International Committee of the Red Cross

Nobel Lecture

Nobel Lecture*, December 11, 1945

The Activity of the International Committee of the Red Cross during the War, 1939-1945

Not long ago, the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Madame Sigrid Undset. In one of her works which she entitled The Wreath, Madame Undset1 spoke of the “savage paths” which her heroes had to tread.

Ever since 1864, it has been the object of the International Committee of the Red Cross to brave such “savage paths”, paths lined by hedges often covered with blood and barred by obstacles which seem at first sight to be insurmountable. On September 22, 1865, the Committee was happy to receive collaboration in its ventures from the Norwegian National Red Cross. Four months earlier, on May 24, 1865, it had approved the founding of the Swedish Red Cross.

Before so many distinguished, well-informed persons, there is no need for me to recall the many activities of the Red Cross2, nor even, more particularly, those of the International Committee. In every war which has occurred since the great humanitarian flag was first unfurled, the red cross could be seen soaring above the battlefields.

However, since the Nobel Committee has done great honour to the International Red Cross Committee in deeming it worthy of the Peace Prize for 1944, it is appropriate to devote a few minutes to a summary of the work undertaken by the International Committee from the commencement of hostilities in 1939 to the end of the war in 1945.

Before giving a brief account of its activities, however, I should like to take this opportunity, on behalf of the Committee, to salute His Majesty the King and to pay tribute to Norway for the magnificent way she succeeded, during those terrible war years, in safeguarding her national independence and her individual liberties3. A truly wonderful example to humanity!

The Prewar Period

The outbreak of war in 1939 did not, it must be said, catch the International Committee completely unawares. The political situation in 1938 had already caused much anxiety to those who, because of their functions or their responsibilities, were called upon to follow the course of events closely. Moreover, the International Committee had had occasion to extend its activities, not only during the war in Abyssinia4, but also during the Spanish Civil War5. The latter presented it with the opportunity to renew the experience it had gained during the World War of 1914-1918. It had to make provision for the development of new weapons and to take into account the fact that the strategy of combat was keeping step with what has been called “progress” in military techniques. However, it could not have conceived for a moment that armed conflict would reach the peak of horror which eventually had to be faced and of which Norway was one of the truly noble and truly unfortunate victims.

Meanwhile in 1938, the Committee took steps which would, in the event of a new war, enable it in all good faith to declare to the governments concerned, as well as to the various National Red Cross Societies, that it was prepared to fulfil its duties in accordance with the Red Cross Conventions insofar as the governments and military authorities concerned would permit.

The Conventions in force are quite explicit on the statute dealing with prisoners of war. The Convention of July 27, 1929, had filled an important gap: the more dangerous the means of waging war became, the greater the obligation to protect prisoners.

The Convention, as we all know, provides for the organization of work for the prisoners of war and for the designation of trustworthy leaders, to be chosen in each camp by the prisoners themselves. It also determines the conditions under which repatriation or hospital treatment in a neutral country will be permitted. In addition, it arranges for the organization of a Central Information Agency. In a special article, the Convention reminds us that “these provisions shall not be interpreted as restricting the humanitarian work of the International Committee of the Red Cross for the protection of prisoners of war.” One should add that in the course of the conflict between 1939 and 1945 the International Committee was on many occasions involved in efforts to ensure that prisoners being transported by sea would receive protection according to the principles of war on land.

Interned Civilians

The International Committee of the Red Cross could not remain indifferent to the fate of civilians. It had drafted a plan which was submitted in 1934 to the fifteenth International Red Cross Conference in Tokyo.

The Swiss government agreed to call a diplomatic conference, and after protracted negotiations, the nations were at last invited to meet in Geneva in 1940. But before they had time even to reply to this invitation, war had broken out! So it appeared that, from that time on, civilians in enemy territory would find themselves without any legal protection at an international level.

The International Committee of the Red Cross went into action: on September 4, 1939, while offering its services to the belligerent nations via the medium of the Central Prisoners of War Agency, it recommended the enforcement of the principles set out in the Tokyo plan. In addition, it proposed that interned civilians should at least have the benefits of the 1929 Convention for prisoners of war.

