Christ cross

The Man of the Red Cross by Corinne Chaponnière

TODAY, the Red Cross emphasizes secularism as much as neutrality – its iconic symbol explained as the inversion of the Swiss flag – sensitively replaced by the Red Crescent in the Islamic world. For its founder, Henry Dunant (1828-1910), however, religion was both the engine and the means of spreading his revolutionary humanitarian project.

Dunant’s accidental testimony to the horrific aftermath of the Battle of Solferino (1859) galvanized what was to become his life’s work. The spark, however, required tinder in the passion of his religious sensibility. It is telling that he continually used “sacred” to refer to the inviolable neutrality of medical personnel in conflict zones. Protestant aristocratic networks played a key role in promoting his vision internationally.

A child from Geneva, the adolescent Dunant was energized by a conversion experience under the combined influence of his young aunt Sophie and pastor François Gaussen – founder of the Evangelical Society – a pietist revival movement that broke away from the Protestant Church of Geneva established in 1830. Key themes in Dunant’s biography can be traced back to the complementary but distinct influences of these two early mentors.

The Society emphasized personal holiness, but was not quietist. Distinguishing her ethos from the established Church, Aunt Sophie explained to Henry (then “Henri”), “Some understand God with their minds, using scholarly texts written by theologians, while others would like to get closer to God through their own means: by reading the Bible, by prayer, by loving their neighbour, by working in the service of Christ at all times.

If Aunt Sophie sparked an intimate interest in the image of Christ-as-neighbor, Pastor Gaussen awakened an interest in the connection between faith and geopolitics and God’s purpose in history. Perhaps, while Aunt Sophie was the “godmother” of Dunant’s institutional Red Cross societies, Gaussend was the “godfather” of their twin: the first Geneva Convention (1864), which established the modern humanitarian framework of the laws of war — upon which all subsequent measures build.

alamyA statue of the founder of the Red Cross, Henry Dunant, in Geneva

Gaussand’s influence is evident in some of Dunant’s other later concerns, including the return of the Jews to Palestine and the fascination with biblical apocalyptics. The extent to which Gaussand’s theological emphasis on cosmic struggle translated into Dunant’s preoccupation with earthly warfare (and paranoid delusions regarding persecution by underground religious actors) is fascinating territory for speculation, though tragic.

After his 1864 triumph, Dunant was soon clouded by a humiliating disgrace through bankruptcy (1867), by spectacular misjudgments in business – and a lack of candor with his investors, which darkened his reputation for a long time. Even the awarding of the first Nobel Peace Prize (1901) could not erase his debts – estimated by Chaponnière at ten times the prize money. Like Oscar Schindler, Dunant presents a tragic paradox: the philanthropist unable to help himself.

Chaponnière’s text is engaging and offers much insight into Dunant’s complex subjectivity. However, his style is sometimes too familiar and talkative. She offers an intelligent discussion of Dunant’s spiritual animation in the book’s first and last chapters, but it largely disappears in between, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions. The alleged contrasts between the Evangelical Society and the “Swiss National Church” (sic) are regrettable: the Protestant Church of Switzerland (uniting the cantonal synods) was not founded until 1920—a decade after Dunant’s death.

Given these caveats, the book is both timely and significant. Engaging with Dunant’s memory has rarely been more urgent, given the context of events in Ukraine.

Reverend Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist based in Budapest.

Henry Dunant: The Man from the Red Cross
Corinne Chaponniere
Michelle Bailat-Jones, translator
Bloomsbury 20 €
Church Times Bookstore €18