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HUMANITARIANS AT WAR by Gerald Steinacher


The Red Cross in the Shadow of the Holocaust


Pub Date: May 15th, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-19-870493-5
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

A history of the failure of the “neutral” guardians of humanity in a time of crisis and war.

Steinacher (History and Judaic Studies/Univ. of Nebraska; Nazis on the Run: How Hitler's Henchmen Fled Justice, 2011, etc.) manages to be evenhanded in this study of the Swiss-based International Committee of the Red Cross and its mission and leaders during World War II. Upon its founding in 1863 by Swiss businessman Henri Dunant, who was horrified by the slaughter and treatment of the wounded on the battlefields of Italy, the ICRC joined the larger humanitarian movement galvanized by Florence Nightingale, Franz Lieber, and, later, Clara Barton, among others, to ameliorate conditions for the wounded and POWs. These efforts led to the first Geneva Convention (1864) and establishment of other red cross organizations, such as the American Red Cross. While they “drew heavily on the Judeo-Christian idea of caritas, the importance of performing works of mercy and charity,” the movement spread beyond the Western world, emerging in Israel as the Red Star of David and in the Ottoman Empire as the Red Crescent. Steinacher focuses mostly on the ICRC’s pro-German stance during World War II and its “silence on the Holocaust.” The author reveals damaging research regarding the political ambitions and behind-the-scene machinations of ICRC vice president Carl J. Burckhardt, whose virulent anti-communism alienated the Soviet Union and whose anti-Semitic pronouncements outraged Jews. Steinacher cites the figure of 320,000 refugees admitted to Switzerland, “mostly made up of non-Jewish refugees.” The German Red Cross was deeply Nazified, and thus the ICRC leadership “learned early on of Nazi plans to murder European Jews” yet did nothing. Moreover, the ICRC’s emphasis on German POWs and its lax policy of issuing travel documents to escaping Nazis and collaborators earned the opprobrium of the world, paving the way for a showdown with the Swedish Red Cross at the 17th International Red Cross Conference in Stockholm in August 1948.

A knowledgeable, stringent return to the record and scrutiny of “good neutrality.”