In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Red Cross

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)
  • European Red Cross Societies
  • Asia Pacific Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
  • Middle East Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
  • Latin American Red Cross Societies
  • Red Cross Disaster Relief
  • Red Cross International Relief
  • Red Cross Nursing
  • Red Cross Blood Services
  • Franco-Prussian War
  • Spanish-American War
  • Russo-Japanese War
  • World War I
  • Second Italo-Ethiopian War
  • World War II
  • Cold War Conflicts
  • Post–Cold War Era

Military History Red Cross
Marian Moser Jones
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0080


The Red Cross movement, though international in character, paradoxically stemmed from the rise of the nation-state. In mid-19th century Europe, North America, and Asia, increasingly powerful and organized states equipped and trained large standing armies, which they repeatedly deployed in conflicts. Advances in weapons technology and the advent of industrial-scale munitions production made these battles increasingly deadly. But advances in warfare were not accompanied by similar improvements in organization of medical aid, and wounded combatants were often left writhing in agony on the battlefield. Swiss businessman Henri Dunant witnessed such horrors as an accidental bystander and aid volunteer during the 1859 Battle of Solferino, a decisive engagement in the Italian Wars of Independence. He later wrote an influential book (Dunant 1986, originally published 1862 and cited under General Overviews) in which he proposed the idea of trained volunteer aid societies whose members would provide skilled aid to all wounded combatants, regardless of nationality. He recommended that an international congress be convened to formulate a set of rules governing the conduct and protection of these societies. Dunant’s ideas were rooted in his deeply held notions of Christian charity, in the Swiss political concept of neutrality, and in the Enlightenment-era ideal of the rights of men. In February 1863, Dunant and four other men in Geneva formed a committee to carry out his vision. Holding an international conference later that year, the committee drafted resolutions that guaranteed wartime neutrality of medical personnel, who were to identify themselves on the battlefield by wearing white armbands bearing red crosses; required signatories to treat wounded combatants humanely without regard for nationality; and required the creation of volunteer aid societies in signatory states. These were later named “Red Cross” societies. In August 1864, twelve nations signed a treaty, known as the Geneva Convention, in which they agreed to adhere to these resolutions. Subsequent Geneva Conventions expanded the scope of Red Cross neutrality to naval forces and prisoners of war (POWs). The committee Dunant founded, which became known as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), became responsible for ensuring that parties abide by the conventions. Following World War II, in the face of the ICRC’s perceived inadequate response to civilians in Nazi concentration camps, the conventions were rewritten to extend the Red Cross’s humanitarian protections to civilians and participants in internal conflicts; they were adopted in 1949. As more nations have signed the conventions following the end of the Cold War, National Red Cross societies have proliferated. The League of Red Cross Societies, founded in 1919 to coordinate the activities of national societies, eventually became known as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and serves as an umbrella organization over the 187 national societies.

General Overviews

A central debate among historians of the Red Cross movement focuses on the effect it has had on warfare. Has the movement been a force for peace, limiting the inhumanity of war, as its visionary founder Dunant (see Dunant 1986, originally published 1862) and its early leaders (see Moynier 1882) intended? Or has it merely made war more efficient by enabling wounded combatants to be quickly treated and returned to the theater of combat? Hutchinson 1996 marshaled a number of national case studies to argue that the Red Cross societies of Europe, Japan, and the United States became tragically effective vehicles for the “militarization of charity” in the years leading up to World War I. A contrary argument, that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has served as a force for peace in a world where war remains inevitable, has been proffered by internal ICRC scholars such as the authors of Durand 1984, Boissier 1985 (both cited under International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)), and Sandoz 1987. Moreover, histories that extend beyond World War I, such as Riesenberger 1992, Harouel 1999, and Moorehead 1999, tend to take a more nuanced approach as they emphasize the increasing role that the ICRC, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), and member societies have played in peacetime humanitarian work over the past century. Some of these works, such as Riesenberger 1992, have focused as well on a second critical issue: how much the ICRC knew about the genocide of Jews and other prisoners of the Nazi state during World War II, and why the organization chose to remain silent in the face of the Holocaust. (See also World War II). Forsythe 1976 has examined the larger question of the Red Cross movement’s complex role in simultaneously transcending and buttressing the nation-state system.

  • Dunant, Henri. A Memory of Solferino. Geneva, Switzerland: International Committee of the Red Cross, 1986.

    First published 1862. The book that inspired the genesis of the Red Cross movement, this eyewitness account depicts the neglect and suffering of wounded soldiers following a pivotal battle in the Wars of Italian Independence and proposes the creation of trained volunteer aid societies to mitigate such suffering.

  • Forsythe, David P. “The Red Cross as Transnational Movement: Conserving and Changing the Nation State System.” International Organization 30.4 (Autumn 1976): 607–630.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0020818300018464

    An introduction to the Red Cross movement and the role of the ICRC in conflict zones. Asserts that the committee’s actions as a humanitarian observer and transnational provider of aid “reinforce the nation-state system” by working within it and seeking to render it “more effective in responding to humanitarian need” (p. 625).

  • Harouel, Véronique. Histoire de la Croix-Rouge. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1999.

    This concise pocket paperback volume explains the character and history of the Red Cross movement for a wide audience.

  • Hutchinson, John F. Champions of Charity: War and the Rise of the Red Cross. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996.

    A seminal scholarly work on the Red Cross movement. Argues that Red Cross societies, founded to limit the consequences of war, strengthened the military apparatus in conflicts from the Russo-Japanese War to World War I, by enabling sick and wounded soldiers to return to combat more quickly.

  • Moorehead, Caroline. Dunant’s Dream: War, Switzerland and the History of the Red Cross. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1999.

    An excellent introduction to the subject, this voluminous yet readable work investigates the international humanitarian efforts and failures of the International Red Cross movement from its founding through World Wars, the Cold War, and up to the 1990s. Thoroughly researched using ICRC and other archives.

  • Moynier, Gustav. La Croix-rouge: Son passé et son avenir. Paris: Sandoz & Thuillier, 1882.

    A firsthand perspective of the Red Cross movement’s early years written by the co-founder and long-time president of the ICRC. Covers the 1864 Geneva Convention, and Red Cross societies’ work in the Italian wars, Austrio-Prussian War, Franco-Prussian War, and Russo-Turkish War, as well as their envisioned role in peace.

  • Riesenberger, Dieter. Für humanität in krieg und frieden: Das Internationale Rote Kreuz, 1863–1977. Gottingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1992.

    This study, a careful analysis using the ICRC archives, focuses on the international role of the Red Cross movement from its founding through the Cold War. It does not shy from examining the Nazification of the German Red Cross and the ICRC’s limited success in rescuing Jews.

  • Sandoz, Yves. “The Red Cross and Peace: Realities and Limits.” Journal of Peace Research 24.3 (September 1987): 287–296.

    DOI: 10.1177/002234338702400308

    Defends the Red Cross movement as a global force for peace, acknowledging that its actions can humanize warfare but noting that these actions are unlikely to encourage war. Outlines the limits of the organization’s involvement in the political aspects of a peace process, due to its universal, impartial character.

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