As early as 1933, the Red Cross received letters from Dachau, including one pleading: ‘I beg you again in the name of the prisoners—Help! Help!.’ Samuel Moyn reviews “Humanitarians at War” by Gerald Steinacher.
PHOTO: DRK/GETTY IMAGES
By the eve of World War II, the International Committee of the Red Cross had reshaped the landscape of humanitarianism. Founded in 1863 by Henry Dunant, a Swiss businessman appalled by the carnage he saw on an Italian battlefield, the organization had made itself the central player in the modern law of war. Having organized the conference that drew up the original Geneva Conventions, the ICRC was formally empowered to tend to wounded, sick and imprisoned soldiers and to ensure that they were humanely treated rather than left for dead. The ICRC had given rise to Red Cross organizations around the world, including in the United States, and had begun attending to disasters, natural and manmade.
But what began as an organization meant to curb the barbarity of warfare has found it difficult to live down its most grievous mistake: cozying up to the Third Reich, remaining silent about the Holocaust and later helping Nazis escape justice. In his last book, “Nazis on the Run: How Hitler’s Henchmen Fled Justice” (2011), historian Gerald Steinacher chronicled one aspect of this shameful era. His newest effort, “Humanitarians at War: The Red Cross in the Shadow of the Holocaust,” synthesizes what he and other historians have learned about the ICRC’s conduct during this troublesome period before adding new material on what the organization did next. This more comprehensive account of the ICRC’s actions equips the reader to decide whether the organization truly recovered from its wartime and postwar errors.
Much of “Humanitarians at War” re-treads the ICRC’s missteps in those dark years, rightly laying most of the blame on Switzerland’s Carl Jacob Burckhardt. With the ICRC’s moralistic Christian president, Max Huber, elderly and often ill during the 1930s, it was Burckhardt, his second in command, who made major decisions regarding relations with Adolf Hitler’s government. A diplomat and known careerist, Burckhardt harbored a traditional anti-Semitism and such hatred of communism that he regarded German Nazism as a bulwark of civilization and a necessary evil. As early as April 1933, the ICRC was receiving desperate letters from inmates of German concentration camps, including one from Dachau pleading: “‘I beg you again in the name of the prisoners—Help! Help!’” Yet as Mr. Steinacher writes, during this period Burckhardt was given an inspection tour “and officially lauded the commandant of Dachau for his discipline and decency.”
HUMANITARIANS AT WAR
By Gerald Steinacher Oxford, 330 pages, $32.95
It wasn’t just willfully repeating the Germans’ propaganda that stained the ICRC. Nor was it only the fact that, knowing the Nazis had confirmed their policy of mass extermination of the Jews at the 1942 Wannsee Conference, the ICRC did nothing to intervene. What was more difficult to defend was Burckhardt’s sympathies with and efforts on behalf of Nazi actors after Germany’s defeat. He opposed the Nuremberg trials, labeling them “Jewish revenge.” Red Cross officials attempted to whitewash the record of Nuremberg defendant and high-ranking Nazi diplomat Ernst von Weizsäcker. After the Holocaust, the ICRC—by then helmed by Burckhardt—even abetted the flight of Nazis such as Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele by providing them with travel papers.
Complicating matters was the close tie between the ICRC and the Swiss government. Switzerland’s conduct during the war drew unfavorable comparisons with that of the Swedes, whose wartime record, while hardly “clean,” nonetheless led their country to be labeled the “good” neutral in contrast with “bad” Switzerland. This fueled a postwar Swedish attempt to take over Switzerland’s longtime custodianship of the laws of war, upon which Mr. Steinacher dwells at length. Strikingly, Switzerland’s unfortunate wartime conduct was not the primary rationale for a Swedish takeover: It was essentially a turf war. Sweden lost because the champion of its effort, Count Folke Bernadotte, was assassinated in 1948 while serving as a United Nations mediator in Jerusalem.
The denouement of “Humanitarians at War” focuses on the ICRC’s work to create the new Geneva Conventions of 1949, which endure as the main treaties governing the conduct of war. Given their sterling reputation to this day, especially since they provided formal protections for civilians, Mr. Steinacher is willing to conclude that the results of the lawmaking have been “overwhelmingly positive.” For this reason, the ICRC seems largely redeemed by the end of the book, and the tale has a happy ending.
Mr. Steinacher, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an excellent historian with a good nose for archives, but his view that the crisis of this one organization amounted to a “crisis of humanitarianism” is overblown. What difference would it have made if the Swedes had wrangled their way into custodianship of the law of war? One suspects little. Mr. Steinacher’s book also suffers from problematic omissions. He doesn’t explore the ICRC’s yeoman work keeping many POWs in touch with their families, an achievement for which it won a second Nobel Peace Prize in 1944. Nor does he provide much context for the different agendas that European states brought to the revision of the Geneva Conventions—including those powers facing brewing trouble in their colonies, where they knew brutal wars would soon have to be waged.
Mr. Steinacher excels at toppling individuals from undeserved moral pedestals. Ironically, he does not do the same for the law of war itself. The truth is that the laws of war, as much as they strive to preserve humane values, still license fierce hostilities, even today. Perhaps it is less interesting that the ICRC almost lost control of the law of war than that humanitarianism has left the world so violent.
Mr. Moyn, who teaches law and history at Yale, is the author of “Human Rights and the Uses of History” and “Christian Human Rights,” among other books.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.