Toronto 1952, XVIIIth International Conference of the Red Cross: The German Red Cross and a changing humanitarian landscape in the early-Cold War

On July 25, 1952, representatives of the Red Cross movement gathered in Toronto, Canada for its recurring international conference. While the movement had gathered every two to five years to discuss the principles and work of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the League of Red Cross Societies (LRCS) since its founding in 1863, this meeting was only the second since the end of the Second World War. As the delegates gathered, the conference’s agenda was full. The Red Cross needed to reaffirm the 1949 conventions and their own principles of neutrality, equality, and universality. The delegates faced many tasks as European cities lay in ruins and the war on the Korean Peninsula crept towards nuclear disaster. But many worried it would be impossible to work through these challenges without also bringing the growing tensions around the world to the fore. Reports leading up to and during the conference noted the likelihood of this tension consuming the event’s proceedings. The conference’s first day of work immediately descended into strife among the major delegates, starting with what appeared to be a relatively simple task: voting on the admission of new Red Cross societies. One of the first items on the agenda for the executive committee, the application of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), stoked the animosities among the Western and Eastern delegates and further strained the already troubled relationship between the USSR and the ICRC. The debates that would ensue over the place of the Germanies, divided into two states after 1949, in the Red Cross movement reflected the changing nature of humanitarianism after 1945.

As the committee convened on the first day, admitting the German Red Cross (Deutsches Rotes Kreuz, DRK) seemed to be a priority. On February 21, 1951, West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer had formally recognized the German Red Cross as the sole Red Cross society in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). His letter came after six years of legal limbo for the Red Cross. While regional societies had been operating on German soil since July 1945, the DRK as a national society had been deemed a Nazi organization, formally dissolved and banned by the Allies at the end of the war. The day’s deliberations on the admission of a new German Red Cross came after half a decade of efforts to redefine the organization as committed to the principles of neutrality and universality, and purge its membership rolls of National Socialists. These efforts included completing a formal process of denazification through the Allied Powers’ questionnaires and the creation of regional societies in each occupying zone. The regionally organized societies worked closely with the ICRC, LRCS and various national societies such as the British and American Red Crosses to distribute aid, run blood banks, and create first aid services across the Western half of the state. The success of such German-led Red Cross work during the occupation period helped to create a close relationship with the Western occupying authorities who voted in 1949 to authorize the creation of a Red Cross at the national level.

As the committee’s discussions of the West German application began, a fight broke out among the American, Soviet, and Swiss delegates. The Soviet representative, Boris Mikhailovich Pashkov, argued that the DRK’s application for admission should be denied immediately. According to Pashkov, the last-minute addition of the German Red Cross’ application to the agenda did not prepare the committee to make a proper decision. He correctly noted that the German Red Cross, while formally recognized by the West German state, had not been recognized as the official Red Cross society of Germany by the ICRC in Geneva at the time of its application – a vital step for admission into the LRCS since 1919. The Committee had quickly recognized the society only a few weeks before the conference began. Despite Pashkov’s objections, however, the committee voted in favor of accepting the German Red Cross into the League. While the Soviets protested the admission of West Germany’s Red Cross society on trivial procedural grounds, their actions betrayed a hostility to the Red Cross movement and its perceived allegiance to the West. Throughout the war, the Soviet Union and the Swiss-led ICRC had a tense relationship that began to bubble over in the early-postwar years. As Gerald Steinacher argues, the defense of leading Nazis by members of the ICRC after 1945, including by its future president, Carl Burckhardt, deeply angered the Soviets who already suspected the Committee of being sympathetic to the western half of the Allied Powers. In 1945, in an attempt to rid the Soviet occupation zone of Germany of ‘bourgeois’ elements and so-called conspirators, the Soviet military administration banned the German Red Cross, only allowing its reconstitution in 1947 – two years after the Western zones. Angry over the continuing accusations, the Committee fired back with a report claiming that during the war the Soviet Union had been the first to deny the ICRC access to POW camps, not Nazi Germany. So, while the West DRK did receive its formal recognition before the conference had begun, its official acceptance into the broader Red Cross movement was decided by an American-led motion to unanimously reject the Soviet’s request.

Service pin of the German Red Cross in the German Democratic Republic. Original Title: “Auszeichnung des Deutschen Roten Kreuzes der DDR – fuer Verdienste.” Wikimedia Commons,ür_Verdienste.jpg

It was two years later, at another meeting of the Red Cross, that the Cold War’s infection of the Red Cross movement reached new levels. Meeting in Oslo, Norway on May 22, 1954, the executive committee denied the German Democratic Republic’s (GDR) application for membership of its Red Cross society. And it did so on the same grounds that the Soviet representatives had previously asked for a delayed vote on West Germany’s membership – because the GDR had yet to receive the endorsement of the ICRC, nor had they given the committee sufficient time to review the application. At both meetings, the Cold War story was playing out as the Americans and Soviets often brought their antagonisms to the negotiating table.

