Reviewing Hugo Slim, Solferino 21: Warfare, Civilians and Humanitarians in the Twenty-First Century (London: Hurst & Company, 2022). 

Amid the brutal siege, costing the lives of hundreds of civilians, a humanitarian feels he can no longer remain a passive bystander. Facing immense human suffering, he immediately springs into action. He crosses the battlefield, arranges talks with belligerent parties, and promotes the Geneva Convention. His goal: to create a life-saving humanitarian corridor to rescue trapped civilians by bringing them to safety in the face of bombing and starvation.

This may look like a present-day description of a Red Cross humanitarian trying to evacuate Ukrainian civilians and wounded soldiers from besieged cities such as Mariupol. But it is the story of one of the most iconic figures in the history of the movement and the co-founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC): Henry Dunant. His formative experiences with humanizing warfare give us important insights into today’s revival of Great Power confrontations and the challenges it creates for humanitarian neutrality.


More than half a century ago, in 1871, Dunant became an accidental witness to European siege warfare, watching the ghastly battle of the Commune unfolding from the window of his Parisian hotel. The city was besieged first by the invading Prussians, and then by the French government itself as it sought to regain power from the insurrectionists. Trapped in the brutal battle, Dunant’s depictions of the violence in Paris turned increasingly cynical, a departure from his iconic pamphlet, A Memory of Solferino, reflecting on the meaning of the immense human suffering of wounded soldiers on the Italian battlefield in 1859, which led to the establishment of the Red Cross and the first Geneva Convention.

Dunant’s remarkable memoir not only touched the hearts of nineteenth-century contemporaries, but it also inspires humanitarians today. One of them is Hugo Slim, a former leading member of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and now a practitioner-academic at Oxford. In his excellent new book, Solferino 21, Slim returns to Dunant’s work in an attempt to reflect on his predecessor’s legacies while rethinking the present and future of global humanitarianism.

Slim signals a revival of nineteenth-century “geopolitical big wars,” an observation which can hardly be timelier in light of the war in Ukraine. With more Great Power conflicts looming in Asia and elsewhere, he warns us, we need to be prepared for even greater civilian and military carnage. Prisoners of war are going to be taken in ever larger numbers. And the power of remote and computerized warfare, with its dramatically enhanced capacity of automation, will further increase the stakes of armed conflict. The character of warfare is changing, according to Slim, and it is reason for great moral concern.

In drawing lessons from Dunant’s groundbreaking work, Slim identifies three key takeaways that are relevant to the current war in Ukraine. First, Slim values the importance of civilian protection in relation to the prospect of a return to “big war” between Great Powers today. Second, Slim questions the foundations of the principle of neutrality when it comes to the provision of humanitarian aid, focusing instead on the value of national – as opposed to international – humanitarian systems (this is a particularly interesting observation coming from the former Head of Policy and Humanitarian Diplomacy at the ICRC). And, finally, he identifies the Battle of Solferino as a “pivotal moment” in modern history that forever changed the character of warfare.

History and Great Power War

In his fascinating book, Slim marks the Battle of Solferino as an historical tipping point to draw wider connections with the present, highlighting the latter’s turn towards computerized warfare and the return of what he calls “big war.” He uses these historical analogies to warn us – and rightly so – about the significance and implications of the impact of Great Power tensions on and off the battlefield. By doing so, Slim helps us to connect the past with ongoing conversations about humanity and neutrality around today’s conflict zones.

History plays a surprisingly important role in Slim’s account – and this raises key questions about his methodology to be discussed in this part of my post. What’s the historical significance he attributes to Dunant’s iconic A Memory of Solferino? How does he break or align with his predecessor’s work? And what are the benefits and costs of this instrumental approach to history – and how compelling is this for thinking about today’s challenges?

Slim presents a story of Dunant that is inevitably selective and incomplete, and he is the first to admit this. But his tendency to overemphasize the historical significance of his actors, from the Battle of Solferino to Dunant, makes me wonder what history can tell us about current trends, and whether we are drawing the right lessons from it. Did the battle of Solferino really represent a ‘tipping point’ in European history, as Slim claims? Highly unlikely. Was Dunant’s neutralist view of warfare ‘non-political’ and/or ‘politically agnostic’? Not so sure. Florence Nightingale as the ‘great hero’ for Dunant? True, but it’s not the full story, as she did not answer his love.

These may not look like the most important questions and observations when thinking about the return of “big wars” in our time, but I believe they give us an important insight into the critical historical choreography behind Slim’s arguments – stressing national over international humanitarianism, using Dunant’s legacies instrumentally, and reimagining the future of neutral humanitarianism in a new geopolitical force field.

What I find striking about Dunant’s plea in Solferino is that it came at the right moment and that it was done in a personal and unvarnished way. Dunant came to be seen as an honest and selfless newcomer who pleaded on behalf of suffering others, and this accounts for why he would become Europe’s most cherished humanitarian. Even though it is difficult to see Dunant as the founder of modern humanitarianism, Slim deserves major credit for reenergizing an older conversation about humanizing warfare by returning to his canonical text as he tries to make the Genevan’s ideas relevant again.