Unfortunately, the nations did not see fit to adopt the Tokyo plan. For the most part they did agree, however, to an analogous application of the provisions of the 1929 Convention regarding the treatment of prisoners of war, to the case of interned civilians. As a result, delegates from the International Red Cross Committee were able to visit the civilian internment camps as well as the prisoner-of-war camps. The arrangements adopted through the medium of the Committee helped to improve conditions for those interned. By contrast, the populations of occupied territories were left without protection, whereas the Tokyo plan would have given them some important guarantees. Furthermore, the International Committee could not devote as much attention to its work in this field as it would have wished. A large number of war victims could not be helped as much as we should have liked. Such was the case with civilians deported to concentration camps; we will, however, come back to this topic later.

One would like to hope that the war which has just ended will be the last, but one can understand why the International Committee, wanting to be ready for any possibility, is anxious to hold another international conference to consider measures to be taken with regard to such callous and such cruel acts as those to which I have just referred.

Central Agency for Prisoners of War

As we have said, on September 4, 1939, the International Committee announced that the Central Prisoners of War Agency in Geneva, as organized by the 1929 Convention, was ready to function. The Geneva authorities willingly put several important buildings at its disposal. Elsewhere in Switzerland, the Committee occupied twenty-four buildings with a total floor space of 78,500 square meters.

The ranks of the salaried staff were swelled by many voluntary helpers. More than 3,000 such workers, all of Swiss nationality except for a few other neutrals, lent their devoted aid to the Committee. From 1939 until November 30, 1945, the Central Prisoners of War Agency sent out 50,117,357 letters and telegrams and received 48,451,804 – a total correspondence of 98,569,161 items.

The Agency had established service departments for every belligerent nation in the world; it was therefore able to supply a multitude of families with information, and also to insure for a great many prisoners a correspondence otherwise difficult to establish between them and their families. The 506 to 600 letters which arrived daily in Geneva at the end of 1939 had increased in 1944, according to postal statistics, to a daily mail of 100,000 to 200,000, an average that remained steady at this figure until quite recently. The Agency made three million photocopies and 250 card indexes in which more than thirty million entries are classified, thus making possible the methodical and detailed investigations necessary for the search in each case of a missing person.

Even though similar principles have been applied in each national department of the Central Agency, these departments often differ from one another in certain ways. Such differences are due to the diversity in methods of military recruitment, ethnical situation, language characteristics, or civil status in the nations concerned. Take as an example the case of prisoners of war from the French colonial empire, that is to say, from North Africa, Sudan, Ivory Coast, the Niger, Mauritania, Madagascar, Indo-China, Guadeloupe, Martinique, et cetera.

The official lists received were frequently useless for purposes of identification because the names of persons and geographical place-names were often incorrect. The Agency was thus obliged to form special teams of voluntary Swiss workers who had lived in the colonies; thanks to them, it was able to establish and to forward particulars to the families of prisoners. The British Department of the Agency had to create an Indian Section. The Yugoslav Department had to take into account the partitioning of Yugoslav territories among several occupying powers. The Japanese Department was faced with peculiarly difficult language problems because of the many forms of Japanese script; fortunately, since some of the workers were particularly well acquainted with the Far East and its languages, these difficulties could be overcome.

This department also received extremely valuable help from its delegates, who were allowed to visit a number of Japanese camps and so comply with the provisions of the 1929 Geneva Convention, even though Japan had not been a signatory of the Convention.

In the face of the vast task imposed upon it by circumstances, the Central Agency in Geneva had to request the assistance of other Sections which had been established in many Swiss towns and which contributed very substantially to what was at least partial achievement of the desired results.


The Agency had to contend with the many impedimenta of war, but it was greatly helped in its activities not only by the National Red Cross Societies, which served with untiring devotion, but also by its delegates in many countries.

In May of 1945, the International Red Cross Committee had fifty-four delegations comprising 175 delegates distributed in nearly all countries of the globe. Today there are fifty delegations still active, comprising 157 delegates.

The function of these delegates is to visit camps to make certain that relief packages are delivered – in short, to see to it that the international Conventions are honoured. They also cooperate with the military authorities of various nations in the repatriation of the seriously wounded, provided for by the 1929 Convention and usually negotiated through the intermediary of protecting powers.

The International Committee shares with all these delegates, and indeed with all who have collaborated with it, the great honour conferred upon it today by the Nobel Committee of the Norwegian Parliament.

