How the Red Cross Failed
Americans in World War II
After decades of trying to conceal its failures during
World War II, the International
Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has finally begun to open its archives
and allow researchers access to documents illustrating the organization's
shortcomings. We know that the Red Cross was a crucial source of information
about the treatment of both civilians and POWs; however, the U.S. government's
"eyes" in German-occupied territory often proved myopic. Abuses
went unreported or were minimized. Whereas the U.S. government usually
maintained it did not know what was happening, the Red Cross position
was that it could not do anything, even about incidents of which it
was aware. In what became the standard response to criticism of the
ICRC behavior during the war, Roger Du Pasquier, head of the Information
No relief action of any sort by the Red Cross in Germany
or the occupied territories could have been undertaken without the
approval of the authorities....Conforming to the letter, if not to
the spirit of the Geneva Conventions...the Nazi government permitted
the ICRC and its delegates to act on behalf of the several millions
of prisoners held in the Stalags and Oflags. It refused, however,
to allow any intervention on the part of the Red Cross in the concentration
camps....In the face of such an obstinate refusal which covered up
the horrifying reality, about which one was then ill-informed, the
ICRC certainly could have made itself heard; it could have protested
publicly and called on the conscience of the world. By doing so it
would, however, have deprived itself of any possibility of acting
in Hitler's Empire; it would have deliberately given up what chances
there still remained to it to help, even in a restricted manner, the
victims of the concentration camp regime. But, above all, it would
have made it impossible for it to continue its activity on behalf
of millions of military captives. For the Nazi leaders viewed this
activity with suspicion which they would have ruthlessly suppressed
on the slightest pretext.
The Red Cross did much good work, but it often failed
POWs 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 POWs
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
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.
Source: Copyright Mitchell G. Bard. Forgotten
Victims: The Abandonment of Americans In Hitler's Camps. CO: Westview