Gerald Steinacher. Humanitarians at War: The Red Cross in the Shadow of the Holocaust. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. 352 pp. $32.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-870493-5.
Reviewed by Kimberly A. Lowe (Lesley University)
Published on H-Diplo (October, 2017)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach
Humanitarians at War: The Red Cross in the Shadow of the Holocaust examines the history of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) from 1939 to 1950. Gerald Steinacher’s last monograph, Nazis on the Run: How Hitler’s Henchmen Fled Justice (2012) focused on the ways in which postwar institutions facilitated the escape of Holocaust perpetrators from Europe. As Steinacher states in his introduction, this latest book grew out of his previous research on the ICRC’s role in enabling Nazis to leave the continent. Over the last decade, scholars working on the history of humanitarian organizations have sought to move away from narratives of moral progress or failure. By embedding the ICRC’s policies within the wider history of early Cold War foreign relations, Humanitarians at War moves beyond a history of one organization and towards a complex narrative examining the possibilities and limitations for nonstate actors to influence the major power brokers in international relations, sovereign states. Steinacher expands our perspective on the ICRC’s actions in postwar Europe by drawing from an impressive array of archives in Switzerland, Sweden, Israel, and the United States. This wide archival range allows him to illustrate the complex interplay among American policymakers, UN agencies, neutral governments, and the ICRC over the principles and practice of humanitarian aid. The result is a book that draws from and contributes to the literature on the response from neutral states and private organizations to Jewish victims of the Holocaust, the development of humanitarian organizations, and the evolution of international humanitarian law. However, Steinacher’s analysis is also marred by inaccurate descriptions of the ICRC’s legal and historical role and an incomplete investigation of the motivations behind the International Committee’s decisions.
Gerald Steinacher sets himself the task of showing how the ICRC responded to postwar criticism of its leadership in the Red Cross movement. At stake was more than the existence of a single organization, for “the crisis of the ICRC was also a crisis of humanitarianism. It was a crisis of nineteenth-century humanitarian ideas” (p. 3). After a summary of the history of the Red Cross from its beginnings in 1863 to 1939, Steinacher describes the ICRC’s failure to act boldly on behalf of Jewish victims during the Second World War. These events have been characterized as the ICRC’s greatest failure by both previous scholars and the organization itself. Immediately after the war, Jewish organizations, Allied governments, and neutral Sweden questioned the ICRC’s moral authority, despite its admirable work on behalf of prisoners of war. The Swedish Red Cross sought to wrest leadership of the movement away from the all-Swiss International Committee, while the ICRC’s postwar aid and travel assistance to German refugees only served to further criticisms of the organization. Only the substantial and successful revision of the Geneva Convention in 1949 solved this crisis. Steinacher argues that this revision was “vital, not just for the ICRC’s survival, but for the future of humanitarianism as well” (p. 4). It allowed the ICRC’s leaders to “show the world that it remained a relevant, innovative and active force in shaping international law and humanitarianism” (p. 240).
The chapters on postwar refugee relief, which are the most original and well researched of the book, allow the reader to assess the ICRC’s activities in the context of concurrent work by UN agencies and the evolving postwar priorities of the US State Department. Ethnic Germans (Volkdeutsche), expelled from their homes in Eastern Europe and without valid passports, were not eligible for aid or travel assistance from the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), or its successor, the International Refugee Organization (IRO). The Allies created this policy to ensure that relief efforts reached only victims of Nazi aggression, not perpetrators of war crimes. It extended to anyone of German ethnicity, including women, children, and the elderly. The ICRC, by contrast, allowed any stateless person to receive assistance, without effective vetting procedures. This included certificates of identity, or titres de voyage, issued by ICRC delegates to facilitate emigration out of Europe. The ICRC policy was officially one of impartial assistance to all refugees, but in practice it meant that its aid and travel assistance focused on ethnic German expellees. Its unwillingness, or inability, to verify the identities of individuals receiving titres de voyage resulted in aid to Nazi war criminals posing as stateless ethnic Germans. The fact that the ICRC was helping Nazi officials to escape trial provoked an outcry, especially from the Soviet Union. These chapters develop a thought-provoking clash between the Allied policies of justice, which applied a form of “collective guilt” to all German citizens and ethnic Germans, and the ICRC’s vision of neutral humanitarianism, or “humanity without limits,” which made no distinction between victims and perpetrators (p. 158). Scholars working on the history of humanitarian organizations have more often focused on the clash between justice and neutrality in regards to the creation of Médecins Sans Frontières and the rise of human rights-based humanitarianism in the 1970s. It is therefore interesting to note the seeds of this clash in the immediate postwar years.