You would have had to watch these delegates at work in order to appreciate fully the difficulties they have had to overcome in doing their jobs. At times they encountered total lack of understanding. At others it was their lot to share, for long periods of time, the suffering of the people among whom they worked. Chance incidents and acts of war inflicted physical wounds on a number of them. Yet these delegates accepted their mission with courage and dignity. It is only fitting that we acknowledge it here.

Yes, the International Committee has its own war casualties.


Articles 11 and 12 of the Geneva Convention of 1929 provide that prisoners of war should receive from the detaining power food rations and clothing comparable to those of the camp personnel. However, circumstances arising from the conflict very soon made the dispatch of food and clothing parcels from outside absolutely necessary for the physical well-being of the prisoners.

The International Committee, you will recall, is composed of nineteen voluntary members of Swiss nationality6. At the Committee’s headquarters itself there is a Bureau of five members assisted by a general secretariat.

The Committee has established, among others, a Relief Division composed of three distinct sections: collective relief, individual relief, and intellectual relief.

Collective Relief

The functioning of the Collective Relief Section is based on Article 43 of the Geneva Convention [of 1929] which provides that the camp leader, elected by the prisoners and approved by the camp commandants, take charge of the reception and distribution of collective shipments.

The financially better off among the National Red Cross Societies never failed to supply the International Committee with such goods as were most in demand in the prison camps. But the Committee had to furnish the generous donors on both sides with guarantees and precise details on the sending and distributing of the shipments. The National Red Cross Societies, various philanthropic institutions, and the delegates of the International Red Cross Committee advised the Committee concerning the type of relief most needed. The delegates of the Committee then checked the needs of the prisoners and supervised the distribution of the parcels to them. And finally, receipts from the camp leaders or from the prisoners themselves were sent directly to Geneva.

Shipments from overseas were usually routed through Lisbon or other Mediterranean ports where the Committee maintained special resident delegations. (It had in its service thirty-nine ships, including six sailing ships, flying neutral colours and carrying on their hulls the sign of the Red Cross, along with the identification: C. International.)

From these ports the cargoes were taken either by rail or by road convoys to depots situated in a number of Swiss localities selected for their proximity to railway centres. Detailed bookkeeping facilitated the checking of shipments, and the International Committee was always in a position to produce for the donors signed receipts for each shipment.

From 1940 until the end of November, 1945, more than thirty-four million parcels, totalling about 407,000 tons of goods and representing a value of some three thousand million Swiss francs, were sent to prisoners of war by the collective relief services of the Red Cross.

We should note while on the subject of relief that a “Joint Commission”, composed of delegates from the International Committee and from the League of Red Cross Societies, undertook the task of transmitting relief parcels on a vast scale to stricken civilian populations. This was made possible by funds received from various governments, National Red Cross Societies, and other philanthropic organizations and individuals. The delicate negotiations required in this connection were conducted by the International Committee.

The countries which benefited from such consignments were Belgium, Finland, France, Greece, Italy, Norway, The Netherlands, Poland, and Yugoslavia. Hungary and Rumania also received some relief packages. The main beneficiaries of the shipments were children, although numerous adults were able to benefit from them also.

Individual Relief

In addition to directing these collective relief consignments, the Committee was also able to answer numerous individual appeals for aid from prisoners of war and internees, thanks to the generosity of National Red Cross Societies and individuals. Countless packages were sent to individual recipients within the camps.

As a result of the donations received, it was occasionally possible to respond immediately to the appeals made; at other times the requests were passed on by the International Committee to the various National Red Cross Societies or to other relief organizations.

Intellectual Relief

The International Committee soon realized, as did the present speaker himself, that although the allocation of material relief was a matter of high priority, there was also another human need which must be met.

The Red Cross is called upon to give a helping hand to the stricken; but it ought also to comfort them in heart and spirit. It should combat mental as well as physical hardship. Consequently, an Intellectual Relief Service was set up to collaborate with other international institutions dealing with intellectual aid. The countries concerned, along with their National Red Cross Societies, rarely failed to respond to the Committee’s appeal. Between 1940 and 1945, the Committee was able, for example, first, to distribute over 1,300,000 books – literary, educational, and technical works to help establish libraries which, in certain camps, contained as many as 20,000 volumes, and second, to encourage the organization of secondary and university studies. Needless to say, the Swiss people made sizeable contributions to this work of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The Intellectual Relief Service also undertook to aid the many artists deprived of their freedom, sending them musical instruments, paintbrushes, et cetera. There is nothing more moving than to hear from behind barbed wire, occasional strains of music freeing the hearts of unhappy prisoners from their misery for a few moments of escape into a world where art triumphs over cruelty.

