Extract of the Address by Dr Cornelio Sommaruga, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva to the Friends of the Magen David Adom in Great Britain Institute of Contemporary History and Wiener Library London, Chatham House 15 September 1997
“ (…) At this point of my speech, I have to break the flow of my words. Let me indeed come to what is of very direct and particular interest to this audience and very close to its heart. After I have described great suffering and related assistance and other aspects of ICRC’s activities, I now want to and have to describe greater suffering and a failure in protection and assistance. I am of course referring to the Shoah.
Like many countries and organisations, the ICRC has in recent years increasingly examined its role during the Second World War. You are certainly aware of the research of the historian Professor Jean-Claude Favez, published already 1987/1988 in French and German “Une mission impossible?” , that he carried out in our archives. As you may know we have now completely opened, without any restriction, our Second World War archives.
However for a humanitarian organisation, dedicated to the saving of human life, such a process of historical reflection is especially important and especially difficult. Important – because we must learn from past e rrors and omissions to ensure that they are never repeated. Difficult – because for those who strive to fulfil high ideals, any departure from those ideals, for whatever reason, is particularly painful.
The Shoah stands out, and will continue to stand out, as the most singular, the most dramatic tragedy to have struck mankind in recorded times. To you, as members of a Jewish community least of all need I describe the unspeakable horror which the crime of genocide brought onto an innocent people. There is no doubt that as it emerged from the harrowing ordeal of the Second World War, the society of Man could not look upon war and the essence of war -that is hate between communities of people- with the same eyes as before.
The ICRC, and myself as its current President, have often been criticised and even attacked for what was seen as our institution’s inefficiency, according to some, tacit complicity with prevailing powers, according to others, during those dreadful years. This criticism centres mostly on the ICRC’s silence at the time. Some believe that the ICRC knew more and before others of the terrible destiny inflicted on Jewish communities throughout Axis occupied territory. Yes the ICRC did know, or at least some of its Members knew, but so and at the same time, did the Governments of the Allied Forces and other concerned organisations.
It is true, the ICRC didn’t speak out as it saw persecution become extermination. I cannot judge now my predecessors of 1939-1945. Possible errors and omissions of the then ICRC leadership -that I have regretted- certainly also refer to this silence. Yet the ICRC could not act successfully against the mountains of evil for as long as they remained triumphant; some delegates tried and failed. Let me give you the example of Dr René Burkhardt, not to be confounded with the Vice-President and later shortly President of the ICRC, Carl J. Burckhardt, whose name is spelled diffe rently. René Burkhardt was stationed in Salonica, Greece, and did protest against the deportation of Greek Jews: the Nazis responded merely by demanding his recall to Geneva. Prior to his expulsion, Burkhardt had at least been able to provide food to the Jewish ghetto; his departure served no other purpose than those of the Nazis themselves.
One may ask whether the ICRC should have spoken out solely to preserve its image. My answer is no, and let me explain why: for the ICRC, then and now, the act of speaking out, if it is to accomplish anything must be done with one criterion in mind and one only: will it help the victims concerned? This is a very delicate and difficult question to answer: the present Executive Board of the ICRC is often debating on the opportunity of going public in today’s serious violations of humanitarian principles. We have to avoid -and I say it with humility- exaggerated beliefs in institutional powers and influence of the ICRC. I believe that one of the lessons that can and must be drawn from this, is that all victims of conflicts must know what they can expect from us and what they can’t. There is indeed probably nothing more terrible for a person made vulnerable by violence unleashed than dashed illusions which become dashed hope.
Speaking out however, even if it can’t alter the course of a policy methodically embarked upon by people devoid of human feelings, can be done to recognise the honour and courage of those who suffer. On this count, there can be no doubt whatsoever, the ICRC pays tribute to the eternal dignity of all those who survived or fell during the course of the National Socialist nightmare. And here dwells another important lesson: let us speak of the Holocaust, let us continue to proclaim “Never again” , let us recall that it was a failure of the Western civilisation as a whole and that the Red Cross was part of this civilisation!