Steinacher’s stated argument emphasizes that the ICRC proved its relevance through the humanitarian innovations of 1949, but to this reader his evidence indicates that American foreign policy, not battles over principles, ultimately determined whether the ICRC had a place in the postwar world. It was not the ICRC’s own actions but the United States’ interest in protecting its soldiers that ultimately saved the ICRC’s reputation. American criticism of the organization began in 1944, when the newly created American War Refugee Board requested that neutral nations work to save Hungarian Jews from deportation. The efforts of the ICRC’s delegate Friedrich Born and Swiss vice-consul Carl Lutz appeared hesitant and tepid in comparison to the heroic efforts of Sweden’s special envoy in Budapest, Raoul Wallenberg. The ICRC’s postwar refugee assistance programs, which undermined denazification efforts, only served to increase its alienation from the Allies. Yet, by 1947 the US State Department was less concerned about punishing Nazi war criminals and more concerned about the growing threat of a confrontation with the Soviet Union. Anxious about the possibility of their own POWs being treated as criminals during a confrontation between East and West, American officials wanted to ensure that the Soviet Union became a signatory to a revised Geneva Convention that preserved the protections for POWs granted by neutral humanitarianism. The State Department deemed the ICRC to be the most competent body to shepherd this revision. Consequently, although American officials were aware of the scandal surrounding the titres de voyage, they kept news about the ICRC’s aid to Nazis quiet, and advocated on behalf of the ICRC to other Western powers. The Swedish-led effort to wrest control of the Red Cross never gained support from the rest of the movement, and by 1948 it had failed. Despite the objections of Soviet delegates, the Geneva Conventions of 1949 specified that POWs retained their rights and status, even if tried and convicted by the captor power of war crimes. Read in this way, Humanitarians at War is not a story of the ICRC’s innovation but of the enduring influence of states’ reciprocal interest as a driving force shaping the laws of war.
Unfortunately for a book assessing the Red Cross, Humanitarians at War inaccurately describes the ICRC’s legal and historical role vis-á-vis sovereign states and international law. Throughout the book, Steinacher fails to clarify that the Geneva Conventions, like all laws of war, were created by and for sovereign states, who jealously guarded their rights against the interference of a private organization. For example, Steinacher writes, “The ICRC was to supervise the application of the Geneva Convention of 1929 by visiting the wounded, sick and imprisoned soldiers” (p. 21). In fact, the convention gave the role of monitoring compliance to neutral states designated as Protecting Powers. He makes a similar error when discussing the 1949 revision, writing, “The British objected to the ICRC’s leadership in revising the conventions,” but “under pressure from their American allies, the British eventually gave in” (p. 227). In 1949 the ICRC was granted a role as nonvoting experts, but there was never any question of the International Committee leading the conference. This right was reserved for the designated state Depository Power, which had been Switzerland since 1864. When describing the ICRC’s view of intervention on behalf of political prisoners in the Soviet Union, Italy, Austria, and Germany, Steinacher notes that their intervention was limited by the need for the countries’ national Red Cross societies to cooperate, but never mentions that the governments themselves were vehemently opposed to the ICRC’s assertion of a “right and obligation to intervene on behalf of internees” (p. 22). In general, the Red Cross’ long-standing subservience to national governments, a persistent characteristic of the movement well documented by scholars such as John Hutchinson in Champions of Charity: War and the Rise of the Red Cross (1996), is missing from Steinacher’s account. He presents the ICRC’s deference to the Swiss Federal Council and other governments as a wartime corruption of humanitarian ideals, when in fact the ICRC had always relied on the cooperation—and permission—of governments to accomplish both its legally recognized and extralegal activities. This fact is crucial to understanding the meaning of nineteenth-century humanitarian ideas, and to assessing the ICRC’s will to act before, during, and after the war.
Steinacher also provides an incomplete and ambiguous analysis of the motivations behind ICRC policy. Although he does not claim that antisemitism alone explains the ICRC’s indifference to Jewish victims, he details at length the personal antisemitism of Carl J. Burckhardt, the ICRC’s vice president during the war and president from 1945 to 1948. Drawing from Paul Stauffer’s biographies and Burckhardt’s personal papers at the Universitätsbibliothek in Basel, Switzerland, Steinacher convincingly demonstrates that Burckhardt believed that Germany was a necessary ally in the fight against both communism and Jews. Burckhardt cultivated close ties with Nazi officials before and during the war. In 1942, he did not share his knowledge that the mass deportations of Jewish civilians constituted a policy of extermination, information that might have swayed the committee’s crucial decision to not issue a public protest. After the war, he agreed to publicly testify on behalf of Nazi war criminals, in violation of the ICRC’s tradition of discretion. Finally, he supported the expansion of aid to German expellees, whom he saw as victims of Jewish “revenge” (p. 146).