It is impossible to give a detailed account of all of the activities of the International Committee, but let us note one or two matters among the many worthy of our attention.

Medical Service

The Geneva Convention of 1864 envisioned the concern of the Red Cross for the medical personnel of armies in the field. A special Service of the Committee carried out a great many investigations, for there were just as many of the medical personnel reported missing as there were in other branches of the armed forces. Consequently, a card index file was maintained for them, just as for other prisoners, at the Central Prisoners of War Agency. Up to June, 1945, more than 50,000 inquiries were handled; every family that applied to this service received a reply.

The Geneva Convention of 1929 “for the amelioration of the condition of the wounded and sick in armed forces in the field” stipulates in Article 12 that medical personnel be sent back to their own countries as soon as practicable. Unfortunately, the Convention was not always honoured. Because of circumstances created by “total war”, medical personnel were sometimes treated no differently from any other prisoners of war, and their repatriation was far from being as automatic as the Convention had endeavoured to make it.

Furthermore, the belligerents authorized each other by special agreement, as they were free to do within the terms of the Convention, to retain in the camps part of the enemy medical staff to tend their own imprisoned compatriots.

Wherever repatriation was impossible, the Medical Service of the International Red Cross Committee managed to secure some improvements which allowed medical personnel greater freedom of action, more frequent parcels, regular walks, et cetera.

As far as the sick and wounded themselves were concerned, the Medical Service, in conjunction with the previously mentioned national departments of the Central Prisoners of War Agency, opened medical investigations to obtain precise information about the nature of the ailments or wounds entered on their records. Some important documentation was the result.

The Medical Service had the responsibility of placing before a Commission specially appointed by the various governments the cases of prisoners who, in their opinion, required repatriation or internment in a neutral country.

In addition, the governments and Red Cross Societies of the belligerent nations placed funds at the disposal of the Committee to allow it to set up a pharmaceutical division.


Another painful but important topic.

From the very beginning of its work, the Medical Service of the International Committee was able to organize an orthopedic section, thanks to assistance from the British and, later, from the Polish Red Cross.

Besides this, in Switzerland, for example, the Medical Service was able, following a collection, to distribute immediately ten thousand pairs of spectacles. Dental surgeries were set up and, just as the Medical Service of the Committee had done, so now the Joint Commission, in its turn, sent out 80,000 pairs of spectacles and 200,000 dentures to prisoner-of-war and civilian internment camps.

The Medical Advisory Commission of the Committee maintained direct contact with the various epidemiological information services, as well as with the Hygiene Bureau of the League of Red Cross Societies. This Commission compiled dossiers on all information available; it received requests for help of a medical and prophylactic nature from camp commandants, from National Red Cross Societies, and from protecting powers, as well as from private individuals.

Finally; the International Committee undertook to train teams of doctors and itself organized some courses of instruction in collaboration with the Swiss Red Cross.

Aid to Jews

Help for the Jews was yet another vexing problem.

The Committee endeavoured to look after the interests of Jews detained in the concentration or labour camps. In spite of many difficulties, its delegates tried, sometimes at the risk of their own lives, to protect the persecuted Jewish population. Supplies of food, medicines, and clothing were taken to certain camps, either by rail or by convoys of trucks belonging to the Committee.

Sizeable sums placed at its disposal by Jewish assistance organizations enabled the International Committee to acquire provisions and clothing designated for destitute Jews in certain countries. During the latter half of 1944, several million Swiss francs were used for Jews in Rumania, a sum which in 1945 increased to nearly twenty million for Jews in Rumania and Hungary. Other large sums were devoted to similar relief work in Slovakia, Croatia, Yugoslavia, and elsewhere.

The International Committee’s delegations in southeast Europe did not restrict themselves merely to relief work. They also tried to obtain protection for the Jewish population. In Hungary, for instance, letters of protection were granted through them to over 30,000 Jews and, according to certain Jewish sources, eighty percent of the recipients were saved as a result of this measure.

The delegation of the Committee took under its protection homes for children, hospitals, and even whole sections of ghettos. In Rumania, a member of the Committee obtained authorization to visit the ghettos in Moldavia.

