Books and reviews: Dunant’s Dream — War, Switzerland and the History of the Red Cross

30-06-1999 Article, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 834, p. 429-432, by Hans-Peter Gasser

 Caroline Moorehead  

 Dunant’s Dream — War, Switzerland and the History of the Red Cross  


 Harper Collins, 1998, XXXI + 780 pages  

Caroline Moorehead’s book on the Red Cross is an account of Henry Dunant’s dream: to assist victims of warfare without distinction or discrimination. This idea has not only become in itself part of the world’s heritage but is also at the origin of a worldwide movement — the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement — and of an organization — the International Committee of the Red Cross. The author has written a sometimes fascinating, always informative and very readable story about the Red Cross. Her experience as a writer for radio and television clearly had an influence on the clever way she presents the overwhelming mass of facts relating to an institution which is accused of working behind closed doors, and to the “obscure” Geneva Conventions. In particular, the author obviously likes to write about the people who shaped the Red Cross, with special emphasis on ICRC delegates in the field. That gives her many opportunities to switch from serious discourse on facts and figures to amusing stories. Since the ICRC has opened its archives dating back more than 50 years, the author had unlimited access to ICRC documents at least up to the end of the Second World War. This book will no doubt become essential reading for anyone looking for a comprehensive presentation not only of the history of the Red Cros s, its activities during almost a century and a half, its institutions and the forces that have guided their activities, but also of the Geneva Conventions and the secrets of international humanitarian law. However, to claim that this is “the only authoritative book” on the subject (as the publisher does on the cover) may be somewhat overstating the case.

The following brief summary is intended to give an idea of how broad the subject matter covered by Moorehead’s book actually is. The first chapter features the man — Henry Dunant — and the book — A memory of Solferino — which are at the origin of the Geneva Conventions, the Red Cross Movement and the ICRC, whose common endeavour, in Dunant’s dream, was supposed to be to “humanize war”. The following chapters report on the negotiation and adoption, in 1864, of the original Geneva Convention and on the creation of Red Cross Societies all over Europe and in the United States. The first strong personalities, like Clara Barton and, in Geneva, Gustave Moynier, appear on the scene, but the author does not fail to give credit also to persons pursuing humanitarian goals outside the Red Cross Movement, such as Florence Nightingale.

During the numerous wars of the 19th century the different members of the Red Cross family established their identity: the National Societies as auxiliaries to the armed forces of their respective countries and the ICRC as a neutral intermediary between the warring parties. The First World War obliged the Red Cross to cope with humanitarian problems of unprecedented magnitude. After the end of the war, the Red Cross Societies established the League of Red Cross Societies (today the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies), and the Movement had to find a new structure, a process not without painful moments. “Never (...) was the International Committee’s fundamentally paradoxical position on war and its own power c learer than in the 1930s.” The wars in Ethiopia and Spain, and events in the Soviet Union and Germany obliged the “amiable gentlemen in Geneva” to find new ways to protect victims of violence through international law. That development was of course reinforced by the Second World War, as the author demonstrates in several chapters.

The remaining chapters lead up to Red Cross action in the most recent conflicts: Somalia, Rwanda, the Balkans. The author interviewed a great many delegates and former delegates who played a role in these contexts or who shaped the ICRC’s policy at headquarters. The picture she paints is a very lively one indeed and includes some rather colourful descriptions of members of the Committee and of individual delegates.

The author’s purpose, however, is not only to state the facts and discuss the forces which guide the Red Cross, but also to cover “issues and moral dilemmas which seem to have had the most determining effect on the growth of the modern Red Cross”. She does this on many occasions, with insight and great skill. There is but one such issue which should be mentioned in this short review: the ICRC’s decision, during the Second World War, not to speak out publicly on the crimes being committed in German concentration camps and, in particular, on the fate of the Jews caught in the Nazi extermination machinery. On the basis of the ICRC archives and on the findings of previous research — in particular by Jean-Claude Favez ( Une mission impossible, Geneva 1988) — the author recounts in great detail the discussions which led the Committee to the decision not to launch a public appeal. Her account of what an ICRC representative (quoted by the author) recently called “the greatest defeat in the 125-year history of our humanitarian mission” gives a clear picture of a “moral compromise” which is difficult to apprehend today. Although, in the author’s view, “there is no episode more imp ortant to [the ICRC’s ] sense of itself than the decision taken that day”, she does not believe, like most other observers, that a different course of action involving a public statement would have changed the course of history.

On the other hand, it is surprising to note that the author does not make any reference to the ICRC’s rather courageous attempt, a few days after the explosion of the nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, to draw the world’s attention to the new dimension brought to warfare by “the bomb” and its horrendous potential for destruction. It was the same ICRC with the same President — Max Huber — who took that initiative on 5 September 1945. That this appeal to the great powers had no success in a world which was about to enter the Cold War is well known, but its moral weight is beyond doubt.

The book also has something to say about the Bulletin , the “first magazine” published by the ICRC in 1869 which today is called the International Review of the Red Cross . It seems that prior to the age of instant communication the Review was a mirror of the major concerns of the ICRC and of National Red Cross Societies and published a great deal of information on their activities. The author quite often quotes from old issues. It appears that at least sometimes the periodical was much more entertaining and fun to read than is probably the case today. Who would care to open the Review nowadays for information on whether stretchers would be better pulled by bicycles, reindeer, camels — or balloons?

In short, all those interested by the Red Cross, past and present, will gain much information and much benefit from reading Caroline Moorehead’s description of Dunant’s dream .

 Hans-Peter Gasser  


International Review of the Red Cross

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