Dunant’s Dream: War, Switzerland and the History of the Red Cross
The military history of the first half of the nineteenth century was marked by a curious discrepancy between the heightened destructiveness of warfare and the lack of attention paid to means of controlling its human costs. As armies adopted infantry weapons like the breech-loading Dreyse needle gun and the French chassepot, whose range and rate of fire greatly exceeded those of previous models, casualties in the field increased in number. It was the rare army, however, that made ade-quate provision for the care of the wounded. In 1854, the British army went into the Crimean War without a field commissariat, an effective system of supply, a corps of service troops, or an ambulance corps or medical ser-vice. After the battle of the Alma it was discovered that there were no splints or bandages on hand, and, in the barracks hospital at Scutari, the spread of cholera, gangrene, and dysentery raged virtually uncontrolled until the Secretary of War persuaded Florence Nightingale, who had administered a sanitarium in London, to organize a corps of nurses and go to the Crimea to prevent a disaster.
In the war that broke out in 1859 between France and Piedmont on the one hand and the Austrian Empire on the other, the situation of the wounded was no less calamitous. The French Emperor Napoleon III, who had taken to the field with his armies, was so shaken by the heavy losses at Solferino on June 24 that, without consulting his ally, he began secret negoti-ations with the Austrians for peace. After the day of battle 6,000 dead lay in the fields and vineyards around the tower of Solferino, as well as 30,000 wounded, who could not be moved be-cause the retreating Austrians had taken all the carts and horses with them, and who lay without care or water, some in the throes of death and others crazed with pain.
On the evening of the 24th a young Swiss businessman named Henri Dunant came to Solferino, hoping to meet the French emperor and to enlist his aid in behalf of an ailing business he owned in Algeria. He was unsuc-cessful in this, but he was horrified by the devastation of the battlefield and the hapless condition of its victims and stayed to do what he could to alleviate their suffering by recruiting women and children in the neighboring vil-lages to take food and water to them and by organizing a primitive field hospital in a church in Castiglione. Without an adequate supply of ban-dages, anesthetics, or surgical help, the hospital proved unable to deal with the thousands of casualties who were brought to it, and the scenes that he witnessed there—of wounds becoming gangrened because they were not treated soon enough, of last-minute amputations followed inex-orably by death—were etched in Dunant’s mind. After he returned home, he recorded them in a book called A Memory of Solferino, which was published at his own expense in October 1862 and aroused wide atten-tion, less perhaps because of Dunant’s eloquence than because the horrors it described spoke to a widespread feeling of guilt that such things could take place in a century of progress.
From the standpoint of its effect upon posterity, the most important part of Dunant’s book was a problem posed in its last pages. Why, he asked, could not societies of volunteers be set up in peacetime so as to be ready to help the wounded when war came? And why could not some international principles be codified to regulate the treatment of the wounded in future wars, neutralizing medical care, for ex-ample, and stipulating that friend and foe receive equal treatment? In these suggestions lay the origin of the Red Cross movement. They were taken up by Gustave Moynier, a Swiss lawyer and philanthropist of great energy and organizing talent, who formed a five-man committee, with himself as chair-man and Dunant as secretary, to give them more precise form and to solicit international support. The speed with which this was accomplished con-founded skeptics. Dunant’s ideas fit-ted naturally with the reforming tem-per of the nineteenth century and its desire, while accepting war as an indis-pensable tool of statecraft, to diminish its rigors whenever possible. Within two years the Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field was ready for signature and in the next three years it was ratified by twenty-one nations. It specified that all wounded be accorded humane treatment, that medical personnel, whether military or civilian volunteers, should be considered neutral, that anyone helping the wounded should be “respected and remain free,” and that medical personnel and supplies should bear, for purposes of ready recognition, a red cross on a white background, in the form of a flag or armband. Meanwhile, national societies for the providing of medical volunteers and other wartime services—soon generally called Red Cross Societies—were multiplying.
