This year I read the Geneva Conventions for the very first time. The photos from Abu Ghraib prison made me want to read the classic international agreements about the treatment of prisoners in time of war, and I needed to write an editorial for Christianity Today about the implications of the abuses there.
Reading those documentsas well as the other conventions about the treatment of the wounded, those shipwrecked at sea, and civilians under enemy controlI had a profound sense that a Christian vision undergirded these texts.
Unfortunately, when I went to the website of the International Committee of the Red Cross, I found just the barest hint that the man behind the ICRC and the first Geneva Conventions might have been motivated by a Christian vision. The ICRC web page devoted to founding visionary Henri Dunant (1828-1910) says only that he "came from a very devout Calvinist family that practised charity."
Further research on the Internet and a summer vacation visit to ICRC headquarters in Geneva expanded my understanding of Dunant's Christian vision. Here's what I found:
According to Pam Brown's Henry Dunant, the only English-language biography of Dunant I found at the ICRC bookstore, Henri Dunant's parents left the "official church" and joined the "Church of the Awakening, a group which insisted on active charity." I have found no other mentions of an organization by this name in Switzerland in the 1830's and '40s, though I have found plenty of references to an evangelical awakening inside and later outside the Reformed church in Switzerland.
The Swiss website of the Henri Dunant Society reports that Dunant, who failed miserably in his studies at Geneva's Collège Calvin, had nevertheless won the piety prize in school and was an avid listener to the sermons of evangelical preacher Louis Gaussen at the Oratory. Gaussen had been suspended for his revival activities by Geneva's Venerable Company of Pastors and subsequently took part in the formation of the Société Evangélique, the Free Faculty of the Oratory, and the Evangelical Church of the Oratory (Free). Under Gaussen's preaching, says the Dunant Society website, young Henri "literally nourished himself on the 'Awakening' of the Protestant church." (Beware of machine translations on French websites about spiritual renewal, since the French word for "awakening" also means "alarm clock" which can produce amusingand alarmingtranslations.)
As a young man, Henri Dunant participated in the kind of free-wheeling association that seems to be typical of evangelical religion everywhere. In about 1848, at age 20, he organized a group of like-minded young men known first as the Thursday Meeting, and soon after as the Union of Geneva. Their aim was to be "more effective in Christian charity," "to heat up the lukewarm" believers, and to "convert those who had not met God" (Société Henri Dunant).
In the years that followed, the young Dunant showed tremendous organizational ability, and soon built bridges between his group in Geneva and likeminded groups elsewhereincluding the Young Men's Christian Association, which had been founded in London in 1844 by George Williams. Dunant suggested that these groups should cooperate internationally, and as a result representatives met in Paris in August 1855 and formed the World Alliance of YMCAs.
Dunant's vision is captured in these quotations from a YMCA website: "Leading up to the World Conference, Henry Dunant reflected in 1852 on the international and ecumenical dimensions of the YMCA, considering the imperative of 'one body, many members': ' Be persuaded that we are members for each other, with solidarity for each other; we are only one and the same family, destined to glorify Jesus ' In the same line, in 1855, he lay the foundation of what was to be the World Alliance of YMCAs: 'Let each therefore bring his stone towards the building of the edifice; be it ever so small, it must help towards the construction of the mansion.'"
Dunant may have been forced to drop out of school for poor performance, but he was a genius at vision and organization. That talent showed up a few years later when he chanced on a battlefield in northern Italy.
The date was June 24, 1859. Dunant was on his way to see the French emperor, Napoleon III. Several years earlier, Dunant had been sent to Algeria to supervise some business interests there, but being the devout evangelical he was, he saw it as an opportunity to create economic opportunity for poor Algerians and to spread the gospel as well. His main problem on the business front was that he was Swiss, and Algeria was a colony of France. Local officials made it difficult for him to obtain the permits he needed, and so he decided to go straight to the Emperor to ask for concessions.
A tragic thing happened on the way to his imperial appointment: the bloody battle of Solferino. The Italians and the French were trying to drive Austrian forces out of occupied Italian lands. By the morning of June 25, wounded soldiers lay everywhere. An estimated 40,000 soldiers were killed or wounded that day.
On a European battlefield in the 19th-century, a wound was almost a death sentence. The armies had not yet developed efficient ways to transfer wounded soldiers to medical facilities at the rear of the operations. The warring parties considered physicians and nurses as combatants, and those who tried to bandage and care for the wounded were considered fair targets. No one would help a wounded enemy, since a bloodied soldier lying on a battlefield could be playing a trick and would just as likely stab you or shoot you if you tried to help. The result was that people bled to death, died of dehydration, or succumbed to aggressive infections that set in before medical personnel could attend to their wounds.