Finally, let us note that from April 15 until the end of May, 1945, the Committee arranged the delivery of 627 tons of provisions and medicines to the Displaced Persons Centres in Germany, and that most of the recipients of these supplies were Jews.


The International Committee found itself separated by an impenetrable barrier from so many deportees to whom it would have liked to extend its material and moral support. In trying to help these deportees, it took a number of steps, not only in the hope that it might be allowed to visit their camps, but also in an attempt to alleviate conditions for many of them.

All the requests to visit the camps met with stubborn refusal. Nonetheless, even when unable to secure written authorization, the Committee still tried and on occasion succeeded in bringing relief to certain internees in concentration camps, prisons, and labour camps. The Committee was also able to send hundreds of thousands of parcels to the deportees, since the War Refugee Board had put an impressive number of packages at its disposal.

In 1944 the “Parcel Service to Concentration Camps” sent collective consignments to the camps, but at the end of that year the destruction of the railway network in Germany made such service increasingly difficult to continue. In April of 1945, following extensive negotiations, the Committee secured trucks and fuel for this work, only to be faced that same month with the beginning of chaos in Germany. From then on, the Committee’s trucks carried most of their aid to columns of prisoners on the march, and in doing so enabled the delegates to save thousands of human lives. At the end, they were able to enter the concentration camps not only to unload hundreds of tons of goods, but also to bring back liberated prisoners. Thousands of prisoners were transported in this way by the Committee’s trucks, usually to Switzerland where they could begin the journey back to their homelands.

Throughout this period, which was one of the most critical, the convoy leaders and drivers did their work in the face of ever present dangers to which a number of them fell victim. At this point, let me especially emphasize the fact that in certain camps which they entered, the delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross were able to prevent the shooting of prisoners who should have been evacuated.

The International Committee wishes to state publicly that the results it achieved measured up to all its hopes; but it also realizes that what has been given it to do was, in the final analysis, of little significance when compared to the sum total of suffering it encountered in the course of its work. It strove to alleviate what misery it could; it tried to raise its flag above the ruins of the world to show that human hope should never falter.

It has not always succeeded; but what it has done it accomplished only because of the cooperation of its immediate helpers and of the National Red Cross Societies, and also – in spite of criticism understandable in view of the tragic situation prevailing in the world – because of the unfailing sympathy and kindness extended on all sides, the numerous and moving proofs of which have been a source of infinite encouragement to the Committee. The Nobel Committee has seen fit to add a tribute of such invaluable moral support that our appreciation can find no adequate expression.

We must not stumble over the barriers we meet. We must run hard, for sometimes we must leap high to surmount the difficulties of fulfilling our obligations to humanity. We must not let ourselves be torn by the thorns of thickets obstructing the “savage paths” of which I spoke earlier. We must look higher and at the same time nearer. We must draw close in body and in spirit in order to merit the name by which the magnificent symbol of the Red Cross calls us, the name Man, the name Christian.

* Edouard Chapuisat (1874-1955), Swiss jurist, writer, political leader, and a member of the International Committee of the Red Cross, delivered this lecture on behalf of the Committee in the Norwegian Nobel Institute. This translation is based on the text in French, the language used by the speaker, in Les Prix Nobel en 1945.

1. Sigrid Undset (1882-1949), Norwegian novelist and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1928; The Bridal Wreath (Kransen) is one of the novels in her trilogy of romances of medieval Norway.

2. See history and selected bibliography of the Red Cross, Vol.1, pp. 284, 286.

3. Haakon VII (1872-1957), king of Norway (1905-1957). After Norway’s resistance to the sudden German invasion of April, 1940, was broken, King Haakon and his Cabinet escaped to London where they continued the war by (1) adding their merchant fleet (most of which had escaped) to that of the Allies and (2) directing a valiant underground resistance in Norway.

4. The struggle between Italy and Ethiopia (Abyssinia), which began with Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and continued in isolated clashes for a time after Italy’s formal annexation of it in 1936, was ultimately resolved when the British liberated Ethiopia in 1941 and restored its independence.

5. The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) between Rightist and Leftist factions resulted in victory for the Rightists whose leader, General Francisco Franco (1892- ), became dictator of Spain.

6. Later revision of Committee statutes limits the number of members to 25.

From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1926-1950, Editor Frederick W. Haberman, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1972


Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1944

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