Not Wilhelm Tell! – A Swiss national Hero

Jean-Henri Dunant (8 May 1828 – 30 October 1910) was a Swiss writer, social activist, founder of the Red Cross, and the first recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Already at a young age, his Calvinist parents had an enormous influence in Dunant’s personal values. For example, they believed that social work is crucial to a better society, an ideal that shaped his future life.

During his education, Dunant struggled to achieve good grades and eventually had to leave the Collège Calvin, but he successfully managed to become a bank employee. In 1856, Dunant started a business that would operate in Algeria (which was occupied by the French colonies at that time). However, due to the lack of cooperation of colonial authorities, the Swiss decided to visit the Emperor Napoleon III, who was stationed with his army in Lombardi. As he arrived on 24 June 1859, the Battle of Lombardi had taken place and he was left to witness the aftermath, and of its chaotic and miserable conditions for both the soldiers and the villages nearby.

In order to give himself some peace of mind, he decided to write a book about this event, called “A memory of Solferino”. The battle led to his vision of a neutral care organization that would help wounded soldiers. After promoting his idea in said book, he established the Red Cross together with Moynier, Swiss army general Henri Dufour, and doctors Louis Appia and Théodore Maunoir. The founding date is considered to be the day of their first meeting, 17 February 1863.

In the following time period, Dunant had to go through a personal crisis. His business in Algeria was not working, and a scandal led to the expulsion of Dunant from the Red Cross, on 8 September 1868. The Red Cross was rapidly expanding into new countries, but Dunant became less and less known every day, and his financial situation was ruined for the next three coming decades. Then, in 1895, Georg Baumberger, chief editor for the “St. Gall Newspaper” wrote an article about the Red Cross founder, whom he had met before. From then on, Dunant gained recognition from several leading personalities such as Pope Leo XIII. Another six years later, he received the famous Nobel Peace Prize.

Today, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is the world’s largest humanitarian network that reaches 150 million people in 190 National Societies through the work of over 17 million volunteers.

Henri Dunant may have been the most important personality in Swiss history, as he achieved his goal of improving society not only in Switzerland, but across the entire globe. He firmly believed in his humanitarian ideals, and his legacy makes him an unforgettable national hero.