Underneath this tension, and the growing ideological divisions of the Cold War world, humanitarianism was being re-shaped. While the ICRC was fighting off Soviet accusations of being a bastion of Western bourgeois politics, humanitarianism was being defined anew. For the Western alliance, humanitarianism would aid the efforts to stop the spread of communism. In the Soviet sphere, humanitarianism was becoming linked to the desire to foster socialist solidarity for those countries struggling in the power vacuum left by the decolonization of Britain and France’s empires. As such, when West and East Germany’s memberships were given a forum for discussion, their applications were framed in the politics of the Cold War.

Also playing out at these conferences was another Cold War story that has not been well told – that of the division, reconstitution, and official acceptance of two German societies in the Red Cross movement. The application of the DRKs in the League reflected both East and West Germany’s re-entrance into the field of humanitarian aid after the war – an attempt to rejoin the world of so-called civilized states. For six years, the German Red Cross had worked in partnership with other Red Cross societies on German soil in an effort to administer aid to Germans, expellees from the East, and displaced persons. Only in 1953 had the West DRK embarked on its first international mission on the Korean Peninsula, supporting the military operations on the ground by running a hospital. For West Germany, the acceptance of the Red Cross and the unanimous support of the American delegates in the League reaffirmed the commitment of the West to the Federal Republic’s economic rehabilitation, eventual rearmament, and membership in NATO. Indeed, Otto Geßler, President of the DRK, even wrote in 1950 that the DRK’s reconstitution was a vital step in the effort to rebuild Germany’s civil defense structures and legal rearmament.

West German Red Cross Building in Friedrichsort. Original Title: “Friedrich-Boetcher-Heim vom Deutsches Rotes Kreuz am Brahmsweg in Friedrichsort.” Taken by Friedrich Magnussen, Stadtarchiv Kiel, KN, 28.05.1966, by means of Wikimedia Commons,öttcher-Heim_vom_Deutsches_Rotes_Kreuz_(DRK)_am_Brahmsweg_in_Friedrichsort_(Kiel_38.281).jpg

In the East, the quick rejection of the East German application was among other early signs of a complicated relationship between East Germany and the rest of the world. As West Germany’s influence within Western Europe grew, so did its desire to isolate the German Democratic Republic and make it appear an object of Soviet foreign policy. The admission and creation of an East German Red Cross was not dissimilar. After learning of the its creation, the Secretary General of the West DRK, Walter Hartmann, wrote to the ICRC asking how two organizations can bear the name “German Red Cross.” His use of phrasing like “the Red Cross society of the Soviet zone of occupation” and not the “German Democratic Republic” was a subtle reminder to the ICRC that there was, in the FRG’s view, only one German Red Cross. This letter, in addition to FRG actions under the Hallstein Doctrine, ensured the GDR’s assertion of its sovereignty would be limited. The German Red Cross in the GDR was eventually accepted after the ICRC recognized its constitution in the months following Oslo.

By 1954, one could interpret the fast rehabilitation of the German Red Cross(es) as a sign of German recovery on both sides of the iron curtain. The DRK in the GDR had by 1952 partnered with the Ministry of Health, attracting a membership of almost 500,000. The West DRK reached 600,000 members in the same period. Members were to be admitted in both organizations without regard to creed, class, or race; volunteers served without undue pressure; and, executive committees were to be elected democratically. These reforms stood in stark contrast to the close cooperation between German Red Cross doctors and nurses and the criminal Schutzstaffel (SS) on the Eastern Front only a decade earlier. Further, over the issues of refugee resettlement in Central Europe, the 1954 flooding of the Danube, and the return of POWs, the two Red Crosses worked closely together, finding common ground where they could. But the existence of two Red Crosses posed its own problems. The two societies continued to face accusations of insufficient denazification, racist medical care in Korea, and a renewed violation of its principles as the GDR organization struggled to remain impartial after the June 1953 uprising. The efforts to reconcile this division would continue to play out in the decades that followed.

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Short Biographical Note on Contributor

Ryan Heyden is a PhD-Candidate in the Department of History at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada. His dissertation explores the dissolution, reconstitution, and subsequent operations of the German Red Cross in divided Germany. He asks what role did the Nazi past, the Cold War, and German division play in how East and West Germans understood and practiced humanitarianism through the Red Cross. His research is funded by McMaster University, the Ontario Graduate Scholarship and the German Historical Institute, Washington DC. Ryan participated in the Global Humanitarianism Research Academy in 2018. He will also be a doctoral fellow in the Berlin Program for Advanced German European Studies at Freie Universität Berlin in October 2019.