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Henri Dunant (1828-1910) founder of the Red Cross

In 1859, a young idealistic businessman named Henri Dunant travelled through the northern Italian village Solferino. He was there because the French Emperor Napoleon III was there. Dunant wanted to get his support for a business project in Algeria, but at that time the emperor lead his army to support the Italian nationalists against the Austro-Hungarian forces. At the battle of Solferino, more than 30,000 soldiers died and thousands were wounded. For some reason (maybe it had something to do with the fact that he was brought up a Protestant and was early led toward piety and good works) Dunant felt obliged to join in the work of relief, also asking his friends in Switzerland for assistance. He set up primitive camps in churches, convents and tents, helping every soldier regardless of his nationality under the motto 'tutti fratelli' ('we are all brothers').

Dunant returned home eventually, but decided to write about his experiences to appeal against the inhumanity and to prevent or reduce the soldiers’ sufferings. When his book A memory of Solferino was published in 1862, it turned famous immediately. He ended the book with proposals that would eventually lead to the Red Cross movement, urging for medically trained volunteers and international co-operation.

(You) are arming humanity and serving the cause of freedom. I pay the highest tribute to your noble efforts
Victor Hugo writing to Dunant

The international Red Cross was founded in 1863 in Switzerland, stating that every wounded soldier from then on would have the right to treatment by Red Cross members, recognisable by a red cross on a white background: the so-called Geneva Convention. Although Dunant was all but an organisation man, as Founding Father he became secretary of the society that included representatives from fourteen European countries. After a while, the United States (through Clara Barton) also joined Dunant, having in mind the experiences of the American Civil War. The Red Cross symbol was worn for the first time during the Prussian-Danish War of 1864.

The success of the Red Cross had started, but strangely enough this was the end of the prosperous life of Dunant himself. He might have been the prophet of an important international committee, but by 1867 the full-time promotion of his ideas had made Dunant bankrupt. He mysteriously resigned from the Red Cross board and started a wandering life through Switzerland without a penny to spend. Eventually Dunant ended up with a new friend in a village called Heiden, where he worked in a hospital from 1892.

A Swiss research journalist of the newspaper Freitagszeitung discovered the quiet but enigmatic Dunant in Heiden in 1895 and was permitted an interview, which was broadly published. People started to send him money and letters of honour, but the best reward came in 1901 when Dunant was awarded the first Nobel Peace Prize, together with Frederic Passy, founder of the first French peace society, Société francaise pour l'arbitrage entre nations.

Aged 82, Henri Dunant died at Heiden on October 30, 1910 and was buried in Zürich. The anniversary of his birth, May 8, 1828 in Geneva, is now celebrated as World Red Cross Day.

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