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How Henry Dunant, founder of the Red Cross, staged his own rehabilitation

He founded the YMCA and the Red Cross, before falling into debt and disrepute. But there was much more to learn about the man who staged a remarkable comeback as a Nobel prizewinner, as Corrine Chapponiere found out.

Illustration by Giovanni Simoncelli

In Geneva, you can encounter Henry Dunant on every street corner. There is a Henry Dunant Avenue, a Henry Dunant College, a Henry Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, and a Henry Dunant Society.

Like every other Genevan, I knew the basics of his life: founder of the Red Cross, born in Geneva, even that his birthday, May 8, is used to celebrate Red Cross and Red Crescent Day all around the world. 

In the early 2000s, a production company asked me to help a well-known Swiss director write the screenplay of a TV biopic about Dunant. Unfortunately, after a year of work, the producers discovered they hadn’t raised enough money to shoot it. But I soon received a call from the director of the Red Cross Museum, who had read the script. He suggested I write a biography.

I replied that there were plenty of books on Dunant already, but he intimated this was only partially true – there were many, but a true biography had yet to be written, one which told Dunant’s entire story and not just what Geneva or the Red Cross wanted to hear. I knew there were a hundred metres of archival material at the Geneva Public Library, waiting to be investigated. For sure, Dunant hadn’t yet revealed all his secrets. Behind the TV biopic hero was another man waiting to step out of the shadows. 

Nonetheless, the feat that made him famous was true. In 1859, Dunant was a civilian witness to the bloody aftermath of a horrible battle in Solferino, Italy. Watching the masses of dying and wounded men pouring off the battlefield, he realised how radically insufficient the military aid teams were. But he also noticed that the local population, though ready to help, was neither organised nor trained for this difficult work. Something had to be done. 

Highly traumatised by what he’d seen, he wrote a manifesto, A Memory of Solferino, published in 1862. It soon became a bestseller. To conclude his gut-wrenching description of the horrors of war, Dunant advocated the creation of civilian aid teams during peace time so they would be ready for action when war broke out. One year later, a conference was held in Geneva to create the Red Cross. The following year, official delegates of the same countries were signing the first ever version of the Geneva Convention, the international covenant still used today to protect the wounded from the world’s armed forces on the battlefield. 

Not a doctor or surgeon, Dunant was an entrepreneur. Several years before his brutal encounter with war at Solferino, he’d already founded another huge international network with some British and European friends: the Young Men’s Christian Association, aka the YMCA. Then, he was not a pastor, nor a theologian, but a simple bank clerk, and a fervent Christian. But he was a man who dreamed big. This was his talent. It would also be his undoing. 

In May 1867, less than three years after the extraordinary achievement of the Geneva Convention, Dunant fled from Geneva, never to return. He had speculated large sums of money on investments in Algeria. And now he was broke. Even worse, he was bankrupt and accused of having defrauded his business partners. The great Dunant became a pariah in the city of his birth, shunned by many of his former Red Cross colleagues. 

Henry Dunant: the Man of the Red Cross by Corinne Chapponiere, translated by Michelle Bailat-Jones is published by Bloomsbury (£20)

The thousands of letters and documents contained in those vast Geneva archives reveal the extreme misery Dunant experienced: nights spent rough sleeping in Parisian train stations, hunger gnawing away at him in London, a depression that slowly evolved into a lasting paranoia. He was eventually rescued by a Parisian widow whom he’d met in London in 1872. She was older and incredibly wealthy. Were they lovers? Probably not. But their relationship caused scandals, further entrenching Dunant’s paranoia as well as his desire to avenge his reputation. 

After she passed away, Dunant settled in Heiden, a small town in Switzerland, where he would have faded from memory if he hadn’t got wind, in 1896, of a forthcoming prize to reward an individual who had contributed in some great way to world peace. Dunant decided the prize should go to him.

The archives I examined reveal the fascinating campaign he orchestrated from his small hospital room in Heiden to escape the oblivion his old Red Cross friends had happily relegated him to. And it worked. In 1901, the rehabilitated founder of the Red Cross, Henry Dunant, was jointly awarded the first Nobel Prize for Peace. After 34 years of poverty, anger and despair, Dunant was rich and venerated again.

Henry Dunant: the Man of the Red Cross by Corinne Chapponiere, translated by Michelle Bailat-Jones is published by Bloomsbury (£20)

This article was written by Corrine Chapponiere and translated by Michelle Bailat-Jones.

You can buy Henry Dunant: the Man of the Red Cross from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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