Dunant himself, sadly, was pre-vented from participating in this heady success; he was expelled from his post as secretary of the coordinating com-mittee because of the collapse of his personal fortune, bankruptcy not being lightly regarded in a bankers’ city like Geneva. His sense of dedication was undiminished by this blow, and he spent his years in exile giving lectures on the significance of the Geneva Convention and doing what he could to encourage the formation of new na-tional societies. He continued to be regarded widely as the founder of the Red Cross, and in 1901 he was awarded (with Frédéric Passy, who established the International League for Permanent Peace in 1867) the first Nobel Peace Prize.
Caroline Moorehead has written the first satisfactory account of how Dunant’s idea inspired the creation of the greatest humanitarian movement of modern times. The author, a writer on human rights with a column in The Independent, has wisely not tried to be comprehensive; there is little here about Red Cross activity in Africa and South America and during the Viet-nam War; the work of the various na-tional Red Cross societies, with the ex-ception of the American one, is not treated in any detail. Instead, she writes, she has chosen
from 130 years of war and natural disasters those conflicts, issues and moral dilemmas which seem to have had the most determining effect upon the growth of the modern Red Cross.
The center of her account is the Inter-national Committee of the Red Cross, to whose records and files she has been the first historian to have unim-peded access.
Her story is filled with anomalies. In her preface Moorehead points out that what is called the International Com-mittee is really a private Swiss com-pany based in Geneva and governed by twenty-five (originally five) Swiss citizens. Like its numbers, its functions have greatly increased since the days of Dunant and Moynier. It monitors violations of the laws of war as defined in the now amplified Geneva Conven-tions; it seeks not only to treat the wounded but to improve the condi-tions of prisoners of war, political detainees, and, increasingly, refugees from war zones. It performs a host of relief and welfare tasks, including vis-iting prisons, but it does all this with-out self-advertisement. It employs “delegates”—about eight hundred in 1997, mostly Swiss—who gather infor-mation about special problems in places where order has broken down or civil wars are causing breaches of international law, including human rights abuses. But the delegates are prohibited from making their findings public and report only to Geneva, where the committee officials decide what should be done about them. They sometimes choose to make private complaints to governments about their practices, hoping they will improve, and then go on to make public statements if they don’t. The International Committee shuns the word “politics” but, Moorehead says, is “one of the shrewdest political actors of our day.” It has no enforceable authority, relying upon its considerable moral power.
As the movement has grown, the Committee has, not surprisingly, been criticized for being too parochial, too Swiss, and too unpolitical. On occa-sion its primacy has been challenged by one or another of the larger na-tional Red Cross societies. Such calls for change have always been beaten off because the International Commit-tee’s record of success has made any fundamental change of leadership seem unwise. In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, Moynier, the Committee’s president, came under attack for not protesting publicly against French violations of the Geneva Convention, and the Prussian chancellor Bismarck threatened to reconsider his own sup-port of the Convention.
Moynier’s response, which became standard in the years that followed, was that it was not the Committee’s role to act as judge and jury. At the same time he called the attention of his critics to the countless lives spared in the name of the Convention during the fighting, to the Committee’s work in protecting and repatriating prison-ers of war and channeling relief to dis-tressed areas, and to the fact that Red Cross societies had sent 347 doctors into the field, of whom 46 had died. Meanwhile the Red Cross had suc-ceeded in achieving general recogni-tion of the principle of the neutrality of medical services.
Similarly, during the First World War, when passions ran much higher and when national intolerance of restraints was formidable, Moorehead writes of the International Committee:
It was universally acknowledged to have transformed the lives of prisoners-of-war, pushing always for more and more concessions; it had transmitted two and a half million letters; it had reunited families scattered by the fighting; it had kept open communication between the different Red Cross societies; its prison visits were now accepted and respected and its reparation schemes were working smoothly; and it continued to act, despite innumerable viola-tions of the Geneva Convention, as a constant moral reminder of the atrocities of war.
