The Red Cross handed over 60,000 pages of World War II-era documents to Israel on October 7, 1997, and a top official acknowledged the organization’s “moral failure” in keeping silent while the Nazis murdered 6 million Jews.
“Very clearly, the ICRC’s activities with regard to the Holocaust are sensed as a moral failure,” said George Willemin, director of archives for the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross. “The ICRC admits – yes – that it has kept silent with regard to the Holocaust, and I would say that this is the heart of the moral failure,” he added.
The Red Cross has in the past apologized for “all possible omissions and mistakes made” during the war years, but Willemin’s statement was the most explicit acknowledgment by a Red Cross official that the organization could and should have done more.
The documents, photographed on 30 reels of microfilm, cover every aspect of the Red Cross’ work relating to the Jews, hostages and political detainees.
The documents include reports from field workers about mass deportations and killings of Jews, rulings by the organization and its governing bodies, orders to field workers, and correspondence with Nazi Germany and the Allied governments.
Among the facts they reveal is that the Red Cross discounted reports of a mass murder of Polish Jewish prisoners that took place at Lublin, Poland, in 1940, a Yad Vashem statement said.
The ICRC told the World Jewish Congress in August 1940 that “following a thorough investigation by the German Red Cross representative,” the Red Cross had concluded the reports were unfounded.
The release of the documents raises anew the question of whether the Red Cross should have made public what it knew about the Holocaust and spoken out against it.
Red Cross officials have said that if they had done so, the Nazis would have retaliated by stopping the organization from helping Allied prisoners of war.
There were fears that “the work we were doing, probably quite well, with respect to the POWs would have been jeopardized by being too outspoken about the Nazis, with dire consequences for those we were helping, without helping those we were not helping,” ICRC spokesman Kim Gordon-Bates told The Associated Press.
In addition, he said, there was concern about compromising the neutrality of Switzerland, where the Red Cross was based.
Swiss historian Jean-Claude Favez, speaking at Yad Vashem, said the Red Cross in effect became a tool of Swiss foreign policy.
Favez, whose book “The Impossible Mission?” details the role of the Red Cross during the war, said the organization’s fears that intervening on behalf of the Jews would have jeopardized its aid to Allied POWs were probably exaggerated.
“The Germans had as much interest in the protection of their own soldiers in Allied prison camps as was the converse,” he said. Gordon-Bates said the Red Cross has spoken out in the past when it was clear that doing so would help victims, but he said it was not clear that was true in World War II.
“Morally, we should have spoken out,” he said. “Practically, would it have helped?”
But Favez said that if the Red Cross had condemned the Nazi genocide of the Jews, the Allied governments might not have rejected calls to bomb the railroads leading to the death camps.
“The passivity of the ICRC and the ‘victory first’ policy of the Allies were mutually supportive,” Favez said. “They share the guilt.”