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DUNANT'S DREAM: War, Switzerland and the History of the Red Cross. By Caroline Moorehead. HarperCollins pound;24.99

The Red Cross has been denounced as 'shameful and cowardly' by one leading commentator. After reading thefirst history of the organisation, John D Clare has a different view

In 1940, Heinrich Himmler came to Zamosc, in eastern Poland. By November 1942, the Jews of the area had been massacred or sent to concentration camps. During the next year, 110,000 Poles were "resettled" to the same camps and 4,500 Polish children - those declared "capable of Germanisation" - were marched off to Germany.

Polish Red Cross workers risked arrest to help both Jews and Poles. They hung round the camp gates, persuading humane guards to let them take in soup or medicines. Some pushed parcels through the wire. Red Cross members lined the children's route west, offering to buy them or simply grabbing them and making off into the forest.

The International Committee of the Red Cross knew about the Nazi atrocities. Yet, meeting in Geneva in October 1942, it decided not to make a public protest to the Nazi government. It has recently come to light that Max Huber, the ICRC's president, owned a company which used Russian prisoners-of-war as slave labour.

All this became known in 1996 when the ICRC opened its archives. One result of its attempt to raise its profile was the recent BBC documentary series, Crossing the Lines. The other is this book, based on four years of research, which traces the history of the Red Cross from the era of Henri Dunant, its founder, to that of Cornelio Sommaruga, its current president.

The Red Cross was formed in 1864 at the Geneva Convention, which set up the international code for the treatment of the sick and wounded in wartime.

Despite the fact that, recently, its delegates have become a target, each year ICRC visits l00,000 detainees and relays a million messages to families. In addition, it gives 250,000 tonnes of relief and medical help to the victims of war, traces thousands of "missing" persons (it has 60 million names on its files) and disseminates information about the Geneva Conventions. In the past, it railed against gas and civilian bombings; today, it campaigns against land mines. Its mere existence is a reminder to retain humanity in war.

Behind the ICRC stand the national Red Cross societies, with 220 million members in 169 countries. The remit of the League of Red Cross Societies, the ICRC's parallel (and rival) organisation, is to respond to peacetime disasters.

This book deserves to be read, not least by those who want to know more about this influential, yet strangely undemonstrative organisation. It is one of the best books I have read cover-to-cover since Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror (about the 14th century) which it resembles in its breadth, content and pessimistic tone.

Caroline Moorehead shows us how the wars and outrages of the past 150 years have shaped the Red Cross, either forcing changes upon it, or cementing its basic principles.

From her text - often shocking, occasionally amusing - dozens of heroes and heroines stand out, many of them unsung elsewhere. Clara Barton (the American Florence Nightingale, who was furious that no one called Florence Nightingale "the British Clara Barton") organised relief aid until she was 83. Frederick Born saved Hungarian Jews in Eichmann's Budapest. In the First World War, the British Red Cross sent to Mesopotamia 151 badminton sets, 13,270 balaclava helmets and 7,706 bottles of calves'-foot jelly; after D-Day, it sent to France a motor ambulance convoy, 5 million cigarettes and 25,000 toothbrushes.

The ICRC comes out of this book less well than the individual delegates and national societies. Squabbling, intrigue and individual members' ambition appear to have dogged the international body. And its reluctance to this day to condemn the most tyrannical of regimes mirrors its apparently supine decision of October 1942. Many cannot forgive it for its failings - the BBC's John Simpson, for example, calls it "shameful and cowardly" (Sunday Telegraph, May 17, 1998).

After reading the book, I'm not sure I agree. The Red Cross was created, not to stop war, but to "humanise" it; not to judge the issues, but simply to set humanitarian rules of combat. These aims have remained basically unchanged; humanity, neutrality and confidentiality are still the essential principles of the Red Cross. Its delegates are still trained to "say what you do and where you go, but not what you have seen". A public appeal is seen as "the ultimate sanction" although it has been used increasingly in recent years.

We have come to expect the Red Cross to be able to "do something", but individuals, societies and governments comply with it and with the Geneva Conventions voluntarily. So it is powerless when faced by regimes determined to ignore it - but, then again, so is the United Nations and all the other aid organisations.

The Red Cross's policy of "bottomless neutrality" and its refusal to judge even despicable governments places it under terrible emotional pressures, but this policy has secured it admittance to places where no other organisation is accepted. By discreet negotiation, it has won concessions from the most unlikely regimes. Its dilemma is that silence and confidentiality look, in the long term, like timidity and complicity.

The measure of a good book is when you begin to apply its lessons personally. Dunant's Dream is such a book. Many people find themselves in positions in which they can do good, but also discover corruption and maladministration they can do nothing to change. What should they do? Denounce the system and lose the job, or keep quiet and do the good?

We all want peace and justice, but we live in a world where technology has given unlimited opportunity to kill and oppress. Should the ICRC use its authority to denounce war and injustice? Or should it get on with the job of healing the wounds they create? And can it live with the guilt of staying silent?

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