In 1859, immediately after the Battle of Solferino in what is modern-day northern Italy, Geneva businessman Henri Dunant saw the carnage first-hand. A lifelong humanitarian, Dunant was horrified by the battlefield still strewn with some 23-thousand dead and dying French, Austrian and Sardinian soldiers. Despite having no official authority, he organized local civilians to care for the wounded.
In his book, A Memory of Solferino, Dunant wondered, “Would it not be possible, in time of peace and quiet, to form relief societies for the purpose of having care given to the wounded in wartime by zealous, devoted and thoroughly qualified volunteers?”
The answer was yes, and Dunant was the visionary who made that happen.
Founding the Red Cross
On Feb. 17, 1863, at his home on 4 Rue du Puits-Saint-Pierre in Geneva’ s medieval town, he presented his idea to four other Swiss leaders, General Henri Dufour, jurist Gustave Moynier, and physicians Louis Appia and Théodore Maunoir. That day they founded what would come to be known as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
The following year, Dunant also participated in the international conference led by the Swiss Parliament that led to the creation of the First Geneva Convention. The document was signed at 2 Rue de l’' Hotel-de-Ville.
Part of the world’ s largest humanitarian network
Today, the ICRC’ s mission – which includes “humanitarian protection and assistance for victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence” – is still anchored by the Geneva Conventions of 1949.
As the founding organization of the enormous global network of agencies now known as the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the ICRC has 18,000 staff in 90 countries including war-ravaged Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria.
The Red Cross helps in many ways. It provides medical care, reunites families, aids detainees, refugees and asylum seekers, protects against sexual violence, builds respect for the law, improves economic security, and much more. As the source of the Geneva Conventions, the ICRC is also a guardian of international humanitarian law.
The Red Cross Museum
The ICRC’s story is powerfully told at the innovative International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum in Geneva. A visit is both wrenching when standing before artifacts and records of humankind’ s terrible capacity for inflicting harm, and inspiring when learning of the courage of victims and those who come to their aid.
“The chamber of witnesses” allows visitors to walk among life-size interactive videos and hear the voices of victims of war whose lives have been saved by Red Cross workers, and of those Red Cross workers themselves.
Some of the exhibits are shocking in terms of their sheer mass. Thousands of stacked file boxes look like an old-fashioned library card catalog, but each one contains the name of hundreds of international prisoners from the First World War. Elsewhere, a wall is covered with the photos of hundreds of children separated from their families during the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda.
Another area shows the power of the human spirit in art works created by prisoners of conflict using materials they scavenged.
The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum has been recognized for its innovative, powerful exhibits. At the 2015 European Museum of the Year ceremonies in Glasgow, Scotland, the museum was awarded a prize for its “daring achievement that challenges common perceptions of the role of museums in society.” The jury applauded the ICRC museum for “the perfect balance it has found between the sharpness of its message and the multitude of nuanced ways it is expressed, and for the creation of a compelling case from selected personal stories which tell of humanitarian crises but also of hope and perseverance.”
Most visitors will leave the Museum of the Red Cross with hearts that are heavy, yet uplifted. And they need only cross the street to visit another bastion of hope, the United Nations.
Geneva is also home to the new International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies headquarters, which provides office and meeting space for the IFRC, the ICRC and the many affiliated National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
A life rarely at peace
If only Henri Dunant could have known how the organization he envisioned and helped found has grown into the world’s largest global network of humanitarian agencies.
Because Monsieur Dunant’ s life was not an easy one. The son of influential Calvinist parents deeply involved in social work for orphans, prisoners and the poor, Henri suffered several business failures, largely due to neglect as he focused his energies on various humanitarian projects. (He founded the Geneva branch of the YMCA and later helped form its international organization.)
This idealist also became estranged from some of his closest colleagues who believed his grand plans to aid the helpless victims of armed conflict were impractical.
In 1867, to escape creditors and critics, Dunant, age 39, left Geneva, never to return. Wandering with little money in Paris, Stuttgart, Rome, Corfu, Basel and Karlsruhe, he continued to work for those dispossessed by war – and continued to fall into greater debt. The humanitarian eventually settled in the Swiss village of Heiden, where he died in 1910 at age 82. His reported final words: “Where has humanity gone?” The former nursing home where Dunant died now houses a museum devoted to him.
Henri Dunant is buried, as he’d requested, in Zürich’s Sihlfeld Cemetery.
Today, around Geneva and beyond, there are numerous streets, squares, and schools named after Henri Dunant – even Switzerland’s second highest mountain peak.
But before his death Dunant gained an extraordinary honor, certainly the one most worthy of him. In 1901, Dunant was the co-recipient of the very first Nobel Peace Prize.