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The entrance to Auschwitz concentration camp in 1947. Photo: Karen Margrethe Sommer/ICRC


150 years of humanitarian action

1936 The Spanish Civil War:
The ICRC opens offices in both nationalist and republican strongholds. During much of the conflict, the distinction between combatants and non-combatants is ignored and civilians bear the brunt of reprisals and bombardments. The air raid on Guernica marks the beginning of a new era of aerial bombardment that presages the indiscriminate use of bombing in cities during the Second World War.

Photo: ©ICRC archives

1939 Second World War:
This truly global conflict takes humanitarian assistance to an entirely new level, bringing the number of people helped into millions. The conflict also produces the greatest threats to humanitarian principles and the greatest losses of civilian life: (above) the genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany; the abuse of prisoners in prisoner of war camps in Europe and the Pacific; mass aerial bombardment; and, finally, the first use of nuclear weapons. In total, by 1945, some 50 million people are estimated to have died due to the war.

Disaster relief continues
Even though much of Europe and the Pacific was in the grip of war, large-scale relief efforts continue for victims of natural disaster, including earthquakes in Chile and Turkey.

1943: Switzerland maintains a precarious neutrality, with German troops stationed in the French mountains close to Geneva.

Photo: ©ICRC archives

August 1945: (above)Atomic bombs drop on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan Red Cross doctors and nurses respond; first ICRC delegate in Hiroshima, Fritz Bilfinger, reports, “Conditions wiped out.” Marcel Junod, a medical doctor and ICRC delegate already on a relief mission, is one of the first foreigners to travel to Hiroshima after the atom bomb was dropped.

November 1945: The trials of leading Nazi figures begin in Nuremberg. They are followed by similar tribunals in Europe and East Asia that set the stage for the International Criminal Court and the ad hoc war crimes tribunals in the 1990s.

1946: The board of governors of the League of Red Cross Societies (now IFRC) confirms four Fundamental Principles.

1949: The experience of the Second World War brings about the Geneva Conventions of 1949. While earlier conventions protected wounded soldiers and prisoners of war, this convention stipulates for the first time that specific protections be provided for civilians during international conflict.

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the timeline

March to the brink

FROM THE OUTSET of the Second World War, the Movement began a mobilization to match the scale of the conflict. The first major initiative came on behalf of hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled the German invasion of Poland and the Russian invasion of Finland in 1939. As more countries fell to the Axis powers, the challenge became how to get aid to populations under occupation.

With their Geneva secretariats in neutral Switzerland, the ICRC and the League (now IFRC) negotiated complex deals to get scarce supplies from Switzerland or various seaports to people in desperate need. In 1940, the ICRC and League formed a Joint Relief Commission, which delivered more than 160 million tons of supplies between 1941 and 1946. Building on its tracing work in the First World War, the ICRC created the Central Prisoner of War Agency, which delivered some 36 million parcels and exchanged roughly 130 million letters between prisoners of war and their families.

Despite the heroic scale and the personal bravery of thousands of Movement workers, it was also a dark time for humanitarianism. Nazi authorities denied, limited or allowed extremely controlled access to prisoner of war camps, Jewish ghettos and concentration camps. The ICRC debated whether or not to issue a public denunciation based on what delegates were learning at the camps. But given the attitude of German authorities, they risked losing the chance to save any lives at all. The German Red Cross, meanwhile, had fallen completely under Nazi control. It was one of the greatest tests of the Movement’s application of neutrality during conflict and, by most accounts, it was its greatest failure. In response, the German Red Cross has launched extensive public research of its wartime history and the ICRC would also open its war-era records to independent historians. In 1997, it formally apologized. One of the ICRC’s most eminent historians, François Bugnion, concluded that the record reflects the organization’s “failure to assert its right of humanitarian action on behalf of civilians in the occupied areas or those deported to the death camps”.

The Second World War provoked the largest Red Cross Red Crescent mobilization up to that time. Switzerland’s neutrality was critical in allowing massive shipments of aid, such as the supplies stockpiled at a warehouse in Geneva, throughout the conflict. However, the country’s neutrality was one reason the ICRC did not adequately condemn German atrocities in concentration camps such as Auschwitz, pictured below in 1947.

Photo: ©ICRC archives


“Its failure as an institution to firmly oppose Nazi persecution was only slightly mitigated by the heroic actions of some of its delegates who helped those facing extermination,” he wrote, adding that ICRC historical documents of the time reflect “an impression of helplessness”. “Even the members of the Committee who declared themselves most clearly in favour of an appeal recognized that it would change nothing, that the ICRC would be unable to stop the march to the brink.”

From the ruins of this first truly global conflict came a ray of hope: the creation of the Fourth Geneva Convention in 1949, which the ICRC helped to write and which, for the first time, protected civilians during conflict. The ICRC has made numerous appeals during conflicts for the protection of civilians based on both the 1949 Conventions and the two new protocols added in 1977. Today, the Movement plays a leading role in global efforts for a treaty banning the use of nuclear weapons based on the Conventions’ call to protect civilian populations. The German Red Cross was re-established as an independent entity after the Second World War and this year also celebrates its 150th anniversary.


A report from hell

“In spite of the working outside, the people all have a pallid, ashen complexion… Each internee in KZ [a unit within the camp], man or woman, is wearing canvas with big, faded blue-grey stripes. The number is marked on the right arm. All the shaven heads give the impression from a distance of an astonishing similarity. Seen up close, bare-headed or with a beret tipped toward the front, they have remarkable intelligence. Without moving their heads, their eyes regard us with curiosity.” — From the mission report of an ICRC delegate who visited camps and ghettos during the Second World War. In one chilling report, he describes hearing of shower rooms being used to gas internees. But this fact could not be proven, he reported.


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