Sometimes a little book can make a big difference in how people think about right and wrong.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, profoundly affected the way white Americans perceived slavery. Ten years later and across the Atlantic, Henry Dunant published another revolutionary book, A Memory of Solferino: his eyewitness account of the aftermath of one of Europe’s bloodiest battles.

Dunant’s book is rarely read today. But if you are outraged when bombs, rockets, or artillery shells fall on hospitals, schools, and places of worship, you can trace that presumption—that these should be safe places—to Dunant.

Dunant was a Swiss investor working in Algeria. He had been unable to get land and water rights from the colonial authorities, so he appealed directly to the French emperor, Napoleon III.

But the emperor was trying to liberate northern Italy from Austrian domination. When Dunant arrived in Solferino, Napoleon’s headquarters, the landscape was littered with dead, dying, and wounded soldiers. Surprised by the scale, the two armies were completely unprepared to bury their dead, comfort the dying, or tend the wounded. Their field hospitals and medical supplies were woefully inadequate. Compassion for wounded enemies was also in short supply: both armies shot or bayoneted them.

Dunant was a natural organizer. As a teenager, he formed a Bible study group that worked for the poor. At age 22, he founded the Geneva chapter of the Young Men’s Christian Union (parallel to the English and American ymca). When some planned to create a federation of European Ys, he argued instead for an international ymcafederation. So, at age 25, he went to Paris to represent ...

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Past Imperfect
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
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