A historical perspective can show us cases where borderless solidarity has occurred, such as a little-known series of events from the period after World War One, when various European countries offered refuge to thousands of undernourished children from Vienna who were exposed to illness and disease. We can identify a common link between these events and our times; for example in the work Italian civil society is undertaking for refugees by experimenting with innovative types of borderless solidarity.

When a number of Italian towns organised a temporary foster scheme for Austrian children fleeing World War One, the initiative grew into a spontaneous European meeting point between people, and facilitated cooperative policies between governments. This notable case provides a symbolic example of reconciliation with Italy’s former enemy of Austria and left a strong mark on global public opinion. It gave birth to the hope that it could be the terrain on which a “new humanity” could take root to regenerate Europe.

“Saving the innocents”

In the months following the end of the Great War it was civilians – and children in Central Europe in particular – who bore the brunt of the conflict. The ongoing trade embargo brought illness and malnutrition, and at the beginning of the harsh winter of 1919 – 1920 a strange massacre spread across the heart of the continent; in response, Europe mobilised humanitarian projects promoted not by governments, but by civil society. The USA, too, played an important role.

Food, medicine and other types of aid were sent, while thousands of Viennese children were adopted by proxy or hosted abroad as “temporary refugees” in centres or with families. Countless train journeys were organised; the undertaking lasted several years and affected around 200,000 children. The deputy mayor of Vienna Max Winter gave the following statistics: 79,793 child refugees between September 1919 and the end of April 1920 went to eight countries; Switzerland (hosted 26,973 children), the Netherlands (19,942), Germany (12,621), Italy (6,393), Denmark (5,490), Switzerland (5,190), Norway (2,732) and Czechoslovakia (382). Sixty were hosted in the federal state of Upper Austria.

“Brotherhood trains” from Italian cities

In December 1919, the socialist administrations of three large cities in northern Italy (Milan, Bologna and Reggio Emilia) asked the Italian government to provide trains to take aid to Austria in response to an appeal by the Municipality of Vienna. The trains would go to Austria stocked with supplies and aid and sent back with the first group of children between the ages of 7 and 13 to spend the winter in Italy. The team of doctors and teachers, headed by Emilio Caldara, Mayor of Milan, left on the 23rd of December and stayed in Vienna until the 28th when two convoys carrying approximately 800 children left the city’s Sudbahnhof heading for Italy, the first going straight to Milan, then on to Riviera, and the other going to Emilia-Romagna.

“After the neutral countries, Italy is the first involved in the war to offer its protection to our children. This is a sign which cheers us as it shows that, after a merciless war, human solidarity has at last won the day” stated a communication from the City of Vienna. This stimulated more action, such as the Council of Geneva’s comments in the Journal deGenève: “Shall Geneva remain behind while Italian cities spontaneously offered 10,000 beds to the children of yesterday’s most bitter enemies?”

Humanitarian, ethical and political dimensions of the events

Immediately following the war, faced with a terrible humanitarian crisis in Central Europe, civil society organised an enormous, unplanned aid and welcome programme which was unprecedented, developed off the cuff, and was effective, successfully protecting thousands of children. The cycle of solidarity was governed as a multilevel network: the Red Cross, local committees, trade unions, religious groups and municipalities acted together to develop acts of solidarity which spread from being local to being international. The social aspect made up for the political crisis, so much so that Austrian socialist Oda Olberg said of the Mayor of Milan’s actions to save Viennese children, exclaimed “at least there’s one Internazionale left!”

