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What’s to be Learned from the Founding of the Red Cross?

Geneva | Solferino, Italy

On this day in 1863, a loud roar suddenly spilled into the streets near the heart of the old town in Geneva, Switzerland. While local citizens paused and wondered about the cause of the noise, those inside stood and applauded the outcome of four days of intense meetings and the man whose ideas had brought them together. The attendees were dignitaries and delegates from across Europe, and their tribute was for a Swiss businessman named Jean Henri Dunant. His idea and the week’s meetings gave birth to an organization still recognized around the world, the International Committee of the Red Cross.


The spontaneous applause recognizing Dunant’s work was a fitting and harmonious conclusion to four days of fierce debates among attendees. Many commentators had started out as skeptics. The pioneering nurse, Florence Nightingale, had regarded Dunant’s views as absurd, “just such as would originate in a little state, like Geneva, which never can see war.” [1]

Reflecting this view, the British delegate initially dismissed the project as unnecessary, favoring better-organized national medical structures. The Spanish delegate, though, pointed out the “disproportion between the development of the means of protection and the means of destruction,” and expressed revulsion at the wounds caused by dum-dum bullets, projectiles designed to expand on impact and cause greater injury.

In the end, the mood swung in the project’s favor and delegates unanimously agreed to establish a voluntary organization that would care for those caught in the crosshairs of war. They signed a charter with ten articles establishing national relief societies to aid injured soldiers and recognize the neutrality of the uniformed medics and volunteers treating the wounded on the battlefield. They set in motion additional conferences to make the ideas legally binding, and they introduced the symbol of the red cross to distinguish aid workers, a symbol now universally recognized around the world. [2]

The International Committee of the Red Cross emerged as a private association working under Swiss law, and Geneva’s enduring spirit of international collaboration, humanitarianism and mercy was born. Although the ICRC’s core decision-making committee would grow to twenty-five, including women as well as men, its members would always be Swiss nationals. [3]

That autumn day represented the culmination of an idea that was years, perhaps even a lifetime, in the making. Raised in a religious, humanitarian, and civic-minded home in Geneva, Dunant was an unlikely envoy to bring the horrors of the bloodstained battlefield to the peaceful Swiss enclave. Yet the course of Dunant’s life was forever changed when he happened upon a war zone while on a business trip in what is now Italy.

At the time, Dunant owned a plot of arid land in the French colony near Mons, Algeria. Envisioning a thriving and prosperous community rising from the African desert,[4] he built a state-of-the-art mill funded by Genevan investors. Dunant had convinced them that with a little development, the area could become a breadbasket for Europe. [5]


But Dunant quickly found that his plot of land was too small and lacked the water to produce the returns expected by his restless investors. With his finances dwindling, he sought a bigger land concession from the French government. While he was promised more and better-irrigated land, the wheels of the French bureaucracy ground slowly. The land did not materialize, and Dunant was running out of time. [6]

After several failed attempts imploring colonial leaders for help, Dunant made a final gamble: he would travel to Europe for an audience with the French Emperor himself – Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. [7] Dunant packed his bags and set off for France. When he arrived, he encountered a new obstacle: Napoleon III was not in Paris, but in northern Italy with France’s armies helping the Italians unify their country by driving the Austrians out. The emperor had formed an alliance with King Victor Emmanuel of Piedmont-Sardinia to create strong allied kingdoms and weaken Austrian power, while hoping to gain a sliver of territory in the south of France.

Undeterred by the war, Dunant made his way to Napoleon III’s headquarters near the northern Italian town of Solferino. The French and Italians had successfully forced the Austrians back in successive victories and Dunant was hopeful that the triumphant Napoleon would be in generous spirits.

On June 24, 1859, the 31-year-old Dunant made the perilous carriage ride into Italy as 300,000 Austrian and Franco-Sardinia troops were set to collide along the Chiese River. At daybreak, thousands of weary troops, fueled by little more than coffee and a double ration of brandy, unleashed “a European catastrophe.”

The fighting raged for 15 hours under the sweltering summer sun. A reporter from the Times of London described the scene as “a vast anthill in motion – men become pigmies, as they doubtless are, in encounters of such magnitude.’ [8] At four o’clock that afternoon, a violent storm waged a final assault on the depleted troops with heavy rain, hail, thunder, and lightning.

