May 8 is International Red Cross Day in honor of the founder of the Red Cross, Henri Dunant (8 May 1828 – 30 October 1910.) Dunant’s story fascinates me. A fairly successful businessman, 31-year-old Henri Dunant witnessed the Battle of Solferino in which France and Sardina were fighting Austria.
Twenty-three thousand wounded, dying, and dead remained on the battlefield, and there appeared to be no attempt to provide care. Shocked, Dunant abandoned his business trip and organized the civilian population to provide assistance to the injured and sick soldiers, Dunant himself purchasing the supplies. He convinced the population to service the wounded without regard to their side in the conflict.
After returning to Geneva, Dunant wrote a book about his experiences, which he distributed to many leading political and military figures in Europe. Unfortunately, in 1863, he met Gustave Moynier and together with three other men formed the organization which would become the International Red Cross.
Unfortunate because Moynier opposed Dunant’s position of neutrality and after a protracted disagreement managed to wrest the leadership of the Red Cross from Dunant. For his part, Dunant’s businesses were failing due to his humanitarian work and his personal financial support of the work. He became bankrupt in 1867.
He moved to Paris, where in spite of his meager means, he continued to pursue his humanitarian ideas and plans. During the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), he founded the Common Relief Society (Allgemeine Fürsorgegesellschaft) and soon after the Common Alliance for Order and Civilization.
He lived in poverty, moving to various places between 1874 and 1886 when he went to the small Swiss village of Heiden. In 1887 he began to receive monthly financial support from some distant family members. He lived in Heiden the rest of his life.
In Heiden, he met people who recognized his accomplishments and the grave wrong that had been done to him. In 1895, Georg Baumberger, the chief editor of a German newspaper, wrote an article about the Red Cross founder, whom he had met during a walk in Heiden a month before. The article was soon reprinted in other publications throughout Europe.
In 1901 together with Frédéric Passy, Dunant was awarded the first-ever Nobel Peace Prize. Moynier and the Red Cross as a whole had also been nominated for the prize. Some argued that the Red Cross had made war more attractive and imaginable by eliminating some of its suffering.
Therefore, the prize was given to Passy, a pacifist and Dunant, a humanitarian which set a precedent for the conditions of the Nobel Peace Prize selection which in later years.