Steinacher justifies his focus on Burckhardt by arguing that the leadership of the International Committee provides insight into its decision making. However, there were alternative perspectives within the small organization that are never satisfactorily explored. In 1942, for example, the “four women on the twenty-three-person committee were particularly vocal in their support for action” (p. 44). When confronted with evidence that Nazi officials had gained titres de voyages from ICRC delegates in Genoa and Rome, “some Committee members seemed genuinely very committed to turning the corner on these abuses” (p. 204). These statements provide tantalizing hints that indifference to Jewish suffering was not the only factor determining the ICRC’s caution during the war and refugee policy after the war. In addition, Humanitarians at War states that antisemitism alone cannot sufficiently explain Burckhardt’s indifference to the fate of Europe’s Jews, and that Burckhardt himself was a maverick who never embraced the principles of apolitical humanitarianism championed by ICRC presidents Max Huber and Paul Ruegger (pp. 30, 125). Nonetheless, it is Burckhardt’s anticommunist and antisemitic attitudes that are emphasized throughout the text.
Steinacher’s emphasis on antisemitism as a motivation for ICRC policy is particularly striking because it diverges significantly from other major works on the topic, specifically Jean-Claude Favez’sThe Red Cross and the Holocaust (1999) and Arieh Ben-Tov’sThe International Committee of the Red Cross and the Jews in Hungary, 1943-1945 (1988). They conclude that the International Committee could have done more—both privately and publicly—to protect Jewish victims, but do not cite antisemitism as a major factor influencing its decisions. Favez explicitly denies that antisemitism or personal sympathy for fascism played a role in determining the ICRC’s cautious response. Given Steinacher’s divergence from other scholars on the topic, careful attention to the multiple perspectives represented by members of the International Committee becomes even more important. Instead, Humanitarians at War blurs the line between the personal beliefs of Burckhardt and the institutional policies of the ICRC. Steinacher never clarifies the role of antisemitism in influencing the International Committee’s decisions. By the end of the book, it remains unclear whether ICRC policy after World War II was dictated by an absence of neutrality (i.e., fascist and antisemitic sympathies); an excess of neutrality (the unwillingness to agree that genocide creates a moral imperative to look beyond mere suffering and distinguish between victims and perpetrators); or naiveté and incompetence (the inability to discipline delegates in Italy who did not comply with ICRC procedures). Consequently, the thought-provoking questions surrounding the Allied vision of justice and the ICRC vision of neutral humanitarianism are often overshadowed by equivocal insinuations of antisemitism.
In conclusion, Steinacher’s argument would benefit from a more accurate framing of the ICRC’s prewar history and status under international law, as well as a clear statement about the role of antisemitism in the ICRC’s postwar decisions. On the whole, however, Humanitarians at War presents a compelling picture of how the policy of sovereign states and those of a private organization exerted a reciprocal influence on life-and-death decisions about humanitarian aid provision and international law.
. Cornelio Sommaruga, the ICRC president from 1987 to 1999, was the first to publically recognize that the organization’s failure to speak out against the Nazi extermination of European Jewry was a moral failure. Confronting this history has since become a regular feature of the organization’s work. See “Commemorating the Liberation of Auschwitz,” ICRC statement, January 27, 2005, https://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/statement/68zeb2.htm (accessed 15 August 2017); and “Remembering the Shoah: The ICRC and the international community’s efforts in responding to genocide,” speech by ICRC president Peter Maurer, April 28, 2015, https://www.icrc.org/en/document/remembering-shoah-icrc-and-international-communitys-efforts-responding-genocide-and (accessed August 15, 2017).
. See, among others, Eleanor Davey, Idealism beyond Borders: The French Revolutionary Left and the Rise of Humanitarianism, 1954-1988 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
. In comparison to the “discreet antisemitism of many senior British civil servants,” Favez argues that ICRC delegates showed a “remarkable degree of sensitivity to the massacres,” combined with despair over their own powerlessness. Jean-Claude Favez, The Red Cross and the Holocaust (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 276. See also 21.
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