The actions of Italian municipalities had an important political significance linked to overcoming nationalist feelings and allowing intergovernmental dialogue to take place again. The fascists understood this and from 1919 began a campaign against the municipalities, accusing them of wanting to “Germanise” the country, even though at the same time Catholic poltician Alcide De Gasperi (Italian statesman and one of the key “founding fathers” of Europe after World War Two) praised the Municipality of Rome for the financial support given to children in Italian villages which had been destroyed by the war as well as to the children of Vienna, stating: “It is right to see to those closest to us first, without, however, forgetting that charity does not recognise borders.” These experiences helped to reinstate bilateral relations between Italy and Austria: in April 1920, Austrian Chancellor Renner met Italian Prime Minister Nitti to sign an agreement in Rome (which was discarded when Mussolini took power). Renner said he “…felt a change happening in Italy, that peace would reign indefinitely, not only between governments, but also between people; not only signed on the paper of treaties, but marked onto people’s hearts.” But the Italian government, fearing blackshirt violence, abolished the foster programme in June 1920.

Varying ethical stances were united and acted together to promote borderless solidarity. No longer steeped in bellicose nationalism, European consciousness enthusiastically reacted to calls for humanitarianism. Those motivated by Christian values could see parallels between the children of Central Europe and Herod; on the left, the idea of solidarity between proletarian victims of an unwanted war was dominant. A nonviolent femminist philosophy also saw popularity, even before Gandhi’s message of support; at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom Congress in Vienna in 1921, Austrian pacifist Yella Hertzka commented that European women, by acting to help the children of Vienna, had become mothers to the children of their former enemies. Womens’ acts of solidarity lead to the spontaneous opening up to the Other, motivated by a feeling of parenthood, something included in the Principles of Nonviolence of Italian nonviolence philosopher Aldo Capitini.

An anthropology for Europe

These events, placing Italian municipalities at centre stage, were a practical experience that led to the creation of shared values; the beginnings of brotherhood and a sense of European citizenship seen in the context of everyday life. In Italy, local history studies based on oral testimonies describe how experiences of solidarity between those central to the events have stayed in the collective conscience and memory, even as “everyday things” – writing letters, trips, meetings between Italian families and former refugee children who had grown up, as well as tourist trips to various European landscapes but “where we felt at home all the same,” because, I dare say, borderless Europe had become an “internal landscape”.

The actions of Italian municipalities had an important political significance linked to overcoming nationalist feelings and allowing intergovernmental dialogue to take place again.

It should also not be forgotten that the experience of solidarity resurfaces from generation to generation. Brotherhood can spread beyond those who first experienced it and be useful to “others” in need, becoming a chain linking generations in the culture of solidarity. Psychoanalyst Charles Bettelheim spoke of this when he told us about Miep Giese, who brought provisions to the Frank family when they were in hiding; she was an Austrian girl living in the Netherlands who had internalised the culture of solidarity and was willing to give it new life.

Returning to the present

In Europe after World War One, while the winning Nation States were drawing up new borders – increasing them in number and trying to make them impenetrable – people knew they had to prioritise the immediate protection of children and their families, and humanitarian needs. The historical events described show how important these concrete initiatives promoted by civil society were, that they were socially and politically effective and even managed to change countries. In many ways the situation then is reflected in today’s Europe, where instead of solving conflicts and humanitarian crises, some seek to close us off and reimpose borders on the continent.

There are interesting parallels between the experiences of the “brotherhood trains” and the actions taken by today’s civil society in Italy which aims to open up humanitarian pathways for refugees from Syria and East and Sub Saharan Africa. In fact, thanks to an agreement put in place in December, reached after a year of pressure on the Italian government, Christian movements will manage a two-year long experiment of 1000 visits to Italy by pregnant women, women with children, the elderly and disabled people from conflict-struck nations, by organising humanitarian flights to Italy. This will be based on a European regulation [1] that has never been used before. Once these refugees have been welcomed and given assistance, they will then be able to apply to the Italian authorities for asylum.

I hope that, just as in the 1920s, Italy’s example can inspire other countries to set up similar programmes, so we can feel we are citizens of Europe and of the world.

Brotherhood flights instead of brotherhood trains – how does that sound?



[1] Article 25 of Regulation (EC) 810/2009 of 13 July 2003 which allows for a derogation from the normal Schengen entry conditions for humanitarian visits within a limited territory.

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