Dunant: The Story of the Red Cross

by Martin Gumpert
[Oxford University Press, $2.50]
JUDGING by the title of this book, one might be inclined to think that it is nothing more than the story of Henri Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross. Happily, Mr. Gumpert’s volume covers a greater and more fascinating subject: it gives a picture of the world politics and thoughts of the nineteenth century — that touching, rococo, and pompous period which gave birth to some great ideas and during which men attempted to find solutions to problems which confront us now more than ever.
Henri Dunant was a Swiss banker who, in June 1859, happened to be present at the battle of Solferino. He went there in order to see the emperor about a million-franc business deal. The sight of blood and of forty thousand dead and wounded awakened the banker and gave him the idea of doing something about it. From then on Dunant was a changed man; he forgot his millionfranc project, gave up his financial position, and devoted the rest of his life to his one idea: to take care of the wounded soldiers and secure impartial medical attention for friend and foe alike.
Dunant became a man with an obsession; all through this muddled book we see him appearing at the most inappropriate times and unexpected places. We find him in a Milanese salon discussing his plan. ‘The ladies were for it, but the gentlemen considered such a plan an utopian impossibility.’ Among the splendors of Paris, we again find him trying to get a hearing; but Paris society would not listen to this persistent salesman’s ‘dangerous atrocity stories.’
Dunant devoted the next three years to writing his Recollections of Solferino, which became overnight a European sensation. This was the beginning of his days of glory. In 1866 he was ‘the man whom kings invited.’ But the year after he was bankrupt. Bankruptcy belongs to the bourgeois disgraces of the first order, and it was the catastrophe of his life. The capitalist became a beggar in Paris.
In 1889 or 1890 a schoolteacher of Heiden discovered an old man with a white beard going around the streets looking for little white pebbles which he put in his pocket. It was Dunant. Ten years later he was rediscovered by a Swiss journalist who wrote an article about him, the result of which was that Dunant received hundreds of letters, the Empress of Russia granted him a pension, and Pope Leo XIII sent him his picture. In 1901 the received the first Nobel Peace Prize. He died in 1910 in poverty, hating the world.
Mr. Gumpert has written this rather dull story with care. The main interest is the picture it presents of the period in which this unappealing Swiss banker, with his small skull cap and big idea, lived.