Imagine the scene. Overseas, a country has spiralled into civil war. Some very unpleasant neighbouring countries are illegally intervening, as are more distant ones, in support of 'their' sides and in pursuit of a proxy war of beliefs. The British government makes a few noises of distress but essentially washes its hands of the suffering civilians.
Outraged, young men make their way by illicit routes to the war zone where they take up arms in defence of their people and their principles. Back home, they're feted as heroes by a minority, and considered potential seditionaries by the state. They are 'extremists' and terrorists in the eyes of many. On their return, the security services track and harass them using every means possible.
This could be Syria of course – I've just watched an earnest Channel 4 News piece about how why these young men become radicalised and feel the need to slip across Europe, cross the Turkish border and fight. But it isn't. Although the piece appeared to have no historical context at all, we've seen this before: in Ireland of course, but most obviously in Spain, 1936. When a socialist government was elected, General Francisco Franco (with logistical support from the UK government) attempted a coup which became a long and bloody civil war. The Nazis and Mussolini's Fascists joined in to help Franco, honing their skills for the upcoming world war. Stalin's Russia armed and trained the Loyalists, though at a cost: the arms were old, the costs high and the Republican forces were splintered by the activities of the Russian espionage machine.
Cities became killing fields, where the front line moved back and forwards by inches. Communities and sometimes families were split down the middle. Religious and ideological figures preached hatred and encouraged barbaric behaviour.
When the European governments decided to abandon the legitimate Spanish state to its fate, Communists and socialists across the world volunteered to fight in the International Brigades: from the UK, Ireland, the United States, France and many, many other countries. Getting there was hard: volunteers were liable to arrest before they reached the border in the Pyrenees, and the costs were high. Many volunteers had no military experience, hoping that enthusiasm and ideological zeal would be enough. Many were caught up in the factionalisation of the Republican side, particularly as the Communist Party tried to exterminate its Trotskyist and Anarchist 'allies' (read Orwell on this, but don't believe every word of this). Others' lives were wasted through military incompetence, poor supply lines and logistical blunders. Civilians were massacred in their thousands by both sides, though mostly by the Francoist forces.
Despite their determination and often heroism, the Spanish Civil War was lost: Franco's fascists won in April 1939, unleashed a wave of terror and blood-letting, then established a fascist state which endured until 1975. The International Brigadiers and other foreigners (some of whom had been thrill-seekers) went home: some like Orwell were disillusioned, others damaged, others reinforced in their belief that fascism should be challenged wherever it reared its head. Many of them went on to join the Allied forces to defeat the Nazis, though plenty remained under suspicion. During the Cold War, the Americans even had a term for such volunteers: 'premature anti-fascists'. It was, it seemed, OK to fight the Nazis for freedom, but suspicious and disloyal to fight them before 1939 (or 1941 for the Americans). Many of the volunteers returned to what they saw as cynical, complacent or degraded societies blind to the issues of the day, and remained alienated from their previous existences, never settling or exhausting themselves in legitimate or illicit political activity.
Are these young Muslims so different to the International Brigades? They have an ideology which transcends national differences, just like the Communists and socialists. They are loyal to Muslims anywhere, just as communists profess that they have more in common with overseas workers than other classes at home. They see an international community which is indifferent to injustice, and they see a conflict fuelled by realpolitik and the cynicism of neighbouring states. They're radicalised by firebrand speakers, appeals for help, speeches and literature calling on them to sacrifice themselves for a noble cause. Where the Syrian factions use Youtube, Aid for Spain and the Communist Party held mass meetings and fundraisers. Lewis Jones, the Communist novelist and activist died in 1939 of a heart attack after addressing tens of thousands of supporters in a series of street meetings, despite his reluctance to send young men to die in a now lost cause.
We might disagree over the root cause, but the pattern of idealistic young men and women taking up a cause is hardly unfamiliar.