When the clouds parted and dusk fell, it was apparent that the Austrians were defeated. [9] The groans of dying men rose from the dark plain “like the endless, sad creaking of a door.” [10] The warm night ebbed into dawn, and medical teams from opposing armies went to work in earnest. They were woefully ill-equipped for what lay before them – 6,000 dead and 30,000 wounded Austrian, French, and Italian soldiers stretched on the ground. [11] This was the aftermath of the Battle of Solferino, the bloodiest battle since Waterloo in 1815.”When the sun came up on the twenty-fifth,” Dunant later wrote, “it disclosed the most dreadful sights imaginable. Bodies of men and horses covered the battlefield; corpses were strewn over roads, ditches, ravines, thickets and fields; the approaches of Solferino were literally thick with dead.” [12]

Both sides were overwhelmed by the massive casualties. The French, by all accounts the best prepared, had four veterinarians for every thousand horses. For men, though, there was only one doctor for every thousand people. [13]

Finding his way through the carnage, a stunned Dunant would late write that he was “a mere tourist with no part whatever in this great conflict.” He was an odd sight in his elegant white suit, which would soon earn him the nickname “the man in white” among the soldiers and townspeople at Solferino. [14]

They were “tutti fratilli,” all brothers, now – a saying that would later become a slogan of the Red Cross movement.

Dunant quickly abandoned the original intent of his trip and for several days devoted himself to the care and treatment of the wounded. Supplies were disorganized and insufficient. There were no bandages or medicines available. Napoleon III ordered that all his handkerchiefs, sheets, and tablecloths be cut up and used for dressings, but most soldiers had to use their own filthy clothing instead. [15]

Churches and private houses became makeshift hospitals. At the Chiesa Maggiore in a nearby village, 500 men were packed into the church nave, while another 200 were laid out in front. A stream of blood ran down the steps of the church and continued to flow for days. [16]

Dunant quickly organized a group of local women to administer whatever aid they could for the soldiers. He instructed his team to care for all the wounded regardless of nationality – they were “tutti fratilli,” all brothers, now – a saying that would later become a slogan of the Red Cross movement. [17]

Dunant also penned a series of impassioned letters to his wealthy friends in Geneva begging for supplies. In one note to the Countess de Gasparin, which was published in the local newspaper, he wrote, “Every quarter of an hour for three days I have seen a human soul die in unspeakable agonies…. Forgive me, but I am weeping while I write. I must close as they are calling me…” [18]

For days, he worked in a state of fugue-like intensity. His Algerian enterprise now doomed, the carnage he witnessed in Solferino would dominate his mind for the next several years.


Back home in Geneva, he recorded his haunting experience in A Memory of Solferino, a book that vividly described the battle and the suffering of the wounded. Recognizing that an arms race was underway with “new and terrible methods of destruction,” Dunant pondered the possibility of creating relief societies to care for the wounded in wartime by “zealous, devoted and thor­oughly qualified volunteers.” [19]

A Memory of Solferino was published at Dunant’s expense in November 1862, each book bearing the words “Not for Sale.” The book created a buzz across the continent, with his ideas surfacing in sermons, speeches, and lectures. Praise came in from the rich, the famous, and the crowned heads of Europe. [20]

The book struck a nerve in part because the Battle of Solferino had taken place at a key juncture in the history of 19th century Europe. Military and civil technology had advanced more quickly than humanity’s ability to manage its implications.

As the historian Frederick C. Schneid later concluded, the Second War of Italian Unification was “one of the first ‘modern’ wars of the industrial age.” [21] It involved new weaponry such as rifled muskets and cannons that allowed troops to fire more rapidly and at longer range, mowing down soldiers who had advanced in neat, orderly columns. [22] Military attacks also benefited from the movement of larger armaments by rail and coordination through long-distance communications. Technology had outpaced tactics, and the common soldier took the brunt of the blow.

Technology had outpaced tactics, and the common soldier took the brunt of the blow.

Across Europe a consensus quickly emerged that these technological advances for warfare required new humanitarian and organizational innovations in response. In Geneva itself, Dunant’s book attracted the attention of some of the city’s most influential, including a young lawyer named Gustave Moynier, who visited Dunant on a cool day in November 1862 to find out what plans his fellow Genevan had for turning his ideas into reality. To Moynier’s astonishment, Dunant had no plans whatsoever. But where Dunant was a dreamer, Moynier was an organizer, and he put his practical mind towards the task of humanizing care for the wounded in war.

