Czech Red Cross marks centenary – but history dates back even further

Photo: archive Czech Red Cross

Wednesday marks 100 years since the establishment of the Czechoslovak branch of the International Red Cross, today known as the Czech Red Cross. It was founded and chaired by Alice Masaryková, the daughter of Czechoslovakia’s first president and a pioneer in the field of social care. Its establishment was officially approved by the president on February 6, 1919.

Alice Masaryková | Photo: archive of Czech Radio
Alice Masaryková, the oldest daughter of Czechoslovakia’s first president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, became involved in the Red Cross movement in the early 1900s, but her involvement intensified with the onset of the First World War. After the war, part of which she spent in an Austrian jail, Masaryková established an independent Czechoslovak branch of the Red Cross and became its first chairwoman.

Here she is speaking on Czechoslovak Radio in April 1937 on the occasion of the annual three-day Red Cross political truce in Czechoslovakia.

“For 16 years every Easter Day the truce of the Czechoslovak Red Cross has been proclaimed in Prague. Sixteen times have we striven to unite in the spirit of the Red Cross. What does the truce of the Red Cross mean? It implies the spirit of friendliness based amongst individuals and nations based on love and truth; a decent press and a common daily task according to a watchword chosen by the Red Cross.”

However, the activity of the International Red Cross actually goes further back, says Olga Šiková, head of the organization’s international department:

“As for the Czechoslovak Red Cross we have to go back to the year 1868 when the so-called Patriotic Auxiliary Society of the Bohemian Kingdom was established. This humanitarian organization followed up the idea of Red Cross in Switzerland. It was part of the Austrian Red Cross, which was the 13th Red Cross national society in the world.

“As for the Czechoslovak Red Cross itself, we have to speak about the year 1919, when Czechoslovakia as a new independent state was established. And the Czechoslovak Red Cross as an independent new national society became a symbol of the new state.”

In the first years of its existence the Czechoslovak Red Cross was mainly active in providing humanitarian aid to people affected by WWI:

“They provided care for soldiers as well as for children and women affected by the war, and they also provided international humanitarian aid. The other important activity after WWI was a tracing service for missing people. That was very urgent after the war, just like after every armed conflict.”

Tracing missing persons is still one of the main activities of the Czech Red Cross today. Among many other services, it provides first-aid education, voluntary blood donation, projects focused on social work and disaster preparedness and provision of international humanitarian aid, for instance to Syria and Ukraine.

One of the challenges the Czech Red Cross is facing today, just like other national branches elsewhere in the world, is a gradual decline in membership. At the moment, the Czech Red Cross has a little over 15,000 members and 69 local branches.