As the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement celebrated the 150th anniversary of its foundation in 2013, it was confident of its global profile. However, there is often confusion regarding the precise structures of this large movement. Due to their historical development, these structures are indeed very complex. In addition to the oldest and best known organ of the movement, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 1 international law in the form of the Geneva Conventions.2, there are currently 190 national societies of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, which primarily provide humanitarian assistance in their own countries. There is also the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) – also based in Geneva – which primarily enables the national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies to coordinate their activities among themselves. These institutions come together every five years for the International Conference of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, at which they consult on concrete activities, the longer-term goals of the movement, and preparatory resolutions on humanitarian
Though aspects of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement are very well researched, there are nonetheless some "blind spots" in the history of this movement. A particular blind spot is the history of the Red Crescent societies, which has received little attention to date. The aim of this article is to integrate these societies into the general history of the movement in the context of the imperialism, nationalism and decolonization of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Background: Henri Dunant and Solferino, 1859
It all started with the Geneva businessman Henri Dunant (1828–1910). He was travelling for business in June 1859, when in in he inadvertently witnessed a bloody battle in the war between the Empire and the Kingdom of with its ally under Napoleon III (1808–1873).3 Dunant was shocked by the scale of the suffering. It is estimated today that, between the two sides, there were 60,000 fatalities, 2,000 wounded and 12,000 missing. Dunant was also shocked by the poor medical assistance provided to the soldiers, which was exacerbated by the fact that many doctors were themselves taken prisoner. Working with local civilians, Dunant tried to assist as many of the wounded as possible. Back in Geneva, he processed these experiences over the course of two years while writing a book entitled A Memory of Solferino ("Un souvenir de Solférino" in the French original), which was published for the first time in 1862 and became a bestseller worldwide in the subsequent decades. Dunant's appeal was unambiguous:
"... in an age in which there is so much talk of progress and civilisation, it is unfortunately not always possible to prevent wars; but is it not urgently necessary to search in the spirit of humanity and true civilization for ways to prevent, or at least alleviate, their cruelty?"4
To this end, Dunant developed his two big ideas: impartial medical assistance for wounded soldiers regardless of their nationality, and the creation of national relief committees. However, to publicize these aims, he first sent his little book to the Geneva lawyer Gustave Moynier (1826–1910), who like Dunant was heavily involved in various charitable activities in his native city.5 Moynier was profoundly affected by the book and he organized a gathering of like-minded people to put Dunant's ideas into practice. Dunant himself was not able to enjoy this success because he went bankrupt and became persona non grata in Geneva. Not even the ICRC publicized the role he had played.6 Though he received the Noble Peace Prize in 1901, he was not honoured by the Red Cross movement until several decades later.
The Foundation of the Movement in 1863 in Geneva: A Swiss Institution Emerges
Before his fall from grace, Henri Dunant was a member and the secretary of a group of five Geneva notables (the so-called "Comité des Cinq"7) around Gustave Moynier, all of whom belonged to the Calvinist middle class of the city. In February 1863, this group founded the International Committee for the Relief of the Wounded (Comité international de secours aux blessés in French), out of which the ICRC subsequently emerged.8 At the end of October 1863, this committee organized an international conference in Geneva. In addition to philanthropic organizations, 15 states participated in this conference, including France, , , Austria, , and even the . The conference participants decided that the wounded and those assisting them should be identified as neutral by the wearing of a Red Cross armband. They also decided that national relief societies should be established. Thus, the first Geneva Convention came into being in 1864. These circumstances illustrate the close links that the Red Cross has had from the outset to states and governments, which differentiate the movement from other humanitarian organizations. Faced repeatedly with criticism of the movement's close ties with states, the organs of the movement emphasize their independence, while also emphasizing the advantages that they derive from having the trust of governments, for example in the exchange of prisoners of war.9 Three criteria emerged for the recognition of national Red Cross societies: the state in question must have signed the Geneva Conventions, this state must be sovereign, and there can only be one Red Cross society per state. These criteria not only highlighted the close links that the Red Cross movement had with states as described above, they also demonstrated that the Red Cross system was closely bound to a European and colonial concept of the state10. In the case of states under colonial rule, only subsidiary societies of the national Red Cross society in the metropole were allowed. Even in the colonies, the members of these societies were almost exclusively European.