Moynier invited Dunant to Geneva’s Society for Public Welfare in February 1863 where Dunant introduced his ideas – volunteer nurses, improved transportation for the wounded, improved care at the hospital, and a permanent international committee that could work across borders. He also envisioned drawing up a covenant to be signed by all powers, laying out a basic code of conduct in wartime. The response was lukewarm. Many felt the concepts were unworkable or even naive. But enough support emerged to investigate the ideas further. [23]

Meanwhile, Dunant received a letter from a Dutch military doctor named H.C. Basting inviting him to Berlin to hash out some ideas to present to a conference in September 1863. The two men worked all night, and during their discussions they had an epiphany. They realized that military medical personnel – the first responders on the battlefield – were considered combatants, hindering their ability to treat the wounded. This status forced the medics serving soldiers to flee with retreating armies or risk being killed.

American Red Cross Pin

That evening, Dunant developed the idea of designating medical personnel as neutrals with a common emblem. This would enable the medics and civilian volunteers working with them to remain on the battlefield to treat the wounded. It would also lead to a new obligation for them to treat all troops that were injured, regardless of their nationality. It was an idea that would transform the ability to care for wounded soldiers when that care was needed the most. Dunant and Basting decided to present this idea at the conference the next day.

The next morning dawned bright and sunlit, and the two men hired an open cab to carry them to the meeting, organizing their papers on the way. As they drove across the River Spree, a gust of wind snatched their proposal and carried it over the bridge. The pair sprung from the cab, rushing toward the flying sheets of manuscript. Luck was with them when a homeless bystander snatched the documents mid-air, saving the men’s work and a cornerstone for the future Red Cross. Dunant and Basting’s ideas were well received, and the idea of medical neutrality now emerged as a pillar of the new movement.

Weeks of work ensued as Dunant traveled across the continent building support among governments for the formal conference in Geneva, and on October 26, the meetings began at Geneva’s Palais de l’Athénée.

Red Cross

While the conference easily approved most of Dunant’s proposal, the delegates initially balked at the concept of recognizing medical personnel as neutrals. Four of the five members of the Geneva Committee that had organized the conference were prepared nonetheless to declare victory and conclude the discussions without this addition.

But Dunant, the fifth member, was not satisfied. Basting took the floor to defend passionately the neutrality principle that he had supported in Berlin. To the surprise of many, the delegates from across Europe came around and decisively supported the idea, including it in the final agreement.

The last challenge surmounted, the conference concluded on October 29 with the delegates standing to applaud Dunant and the new initiative he had spearheaded. It was a high point not only for the personal journey Dunant had pursued, but for a personal life that was marked thereafter by a combination of triumph and tragedy. [24] The founding of the International Committee of the Red Cross now had the support of the continent’s major powers.

For more than 150 years, the Red Cross has strengthened its role as Good Samaritan and the centerpiece of international law, including the multiple Geneva Conventions. The path has not always been easy and the course has not always been steady. But the world has benefitted immeasurably from the Red Cross and its role.

As we look back at the events and issues that led to the creation of the Red Cross, there are some important parallels to our own day. As in the middle of the 19th century, a new generation of technology is changing warfare. In our own time, cyberweapons represent not just new military capability but an entirely new class of weapons. They’re being used with increasing frequency, impacting the military and civilians alike.


Just as the Battle of Solferino was a wake-up call to Europe in 1859, the WannaCry cyberattack this May provided a wake-up call to the world today.

Just as the Battle of Solferino was a wake-up call to Europe in 1859, the WannaCry cyberattack this May provided a wake-up call to the world today. As WannaCry unfolded, the global community bore witness to an attack launched by one country, North Korea, using cyberweapons stolen from another country, the United States. While the weapons seemed invisible, the attack itself had a physical and broad effect. This single assault impacted not only a single battlefield or country, but over 300,000 computers in over 150 countries.

In the history of warfare, has there ever been a single attack that impacted so many places simultaneously?

While one can qualify the WannaCry impact by suggesting that it damaged property more than people, that misses some important points. For example, WannaCry disrupted thousands of appointments and surgical operations at the National Health Service in the United Kingdom. A third of the NHS’ units were impacted, including 25 that manage hospitals and treatment centers. [25] As we look to a future where everything is connected, including every car on our highways, cyberattacks risk not just disrupting but endangering innocent people going about their everyday lives.

NHS Hospital Sign

The harsh reality of our day is that, as in the 19th century, the technology for attacking people has again outpaced humanity’s progress in managing its implications. And as in the mid-1800s, a fundamental question is what humanity will do about it.

Here too there are lessons to be applied from the founding of the Red Cross. In part, these point to the importance of the first responders who help those hurt by an attack. The first responders at Solferino were medics attached to the respective armies and civilian volunteers working with them. The first responders to WannaCry were companies in the technology sector.

