International Committee Of The Red Cross

International Committee Of The Red Cross
(ICRC)
   The nonpartisan organization based in Switzerland was founded in 1863 as a private humanitarian organization. The essential responsibilities of the organization included the protection of wounded soldiers; monitoring the treatment of prisoners of war; providing prisoners of war with parcels such as food, clothes, and medicine; and gathering information concerning the fate of detained persons. The international community twice ratified conventions (1864, 1929) that recognized the ICRC’s right to intervene in matters that fell under its mandate. Germany was one of 50 nations that ratified the convention in Geneva in 1929.
   Following the organization of the Nazi concentration camp system in the mid-1930s, the ICRC visited the camps in Nazi Germany but relied on its German branch to monitor the treatment of the internees. As Nazi Germany moved from incarcerating Jews and others in the concentration camps to their deportation to the death camps, the victims looked to the ICRC for help. Despite its humanitarian mission, however, the response of the Red Cross to the Holocaust has become a controversial one. The position taken by the ICRC was to reaffirm its traditional mission of providing relief to persecuted groups without distinctions of race or creed. This meant that the ICRC would not make exceptions for Jews inasmuch as it did not regard their plight any differently than it did that of other victims of Nazi persecution. Although officials of the organization were aware of the deportations, they neither insisted on visiting nor were allowed to visit the death camps until the end of the war. This may be explained by their understanding that they lacked an internationally recognized basis for intervention.
   From the beginning of Nazi rule in Germany in 1933 until the end of the war in 1945, the Red Cross inspected two concentration camps, Buchenwald and Theresienstadt, where it was convinced that nothing extraordinary threatened the prisoners. In May 1944, Heinrich Himmler granted the ICRC permission to inspect the Theresienstadt camp and the so-called Familienlager (family camp) for Czech Jews at Auschwitz-Birkenau. In June 1944, an ICRC team consisting of representatives from Denmark, Sweden, and Germany visited the Theresienstadt camp, which Himmler had disguised not unlike a “Potemkin village” in order to impress the Red Cross delegation. The result was a 15-page ICRC report that was positive in its impressions of the camp, and the delegation concluded that there was no need for an inspection of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Less than three weeks later, the Familienlager was liquidated by the Germans.
   The ICRC, however, did engage in quiet diplomacy but never appealed to public opinion in regard to the Nazi atrocities. Remarkably, despite knowledge of the carnage directed toward Jews, the ICRC never singled out Jews in its correspondence. This may have resulted from its fear that too much insistence on the fate of the Jews would endanger the ICRC’s already limited relations with Nazi Germany. Jews, therefore, were placed in the general category of prisoners, deportees, and hostages whom the organization sought to protect in the same manner as military combatants. It is also possible that the silence of the ICRC was due to its fear that by publicly voicing its horror regarding the extermination of the Jews, it would compromise its ability to protect the millions of prisoners of war on the eastern front.
   The ICRC, however, was willing to take risks on behalf of Jews in those countries where it believed it could make a difference. For example, it was instrumental in organizing the emigration of Jews from Romania to Palestine in 1944. In this enterprise, the ICRC was aided by the Romanian Red Cross as well as the War Refugee Board, although it was careful not to violate the British White Paper of 1939, which limited immigration into Palestine. Perhaps its most successful achievement on behalf of the Jews was in Hungary. Working with Raoul Wallenberg and the Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz, the ICRC found shelter for thousands of Jews in Budapest. Toward the end of the war, in March 1945, the ICRC negotiated with the Schutzstaffel (SS) about permitting the organization to enter the concentration camps to monitor the processing of the internees. The Germans would permit the ICRC to inspect only Mauthausen and Theresienstadt, where only a few hundred victims survived. Thus, although its record was a mixed one in regard to its response to the Nazi genocide, perhaps the ICRC’s greatest failure was that it did not use its moral authority on behalf of the victims of the Holocaust.

Historical dictionary of the Holocaust. . 2014.

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