In the 1990's, after decades of trying to conceal its failures during World War II and the Holocaust, the International
Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) finally opened its archives
and allowed researchers access to documents illustrating the organization's
The Red Cross was a crucial source of information
about the treatment of civilians and POW's in Europe during the war; however, the
"eyes" of the Western world in German-occupied territory often proved myopic. Abuses
went unreported or were minimized. Whereas the U.S. government has
maintained that it did not know what was happening and thus could not act, the Red Cross' position
was that it could not act even about incidents of which it
In what was the standard response to criticism of the
ICRC, Roger Du Pasquier, Head of the Information
The Red Cross did much good work, but it often failed
POW's as miserably as it did the inmates of concentration camps. The
organization's options were limited by the Nazis, but the idea that
it therefore had no moral responsibility to speak out on behalf of the
latter because it threatened the good work it was able to do for POW's
is, in retrospect, obscene.
Morality aside, it is simply false to say the ICRC
was "ill-informed" about the "horrifying reality of the
camps." The American Red Cross files contain a collection of newspaper
clippings that indicate it was well aware of events in Europe. Here
are a few of the headlines of those stories
- "25,000 Jews Seized In Southern France,"
(New York Times, August 28, 1942);
- "Jewish Children Interned by Vichy" (Chicago
Sun, August 31, 1942);
- "35,000 Jews Executed in Five Polish Towns,"
(New York Herald Tribune, March 21, 1943);
- "50,000 Jews Put In Nazi Prison 'Die Like Flies,'"
(Washington Times Herald, September 3, 1943);
- "50,000 Jews Dying In Nazi Fortress," (New
York Times, September 3, 1943);
- "Nazi Slayings Near 250,000," (Baltimore
Sun, September 22, 1943);
- "Poles Report Nazis Slay 10,000 Daily,"
(Washington Post, March 22, 1944);
- "1,000,000 Hungarian Jews Face Massacre, Hull
Says," (Chicago Sun, July 15, 1944).
The Red Cross knew about the Nazi atrocities as early
as August 1942. In February 1945, the President of the Red Cross wrote
to a U.S. official: "Concerning the Jewish problem in Germany we
are in close and continual contact with the German authorities."
The fact that the head of the Red Cross would use the Nazi phraseology
-- "the Jewish problem" -- may also be an indication of the
organization's attitude that Jews were more of a problem than a people
who were being annihilated.
The Red Cross also knew about crimes against POWs,
but did little to publicize them. One might have thought the U.S. government
would have an interest in fomenting anger toward the Germans, and would
have broadcast stories of mistreatment of soldiers, but officials took
the opposite tack. Virtually all the information made public about POWs
emphasized their welfare. For example, a December 17, 1944, Washington
Post headline was reassuring: "Nazis Play Fair in Prison Camps,
Families Told." This news came from the director of POW relief
of the ICRC. He told the Post the Germans "have endeavored
to accord the same standards of treatment to American and British prisoners
that were set up in the Geneva Convention."
The ICRC maintained that there was no inequality of
treatment of Jewish prisoners, for example, though the organization
did acknowledge that Jewish
POWs were sometimes segregated. The ICRC visited Stalag VII-A on
January 27, 1945, for example, and reported that 110 American Jewish
POWs had been segregated but said they were not otherwise mistreated.
The Red Cross accepted the Nazi contention that such actions were permissible
under Article 9 of the Geneva Convention, which provides that belligerents
shall not house prisoners of different races or nationalities together.
A representative of the International Red Cross who
visited Stalag IX-B briefly mentioned that the Germans selected American
POWs they thought were Jews and put them in a separate barracks. The
report said "no other discrimination was made against them."
In fact, perhaps as many as 120 Jews -- along with about 330 non-Jews
-- were sent to a slave labor camp associated with Buchenwald.
That camp, Berga, had the
highest fatality rate of any camp where American POWs were held during
the war (20 percent).
The American Red Cross, meanwhile, adopted the attitude
that it should not do anything to upset families; therefore, its Prisoner
of War Bulletin was filled with glowing reports of POW camps, letters
from cheerful prisoners and photos of happy Americans. But those who
returned home came back with a different account of life in a POW camp.