Moreover, when the conflict came to an end and Europe was inundated with liberated prisoners of war trying to get home, Red Cross delegates, some of them exhausted from four years of difficult missions, willingly set off to remote parts of Central and Eastern Europe to assist people in situations of anarchy and chaos; and they sent to Geneva meticulous reports about the conditions they found, the means required to facilitate repatriation, and the amount of relief needed to alleviate current distress. It was hard to deny that the Red Cross richly deserved the Nobel Prize that it was awarded in 1917 or that its efforts to preserve the idea of community between the war-wracked nations had been impressive.
In the postwar years, however, ev-erything became more difficult, as democracies and monarchies were supplanted by dictatorships that repudiated previous standards of international law. In the war in Ethiopia that was touched off by Mussolini’s at-tempt to carve out an African empire for himself, the Italians bombed Red Cross ambulances and violated their own adhesion to the 1925 protocol against the use of poison gas by em-ploying it in air raids that made no distinction between soldiers and civilians. Sidney Brown, the English Committee’s delegate in Ethiopia, warned that
if we do not manage to have the Red Cross emblem respected by a country calling itself civilized, we will never be able to do so later if we are ever faced by a war in Europe.
Brown argued that a public stand be taken against an Italian air force that was becoming “more and more mur-derous” and turning the war into one of extermination. But he soon found that the International Committee, now chaired by Max Huber, a widely respected Zürich judge, believed that public remonstrances would destroy the Committee’s reputation for neu-trality. When it sent a delegation to Rome in March 1936 to discuss setting up a commission to investigate viola-tions of the Geneva Convention by both sides, the sole result was a bland assurance by Mussolini that he had every intention of respecting the Red Cross emblem; the question of poison gas was never raised.
It was rumored that this anodyne conclusion was a result of a deal be-tween the Italians and the Committee member Carl J. Burckhardt, historian, diplomat, and after 1937 League of Nations Commissioner for Danzig, who was, Moorehead says, “at this point something of a defender of the Fascists, seeing them as a bulwark against Bolshevism.” There is, however, nothing certain about such alle-gations, and it is more likely that the Committee’s conduct expressed the victory of tradition over conscience, of its commitment to silence and discre-tion over its fear of politics. Such tra-ditional inhibitions perhaps also ex-plain why Sidney Brown was now eased out of the Red Cross because of his outspoken fury against the Italians.
The long war in Spain, the Interna-tional Committee’s first experience with the special problems caused by a civil war, did much to redeem some of the doubts raised by the Ethiopian war. It was a conflict, Moorehead says, “of hostages and reprisals, secret de-tention centers and executions,” yet the seventeen Red Cross delegates who monitored every phase of the war managed to visit 75,000 prisoners, ex-changed five million messages be-tween the two Spains, restored thousands of children separated from their homes by the war to their parents or sent them abroad to places of safety, and sought stubbornly, but on the whole successfully, to persuade both sides that international law protected doctors, priests, and civilians and to arrange for the exchange of hostages.
But the question, first raised in Ethiopia, of taking a moral stand against the dictators would not go away, and Hitler’s genocidal policy posed it starkly. For years the Interna-tional Committee had been working to win international assent to a conven-tion forbidding the deportation of civilians in occupied territory. Now deportations began in all twelve of the countries occupied by German troops, and the civilians in question were sent to labor camps or transit camps or con-centration camps where they died from malnutrition, overwork, or bru-tal treatment. After Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union, Soviet prisoners of war were added to the list of victims, and after the Wannsee Conference of January 1942 the destruction of the Jews became an acknowledged objective of German policy.
News of these outrages spread rapidly in Europe. By the beginning of 1942 the Committee’s delegates in Berlin were informing the Geneva office of deaths in camps in Poland, France, Belgium, and Norway, and the pressure upon it to speak out was be-coming irresistible. Many members and supporters echoed a statement made in 1935 by Edmond Boissier, one of its delegates, who said, “The ICRC’s prestige is not harmed if, having done all it can to defend a humani-tarian cause, it suffers a defeat; on the contrary, the authority is damaged by inaction and excessive caution.”
