How the International Red Cross failed the Jews
How the International Red Cross failed the Jews

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has a startling and consistent history of anti-Semitism, despite its founding and reputation as an “independent, neutral organization.”  Although mandated to eschew taking sides in international and internal armed conflicts and to protect victims of those conflicts —  including wounded soldiers, prisoners of war, refugees and civilians — ICRC anti-Semitism emerged prior to World War II, broadened to encompass anti-Israelism after creation of the Jewish state and has continued ever since.  

  • In the 1940s, it failed to intercede on behalf of Jewish Holocaust victims and was complicit with the Vatican’s protection of Nazi war criminals and collaborators. 
  • Its modern-day expression of anti-Jewish sentiment was manifested in an initial refusal to accept the symbol of Israel’s own emergency aid organization, the Magen David Adom, while welcoming the Red Crescent of Muslim countries. 
  • It provided solicitous aid to Arab-Palestinian terrorists whose homes were destroyed by the Israel Defense Forces in reprisal for and to prevent deadly attacks against Israel. 
  • The ICRC also supported and glorified terrorism in a tree-planting ceremony honoring imprisoned Islamic terrorists who were guilty of murdering Jews. 
  • It has unfairly singled out Israel as an “illegal occupier” and has falsely labeled Israel guilty of an apocryphal “Jenin massacre.”  In addition to these actions, the ICRC has failed to condemn Hamas’ use of human shields and has not recognized Israel’s right to self-defense.  Instead,
  • it has demonstrated a complete lack of sensitivity for the plight of Israeli civilians as perennial victims of rocket attacks and suicide bombings. 
  • Remarkably, the ICRC — arbiters of the humanitarian standards of war by dint of their stewardship of the Geneva Conventions — recently instituted new policies prohibiting return fire upon civilian-inhabited areas.  In effect, it empowered terrorists to fight worry-free amongst the general population.

Given this recent history, the organization’s reputation as a purveyor of “neutral humanitarianism” rings hollow.

In his latest book, Humanitarians at War: The Red Cross in the Shadow of the Holocaust (Oxford University Press, 2017), Gerald Steinacher examines how the ICRC failed to uphold its ideal of neutral humanitarian during World War II and after and instead pursued anti-Semitism. 

Steinacher explores the institution as an organization determined to relieve suffering on the battlefield and “humanize war” with basic care and medical services for wounded soldiers on through to its post-WW II expansion of the Geneva Conventions.  In this highly readable account, chock-full of interesting facts and trenchant insights, he portrays an organization with political, religious and ideological “neutrality” as a core philosophy that assumed the role of an impartial, independent trailblazer amongst the budding humanitarian movements of the day.

Steinacher explores the validity of this founding premise in light of the ICRC’s checkered history, the competitive environment that existed amidst Red Cross branches for lead agency status and the impact of the ideological leanings of its politically ambitious administration. 

The alleged “neutral” organization failed to divulge Nazi plans to systematically murder European Jews known to them as early as 1941. According to Steinacher, ICRC officials even visited a Nazi death camp with full knowledge of an ongoing genocide and issued a mere “mild critique.”
The Red Cross, based in Geneva and largely funded by the Swiss government, aligned with Swiss World War II allegiances and government policies of the time. According to Steinacher’s research, despite an avowed stance of neutrality, the Swiss government failed to condemn Nazi persecution of civilians and demonstrated an unwillingness to assist Jewish refugees. 

As early as 1942, Swiss officials knew that Jews were being exterminated in Nazi death camps, but they instituted a strict visa policy which included a special “J-stamp” for Jews seeking asylum.  Instead, the Swiss government required the Swiss Jewish community to fund assistance to Jewish refugees. 

Swiss “neutrality” was further compromised by participation in a military medical mission supporting the German war effort against the Soviets and by economic cooperation with Hitler’s regime, including provision of raw materials and supplies for German weaponry. 

Steinacher further reveals that the Swiss failed to assist Allied troops,  that 700 Swiss citizen volunteers fought for the Waffen-SS and that Swiss art dealers eagerly traded in art works stolen by the Nazis from Jews.

In 1945, when Allied victory loomed, the Swiss expeditiously cooled their relationship with the Nazis and began denying entry at the border to Nazi soldiers and government officials.

Steinacher portrays the ICRC leadership as similarly plagued by anti-Semitism and favorably disposed to Germany and Italy. ICRC leaders were notably more concerned with communism than Nazism and were determined to follow the Swiss government’s lead and cautiously avoid any direct criticism of and confrontation with the Nazis. The alleged “neutral” organization failed to divulge Nazi plans to systematically murder European Jews known to them as early as 1941. According to Steinacher, ICRC officials even visited a Nazi death camp with full knowledge of an ongoing genocide and issued a mere “mild critique.”  Despite letters of desperation from Jewish prisoners as early as 1933, an inspection tour of Dachau and the laying out of the “final solution” at the 1942 Wannsee Conference, Red Cross leadership did nothing to intervene in the mass extermination of Jews.  