A Rapid Expansion: The Establishment of National Red Cross Societies in Europe...
The idea to found the Red Cross must have really hit a nerve at the time because the organization experienced great success in a very short period. Very soon after the committee was established in Geneva, the first Red Cross societies appeared around Europe. In 11 There were numerous philanthropic initiatives that were based on religious, educational or social-political motives.12 Industrialization gave rise to great poverty and many diseases, particularly in the large cities, and the response of factory owners and governments was meagre. The so-called "social question" prompted many Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, social-democratic and other institutions to set up charitable societies that were dedicated to particular groups that were in need of assistance. This assistance was often aimed at women, children and groups of people defined as "poor".13 There was often an overlap between activity in the national and colonial spheres, which was also the case with the Red Cross societies.14 All of these initiatives were characterized by a high degree of institutionalization, accompanied by the deliberate utilization of the media, the collection of donations, and the organization and motivation of their members.15 Women, in particular, were very active in shaping these processes.16 For these reasons, there was very often an overlap in personnel between the various societies and the newly founded Red Cross societies, with many members being and remaining active in multiple societies.17and , forerunners of the German Red Cross came into being as early as 1859 (Badischer Frauenverein, ) and 1863 (Württembergischer Sanitätsverein, ), followed by France in 1864 and Great Britain in 1870. Of course, these new societies did not emerge in a vacuum, but slotted into the dense landscape of charitable societies of 19th century Europe.
Even though the second International Conference of the Red Cross in 18 wars were nonetheless a frequent field of activity of the young movement and in some cases they were even the reason for a society being founded. For example, the British Red Cross was established during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/1871.19in 1869 had decided that national Red Cross societies would continue their work in peacetime,
In most cases, the respective governments supported the foundation of the Red Cross societies because the latter augmented the work of the military, and monarchs or holders of high office often served as (honorary) presidents of national associations.20 The particularly close relationship that Red Cross societies enjoyed with national governments gave them great scope for activity. However, this close relationship with the organs of power also made an "identification with the respective system of rule and its political and military agenda" more tempting.21 Nationalism, patriotism, militarism, and also colonialism frequently threatened to undermine the Red Cross ideal of a transnational movement. This phenomenon had already been demonstrated prior to the foundation of the Red Cross during the Crimean War, after which the British nurse Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) was depicted as the epitome of self-sacrificing humanitarian assistance.22 In this war, European armies encountered the armies of and the Ottoman Empire, which were depicted in the European media as being less civilized and on the periphery of Europe, but nonetheless belonging to European civilization.23
This ambivalent evaluation of the Ottoman Empire manifested itself also in international law, where a Christian understanding of "civilization" became the measure by which states were judged in the 19th century. On the one hand, the Ottoman Empire did not satisfy the criteria of western European international law experts, but, on the other hand, as a Great Power it was important and had to be taken seriously.24 This attitude was also reflected in how the Red Cross movement spread in the Ottoman Empire.