Yet it was caution that won the day when, on October 14, 1942, twenty-three members of the Committee met in Geneva to decide whether or not to launch a public appeal on behalf of the Jews. Moorehead gives a dramatic ac-count of this meeting, describing how the proponents of such an action dom-inated the first hour of the discussion and then, one by one, were overcome by the arguments of their opponents and finally voted to do nothing. Why, she asks, in a world in which there was no other group capable of taking a clear stand and in which its moral re-vulsion was needed, did the Commit-tee take a decision that would haunt it until the present day?
Part of the reason, she argues, lay in the very Swissness of the International Committee, not only temperamentally (its members being people given more to reasoned debate than to precipitate action) but in material ways. Its mem-bership was completely Swiss; it had 3,500 Swiss citizens working for it; and half of its budget came from the Swiss federal government. Any public action it took was bound to be regarded as reflecting Swiss federal policy, and hence as a breach of neutrality and an unfriendly act against the Axis coun-tries. It might lead the Axis powers to take military action against Switzer-land. During a Committee meeting in June, these considerations were raised by Philippe Etter, the president of the Swiss Confederation, who made a unique appearance at a Committee session and who played a central part in the debate.
More important, however, was the feeling, encouraged during the Octo-ber meeting by the acting chairman Edouard Chapuisat and its most influ-ential member, Carl Burckhardt, that a public appeal might not help the Jews, while it might also hurt the Com-mittee’s ability to perform its principal function, that of improving the con-dition of prisoners of war. After all, Burckhardt argued, part of the world was opposed to the “ideas out of which the Red Cross was born.” Was it wise in such uncertain times to make public statements, when work behind the scenes might be more effective?
This argument was persuasive to the committee members. It is hard to deny, however, that whether or not a public appeal would have helped the Jews, failure to make one was a capitulation that tarnished the Committee’s reputation. Thus in the 1990s, when the Committee was accused of pro-Nazi behavior during the war on the basis of an unsubstantiated report by the Office of Strategic Services that it had employed German agents, and when charges were made that some of its members had, in their own businesses, profited from the employment of slave laborers in Swiss-owned factories supplying German troops, many people automatically found such accusations credible.
Because of illness, Max Huber, the longtime and much respected presi-dent of the International Committee, had not attended the 1942 meeting, but he agreed with its conclusion and was entirely convinced that the Com-mittee should concentrate on its tradi-tional tasks, chief among which was the expansion of the scope of humani-tarian law. At the end of the war, Huber’s dearest wish was to repair the deficiencies in the Geneva Conven-tion that had been revealed during the conflict; in 1949, thanks to his urging and to much laborious committee and conference work, fifty-five states signed four new Conventions, the first three dealing with protection of the wounded and sick, the shipwrecked, and prisoners of war, the fourth pro-tecting civilians who have fallen into enemy hands from arbitrary treatment and violence. At the time, Frédéric Siordet, head of the Commission on Delegates, called the additions “a monument to humanity,” but some critics wondered whether the conventions were not in fact more applicable to the wars of the past than they would be to the new forms of violence that were becoming prevalent in the postwar world.
Symbolic of the new age was the murder of Count Bernadotte of Swe-den in Jerusalem in September 1948. Long active in Red Cross affairs and talked of as a future president of the International Committee, Bernadotte was acting as UN mediator between the Arabs and the Jews and planning a new relief program for the refugees in the area. He was returning to his Palestine headquarters when his car was fired on by members of the Stern Gang. From then on, violence in-creased steadily, with such bloody conflicts as the Korean and Viet-namese Wars, the long struggle be-tween Iran and Iraq, and the countless brutalities and expulsions and ethnic cleansings of the 1990s, in which viola-tions of the Geneva Conventions—in the words of Cornelio Sommaruga, president of the International Com-mittee after 1987—“defied humanitarian reasoning” and resulted in entire populations being “threatened, starved, terrorized, massacred, turned sense-lessly into refugees.”
