Feature Archive: The International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva, Switzerland

Each month, a researcher shares their experiences of using a particular archive. The overall aim of this section is to create a database of the different archives available to those working on French and Francophone studies that will be of help particularly to students just starting out in research.

Ariel Mond is a doctoral candidate at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, where she studies modern European and global history. Her dissertation research considers the intersections of French political imprisonment, the decolonization of Algeria, and the rise of post-war human rights politics from the 1940s to 1970s. Here she talks about using the archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva.

UN Headquarters, Geneva – The UN Headquarters are located directly across the street from the ICRC. © John Samuel, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva occupies an impressive physical location: directly across the street from the United Nations, the ICRC sits nestled within the Swiss city’s constellation of embassies, consulates, and NGOs scattered along the Avenue de la Paix. Set atop a steep Alpine hill, the Red Cross buildings prominently house the organization’s museum as well as its active international offices. For historians and researchers, however, the site’s main attraction is a less conspicuous subterranean six-person reading room. Once inside, users have access to the ICRC’s vast archival collection, offering materials on the organization’s operations around the world since the 1840s.

My pre-dissertation research on the political imprisonment of Algerians in metropolitan France during the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962) brought me to Geneva in May 2018, where I examined the ICRC’s records of their wartime inspection missions to French prisons. My opportunities for studying French history at this international organization turned out to be even greater than I had anticipated: the Red Cross archives told of meetings between ICRC officials and prominent French state actors, included French Ministry of Justice documents that I would later see referenced in the Archives Nationales de France at Pierrefitte, and contained hundreds of letters written to the Red Cross by Algerians detained in France.

A letter from an Algerian prisoner at La Santé prison in Paris to the ICRC announcing a political prisoner hunger strike, 31 July 1959. Image taken by author.

As a historian of France, my research at the ICRC offered an exciting opportunity to interact with scholars researching humanitarianism across various global geographies. While most of the ICRC’s documents are in French, the organization has materials from their operations around the world from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. As such, the ICRC’s archives draw researchers of humanitarianism across national borders. During my brief two-week visit, for example, I met other scholars researching the Ottoman Empire during World War I, Palestine during the British mandate, and contemporary missing persons cases in Cyprus.

The ICRC’s catalogues are available online, as are their audiovisual archives and digitized collections on World War I. These thoroughly indexed, pdf-searchable catalogues are indispensable for planning a visit. Researchers can access the small public reading room by setting up an appointment with the ICRC’s archivist, Fabrizio Bensi, who helpfully recommended documents for me to consult, personally fulfilled all my archive request slips, and let me into the building each day of my research trip. The reading room is open from Monday to Friday from 8:30am to 4:30pm, but it is important to set your appointments in advance since its limited seats can fill up quickly.

An exterior view of the ICRC. ©Torbjorn Toby Jorgensen, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Located in a part of Geneva dense with international headquarters, few quick lunch options immediately surround the ICRC building, through grocery stores nearby offer a good option for picking up a sandwich on the way in. Researchers who bring a lunch can eat it on the premises, either outside on a terrace in front of the main entrance or indoors in what is essentially an ICRC employee lounge with a water fountain and a coin-operated coffee vending machine. Because researchers need to be let into the building by an employee, it can be cumbersome to coordinate leaving and reentering the building for lunch, making the employee lounge the easiest option for a lunch break.

For researchers on a budget who prefer to stay in France rather than in pricey Geneva, the ICRC archives are easily accessible to the central Gare de Genève, either by a 7-minute bus ride or an easy (but slightly hilly) 30-minute walk. Whether staying in Geneva or in nearby France, I recommend getting a chance to take in the views of Lake Geneva from one of the city’s many lakeside parks. And of course, don’t forget to snack on some Swiss chocolate!

Ariel Mond

Dept. bio: https://history.rutgers.edu/people/graduate-students/grad-student/1022-mond-ariel

Twitter: @ArielSMond

Thank you very much for this, Ariel!

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