The author writes that the ICRC attempted to excuse their inaction by claiming that cooperation with the German Red Cross, whose medical personnel had sworn an oath of loyalty to Hitler, was necessary so as not to jeopardize their work on behalf of POWs. Furthermore, they incredulously subscribed to the belief that Germans were forced to go along with Hitler and that very few were responsible for wartime atrocities.

After the war, the ICRC focused on protecting German POWs in Allied custody, helping former prisoners trace missing family members and providing civilian relief and assistance to war-torn regions. They did work with other aid organizations to provide survivors with food parcels financed by Jewish money. 

Steinacher depicts the ICRC as reluctant to assist Jewish survivors and highly sympathetic to the plight of German expellees facing Allied powers wrath. The organization went so far as to assist Germans and Eastern Europeans ineligible for existing refugee programs due to their wartime activities.  They even provided substitute travel documents, or “titres de voyage,” of their own creation.  These were easily obtained sans screening procedures and required only vague non-standard guidelines for anyone wishing to immigrate overseas.  Further, despite no U.S. government recognition of these documents, they were accepted by Vatican delegates, some of whom were Nazi supporters.

In 1947, this travesty was revealed in a U.S. State Department report, cited by Steinbacher, that exposed how the international Red Cross and the Vatican conspired to aid thousands of Nazi war criminals and collaborators, including German SS officers Adolf Eichmann, a major Holocaust organizer, and Josef Mengele, who performed human experiments on  Auschwitz concentration camp prisoners.  The ICRC and the Vatican provided false identities and papers, enabling thousands to stealthily leave Europe and evade justice. 

The Nuremberg trials exposed the depth to which the ICRC and the Swiss government turned a blind eye to German atrocities, making their “humanitarian neutrality” a fiction.   Unfathomably, ICRC officials viewed Germans as war victims and even criticized “undue Jewish influence” manifested in what they viewed as the “vengeance” of the Nuremberg trials.  Appallingly, ICRC leader, Carl Jacob Burckhardt, a Swiss diplomat and historian, opposed the Nuremberg trials, which he disparagingly referred to as “Jewish revenge” masquerading as justice. He was outraged that Jews played a role in denazification and the prosecution of Nazi war criminals and believed that a plot existed to ethnically cleanse 20 million Germans from their homeland. 

Following the trials, an Italian newspaper revealed that the Vatican and the ICRC were complicit in a joint effort to host 40 Nazi criminals and provide them with travel documents.  Since the American Red Cross enforced a strict policy of not admitting Nazis or Nazi conspirators, a great deal of friction existed with the ICRC, which not only assisted ethnic Germans, but also fought against repatriation efforts for many who falsely claimed they had been forced to fight for the Nazis in order to obtain post-war aid and protection.

A few years after the war’s end, as the State Department focused on other matters deemed more urgent — “illegal Jewish emigration,” reforming the Geneva Conventions with  Soviet concurrence, the exigencies of the Cold War — priorities changed.  The ICRC began rehabilitating its tainted reputation and reestablishing its legitimacy before the world, especially the Russians.  The future of the disgraced ICRC as a humanitarian organization and the governing body’s continued existence was perilously threatened. The organization’s reputation was severely damaged by its failure to speak out against the Holocaust, its allegiance and complicity with the Nazis, its limited aid to civilians, and its lack of commitment to significantly assist Soviet POWS. 

The Red Cross headquarters risked being supplanted by its arch competitor, the Swedish Red Cross, viewed as exemplary for its efforts rescuing Jews and assisting concentration camp survivors. Hubristically, the ICRC resented being overshadowed by the Swedish agency’s accomplishments and disparaged what they viewed as impossible demands by the U.S. and Jewish organizations, even characterizing Jews as ungrateful. Tensions existed among other Red Cross chapters, which resented the ICRC’s privileged position to recognize new national societies, its guardianship of the Geneva Conventions and the requirement that chapters fund the Geneva central office.  Following its signing of the revised 1949 Geneva Conventions and despite its failings during the Holocaust and after World War II, the ICRC managed to hold on to its position at the helm of the Red Cross and maintain its status as a so-called “neutral humanitarian” organization. 

In Humanitarians at War, Steinbacher effectively examines ICRC activities and policies from  before World War II and afterward. He exposes the agency’s shameful wartime record and its indifference to the persecution and murder of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe as it hid behind a facade of neutrality. 

However, the book falls short as Steinacher too charitably steps away from a full, searing indictment of the organization. He cites the ICRC’s 1990s apologia for allowing Nazi leaders to escape and its alleged regrets to Holocaust victims, calling them a laudatory attempt to “face its moral failings during the war.”  He commends the organization’s efforts to rectify past mistakes and extolls its formidable achievements in expanding and reforming the Geneva Conventions, improving POW policies, and safeguarding civilians and war victims.  Steinacher concludes that even with the best of intentions for neutrality, humanitarian organization efforts  are ineluctably clouded by political considerations and the exigencies of the day. 

But, ultimately, the words of Nobel Laureate, prolific author and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, best speak to the ICRC’s WWII record, “When human dignity is at stake, neutrality is a sin, not a virtue.”