... and Outside Europe: The Confrontation with Colonial Societies and Local Traditions
The Red Cross movement spread rapidly outside Europe also. For example, national Red Cross societies were founded in 25 – the fact that a Red Cross society had been founded was then highlighted by the government as proof of the "modern" development of the country.26 Thus, in addition to the subsidiaries of European Red Cross societies established in the colonies, as referred to above, genuine local societies were also established. Similar to Europe, the Red Cross idea did not appear in a vacuum outside of Europe either, but resonated with local populations because local religious and cultural forms of charity had developed in non-European societies over the centuries.27 In Japan, for example, there had been a long tradition of philanthropy prior to the establishment of the Japanese Red Cross.28 Similarly, in the Islamic world there had been many charitable institutions, which were financed by donations or alms (the Islamic duty of zakat and the giving of alms of the sadaqa), or by the chapters of religious organizations, the so-called awqaf (waqf in the singular).29 The Arabic word insaniyya, which refers both to humanity and humanitarianism and presumably came about as a translation,30 combined religious and cultural understandings of charity. There were similar traditions in the Christian and Jewish communities in the Middle East. That these understandings included assistance for others outside of one's own national and cultural boundaries is illustrated by the humanitarian aid sent from the Ottoman Empire to during the famine of 1845–1852.31in 1877 and in in 1895. As has been well researched in the case of the Chinese Red Cross, meeting the criteria referred to above proved a particular challenge, particularly the criterion of state sovereignty
Particularly during the second half of the 19th century, many charitable societies were founded by wealthy men and women in the Arab world. This was a response, on the one hand, to the increasing activity of European missionary societies, which combined charitable work with education and efforts to convert the locals to Christianity. On the other hand, charitable institutions were a means and a necessity for supplementing the state structures created by the colonial powers (with or without the cooperation of local governments). These colonial structures often did not meet the needs, particularly in the areas of health and social care.32
The encounter with the Islamic world was to have a profound effect on the Red Cross movement in the subsequent decades and up to the present. Among other things, it led to the introduction of a second symbol: the (Red) Crescent in addition to the (Red) Cross. The first Red Cross society in the Ottoman Empire came into being in 1869, though this was due primarily to an initiative of the ICRC. At a congress in Paris in 1867, Moynier had met Dr Abdullah Bey (1801–1874), who was working as a doctor in the Ottoman army and in the Haydar Pasha Hospital, and Moynier encouraged him to establish a Red Cross society. In the first society established in the Ottoman Empire, Christians constituted a majority of the members,33 though their numbers declined over the subsequent decades. However, this was not the reason why the symbol of the Ottoman society soon changed. In the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878, Ottoman soldiers refused to wear an armband with the symbol of the Red Cross on it because they viewed the cross as a Christian symbol.34 Even though the ICRC repeatedly emphasized that the symbol of the Red Cross was in fact a reversal of the Swiss flag and had no connection with the Christian cross, the societies of the Middle East nonetheless associated it with the Crusades of the Middle Ages, the flags of which were often a red cross on a white background.
The ICRC initially refused to officially recognize the Red Crescent symbol, but it permitted the Red Crescent armband to be worn and brought the discussion into the international Red Cross conferences. Only after long-running discussions, in which numerous European representatives spoke against the adoption of the symbol of the Red Crescent, in 1929 it was recognized in addition to the Red Cross symbol.35 This act, which symbolized an opening up of the Red Cross movement, can also be viewed as the end of the Red Cross as a neutral symbol because the interests of individual religions now became apparent.36 Even though other states demanded the recognition of other symbols (for example, demanded a red lion and a sun as symbols), only the Red Crescent (and since 2005 the Red Diamond for ) succeeded as an additional symbol of the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement. The Red Crescent also became the symbol of societies founded in other majority-Muslim countries, for example in . In 1912, the Red Crescent was established in on the initiative of the newspaper publisher Shaykh 'Aly Yussif37 with the aim of supporting the Ottoman army. This was prompted by the Battle of Tripoli of 1911 and the Balkans Wars of 1911–1912, which also prompted the Ottoman Red Crescent society to become more active again.38 However, the Egyptian Red Crescent was only recognized by the ICRC in 1923, after Egypt unilaterally declared its independence from Great Britain. This illustrates a dilemma that the ICRC frequently had. On the one hand, it hoped for, and greeted the establishment of new Red Cross societies worldwide, but on the other hand it was confronted both with its own narrow criteria for recognizing new societies and with its reservations regarding initiatives from non-European sources, when the enquiries came from countries that were not Christian and not western. How else can we explain the fact that the ICRC did not initially recognize the Egyptian Red Crescent, even though it recognized the Montenegrin Red Cross already in 1875,39 though Montenegro officially remained under the rule of the Ottoman Empire until 1878. It seems likely that, in line with the numerous expressions of support from western Europe for Christians living under Ottoman rule during the course of the 19th century,40 the committee in Geneva had wanted to offer particular support due to its majority-Christian population.
However, this did not affect the respect that the Red Cross movement enjoyed internationally. In 1901, Henri Dunant was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his charitable efforts, much to the regret of the ICRC, which had proposed an alternative candidate.41 Two further Noble Peace Prizes in 1917 and 1944 illustrate the constant activity of the Red Cross movement, as well as the appeals directed at this organization to meet the challenges of the two World Wars.
