cover image Dunant's Dream: War, Switzerland, and the History of the Red Cross

Dunant's Dream: War, Switzerland, and the History of the Red Cross

Caroline Moorehead. Carroll & Graf Publishers, $38 (816pp) ISBN 978-0-7867-0609-9

Moorehead, a columnist for London's Independent, has written a fluid, character-rich history of the Red Cross, a ""movement which has no equal in size and commitment outside of organized religion."" She ably shows how the Red Cross has struggled to apply the ideals originally drafted by a group of enlightened Swiss conservatives in the mid-19th century: how to serve the humanitarian needs of people in the most inhumane of situations. As Moorehead chronicles the group's triumphs and shortcomings, from its inception 130 years ago to its current activities around the world, she focuses, with a good novelist's sense of moral complexity, on the messy intersection between reality and lofty ideals as the Red Cross struggled to reconcile its mission with political constraints. She doesn't shy away from the group's worst moments, such as in 1942, when it voted not to make a public appeal on behalf of Europe's Jews (indeed, Red Cross officials, having been duped by the Nazis, wrote a glowing report after a trip to the Dachau concentration camp in 1938). Her portraits of key figures are memorable. The title refers to Henri-Jean Dunant, a failed Swiss businessman who, in his 30s, came up with the idea of the Red Cross after he witnessed the carnage of a battle in the Italian town of Solferino in 1859. In 1901, he shared the first Nobel Peace Prize ever awarded. Ultimately, Moorehead's depiction of the Red Cross echoes her appraisal of Dunant: ""passionate, intemperate, foolhardy but essentially a moral figure."" Her book turns the Red Cross into a revealing lens on the troubled history of the past 130 years. 32 pages of b&w photos. (May). FYI: Moorehead is the associate producer of the companion BBC TV series to Dunant's Dream.