Yet despite its regrettable shortcomings, the ICRC was able to carry out its conventional mandate of protecting prisoners of war. More than 7 Millions of persons in captivity, mainly British, Americans, French, Germans, Italians, were visited all over the world and received regularly relief consignments. The Central Agency for Prisoners of war of the ICRC, that cooperated intensively with the British Red Cross all over the Empire, had 1.811.000 name cards of British subjects for the period 1939-1947. Statistics of that time do show that British Prisoners of war did receive 153 Millions kg of consignments (mainly foodstuffs, clothing, tobacco, medicaments and toilet articles).
ICRC delegates were also able to save thousands of Jewish lives. Out of respect for those Red Cross delegates active at the time, I believe honour and recognition is owed to delegates like Friedrich Born in Budapest, whose tree of memory grows in the soil of pain at the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. He had saved ten thousands of Jews, probably more than Wallenberg did. In Germany itself, early 1945, at Mauthausen -where the delegate Louis Haefliger did wonders- or at the doors or Ravensbrück, once the change of direction in the winds of war had provoked hesitations within Nazi ranks, ICRC delegates were able to perform a lot. And so, if the role of the ICRC during the Shoah is to be judged and its failures fairly weighed, then it must also be remembered that the appearance of its delegates at the ” gates of Hell ” in the spring of 1945 was likened to that of ” angels from God ” by many inmates. At the close of the war, the ICRC was able to exploit narrow windows of opportunity, but the emergence of such opportunities were determined by the actions and decisions of others. It is not different today: the ICRC has the will to act but cannot act without the will of others.
When I attended the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camps, I publicly regretted errors and omissions of the ICRC in relation to the Holocaust. But I also said that if the ICRC and the world as a whole will have learned from their errors and failures, then the victims will not have suffered or died in vain. And surely one of the most fundamental lessons to be drawn from this bitter past is the need for humanitarian law to exist and be applied and respected. It sounds obvious but just sixty years ago, this need was not fully understood. After the First World War, and a first planetary shedding of blood, the ICRC proposed to States laws that would have ensured the protection of civilian populations at times of conflict. This first initiative failed.
Later, as dark clouds gathered over Europe and the Far-East, the ICRC proposed, in 1934, a similar venture, known as the ” Tokyo project ” . This initiative also failed.
The failure of this legal project was a symptom of a lack of compassion and humanity in international affairs – something only too clearly demonstrated during the war itself. The world emerged traumatised from this tragedy, finally prepared to recognise the need to protect all human beings at all times. The development of international human rights law was one phoenix to emerge from the ashes of this trauma. The acceptance of our proposals for developing international humanitarian law – the Geneva Conventions – was another. The Jewish people, and all those persecuted by the Nazis -I repeat it-, paid a bitter and extreme price for these belated gifts to the world. Emerging from this tragedy, they have since played a distinguished role in developing these bodies of law and the promotion of tolerance and respect for the individual at both the national and international levels.
Let me stress it again, we cannot, must not, permit a repeat of the tragedies of the Holocaust. Yet tragedies perceived in the same spirit of hatred were committed in Cambodia and more recently in Rwanda, the Great Lakes’Region of Africa and the former Yugoslavia. The ICRC has sought to learn from the lessons of the past. It has been and is still active in these regions – even at the cost of the lives of its delegates. It has also spoken out frequently and energetically. It has sought to favor that those guilty of the barbarities of war crimes are brought to justice. Today we have the first international war crimes trials since Nuremberg taking place in the Netherlands and Tanzania and look forward to a permanent international criminal court.
The legacy of the Holocaust is still with us. The ICRC operated International Tracing Service located in Arolsen, Germany, every year handles hundreds of thousands of requests for information from survivors of the Holocaust or their descendants. Last year, Arolsen received such requests essentially from Eastern Europe. Needless to say that the ICRC will continue to provide this important humanitarian service for as long as there is a need.