The origins of international solidarity

From the philhellenism of the 1820s to contemporary support for Ukraine

May 18, 2022

Many people and organisations are currently showing solidarity with Ukraine. As such, they are unconsciously following in the footsteps of one of the initial moments of international solidarity from 200 years ago, when many people throughout Europe came out in solidarity with Greece, a small nation that was fighting for its right to self-determination. At the Max Planck Institute for Human Development Caroline Moine has been researching the history of this period.

The 19th century is usually considered to be the age of nationalism in Europe and was characterized by the transition between the feudal order, with its fixed division between the nobility, clergy, commoners, and peasants, and the social class-based society. Despite all its contradictions and uncertainties, the emerging bourgeois class-based society was unified around the idea of the nation, according to which the population of a given territory forms a distinct community. "However”, as historian Caroline Moine explains, “it was simultaneously a time when internationalism was advancing in leaps and bounds. What we see is that relationships develop between populations who are aware of their common interests regardless of geographical and cultural distance, which gives rise to a sense of obligation to take action and support the others".

Moine used to work at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and now researches and teaches at the Paris-Saclay University. In the "Politics with Feeling” common research project, she investigated the origins of international solidarity. What she found was that the so-called philhellenism, which emerged in the early 19th century, was an important starting point. At first, only a few members of the aristocracy and the educated classes were enthusiastic about ancient Greece and sympathized with the Greeks who had begun to fight for their independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821. But, according to Moine's historical sources, the phenomenon of philhellenism developed into a pan-European solidarity movement when Ottoman soldiers massacred the Greek population on the island of Chios in April 1822. However, the term "solidarity" emerged later and was primarily used in the context of the labour movement. International support in the era of the Greek insurgence was primarily rooted in the Christian charity.

“We are all Greeks”

Philhellenist support committees were established in Zurich, Stuttgart, London, Madrid, and Paris to collect donations and to agitate in favour of the Greek insurgent movement. The Greek struggle for independence was the subject of cultural expressions, such as paintings, songs, poetry, and pamphlets. The British author Percy Bysshe Shelley, for example, who considered ancient Greece to have been the cradle of European law, literature, religion, and the arts, declared that "We are all Greeks".

Moine studied the ways in which this region on the south-eastern edge of Europe was able to gain public sympathies on a large scale in such a short time. One factor was the culture of Ancient Greece, which many regarded as a reference point for European elites rooted in the philosophy of humanism. The romantic view of the crusades of the Middle Ages was another. “There was a simultaneous fascination and repulsion towards the East”, the historian explains: “Ultimately, the events that unfolded in Greece led to a revival of the Christian world’s mediaeval struggle against the Muslim world of ‘barbarians and miscreants’”. Some even called for a new crusade in support of Greece and hundreds of German, Swiss, Italian, English, and French volunteers answered the call. Certain political ideas were another factor: liberals seized upon the Greek situation as an opportunity to spread their own ideas.

Many Europeans were also incited to adopt the Greek cause by the apparent black and white nature of the conflict, with the noble but oppressed Greeks on the one side and the savage, overpowering Ottomans on the other. In reality, the situation in Greece was ambivalent, as Moine explains: “From a historian’s perspective, the situation was far more complex, despite the fact that this probably goes against ideas already anchored in popular perception”. The massacre of Chios, for example, was without doubt a brutal crime committed by Ottoman soldiers. But before that Greek troops had also murdered thousands of Turkish civilians in the Peloponnese.

Mobilization through the media

Media campaigns were and are still an essential prerequisite for winning over public opinion. “What you need”, says Moine, “are incidents that can be described and mapped out in specific detail and which make clear what is at stake and where the fronts lie". The events that took place in Chios in 1822 fit exactly into this pattern. The same has been true of other events in history that evoked international solidarity e.g. in the context of the labour movement. The shooting of striking workers at the Haymarket in Chicago in early May 1886 was an important event. After this the first of May was declared Labour Day in many countries around the world to commemorate the victims.

Solidarity among the working classes was temporarily weakened by the First World War and the fragmentation of the workers’ movement into socialists, communists, and anarchists. But the Spanish Civil War that followed General Franco’s coup d’état 1936 galvanized the labour movement like never before. Solidarity committees founded in different countries, mostly by communists, were responsible for advocacy work, but also for collecting money, arms and, later, humanitarian aid, especially for Spanish refugee children. Communist parties around the world also recruited volunteer combatants and founded the so-called International Brigades to fight against Franco's supporters in Spain.

Shared values at stake

A characteristic feature of all solidarity movements is that they are based on shared values. "What happens abroad also has an effect on ourselves," Moine stresses, "our own values are at stake and if we fail to stand up for them now, it might be too late to defend them at home". This also explains the solidarity between Europeans and the Greeks in the 19th century: as strong as the consciousness of nationality may have been at that time, the underlying ideal was the right of nations to self-determination, a concept that became enshrined in international law much later. Now, 200 years after the Greek independence movement, this right to self-determination is once again under threat in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Mechthild Zimmermann

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