The intellectual founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Henri Dunant was an idealistic reformer to the end. So much so that he brought ruin onto himself. Not only did he isolate himself from his cofounders with his refusal to compromise on his vision of a neutral agency to care for all wounded soldiers, but his neglect of his own personal business left him bankrupt and deeply in debt.
He was booted off of the Committee by political rivals, socially isolated, bankrupt, and left home in disgrace to quickly be forgotten. While moving around Europe living on park benches and couch-surfing with friends, he advocated for disarmament, a world library, and an international court to settle disputes (and was an abolitionist and feminist). Meanwhile ending up living off the charity of family in a hospice in Heiden.
Luckily for Dunant, a journalist “rediscovered” him in that hospice, writing a piece on his life that restored Dunant’s place in the history books and earned him supporters across Europe. As a result of his efforts, he was one of the two first recipients of the Nobel Peace Price, though he never touched his prize winnings, and remained in Heidel in paranoia for the rest of his life. His last act was selfless, donating funds to keep a free bed in the hospital to always be open for someone too poor to afford it.
Photo By Time Life Pictures [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
An international congress for the ” complete and final abolition of the traffic in Negroes and the slave trade ” opened in London on 1 February 1875, on Dunant’s initiative. There followed years of wandering and utter poverty for Dunant: he travelled on foot in Alsace, Germany and Italy, living on charity and the hospitality of a few friends.
Finally, in 1887, he ended up in the Swiss village of Heiden, overlooking Lake Constance, where he fell ill. He found refuge in the local hospice, and it was there that he was discovered in 1895 by a journalist, Georg Baumberger, who wrote an article about him which, within a few days, was reprinted in the press throughout Europe.
International Committee of the Red Cross
In September 1895, Georg Baumberger, the chief editor of the St. Gall newspaper Die Ostschweiz, wrote an article about the Red Cross founder, whom he had met and conversed with during a walk in Heiden a month earlier. The article entitled “Henri Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross”, appeared in the German Illustrated Magazine Über Land und Meer, and the article was soon reprinted in other publications throughout Europe. The article struck a chord, and he received renewed attention and support.