Success and Limits of Humanitarian International Law and Humanitarian Practice: The Acid Test of the Red Cross in the Second World War
The First and Second World Wars presented the Red Cross movement with enormous problems, which it was only partially able to overcome. The individual Red Cross and Red Crescent societies working with the ICRC provided important humanitarian assistance to the wounded and the missing, and to prisonersof war, thereby advancing humanitarian international law a considerable distance. However, there was also considerable criticism of the political positioning of various Red Cross organs. Many national Red Cross societies emphasized and accentuated their national affiliation, while the ICRC scarcely criticized the breaking of international law, such as happened in the Third Reich with the persecution of the Jews, because of its stated "neutrality".
Already in the late 19th century, the many European wars had made the expansion and development of humanitarian international law necessary. The first Geneva Convention of 1864 only contained ten articles, but it served as an important basis for subsequent laws "for alleviating the suffering of war". These included the drafting of the Hague Convention on Land Warfare of 1907. After the use of explosive projectiles had already been rejected in the Declaration of St Petersburg of 1868, it was the peace conferences in in 1899 and 1907 that again took up the question of the prohibition of specific weapons that were considered particularly barbaric. They also sought to regulate the issue of prisoners of war and the law of occupation. Fortunately for the ICRC, the Hague Convention of 1907 formally recognized the Geneva Conventions, thereby giving them independent validity. From this point on, the rules regarding the permissible means of damaging one's enemy under the so-called "law of the Hague" and the rules for protecting the victims of conflict under the so-called "law of Geneva" coalesced under the (collective) term of humanitarian international law.42 Even though the ICRC could not participate in peace negotiations because it lacked the authority of a state, it nonetheless influenced the development of humanitarian international law by establishing its own academic institution, the so-called Institut de Droit international, in Geneva. The resolutions adopted at Red Cross conferences counted as votes in the conferences of the Geneva Conventions.
After the First World War had highlighted the issue of prisoners of war as a particularly pressing issue of international law, a corresponding passage was added to the Geneva Convention of 1929. During the Second World War, it became clear that the focus up to that point on active combatants as victims of war was insufficient, and in 1949 a fourth Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians was drafted. During the wars of decolonization of the second half of the century, it became apparent that the narrow definition of warring parties as states did not reflect the reality, and the additional protocols of 1977 also included combatants in civil wars and independence conflicts as legitimate conflict parties.43
Prisoners of War and Missing Persons
A central area of activity of the Red Cross movement and particularly the ICRC, which drew its authority from the Geneva Conventions and cited the latter to justify its authority, was the area of the care of prisoners of war.44 Due to their stated neutrality, Red Cross workers gained access to the numerous prisoner-of-war camps in Europe and in the European colonies. They inspected these camps in accordance with specific criteria, and, in some cases, they were able to obtain improvements in the living conditions of the prisoners. These included, in particular, the regular exchange of letters between the internees and their families, who often lived far away and whose post consequently often had to make a very long and awkward journey via Geneva. Additionally, the ICRC frequently played a leading role in the exchange of prisoners between warring parties. Another important area of activity was the search for missing persons. During both World Wars, millions of enquiries regarding missing persons were pursued under the aegis of the ICRC, some of which led to a successful result.45
Criticism of the Red Cross
In spite of the considerable success that the Red Cross cause enjoyed from the beginning, the ICRC by no means went unchallenged. In 1917, in the middle of the First World War and primarily on the initiative of the American Red Cross, the League (subsequently referred to as the Federation) of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies was founded in 46 and for a long time the two institutions were in competition with each other, not least because of the larger budget that the ICRC had at its disposal.47 It was only after the federation had moved to Geneva and the gradual differentiation of the duties of the two organs that the relationship between them became less tense. A further criticism that was already levelled against the Red Cross during the First World War concerned the patriotic attitude of many national Red Cross societies, as referred to above. These societies were supposed to act in a neutral way in wartime, providing medical assistance impartially, but they often primarily supported the army of their own country.48. Its aim, in conjunction with the ICRC, was to continue the work of the Red Cross in peacetime and to coordinate the Red Cross societies among themselves. The ICRC initially rejected the idea of a federation because it feared losing influence over the movement as a whole,
During the Second World War, the ICRC tried to provide humanitarian assistance to Jews persecuted in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, but due to its principle of neutrality and impartiality it was only able to do this in a limited way.49 As a result, there was subsequently massive criticism of the inactivity of the ICRC, particularly from the Soviet Red Cross, which called for the internationalization of the committee in Geneva. However, the British Red Cross opposed this and supported the ICRC.50 The crisis of the ICRC was exacerbated further in the aftermath of the Second World War by its precarious financial position, as many Red Cross societies and states had not paid their contributions during the war.51
In these circumstances, the Israeli-52conflict provided an opportunity for the ICRC to improve its tarnished international reputation. It did pioneering work on behalf of the newly established state of Israel and thus also for the Jewish religious community and the international community. The latter was keen to see a peaceful end to the conflict and its members were thus prepared to make financial contributions. But it also worked on behalf of the Arab states, who were initially very critical of it. This work took the form of the creation of neutral zones, providing assistance to wounded soldiers, as well as the supervision and return of prisoners of war on both sides.
