1939-1945: descent into hell

11-05-2010 Overview

The invasion of Poland by German troops on 1 September 1939 is an indication of what is to come. Trench warfare is to be replaced by mechanized warfare, preceded by massive air raids that principally target the civilian population. Civilians would also be the main victims of brutal occupation policies, starting with those of the Third Reich and its allies, then, in a reversal of fortune, those of the conquering armies.

This world war presented the ICRC with a number of challenges. First, the organization had to carry out humanitarian work simultaneously on five continents, which demanded huge human and economic resources. More than fifty ICRC delegations were operational during the conflict.

The war also meant that the organization's humanitarian work began to diversify. As well as carrying out its traditional activities for prisoners of war – such as visiting camps or setting up a central information agency on the prisoners (as in 1914-1918) – the ICRC also worked tirelessly to help civilians cope on a day-to-day basis with the disorganization resulting from the military situation. The ICRC thus launched major relief efforts to combat the famine in Greece and the food shortages on the Channel Islands.

While these assistance operations were very successful, the same was not true of some other matters that were part of the organization’s actual mandate. Attempts to gain widespread access to prisoners of war were met with resistance, even categorical refusal from custodial States. The ICRC was therefore unable to help German or Soviet prisoners of war held by the other side, while in East Asia, its efforts to visit allied soldiers captured by the Japanese army were hampered by the Tokyo authorities’ lack of cooperation.

Powerless to prevent persecution

More obvious was the ICRC’s failure to assert its right of humanitarian action on behalf of civilians in the occupied areas or those deported to the death camps. Its failure as an institution to firmly oppose Nazi persecution was only slightly mitigated by the heroic actions of some of its delegates who helped those facing extermination. The ICRC’s inaction during the Holocaust remains synonymous with tragedy in the institution’s memory.

When the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed in August 1945, the Second World War came to an end and a new era in international relations began, dominated by the threat of nuclear war. The division of the world in two and the antagonism between the two blocs would influence the ICRC’s working methods in the decades to come.


In WWII, as never before, civilians became the target of violence and persecution. 

Civilians flee from fighting in Warsaw in 1944.
© ICRC / hist-02183-02