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The Dreamer and
the builder


Separated by the birth of a humanitarian movement

‘ TUTTI FRATELLI ’, ALL BROTHERS. These are the words repeated by the women of Castiglione who worked alongside Henry Dunant as they helped the wounded on the battlefield of Solferino. It became one of the defining phrases of the early Red Cross. Yet irony had it that the two principal architects of what would become the largest humanitarian organization in the world felt anything but fraternal love for each other.

Much has been written about Solferino and its terrible casualties, and about Dunant’s presence on the battlefield. But far less about the next steps in the Red Cross story. This year, the 100th anniversary of Dunant’s death and that of Gustave Moynier, the co-founder of the Red Cross, provides an opportunity to re-examine their lives and question how accurate history has been when assessing the very different contributions each made.

Those next steps came after Dunant’s battlefield memoirs, A Memory of Solferino, fell into the hands of the elderly hero of the Sonderbund war (Switzerland’s 19th Century civil conflict), General Dufour, and, more importantly, into those of a stocky, serious minded, touchy and dogged lawyer named Gustave Moynier. The Protestant grandson of a master watchmaker, Moynier was an interesting figure. Trained as a lawyer, his marriage to the daughter of a rich banker had brought him enough money to devote his life to a wide range of philanthropic interests.

Unlike the impractical, impetuous Dunant, Moynier was shrewd, conscientious and very hard working. Before long, a working party to take Dunant’s ideas forward had been set up, which soon called itself the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded, with Dufour as president, Moynier as vice president and Dunant as secretary. There were two other members, both men with medical backgrounds: Louis Appia, who was somewhat gloomy, and Théodore Maunoir, who was humorous and retiring. At 35, Dunant was the youngest. Both he and Moynier would say, at various times, that they had been inspired by God.

Most crucially for the future of their idea, the times were propitious. Though it had never quite lost the stamp of Calvin’s austerity, Geneva in the 1850s was awash with fermenting philanthropic ideas and there was a strong spirit of humanitarianism among people who regarded themselves as enlightened conservatives. Furthermore, Europe’s ministers of war had already expressed a desire to limit the evils of war and to discuss forms of arbitration. Dunant’s suggestions, humane but not subversively pacifist, were perfectly in tune with the pious and utilitarian currents of the day.

A meeting on 23 October 1863 brought together statesmen from across Europe, who put their names to resolutions calling for a humanitarian code of conduct in warfare, the adoption of an emblem, the sending of volunteer medical personnel to the battlefield and the setting-up of national committees to assist the army medical services. As Pierre Boissier, official historian of the Red Cross, would later say, they did nothing to do away with war, but they had “reduced its empire over mankind”.

But not before Dunant had alienated Moynier by his failure to consult his colleagues over the question of neutrality and by his cavalier attitude towards formal procedures. In the early papers of the Red Cross, it is hard to find anything that points to any kind of personal relationship between Moynier and Dunant. But one senses in Moynier a profound impatience with Dunant’s haphazard ways. His upright, self-righteous soul can only have been maddened by Dunant’s occasional slipperiness and inattention to detail.

In 1864, Dunant’s business affairs foundered and he went bankrupt. He had no choice but to offer his resignation, which was accepted, with some alacrity, by Moynier. Neither he nor any other member of the committee showed any signs of charity or compassion towards Dunant who, though he paid off his debts, suffered the further humiliation of being judged by the court as having “knowingly swindled” his colleagues. He was also left penniless. Later, Dunant would write: “I was led astray through ardent imagination, a too excitable nature, and a too trusting character.”

Dunant left Geneva and spent the next years haunting the fringes of the growing Red Cross movement, while Moynier set about pinning down their ideas in a coherent, precise and legally binding way, and doing his best to expunge Dunant’s very name from its institutional history. For the next 40 years, as president, he convened meetings, transformed resolutions into conventions, worked on drafts and treaties and corresponded with nascent societies and statesmen from Washington to St Petersburg.

In 1887, Dunant found a haven in Heiden, a pretty spa town in the canton of Appenzell in eastern Switzerland, surrounded by orchards. Five years later he retired there permanently, to a small residential hospital where he spent his days writing his memoirs and brooding bitterly on the past. But then, as Moynier must long have dreaded, he was spotted by an enterprising young journalist. The story of the forgotten visionary hermit was picked up and spread around the world. Visitors arrived to pay Dunant homage; letters, honours, pensions poured in. Worse, for Moynier, was to come. In 1901, hailed as ‘the founder of the Red Cross’ Dunant shared the first Nobel Peace Prize with the pacifist Frédéric Passy; Moynier made some efforts to be included, but in vain. It was said that as he grew older, Moynier found it harder to accept that a man he considered unscrupulous could have had the inspiration for an idea he had come to think of as his own.

Dunant and Moynier both died in 1910, within months of each other. History has not been kind to the rigid Moynier, while Dunant, cast as a hero and a martyr, has been celebrated in innumerable biographies, memoirs, documentaries and even novels. Soon after his death, Moynier fell into oblivion. It has taken most of the century to bring rightful recognition to a man without whose perseverance and determination Dunant’s dream might have remained precisely what it was — a dream.

Caroline Moorehead is the author of Dunant’s Dream: War, Switzerland and the History of the Red Cross. Her most recent book is Dancing to the Precipice: The Life of Lucie de la Tour Du Pin, Eyewitness to an Era (Harper, 2009).



Photos ©ICRC











It has taken most of
the century to bring
rightful recognition
to Moynier, a man
without whose
perseverance and
Dunant’s dream
might have
remained precisely
what it was — a











Making history

Numerous historical events and exhibitions this year delve into the relationship and roles of these two founders of the Movement. From 21 September 2010 to 23 January 2011, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum will host:
Henry Dunant + Gustave Moynier — An Intense Combat
Curated by the Association Dunant + Moynier.
For information on other events, see


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