spanish Civil War, as the last commander of the Lincoln Battalion. He was born into a working class Jewish family who emigrated from Lithuania and Hungary. Wolff was also a member of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, became active in the Young Communist League and in 1937, he volunteered to go to Spain to fight fascism.
After serving in Spain, In 1940, Wolff volunteered for the British Special Operations Executive, and arranged arms for the European resistance organizations. After the U.S. entry into World War II, Wolff volunteered for the infantry in June 1942.
After the war, Wolff testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee , explaining “I am Jewish, and knowing that as a Jew we are the first to suffer when fascism does come, I went to Spain to fight against it.”
In later years, Wolff continued to fight for civil rights, against the Vietnam War and against apartheid in South Africa.
Eddie Balchowsky of Frankfort, Ill., was a Jewish poet, artist, musician and composer who was one of six survivors from a unit of 80 men who had been pinned down by Spanish Fascist forces. Balchowsky’s right wrist was shattered by a machine gun bullet and he had to have his hand amputated. He continued to serve as a soldier, charged with reconnaissance. He died at 73 and his story inspired songs about him written by Jimmy Buffett, Loudon Wainwright, Utah Phillips and Dion Dimucci.