The New Global Challenge in the Era of Decolonization and the Cold War
During the wars of decolonization, which also began in the aftermath of the Second World War, a difficult but important role awaited the ICRC. While its members were often sympathetic towards the European colonial powers, they nonetheless endeavoured to varying degrees to remain neutral. During the Algerian War, for example, ICRC delegates such as Pierre Gaillard mediated between the French government and the Algerian independence fighters of the FLN.53
Similarly, calls by Arab national societies at international and regional Red Cross and Red Crescent conferences for the recognition of the Palestinian Red Crescent were also implicitly a political statement in favour of the foundation of a separate Palestinian state. In a similar vein, the representative of the Egyptian government at the 17th International Red Cross Conference in 55 Non-western Red Cross and Red Crescent societies also criticized other aspects of the dominance of the ICRC, as well as the Christian and western orientation of the movement, and its adherence to its non-political character. The delegate of the Red Cross at the International Red Cross Conference in 1963, for example, sought to counter this by very deliberately linking political and humanitarian issues.56in August 1948, Hussein Rady, insisted that the participation of Israel in the conference did not equate to political acceptance of the state of Israel.
The ICRC responded to this criticism on various levels. In its own journal, the International Red Cross Review, it emphasized from the 1950s onward the diverse religious and cultural roots of the Red Cross movement, which – it was claimed – were to be found in the Mahabharata of India as well as in the behaviour of the Arab Muslim military commander Salah al-Din (ca. 1137–1193) towards his Christian opponents during the Crusades.57 However, the members of the ICRC expressed differing views in this regard. The ICRC president, Max Huber (1874–1960), emphasized for a long time the Christian conservative roots of the Red Cross and feared that a "désoccidentalisation" of the ICRC would bring it too close to "oriental" and, in particular, materialist Marxist ideas.58
Another reaction to the charge of Eurocentrism was an increased preoccupation with the so-called humanitarian principles of the Red Cross movement. After the ICRC, and in particular its "chief theoretician" Jean Pictet (1914–2002), had produced various reflections on these principles, the International Red Cross Conference in in 1965 adopted the seven humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality. In this way, the movement was able to demonstrate its openness and its ability to reflect on itself, and also gained a more defined image.59 This became a pressing issue again, particularly in the 1970s, when a new competitor appeared with the "rise" of the human rights movement, which criticized the Red Cross movement for its neutrality and, in contrast to it, was politically active. Indeed, the ICRC had always declined to openly criticize autocratic states in order not to lose their trust and to retain, for example, access to prisons there. However, after a phase in which the ICRC remained strictly neutral regarding human rights issues, the two movements began to grow closer and tensions between them eased.60
Ultimately, the question of the internationalization of the committee, which had been an issue since its foundation, became pressing again.61 Due to its unusual statutes, membership of the ICRC is still restricted to Swiss citizens up to the present, but its employees now include not only women, but also many people from non-European countries.