The symbol of a red cross on a white background is recognized around the world.
The Red Cross is an international organization committed to helping people in times of emergency, such as during wars or disasters. The Red Cross is unique because it does not take sides during a conflict. Members of the Red Cross do not carry any weapons and give medical aid to whoever needs it most. Mennonites and other COs respected the dedication of the Red Cross to easing human suffering, and contributed generously to their relief work.
J.A. Toews, Alternative Service in Canada during World War II , p. 109.
The idea for the Red Cross was born in 1859 in the mind of Henry Dunant, a Swiss businessman. After a battle between Austria and Italy, Dunant saw the field covered with forty thousand dead and dying soldiers with no one to help them. When he returned to Switzerland, Dunant organized the Red Cross.
Today, the Red Cross is active in 179 countries. Their principle of neutrality states that in order to continue to enjoy the confidence of all, the Red Cross does not take sides in wars or conflicts. The Red Cross works to prevent human suffering, to protect the lives of civilians, to limit the effects of armed conflict, to protect persons who are not participating in the hostilities and restrict the means and methods of warfare.
Although Canadian government officials offered to pay COs the same as those in the army, Mennonite leaders wouldn't accept this. John C. Klassen explains.
“I might add at this point that we were supposed to receive pay equal to army pay. But out of gratitude to our authorities and the Selective Service, our church fathers generously volunteered to donate anything over 50 cents a day to the Red Cross, which we did not mind and had no say about anyway.” [ASM, 23-29]
After the war, the Canadian Red Cross wrote a letter thanking conscientious objectors and alternative service workers for their help:
“The Canadian Red Cross Society is pleased to acknowledge the important contribution of Alternative Service personnel during World War II. Their adherence to conscience and principle has assisted the Canadian Red Cross in its efforts to give compassion and comfort to humanity.”
“The fundamental principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement are: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity, and universality. They are very much in harmony with the principles upheld by Alternative Service personnel.”
“Official records show that, by the end of hostilities, $2.3 million had been contributed to the Canadian Red Cross Society by Conscientious Objectors under the Alternative Service Plan.”
“Those designated funds became part of a financial foundation that allowed the Red Cross to develop and expand peacetime programs and service at home and abroad.”
“The respect and enthusiastic support shown for the Canadian Red Cross Society today is in no small way due to the people who gave Alternative Service. It is their lasting honourable legacy to Canada and the world.” [ASM, 288]
According to the Bank of Canada, giving $2.3 million during the Second World War is the equivalent of giving over ten times as much today. Many men gave over half of their monthly income to the Red Cross and relied on the church to support their families.
Read more about the ways Mennonites tried to ease the suffering caused by war.