Every week, it seems, we read of young British muslims leaving our shores to join the ranks of something called Islamic State.
There is great debate about what has motivated these people to take such a bizarre and dangerous step especially given the association of this regime with with obscene and violent executions and maimings, all very professionally recorded and ready to watch on a computer near you.
Why would someone wish to risk life and limb for such a cause? Why, indeed, should someone wish to involve themselves and someone else’s fight in any event?
The pretexts mentioned in the Press range from brainwashing and social alienation to religious fervour for a brand of wahabist Islam which is scarcely mainstream. Some, rather bizarrely, even blame the Police.
Yet this is by no means the first time that a supposedly idealistic cause has drawn people from these shores to interfere in someone else’s war.
Only 80 years ago, conflict broke out in Spain between a left leaning government and a collection of rightist military and catholic militias intent on breaking the grip of those they perceived to be destroying Spain.
So strongly did these two groups feel about things that they were willing to shed blood and before long the entire country had descended into chaos. This conflict attracted many outsiders both from the UK and elsewhere.
Most of these were following the flag of utopian socialism, a cause perceived at the time of being wholly idealistic and well worth dying for.
Their ranks read like a who’s who of 20th century culture but I shall mention just three by way of example.
George Orwell, an Etonian charismatic (like Boris Johnson and Captain Hook), who has been described as “wearing his integrity like a hair shirt, found himself with a group called POUM fighting trench warfare in Catalonia.
Before too long, he discovered that there were leftist groups more interested in eliminating one another than fighting General Franco. Escaping with his life, he returned to the UK to write Homage to Catalonia about his wartime experiences and Animal Farm about his disillusionment with Stalinist communism.
Th Austro-Hungarian writer, and then communist, Arthur Koestler was captured by the Spanish fascists and imprisoned in Seville where he spent some nervous times hearing cell doors being opened in the early hours to be followed by gunfire as the inmates were systematically executed.
That his life was spared was in no small part due to the agitation in Britain of one Otto Katz, a Soviet agent of great charm and persuasive powers.
Koestler’s disillusion with the left culminated in his classic Darkness at Noon. Based on the trial of Bukharin, it documents the trial of one Rubashev who is persuaded of the need to confess to a series of crimes of which he was totally innocent “in the name of the party”.
The party rewarded him in traditional fashion by executing him.
Koestler’s classic, to this day the biggest selling work in French history, is credited with costing the socialist/communist block the French election after the Liberation.
Katz, meanwhile, was spending the war years running an anti fascist league in California gathering donations from wealthy Jews who imagined they were aiding their co-religionists suffering under the Nazis. In practise, this was a cynical fund raising exercise on behalf of the Soviets who were having cash flow problems.
Katz is reputed to be the prototype for Victor Laszlo in the film Casablanca.
At the end of the war, rebranded as “Andre Simon” he was instructed to return to his native Czechoslovakia to prepare for the 1948 coup d’ etat by the communists. They may have lost Spain but were taking no chances here.
In 1951, he was arrested by the secret Police and indicted for Zionism, Trostskyism and various other serious offences. During his triial, he is believed to have quoted verbatim from Rubashev’s confession in Darkness at Noon.
Like Rubashev , and Bukharin before him, Katz ended life on the gallows along with most of his co-defendants in the notorious Slansky trial.
Czechoslovakia remained under communist control until 1989. A country which in the 1930s had been a powerhouse of innovation with a GDP per capita greater than that of Switzerland was by 1989, thanks to the debilitating effect of its political system, competing with Tunisia.
The youth of the 1930s may have followed a more acceptable brand of naivety than those deluded young people currently headed for Syria and Iraq today. But the consequences of involving oneself in someone else’s fight are unpredictable, dangerous and frequently counterproductive.
I often reflect on the wise words of the anti-hero Alec Leamas in Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. When his girlfriend feels obliged to admit to him that she is a member of the British Communist Party he cooly responds “A dog scatches where it itches: dogs scratch in different places.”