• Send page
  • Print page

History of the Central Tracing Agency of the ICRC


  Contents:     The agency from 1870 to 1914    |      Activities during the First World War    |      Activities during the Spanish Civil War    |      Activities during the Second World War  

The agency from 1870 to 1914 

  ref. HIST-01816/27 

The story of the Central Tracing Agency [1 ] goes back to the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. In the Swiss border town of Basel, a reception area was set up to which casualties from both sides were brought for treatment. A doctor caring for the soldiers found that most of them were in a state of distress because their families had no idea whether they had been killed or taken prisoner.

The ICRC's representatives soon realized that it was indispensable, in time of conflict, to set up some sort of information bureau on neutral territory. For indeed, the victims of a war are not only the sick, the wounded or the starving; there are also the prisoners in enemy hands, who are separated from their families and suffer psychologically.

It very quickly became clear that the morale of internees went up as soon as they could send letters to their families.The Information Bureau of the International Relief Agency for Wounded and Sick Soldiers in Basel therefore went one step further, transmitting lists of prisoners provided by the belligerents: for the first time in history, the relatives of captured soldiers heard that their sons, fathers, brothers were alive but in enemy hands. The 1864 Geneva Convention had made no provision for unwounded prisoners, and this historic step was the first in a long series of measures taken on their behalf. Seven years later, the victims of the Russo-Turkish war of 1877, for whom a tracing office had been opened in Trieste, benefitted from similar assistance.

When war engulfed the Balkans in 1912, the ICRC set up an international agency in Belgrade, which immediately transmitted to the prisoners parcels and money sent by their families. Another innovation, of great importance today, was the introduction of capture cards sent to the Red Cross Societies of the five belligerent States with a view to obtaining standard information on the prisoners. The Serbian Red Cross proved the most adept: it sent the Agency information on 10,500 Turkish prisoners, including name, rank and serial number.

It was also during the conflict in the Balkans that the ICRC was for the first time confronted with language and phonetic obstacles. It therefore hired the necessary personnel to decipher and translate information on Serbian, Greek, Turkish and Bulgarian prisoners.

Activities during the First World War 

  ref. HIST-01172 

When war broke out in 1914, the ICRC set up the International Prisoners of War Agency provided for in The Hague Convention of 1907. The ICRC was not specifically required by this treaty to organize such an agency, but its unique experience in previous wars made it the ideal organization to do so. In addition, at its world conference in Washington in 1912, the International Red Cross had already officially conferred this task on the ICRC in the event of any future war.

At the outbreak of hostilities, members of the ICRC personally took charge of setting up the Agency and handled all correspondence themselves - but they had no idea how widespread the war was going to become and soon had to hire additional staff. After the first major battles in Belgium and France, the ICRC started receiving an average of 30,000 letters a day. In September 1914, the Agency had two hundred employees; several months later the staff was increased six fold to cope with the flood of family messages and tracing requests pouring into its offices.

Between 1914 and 1918, millions of messages reached the Agency, which also received about 120,000 visitors who came in person to explain the reasons for their tracing requests and give additional information. By the end of the war, 7 million files had been opened by the Agency. It had also sent family parcels to prisoners of war and civilians in occupied territories, and organized the repatriation of victims.

Despite a number of administrative obstacles, a gigantic humanitarian endeavour had been accomplished. The recipe for this success: the perfect organization of the Agency, exemplary co-operation with the National Red Cross Societies and semi-official and aid organizations, and the contacts with POW camp commanders and the POWs themselves.

Although peace had been restored, the work of the Tracing Agency continued: countless civilians were displaced when the map of Europe was redrawn. Moreover, regional conflicts, such as the Greco-Turkish war and the civ il war in Spain, continued to mobilize its services.

Activities during the Spanish Civil War 

Civil wars usually release a tide of hatred, and the Spanish Civil War, which broke out in 1936, was no exception. The first clashes left few prisoners, as most of them were executed on the spot or forced into the enemy army.

The Spanish Civil War marked yet another stage in the work of the Agency: for the first time, ICRC delegates did tracing work in the field. This is now standard practice in similar conflicts, such as those in Lebanon and El Salvador. In Spain, neither of the rival governments would accept the ICRC's offer to set up information bureaux to exchange details on prisoners. The two sides did pass on lists, but only to bring about exchanges of prisoners.

