The Red Cross in Crisis

In 1945 there was a big question—would the humanitarianism of the nineteenth century still have a place in the postwar world? Would the ‘moral conscience’ of the world have a future after Auschwitz? If the humanitarian idea was to survive, who should now carry the torch passed on by Henry Dunant, Florence Nightingale, and Clara Barton? Neutral Sweden’s aid record looked so much better and its national Red Cross leader, Bernadotte, was a leading light in humanitarianism. Would it not be a logical choice to have Sweden take the lead? In other words, would the Red Cross turn (symbolically speaking) into a blue cross on a yellow background after the Swedish flag? And would the Geneva Conventions one day be called the Stockholm Conventions? Indeed, the humanitarian competition established during the Second World War between Sweden and Switzerland was to continue after 1945 and almost changed the world of international humanitarian law for good.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) faced numerous obstacles after the war in maintaining its status as the world’s leading humanitarian organization. Some of these constituted elemental threats to the organization’s entire legacy and history of accomplishments. Others presented opportunities for the ICRC to leave its contested past behind and resume its leadership position, by now, above all, also championing the rights of civilians in wartime. The immediate postwar years became a period of intense challenges for the ICRC, propelled by criticisms of how its officials had handled crises during the war, its cozy relationship with the Swiss government and even the Nazi regime, and its limited aid for Soviet prisoners of war (POWs). The failure of the ICRC in not speaking out against the Holocaust and providing only limited aid to civilians was discussed at the time. A crisis in leadership and diminishing funds hampered the organization’s ability to respond to external attacks, even as it issued a number of publications defending its recent record. Another major issue for the humanitarians was the position of the new superpowers. The Soviet Union was among the most outspoken critics of the ICRC and Switzerland. The US government held no strong opinions about the matter, but the American national Red Cross was at the same time very ambitious to stake its own claims.

In considering the two to three years running up to the critical Stockholm Red Cross conference of 1948, we have to look at both the ICRC’s internal conflicts and fissures and the formidable opponents they faced in Europe and further afield.

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