Fifty years on
By François Bugnion
Europe commemorates the 50th anniversary
of the end of the Second World War in May this year. During
those terrible six years of war, what was the International
Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement able to do? What was its
future the day that the arms fell silent? What challenges does
it face today, 50 years on?
8 May 1945: V-E Day! Church bells across Europe joyfully
proclaim the end of six years of carnage, oppression and devastation
wrought by the Second World War.
Yet, for many the end of hostilities had left a bitter taste:
the war was pursuing its relentless course in Asia, while
back in Europe the discovery of mass graves and the full horror
of the concentration camps, the magnitude of the loss and
destruction, and anxiety about the future gave little cause
An entire generation had been decimated by the ferocity of
the fighting. Air raids and massacres had claimed as many
victims among civilians as fire and the sword among combatants.
All over Europe, countries had been ravaged by the passage
of armies; whole cities had been systematically destroyed,
communications paralysed, and food stocks and harvests depleted.
The Movement had witnessed so much terrible suffering that
it could not but rejoice in the end of hostilities. But it
was also too aware of its limitations to be able to abandon
itself to euphoria.
Throughout the war, National Societies had been in the forefront
of the humanitarian effort; they performed their primary role
as auxiliaries to the armed forces’ medical services,
evacuated the wounded, supported hospitals away from the front
and assisted the families of fallen servicemen. In many countries,
they provided back-up for the social services disrupted by
the war, sometimes even replacing them. They carried out huge
relief operations for the stricken populations and refugees.
Even in countries that had been occupied, they were able to
carry out some relief work, despite the constraints imposed
by the occupying authorities.
For the Federation (then the League), the Second World War
was a period of reflection and self-examination. Unable to
call a meeting of its statutory bodies and blocked by the
German leadership from taking any independent action in countries
under occupation, it was only able to come to the aid of the
civilian population through the Joint Relief Commission of
the International Red Cross, a body jointly created by the
ICRC and the Federation.
For its part, the ICRC was the mainspring of the operation
to assist prisoners of war. Delegates travelled to every corner
of the globe to visit prisoners of war and check on their
conditions of detention. Thanks to the commitment of 3,000
volunteers, the Central Agency for Prisoners of War kept track
of millions of captives and helped them to re-establish links
with their families; to come to their aid, the ICRC launched
a massive relief operation, to the point of becoming the largest
civil transport company operating at the time. Finally, with
the help of the Swedish Government, the ICRC conducted its
largest single relief operation ever, saving the people of
Greece from certain famine.
The war over, the Movement also played a crucial part in
reconstruction and assistance programmes for the stricken
populations. The American Red Cross once again took a leading
role and implemented huge relief operations for the people
who had suffered so badly in France, Belgium, the Netherlands,
Poland and Greece.
In every country of Europe, the National Societies were there
to welcome back prisoners of war and former deportees once
the war was over; they came to the assistance of displaced
people and refugees, who numbered in the millions and many
of whom languished in makeshift camps while waiting to be
accepted by host countries.
With the return to peace, the Federation found a new sense
of purpose. It was once again able to support actively National
Society assistance programmes, at the same time paving the
way for the Red Cross and Red Crescent to revert to post-war
The ICRC, despite the huge operations it had conducted throughout
the war, despite the Nobel Peace Prize which was bestowed
on it for the second time in December 1944, found itself in
the position of the accused once the war was over. It was
held responsible for the tragic fate of the Soviet prisoners
of war, over half of whom died in captivity, and it was blamed
for not having publicly denounced the Nazi concentration camps.
Furthermore, in the war’s aftermath it was generally
little understood why the ICRC, in accord-ance with its mandate,
continued to assist German prisoners of war, who were held
collectively responsible for crimes committed by the Hitler
From all sides, and even within the Movement, voices called
for the ICRC to be dissolved and its activities transferred
to the Federation. This state of affairs caused a deep rift
within the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement – a rift
which was only overcome with the adoption of the new Geneva
Conventions in 1949 and that of the new Statutes of the International
Red Cross in 1952.
8 May 1995: Europe celebrates the 50th anniversary of the
end of the war, 50 years dominated by the divisions of the
cold war and by the dismantling of the colonial empires.
The cold war itself came to an end with the fall of the Berlin
Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Sadly, far
from bringing with it the widespread peace that all had hoped
for, it has led to a period of renewed turbulence that has
not yet emerged into a new world order.
If some conflicts that had their origins in the cold war
have now been happily resolved, notably in Central America,
Mozambique and South Africa, others have been given a new
lease of life, such as in Afghanistan and Cambodia. In the
former Yugoslavia and the Caucasus, animosities long suppressed
under the cold war have come to the surface unleashing untold
violence. In other cases, such as Somalia and Liberia, the
very structure of the State collapsed, leading to a complete
breakdown of law and order and a climate of terror in which
no holds were barred.
On the economic front, the five decades that followed the
Second World War have been characterised by an extraordinary
growth in prosperity. But this growth has been unequally distributed,
provoking tensions between countries that have access to this
new prosperity and those that are caught in a vicious cycle
of poverty and deprivation. The world epidemic of AIDS, and
recurrent earthquakes and floods remind us all of the limitations
of science and of man’s mastery of the world.
For all these reasons, the Red Cross and Red Crescent’s
action is still as vital today as it was in the devastated
world of 1945. But, as it did at the end of the Second World
War and as it has at each period of crisis in its history,
the Movement is once again facing a threat to its unity.
In order to accomplish its mission, in order to come to the
aid of victims who so badly need its assistance, and in order
to rise to the challenges that now confront it, the Movement
needs to rediscover its cohesion, while respecting the different
but complementary mandates of each of its institutions.
François Bugnion is Deputy Director
of Principles, Law and Relations with
the Movement at the ICRC.
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