The ICRC and Switzerland 1919-1939: a “special relationship” examined

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Thomas Brückner

Switzerland is uniquely positioned as host of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Swiss neutrality, Swiss humanitarian policy, and the Swiss flag are often associated with the Red Cross. As a result, a special relationship has developed between the country and the international humanitarian organization. My book, Hilfe schenken. Die Beziehung zwischen dem Internationalen Komitee vom Roten Kreuz und der Schweiz (NZZ Libro 2017), critically explores this relationship during the period between the two World Wars (1919-1939) using sources from the ICRC archives, the Federal Archives of Switzerland, and a wide range of publications and private archives in Switzerland.

At first sight, the interwar years were a calm period for the special relationship. Looking closer, however, exposes how the relationship between the ICRC and Switzerland changed and strengthened during this time, foreshadowing criticisms during Second World War that the axis between Bern and Geneva had become too close to guarantee truly neutral and independent humanitarian aid.Looking at ICRC missions in the field, for example, I found that the ICRC did not collaborate with Switzerland during the interwar years nearly as much as it had done during the First World War.[1] This also held true for the refugee crisis after the First World War, and for several conflicts during the 1930s.

However, Swiss foreign policy started relying more and more on its relationship with the ICRC. It was important for government officials to position Geneva and the ICRC as pillars of its neutrality and humanitarian policy in order to promote Geneva as the headquarters of the League of Nations.

There was also competition about competencies and patronage when it came to developing international humanitarian law. Switzerland showed a great interest and provided resources to the ICRC. Members of the ICRC were in close collaboration with Swiss officials to prepare a convention for the protection of prisoners of war and the revision of the Geneva Convention. In 1929, a conference held in Geneva completed this work and 33 states signed the conventions. The Swiss and the ICRC positions were strengthened in the texts.

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