The horrible scene was more than Dunant could handle. Almost anyone else would have run away in horror, but this visionary genius saw the opportunity to use his organizational skills to maximize the effectiveness of limited resources. He soon had neighboring townspeople organized, had the wounded moved into homes, chapels, and even a castle, and begged material support from local nobles. Most remarkably, he persuaded people to care equally for the wounded enemy. Tutti fratelli, All are brothers, he kept telling the local volunteers. It was a concrete demonstration of a Christian vision.
The book of sorrows
After the battle, Dunant wrote a little book, A Memory of Solferino. This book publicized the horrors of war in the way that Uncle Tom's Cabin created a public awareness of the horrors of slavery. Neither war nor slavery was hidden from public view, but a writer with a conscience can make readers confront a reality they would otherwise turn away from. (The ICRC makes the full text of A Memory of Solferino available on its website.)
The reaction to A Memory of Solferino brought swift results. The first edition of the book was published in November 1862. By February 1863, enough movers and shakers had indicated an interest in concrete action that a Committee of Five convened to lay plans for action. By October of 1863, Dunant had gathered in Geneva thirty-one delegates representing sixteen nations to discuss his vision. The core of Dunant's idea was neutrality. If medical personnel on the battlefield could be considered neutral parties by both sides, the wounded could be treated and many lives saved. It was a controversial idea, but Dunant won the day.
Clearly, there would have to be a way to identify these neutral parties, and Dr. Louis Appia, another member of the Committee of Five, suggested a symbol: a red cross on a white background (the reverse of the Swiss flag). The symbol could be painted on ambulances, and on the battlefield, medical workers could wear it on an armband.
The 1863 conference was a success, but broader support and a more formal agreement was needed, and so a Diplomatic Conference was planned for the summer of 1864.
1863 had also been the year of Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, and Dunant was excited by Lincoln's bold stroke. To the dismay of his European colleagues, Dunant invitednay, pressuredthe American president to send delegates to the conference. Hogtied by political concerns, Lincoln could only send observers.
As a result of the August 1864 conference, twelve nations signed the ten articles that formed the first Geneva Convention. According to biographer Pam Brown's summary, this document "guaranteed neutrality for ambulances, hospitals and medical workers and their equipment; for local inhabitants who were helping the wounded; for wounded enemy soldiers and it also required their captors to treat their wounds or to arrange for this to be done. It spelled out the obligation of armies to search for and collect the wounded. Finally, it established the red cross on a white background as an international symbol of protection and neutral assistance in times of war." By the end of 1867, twenty-one nations had signed the Convention.
Disgrace and honor
This success was the high point of Dunant's life, which quickly fell apart. Perhaps his humanitarian crusades drew his attention away from business interests. But for whatever reason, his business went bankrupt, and the Court of Civil Law blamed him for the disaster. Brown writes: "He was held to have deceived his colleagues and this verdict was published in the Geneva newspapers. At the age of thirty-nine, just eight years after Solferino, Dunant had lost everything. He had lost his standing as a citizen of Geneva, he was a bankrupt, branded as the cause of the disaster publicly, and, worst of all, he lost his position in the Red Cross in Geneva."
Bankruptcy was a major disgrace in Geneva at this time, and though he vowed to work hard to repay all his debts, many of his friends never forgave him. Writes Brown, "Humiliated, Dunant left Geneva forever."
Dunant moved to Paris and continued to be active in humanitarian causes. Unfortunately, none of his business enterprises succeeded, and he was eventually reduced to utter poverty. He wandered, shuttling back and forth between Paris and Trieste, London, Stuttgart, Corfu, the Isle of Wight, and several German cities. Finally, in July of 1887, he returned to Switzerland "sick, shabby, and old" and settled in the mountain village of Heiden. From this rural location, he wrote letters to old acquaintances and tried to reestablish himself, but he met with little success. Perhaps the world would never again have heard of Henry Dunant, if it hadn't been for a journalist who was hiking in the mountains nearby. In casual conversation he heard about an old man living in a hospital in Heiden who claimed to be the founder of the Red Cross. The journalist had a nose for a good story, and he made an appointment to interview Dunant. The resulting publicity brought a wave of new attention, and honor and recognition were once more bestowed on this Christian visionary. Perhaps the chief honor came in 1901: the very first Nobel Peace Prize, which he shared with Frederic Passy, the founder of the first French peace organization.
The honor of receiving the Nobel helped to heal Dunant's feelings of deep humiliation, though he spent none of the considerable prize money. Instead, he left bequests to the people who had cared for him in Heiden, money to fund a free hospital room for the poor of Heiden, and sums to various charities in Norway and Switzerland. Dunant acted the Christian humanitarian to the last.
David Neff is editor of Christianity Today. More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
More about the Red Cross is available from their website.
A list of other Nobel Prize winners influence by Christian principles is available on our website.
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