28 August 2007

Red Cross, Henry Dunant, Geneva,

Henry Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross, born in Geneva on 8 May 1828, was the first child of a wealthy, religious, humanitarian and privileged household. (Note that although he was baptised Jean-Henri, the most common way that he wrote his name was "Henry".) He seemed destined to become a priest, but he was so hopeless at French, mathematics and particularly Latin that this idea had to be abandoned.

As a young man, around 1848, Dunant took part in charitable work visiting the poor, the sick and prisoners in Geneva. To have more impact, the group of religiously committed young men formed themselves into the Union of Geneva. Similar groups were formed in France, Belgium and the United States. Dunant became the dynamic international secretary of this global movement. It was he who wrote the charter of what became, in 1855, the Young Men’s Christian Association, whose headquarters is still located in Geneva today.

In 1849 his father arranged for him to work as a clerk in a prestigious bank. He was viewed so favourably by his superiors that in 1853 he was sent to the French colony of Algeria to supervise the bank’s activities there. His job was to persuade Swiss farmers to purchase farms in Algeria on land belonging to the bank. In 1855, he left the bank and set up his own company to manage a wheat farm in Algeria. There was no way to grind the wheat into flour so, without authorization, he built a water-powered mill. His business affairs quickly prospered. Nevertheless, an official permit to operate his mill was not forthcoming, while those of his rivals were granted. Large sums of money were involved, so, armed with a letter of introduction from General Dufour, Dunant went to see the Emperor of France, Napoleon III, about it.

He caught up with the Emperor in northern Italy on Friday, 24 June 1859- - the day of the Battle of Solferino. On the battlefield the Italo-French army faced the Austrians. The carnage was frightful: it is estimated that there were some 40,000 casualties. Many were left to die of wounds, thirst and neglect in the following days.

Dunant momentarily abandoned his affairs to organize care for the wounded. Apart from his own efforts, he persuaded Napoleon III to release all Austrian doctors held prisoner so that they could help too. He subsequently published a book (at his own expense) that described the battle and the plight of the wounded (see box). He observed that ’future battles will only become more murderous’. He suggested that European governments should set up a society that would take care of the wounded during war. This society would be staffed by trained medical volunteers who would perform their work as neutrals without hindrance from the military.

Napoleon III also gave him permission to operate his mill and, into the bargain, gave him the rights to a very large tract of land in Algeria.

His book, A Souvenir of Solferino, had great impact. Victor Hugo congratulated him. A Genevan lawyer, Gustave Moynier, told Dunant that he had the support of the Geneva Society of Public Interest, of which he was chairman. Moynier and Dunant got on very well together. In February 1863 a special commission was set up with Dunant as secretary. After several changes of name, this special commission would become in 1875 the International Committee of the Red Cross. Dunant was a visionary: he wrote the minutes and the letters, he drafted the conventions, he persuaded the diplomats, he talked to journalists. But if a global agreement was to be reached, the best policy was to convoke an international conference. In October 1863 fourteen nations met and agreed to set up Red Cross committees in each country. On 22 August of the following year the Geneva Convention was adopted. The contribution of Dunant was universally recognized and he was showered with honours.

As the Red Cross took shape, more practical men came to the fore and Dunant began to fade from the scene. There was another reason for this. After several years of neglect, his business affairs in Algeria had to be liquidated. In 1867 it was discovered that Dunant had made unwise investments and was, in fact, deeply in debt. But, much worse, to conceal the truth he had presented false financial statements and invented fictitious societies. In short, he had betrayed his investors. Dismay!

He was taken to court like any other bankrupt and had to resign from the Red Cross. His investors blamed him for their ruin and he was forced to leave the country leaving behind huge debts. At the age of 39 his disgrace was total.

Henry Dunant took refuge in Paris. Despite leading a life of poverty and solitude, over the next few years he was involved in a number of humanitarian projects: a homeland for the Jews in Palestine; a society for the protection of prisoners of war; a library of world literature; the abolition of slavery. None of these schemes prospered at that time and none of them restored his finances. After 1875, pursued by his creditors, he disappeared from public life altogether, wandering obscurely around France, Germany, Italy and England. He was kept alive with small allowance from a family member. In July 1887 he appeared in the little town of Heiden in the canton of Appenzell, central Switzerland, and settled there.

In 1895 — twenty-eight years after his disgrace—a young journalist re-discovered him living in an old-people’s hostel in Heiden. His prestige was soon restored and his material well-being assured, but never again would he leave the hostel. He
continued to condemn the scandals of the epoch: the persecution of minorities; the oppression of women; the exploitation of working
children; the squandering of national resources on arms.

In 1901 he was awarded the first Nobel Prize for Peace and his work was thus acknowledged for all time. He died at Heiden on 30 October 1910.




When the sun came up on the twenty-fifth [of June 1859], it disclosed the most dreadful sights imaginable. Bodies of men and horses covered the battlefield; corpses were strewn over roads, ditches, ravines, thickets and fields; the approaches to Solferino were literally thick with dead. The fields were devastated, wheat and corn lying flat on the ground, fences broken, orchards ruined; here and there were pools of blood. The villages were deserted and bore the scars left by musket shots, bombs, rockets, grenades and shells. Walls were broken down and pierced with gaps where cannonballs had crashed through them. Houses were riddled with holes, shattered and ruined, and their inhabitants, who had been in hiding in cellars … were beginning to crawl out ... All around Solferino, and especially in the village cemetery, the ground was littered with guns, knapsacks, cartridge-boxes, mess tins, helmets, shakoes, fatigue-caps, belts, equipment of every kind, remnants of blood-stained clothing and piles of broken weapons. The poor wounded men that were being picked up all day long were ghastly pale and exhausted. Some, who had been the most badly hurt, had a stupefied look as though they could not grasp what was said; they stared at one out of haggard eyes, but their apparent prostration did not prevent them from feeling their pain. ... Some, who had gaping wounds already beginning to show infection, were almost crazed with suffering. They begged to be put out of their misery, and writhed with faces distorted in the grip of the death-struggle.