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The Henry Dunant Society
Interview by
Jean-François Berger
To find out more about Dunant, Red Cross, Red Crescent talked to Roger Durand, founding President of the Henry Dunant Society in Geneva.

One of the founders of the Red Cross and leading humanitarian light, Henry Dunant is a both tragic and disconcerting figure. Ostracized by his peers and forced by bankruptcy to leave Geneva, he was consigned to a life of oblivion and destitution until finally achieving recognition and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1901. The legend of this solitary man lives on to this day and his passionate sense of universal brotherhood continues to fascinate. Yet behind the myth and philanthropist's aura, there is the man and his contradictions.
Roger Durand, for what reasons did you create this society?
We founded this society in 1975 with a few friends and members of Dunant. s family with the idea of getting to know Henry Dunant better. We felt it was time to release him from the grip of a few worthy members of the local Red Cross and leading academics who had idealized him. Since then our goal has remained constant: to study Henry Dunant as he really was, without reservation, through multidisciplinary research carried out with the help of the ICRC and professional historians.

Give us an example of something you have learned.
At our first meeting a psychiatrist was able to determine that Dunant, who was 31 years old at the time of Solferino, suffered a traumatic shock as a result of which he became obsessed with charitable works.

What means do you use to make Henry Dunant better known?
Mainly publications, meetings and encounter groups. We also place commemorative plaques in locations that have a historical significance for the Red Cross. For example, in 1994 we unveiled a plaque in Geneva's Old Town at the rue du Cloître, where the International Federation - the then League - had its first headquarters in 1919.

What were the important milestones that favoured the development of a social conscience and humanitarian inclinations in Dunant?
In 1849, Dunant founded the Young People's Christian Union in Geneva together with a few friends involved in the Reformed Church. It was a sort of cultural centre with the aim of fostering Christian values among young people. Needless to say, it was the great shock of coming upon the wounded and abandoned soldiers in Castiglione after the battle of Solferino that prompted his wholesale commitment to humanitarian action.

Dunant had to live in exile in Paris because of major financial losses in Geneva. What happened exactly?
In 1867 Dunant was involved in the bankruptcy of a bank, the Crédit Genevois. It ruined him completely, as well as his family and some of his friends. Tarnished by the scandal, he left the International Committee and Geneva, to which he never returned.
There was a strong rivalry between Gustave Moynier and Henry Dunant...
Between 1867 and 1897, Dunant lived in poverty, while Gustave Moynier prospered at the helm of the ICRC. During this period, Dunant led a sort of guerrilla war and acted in his own name to develop the Red Cross. At the same time, Moynier published a history of the Movement in which Dunant didn't even figure. In 1928, the ICRC rehabilitated its founding father at the instigation of its then president, Gustave Ador.

His love life is somewhat enigmatic. Had he taken a vow of chastity or was he disguising homosexual tendencies?
Dunant had a love affair - as moving as it was mysterious - with Léonie Kastner, the widow of a French composer. His homosexuality is a hypothesis that can neither be confirmed nor denied. One thing is certain: in 19th-century Geneva homosexuality was regarded as a huge handicap and was therefore never openly acknowledged. That being said, a man's greatness is not measured according to his sexual orientation!

Dunant is often labelled as a Freemason. Is it true?
In all likelihood it is just a myth. In any event, no Masonic lodge has ever claimed him as a member.

What are your areas of priority?
To bring up to date Henry Dunant's correspondence. We have located some 4,500 letters that he sent and received and these will be classified and published. On 1 October 1999 we are also going to publish the minutes of the ICRC Committee meetings from 1863 to 1914, thanks to the insight of Jean-François Pitteloud, archivist at the ICRC. In 2001 we will tackle Dunant the pacifist...

What are your funding sources?
The active members of our society are volunteers. Otherwise we have to look for funding here, there and everywhere, given that the subscriptions from our members - a little over 200 people - barely cover the printing of our newsletter. For the rest we raise funds from our partners according to the project.

You don't like being regarded as the . guardian of the temple. . Yet you have a very close relationship with Dunant. What fascinates you most about him?
His deep convictions which, as a humanitarian, led him never to give up. And his courage, his disregard for the Establishment.

Are there aspects of his character that you don't like?
What bothers me is his chameleon tendency, his readiness to adapt to his environment and flatter anyone...even if it was just a means to an end.

Interview by Jean-François Berger
Jean-François Berger is the ICRC editor of the Red Cross, Red Crescent magazine.

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