The Second World War and Its Challenge to Humanitarian Ideals

The atrocities committed during the Second World War by the Nazi regime shook the philosophical foundations of the international Red Cross organizations. The world was shocked when the war in Europe ended and the concentration camps were liberated. Knowledge about the mass murder of Jews was not wholly new, but the images and reports that now became available made the full scale of these crimes visible. On 14 April 1945, an American Red Cross (AMRC) representative reported back to Washington what he had seen in Buchenwald: ‘The stench and the groans from those sick and dying skeletons need not to be described here. Suffice it to say that the scene was more horrible and damning than death itself. In the other parts of the hospital area were men hobbling around on legs with absolutely no flesh on them—ghastly! Great running sores covered the faces and bodies of others. Many showed signs of extreme physical punishment.’1 In the face of this complete breakdown of humanitarian laws and standards—and the Red Cross’s failure to intervene—many national Red Cross societies were now deeply concerned about their future, particularly as the revelations about Nazi atrocities cast one of their sister organizations, the German Red Cross, in an especially problematic light.

Around the same time that Buchenwald was liberated, the acting president of the German Red Cross, SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Ernst Robert Grawitz, committed suicide in Berlin by blowing himself and his family up with hand grenades. Meanwhile, in southern Germany, Walther Georg Hartmann, head of the Foreign Section of the German Red Cross (DRK) and himself a Nazi Party member, tried to carry on the work of the German Red Cross as a national and centrally organized Red Cross Society, even appealing to the Americans for help. In a letter to the AMRC in June 1945, he proposed the steps needed for ‘preserving the union of a Red Cross in Germany’. The ICRC’s chief delegate in Berlin, Roland Marti, supported Hartmann’s efforts for ‘negotiations’ with the AMRC. In a memorandum on the reorganization of the Red Cross in Germany, the self-appointed ‘acting president’ Hartmann made almost no mention of past mistakes or of the impending denazification of its staff and screening of its personnel. In Hartmann’s eyes, only a few changes seemed necessary: the restoration of the German Red Cross’s non-political attitude predating 1933 and some reorganization of the leading staff would, he felt, suffice. The swastika in the German Red Cross emblem had only been faintly crossed out with a blue pen on the letterhead of Hartmann’s correspondence. But the organization’s Nazi past was not so easily left behind.2 In May 1945 Jewish-American voices openly demanded that the leaders of the German Red Cross were to be punished as war criminals.3 The ICRC too was well aware of the involvement of the German Red Cross in Nazi crimes. One ICRC delegate in Germany in June 1945 wrote to Max Huber that the German Red Cross (DRK) had been a paramilitary organization deeply influenced by the Nazi Party since 1937.4 At that point the DRK was torn apart and in chaos, its future uncertain. Some local and regional offices were allowed to function, while Allied authorities refused to let others continue their work. The ICRC now at least had to clarify the situation.5 One underlying aspect of Geneva’s interest in Germany lay in its concern about the future of the national German organization. In August 1945 Huber sent a memorandum to Secretary of State Byrnes on precisely this topic. In it Huber described the ICRC’s ongoing contacts with the German Red Cross, especially the foreign affairs service headed by Walther Georg Hartmann. Cooperation between Geneva and elements in the German Red Cross had remained mostly positive, even under the Nazi regime, at least according to Huber. In Huber’s opinion, the remnants of the German Red Cross should be permitted to maintain operations and its chief officers should be allowed to continue to carry out their duties, especially the ones who had already been in office before the Nazis took power.6

Despite both Hartmann’s and Huber’s efforts, it quickly became clear that the Allied occupation powers had no intention of allowing a centralized German Red Cross to be active across Germany. The irony and reality of a humanitarian organization operating under a genocidal regime was not lost on the Allies, who soon classified the German Red Cross as a deeply Nazified organization. As a result, the Allies dismantled the national organization, although it continued to exist on a local level. Shutting down a national Red Cross was unheard of in its long history. Furthermore, the German Red Cross Society’s complicity with the Nazi regime now threatened to invalidate the work and future of the entire Red Cross network.

What was at stake went far beyond the violation of standards of conduct and even criminal acts by one national Red Cross society. Did the Geneva Conventions and the nineteenth-century ideals of Henry Dunant still have a place in the era of large-scale genocide and nuclear weapons? Who or what would enforce them? The annual report published by the AMRC in June 1945, only weeks after the liberation of the last concentration camps, caught the mood of the moment well: ‘The toll of anguish and misery exacted from the armed forces by any war is frightful. World War II is no exception. But in terms of the suffering of civilian populations, this war has established a grim record never approached before.’7

April 1945 Nordhausen, Germany, concentration camp prisoners and soldiers of the US Army and medical personnel in a ruined building

Figure 4.1. April 1945 Nordhausen, Germany, concentration camp prisoners and soldiers of the US Army and medical personnel in a ruined building.

American Red Cross personnel with Holocaust survivor from the slave labour camp Mittelbau Dora - Norhausen, April 1945

Figure 4.2. American Red Cross personnel with Holocaust survivor from the slave labour camp Mittelbau Dora - Norhausen, April 1945.

The ICRC was very well aware of the new realities of total war, as Swiss law professor and ICRC official Maurice Bourquin indicated soon after the war ended: ‘Neither rockets nor atomic bombs make any distinction between “combatants” and “non-combatants”. They spread death over vast areas, and their effects cannot be limited to a definite target. Nothing is safe from them.’8 Burckhardt sounded very pessimistic as well when reflecting on the possibility of effective humanitarian action in the Second World War, writing: ‘In a hopeless war against the world people at the front, behind the front, in the cities, in the countryside, were destroyed in large numbers by all available types of explosive force or simply rounded up and gassed.’9 In order to address these monumental changes in the world, the ICRC leadership in Geneva sought refuge in traditional concepts. In his 1943 book The Good Samaritan, Max Huber had appealed to the leaders of the fighting powers to embrace the joint pillars of humanity and Christianity, a very unrealistic, almost naive, approach in the midst of a total war and genocide.

With dictators like Hitler and Stalin in charge, such appeals had little chance to be heard. Huber was ‘quite simply, overwhelmed by the scale of the war and the depths of its inhumanity’.10 He had become very pessimistic because Christian values were no longer the basis of an international ethos.11 Huber expressed his frustrations to Burckhardt. ‘The spirit of the times’, Huber wrote, ‘makes me helpless. Often I see everything in imminent decline. Law is trodden underfoot all over the world’.12 It was not clear to Huber if ‘Dunant’s dream’ was still up to meeting the challenges of the time.13

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