This woeful story Moorehead tells clearly and with a wealth of melan-choly detail, as when she notes that civilians who during World War I made up a bare 10 percent of casual-ties account for 90 percent in today’s wars, almost all of whom are women, children, and old people. In Rwanda, between the end of 1994 and the au-tumn of 1996, the number of unaccom-panied children registered by dele-gates of the International Committee increased from 37,000 to 90,000. Of the International Committee she asks:
How is it to work when its dele-gates are refused access to victims or are themselves made targets for armed gangs who do not want wit-nesses to the atrocities they com-mit? When civilians are slaugh-tered with disregard for all the recent additions to the Geneva Conventions? When the infrastruc-ture of states collapses as the states themselves collapse, destroyed by marauding warlords?… When the nature of modern conflict makes it impossible to tell where war stops and peace begins?
The answer, she believes, lies in con-tinuing to make the Committee’s pres-ence and its experience felt wherever conflict occurs, working through its delegates in the field and as the ultimate authority on humanitarian law. Despite its setbacks and compromises, the Red Cross has been faithful to this histori-cal mandate, and its founder Henri Dunant would doubtless be proud to know that in today’s chaos along the Kosovo-Macedonian border its presence, symbolized by the large crosses on many of the tents dispensing relief to the refugees, is a promise of hope.
One of the most distressing signs of the decline of civilization in our time has been the willingness of governments to use torture in the treatment of their prisoners or their domestic en-emies. In the nineteenth century this would have been unthinkable, and Victor Hugo was doubtless acknowl-edging the universally accepted legacy of the Enlightenment when he said quite matter-of-factly in 1874, “Tor-ture has ceased to exist.” But the coming of the totalitarian states put an end to that assurance, and in Hitler’s and Stalin’s camps and prisons it would have been idle to cite the words of such opponents of torture as the Italian penal reformer Cesare Beccaria.
The Geneva Convention of 1949 clearly condemned torture, declaring that freedom from this abuse was a fundamental human right, but almost immediately there was widespread ev-idence that its provisions were being flouted. This was true in Algeria in 1957, where General Massu’s para-troops perfected the art of the gégène, the application of electric shocks to the testicles of their prisoners; it was true in Greece after the colonels’ coup of April 1967 (Moorehead writes: “Greece marked the moment when political detainees became the subject of worldwide interest and when torture and abuses of human rights really entered the language of humanitarian law”); and it was true in Israel in 1977, where the International Committee issued one of its rare public protests after the government did nothing to curb the brutal methods of its interrogators. The Committee has had its successes in its fight to preserve human dignity against physical abuse, but the problem has remained and is endemic today in half of the nations of the world.
Neil Belton’s profound and moving book is essentially a reflection on tor-ture and its effects upon its victims. He calls it “a footnote to the scholarship of an infamous period,” the fifty years that have passed since the passage of the Geneva Convention of 1949. But he adds that he has attempted
to imagine how the extreme vio-lence of our world affected one woman, beginning with the Holo-caust, and how she did something creative about it. I have tried to give a stand against cruelty the force of a human story.
Helen Bamber had her first experi-ence with the effects of torture in 1945, at the age of twenty, when she went as a British member of a Jewish Relief Unit to the former Nazi camp at Bergen-Belsen. It was only two months since its capture, and the smell of the burned huts still hung in the air. Still housed in the camp were 12,000 former Jewish prisoners who were unwilling to return to the homes from which they had been driven by the Nazis and who were also forbidden by the administration of the British-occupied zone to go to Palestine. The Jewish Relief Unit’s function was to supply these people with food and clothing, to try to find whether they had living relatives, and to aid them in other ways. This involved dealing with their compulsive tendency to talk about their wartime experience, what they had suffered, and what they had lost. Here Helen Bamber—brought up in England as the daughter of a Polish Jewish refugee and not a practicing Jew herself—discovered in herself an unsuspected talent for listening. She said later:
They would hold you, and it was important that you held them… and you would hold onto them and they would tell you their story. Sometimes it was in Yid-dish, and although I had learned some, it was as though you really didn’t need a language. It took a long time for me to realize that you really couldn’t do anything but that you just had to hang onto them and that you had to listen and to receive this, as if it be-longed partly to you, and in that act of taking and showing that you were available you were playing some useful role.