Unlike many other humanitarians, Slim is careful not to replicate triumphalist readings of Dunant’s work. Indeed, he breaks with Dunant’s most toxic legacies and makes us question what else we can learn from him in facing tomorrow’s challenges. He uses Dunant’s legacies as a rhetorical staging ground to explore the ramifications of a potential return to the “big war” battlefield of nineteenth-century warfare.

Neutrality in Armed Conflict

What makes Slim’s book even more interesting is not just that it brings historical insights to bear on humanitarianism in war, but also that it offers unexpected insights for better understanding contemporary conflicts.

For example, one might expect Slim, as a former ICRC official, to defend its distinctive policy of neutrality in armed conflict. Instead, Slim artfully uses Dunant’s legacies to fracture and rethink our own time and preoccupations. For him, it is crucial to reestablish an agenda of national and partisan forms of solidarity on the battlefield, whereas Dunant is most famous for promoting international and neutral humanitarianism.

In pursuing this argument, Slim provokes some his former ICRC colleagues by endorsing overtly partisan forms of humanitarianism, whose origins date back to radically different political vocabularies (e.g. anti-racism) than Swiss neutralism. At the same time, Slim contests Dunant’s conservative bourgeois position of white savior neutrality by giving greater agency to indigenous humanitarian initiatives. And he flirts with the with the idea of decolonizing “big aid” (e.g. United Nations’ agencies, the ICRC, etc.) to overcome its focus on highly centralized and predominantly western international organizations in humanitarian operations.

This problematization of humanitarian aid and neutrality by Slim, through an emphasis on the role and impact of community-based organizations in various countries (e.g. the Ukrainian Red Cross Society), is particularly relevant for thinking about today’s war in Ukraine. In recent weeks, we have seen that ICRC neutrality has been contested by numerous actors, many of whom have spread fake news targeting the organization. This is a worrying development, and it has rightly led to push back from fellow practitioners. It remains crucial to explain the mechanics of ICRC humanitarianism, of the need to be impartial, to speak with ‘both sides,’ to visit prisoners of war, and so forth.

But this should not blind us for the problems and limits of this form of humanitarianism, as Slim warns us in his book. The ICRC’s agenda of neutrality is a highly contested one, precisely by those from within the Red Cross movement and whose members are scattered across the globe.

As Slim writes in Solferino 21, if neutral access “is routinely imperfect and inadequate,” as we have seen in Ukraine in recent weeks, “then there is a moral imperative to try other forms of aid that are less constrained from seeking the approval…of all sides.”

This point is crucial for responding to Ukrainian suffering as it unfolds. Putin’s Russia is grossly violating IHL on an extensive and structural basis, from forcibly deporting “more than a million” non-combatants to indiscriminate bombings and mass executions of civilians. It also makes strategic use of the ICRC presence in the region while blocking ports and preventing aid to besieged (port) cities – creating a global food crisis, and expelling critical human rights organizations such as Amnesty International.

These profoundly troubling developments should give us pause. Echoing Slim’s concerns, I worry we do not spend enough time thinking and exploring other conceptions of humanity and solidarity in and beyond Ukraine. While defending basic forms of ICRC neutrality is critical at times, it should never be our first priority nor blind us for taking more bold steps towards protecting civilians and enabling their agency in wartime, including through speaking out against mass atrocity much earlier, providing aid without parties’ consent and enabling criminal repression to occur, and breaking the Conventions’ archconservative provisions on reproductive rights to empower women refugees. Red Cross humanitarians have a choice in this, just as Dunant had nearly two centuries ago, although one hopes for a better ending than he experienced in the nineteenth century.

The Future of Humanitarianism

Dunant did not have a long career within the ICRC. From the outset, he and the other founders of the ICRC experienced major divisions about what sort of humanitarianism they wished to promote, how to organize its leadership, and what principles they should use as a guideline. Some were unsure about Dunant’s deeply religious program of missionary humanitarianism. Others preferred a more state-oriented, less bold and imaginative, and more neutral form of humanitarianism, one in which the consent of parties was obtained. These developments proved to be decisive shift in ICRC history, and they are continuing to play out in Ukraine today.

While Dunant’s company finally went into bankruptcy, creating a scandal in bourgeois Geneva and forcing him to leave the ICRC for Paris, today’s generation of humanitarians has a new opportunity to change the future of their field. Among other options, they can focus on working toward “simpler ambitions,” as Slim stresses in his book.

Indeed, Slim’s vision for the future of humanitarianism presents a unique mix of old and new ideas—moving away from the illusion of creating a perfect society and towards empowering large groups of suffering individuals instead. Or, in his words:

[Humanitarians] can continue to become the masters of their own complicated bureaucracies, that are trying to understand every…experience in war and respond to every kind of suffering individual with elaborate programming…[Or,] they can decide that global humanitarian aid is not a utopian project of perfection that should repair… every part of a person and the society around them. Freed from mastering everything, they can then focus on one big thing: sharing power and teaming better with local and national institutions to help hundreds of millions of people keep themselves alive as the agents of their own survival, and the change makers in their own society.

Image: Illustration of the Battle of Solferino (via GettyImages).