During the conflict, the Agency obtained its information from indirect sources (prison directors, camp commanders, military and civilian administrations, the prisoners themselves). Unlike in previous conflicts, the delegates started tracing and mailing services for combatants and civilians, and at no time was this questioned by either side despite the fact that the ICRC had no legal basis to do so because the two Geneva Conventions in force at the time covered only military victims of international armed conflicts.

The Red Cross message form, which had been introduced during the First World War, was also widely accepted in Spain as a means of communication between prisoners and their families and separated relatives living in different zones. Many of the Spanish C ivil War tracing requests were still being handled by the Ageney's Spanish Service, which during the war opened some 30,000 files, when the political situation in Europe began to deteriorate once again.

Activities during the Second World War 

One year before the first shots were fired in the Second World War, the ICRC had set up a " Commission for war work " to pave the way for the resumption of tracing activities on a large scale. The Commission met 25 times before the war broke out and by January 1939, 30 Agency " veterans " of the 1914-1918 war had already volunteered for duty, should the need arise.

The Central Prisoners of War Agency officially opened in September 1939, after the invasion of Poland. The enormity of the task the Agency was to face can be measured by the fact that in the first weeks of the war 600,000 Polish troops alone were captured by German and Soviet forces. At the beginning of the hostilities, the ICRC officially informed all the belligerent parties of the Agency's existence and reminded them that under the terms of the 1929 Geneva Convention it was their duty to open National Information Bureaux. The NIB were in charge of liaising with the Agency on POW matters, exchanging lists of names, messages, and news on individuals.

Faced with an unprecedented situation, the ICRC gave the Central Prisoners of War Agency the most modem means of communication and office material available at the time: photocopiers, calculators for statistics, etc. As revolutionary then as computers are today, these tools helped the 4,000 employees of the Agency, both in Geneva and elsewhere in Switzerland, to match the terse facts sent in from the battlefields and the pr isoner-of-war camps with the moving and desperate letters from mothers, wives and children. The Agency and its 26 services sometimes dealt with over 100,000 items of mail in a single day.

By 1940, the Agency had persuaded almost all the parties to the conflict to use Red Cross capture cards. The cards did not replace the official lists sent by the detaining powers, but since the prisoners themselves filled the cards in, they contained fewer errors than the lists written by people who did not know the prisoners'language. Moreover, the cards sometimes arrived in Geneva weeks before the official lists, making it possible to inform the families more quickly that a relative had been captured.

During the conflict, the work of the ICRC also stretched beyond Switzerland's borders. Its delegates made about 11,000 visits to camps for prisoners of war and civilian detainees. Unfortunately, the Agency received little information from the eastern front. Not only had the Soviet Union not signed the 1929 Geneva Convention relative to the treatment of prisoners of war, but both Germany and the Soviet Union refused to sign a reciprocal agreement on the exchange of information on POWS. Since the parties to the conflict refused to extend the benefits of the 1929 Convention to civilians in occupied territories, the detainees in Nazi concentration camps were also deprived of protection.

However, the Central Prisoners of War Agency did everything in its power to bring what comfort it could to the millions of other victims of the Second World War. It distributed 36 million Red Cross parcels; it exchanged 120 million letters between prisoners of war and their families and 23 million letters between civilians in the different countries at war. According to one estimate, 700,000 people in Europe alone were reunited with their families thanks to the Agency.

It was only after the surrender of Germany that the Alli ed Forces High Command in Europe became aware of the full extent of the tragedy: millions of human beings exterminated, deported, evacuated, forced to flee or separated from their families. This was when the International Tracing Service (ITS) was founded under the auspices of the United Nations. It was set up in Arolsen, in Germany. The ITS was first run by the UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration), then by the International Refugees Organization, before being finally handed over, in 1955, to the International Committee of the Red Cross. The mission of the ITS is to " collect, classify, preserve and render accessible to directly concerned individuals, the documents relating to Germans and non-Germans who were interned in National Socialist concentration or labour camps, or to non-Germans who were displaced as a result of the Second World War " (ITS Annual Report).  


The Central Tracing Agency currently estimates that it will be working with the millions of archives it has on the Second World War until the year 2000 at least. At present, 25% of the Agency's work still concerns cases arising from that conflict and its consequences.

Related sections