Throughout her life, Bamber’s gift has been a source of comfort to other victims of inhumanity and torture who all too often found that the world they returned to after the war had neither interest in nor understanding of what had been done to them. Belton writes of the satisfaction Bamber derived from her trips north to Berwick-on-Tweed to talk with survivors of the machine-gun battalion of the North-umberland Fusiliers, who were captured at the fall of Singapore in Febru-ary 1942 and spent the next four years in slavery, suffering the casual brutality of their Japanese captors and a work schedule that Belton calls “a form of slow murder.” After their lib-eration and return to England, they received no official recognition from their government, which seemed to regard them as being responsible for Singapore’s loss, and little understanding from their neighbors in Berwick. Bamber was able to penetrate their closed community and encourage some of them to talk freely about their pent-up feelings and their sense of isolation.
As she pondered the lessons of Bergen-Belsen, Bamber became aware of how seductively easy it was to rationalize torture. The Nazi doctors in Belsen used the bodies and minds of their captives for experimental pur-poses, justifying the pain involved and the not infrequent deaths by boasting about the future benefits that would accrue to medical science. This was a practice that was not confined to total-itarian states, and the use of unwitting patients for the sake of science was not
unknown in Britain. While she was working as a medical secretary in St. George’s Hospital in Wapping in the 1950s, Bamber met Maurice Papp-worth, a doctor who had become an outsider in the closely knit British medical profession because of his propensity for speaking uncomfort-able truths. His abiding concern, Bel-ton writes, was “the potential of medicine for cruelty”: the unnecessary operations, both the overuse and the denial of drugs, the distress caused by painful procedures that were justified as “research.” In the late 1940s, after the Nazi doctors’ trials, Pappworth began to collect details of unethical experiments from reports printed in medical journals, and after he met Helen Bamber they compiled an archive of such cases. From this in time came Pappworth’s book Human Guinea Pigs, which was published in 1967. Papp-worth’s influence is to be detected also in the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture which Bamber established in 1985.
The analogy between medical and political malpractice became close during the cold war years, when would-be dictators did not hesitate to use the most radical means against what they defined as “cancers” in the body politic. Perhaps the most egregious example of such abuses occurred during the coup launched by Augusto Pinochet against the government of Salvador Allende in Chile in Septem-ber 1973 and the subsequent war of the military against civil society, in which many thousands of people were tortured. Belton writes that more than any other event since the end of the war, the grossly excessive violence that Pinochet used against what he called “the germs” affecting society sealed Helen Bamber’s decision to dedicate herself to the struggle against cruelty.
What made the Chilean case partic-ularly obscene to her was that so many respectable people in Chile, in Eng-land, and in the United States found it possible to look at the means Pinochet used to achieve his ends without any feeling that they had a moral obliga-tion to intervene. During her years on the board of Amnesty International, as she worked to publicize the growth of cruelty in the world, Bamber said:
What I find difficult, and always have done, is how easily we be-come bystanders. A whole struc-ture of power, even in those states that don’t themselves torture, seems to find it necessary to sup-port, or at least not to confront, torture states. Rather than put their foot down and say we do not trade, we do not supply, on the contrary, they say we will supply, and then talk about jobs for the boys. I’m putting this in very sim-plistic terms, but the remedies are available, and they are not used. The legal instruments are there to prevent torture. And states could apply practical pressure, yet nothing is really done by powerful states to stop it.
As in the case of the Northumber-land Fusiliers, not enough people are listening to the victims; and as a result more people today live under govern-ments that use torture than under regimes that forbid it.