It’s easy and accurate to suggest that tech companies have a myriad of interests that extend beyond taking care of those hurt by an attack. Yet the tech sector today not only has a role to play in managing and protecting the technology assets that have become the new targets of battle, but a responsibility to help those hurt after a cyberattack. As we’ve noted before, companies like Microsoft have the first responsibility to strengthen cybersecurity protection, a cause to which our 3,500 security engineers are devoted every day.

Command Center

One of the most important innovations of the 19th century was to treat medics and civilian volunteers as neutrals, which coupled a level of protection for them with the effective imposition of responsibility to treat the wounded regardless of nationality. It’s easy to understand why the idea was initially controversial. Among other things, it protected uniformed army medics even in the heat of battle.

Yet this seemingly audacious move provides precedent for the call earlier this year for the global technology sector to function as a “neutral, digital Switzerland” in protecting the cybersecurity of the world. The principle is straightforward: technology leaders should refrain from helping governments to attack customers anywhere. And through their product patches and other services, they should help protect and assist customers everywhere.

Like the medics and volunteers of the 19th century, technology companies today can be effective in assisting others only if other humanitarian steps are taken as well. Just as medics needed the help of a new organization such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, new organizational steps are needed to advance cybersecurity today. These will require both new organizational initiatives in the technology sector itself and assistance from other non-governmental groups.

Similarly, the protection of the wounded in the 19th century gave birth to a new field of international law, what has become known as international humanitarian law. This is reflected in important part in the various Geneva Conventions. The world needs to build on these and other existing instruments of international law to protect the civilians that increasingly are threatened by new cyberattacks by governments. Countries around the world already agree that existing international law can and should apply to cyberspace, but work is needed to build acceptance for the terms on what constitutes cyber aggression. The world also needs to identify the gaps in existing international law and fill them in with new steps, including a new “Digital Geneva Convention” that will protect civilians and civilian infrastructure.

World War II Red Cross painting by Haddon Sundblom

Like any analogy, the comparisons to the 19th century can be taken too far. But the parallels nonetheless are noteworthy. Amidst increasing threats from a new generation of technological weapons, the world needs inspiration for a global conversation about the steps needed to protect people from these new dangers. The founding of the Red Cross provides a good start.

Today in Technology is a series that highlights important technology developments from the past and discusses the insights they offer for the tech trends and issues of our own day.

[1] Caroline Moorehead, Dunant’s Dream: War, Switzerland, and the History of the Red Cross (London: Harper Collins, 1998), 30.

[2] Pierre Boissier, From Solferino to Tsushima: History of the International Committee of the Red Cross (Geneva: Henry Dunant Institute, 1985), 80-81.

[3] Gerald Steinacher, Humanitarians at War: The Red Cross in the Shadow of the Holocaust (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 10

[4] Boissier, From Solferino to Tsushima, 13.

[5] Carol Rothkopf, Jean Henri Dunant: Father of the Red Cross (New York: Watts, 1969), 29.

[6] Boissier, From Solferino to Tsushima, 13.

[7] Rothkopf, Jean Henri Dunant, 37.

[8] Quoted in Rothkopf, Jean Henri Dunant, 44.

[9] Boissier, From Solferino to Tsushima, 20.

[10] Ibid., 19.

[11] Moorehead, Dunant’s Dream: War, Switzerland, and the History of the Red Cross, 2.

[12] Henri Dunant, A Memory of Solferino (Washington, D.C.: American National Red Cross, 1939), 35.

[13] Moorehead, Dunant’s Dream: War, Switzerland, and the History of the Red Cross, 3.

[14] Dunant, A Memory of Solferino, 17.

[15] Boissier, From Solferino to Tsushima, 21.

[16] Ibid, 23.

[17] Moorehead, Dunant’s Dream., 4.

[18] Quoted in Rothkopf, Jean Henri Dunant, 56.

[19] Dunant, A Memory of Solferino, 85-86.

[20] Moorehead, Dunant’s Dream, 14.

[21] Frederick C. Schneid, “A Well-Coordinated Affair: Franco-Piedmontese War Planning in 1859,” Military History 76, 2 (2012): 395.

[22] David Gates, Warfare in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2001), 84.

[23] Moorehead, Dunant’s Dream., 16-17.

[24] The establishment of the Red Cross was the apex of Dunant’s life, but his fortunes rapidly changed. As his debts piled up, he fell into poverty and obscurity, shuttling between various European cities. Assumed dead, Dunant was rediscovered nearly 30 years later living in Appenzell, Switzerland. Recognizing Dunant’s place in history, the international community rehabilitated his reputation and in 1901 he was awarded the first Nobel Peace Prize.


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