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Swiss Red Cross 150 years of humanitarian aid – with a dark side

The instantly recognisable symbol of the Swiss Red Cross, which turned 150 this month, brings to mind the organisation's role as a deliverer of aid to those in need. But not many know that it was also condemned for its actions during the Second World War.

A jubilee bash took place on the square outside the capital’s parliament building and was primarily intended for the organisation’s 4,000 employees and more than 70,000 volunteers. At the same time there was a roadshow, “150 years of the Swiss Red Cross”, outside parliament. The mobile exhibition will tour Switzerland throughout the year. 

Founded in 1866, the Swiss Red Cross saw its reputation as a knight in shining armour enhanced when Switzerland accepted and interned 85,000 cold and starving soldiers from France’s Bourbaki army during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. This massive undertaking is immortalised in the 112-metre-long and ten-metre-high Bourbaki Panorama in Lucerne. 

Swiss medical missions looked after injured soldiers from Hitler’s Wehrmacht on the German-Russian border, but some of its actions during the Second World War were less glorious. Historians have accused the Swiss Red Cross of not delivering enough assistance to persecuted Jews and even of handing them over to the Nazis. 

(Text: Renat Kuenzi, Image selection: Christoph Balsiger)

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