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Carl Jacob Burckhardt

Carl J. Burckhardt (Red Cross photo)
Seat of League of Nations High Commissioner for the Free City of Danzig

Carl Jacob Burckhardt (September 10, 1891 – March 3, 1974) was a Swiss diplomat and historian. His career alternated between periods of academic historical research and diplomatic postings; the most prominent of the latter were League of Nations High Commissioner for the Free City of Danzig (1937–39) and President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (1945–48).

Burckhardt was born in Basel to Carl Christoph Burckhardt, and attended gymnasium in Basel and Glarisegg (in Steckborn). He subsequently studied at the universities of Basel, Zürich, Munich, and Göttingen, being particularly influenced by professors Ernst Gagliardi and Heinrich Wölfflin.

He gained his first diplomatic experience in the Swiss legation in Austria from 1918 to 1922, a chaotic period following the collapse of Austria-Hungary. While there, he became acquainted with Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Burckhardt earned his doctorate in 1922, and then accepted an appointment with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which posted him to Asia Minor, where he assisted in the resettlement of Greeks expelled from Turkey following Greece's 1922 defeat.

He subsequently returned to Switzerland, where he married Elisabeth de Reynold (a daughter of Gonzague de Reynold) and pursued an academic career. He was appointed Privatdozent at the University of Zurich in 1927, and in 1929 was appointed extraordinary professor of contemporary history. From 1932 to 1937 he was ordinary professor at the recently created Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. While there, he published in 1935 the first volume of his comprehensive biography of Cardinal Richelieu, which would eventually be completed by the publication of the 4th volume in 1967.

He returned to a diplomatic career in 1937, serving as the final League of Nations High Commissioner for the Free City of Danzig from 1937 to 1939. In that position, he aimed to maintain the international status of Danzig guaranteed by the League of Nations, which brought him into contact with a number of prominent Nazis as he attempted to stave off increasing German demands. The mission eventually ended unsuccessfully with the invasion of Poland and German annexation of Danzig.

Following this period as High Commissioner, he returned to his professorship in Geneva for the rest of World War II (1939–1945). While in that position, he was also active in a leading role in the ICRC, traveling to Germany several times to negotiate for better treatment of civilians and prisoners, in part using the contacts gained during his two years as High Commissioner in Danzig.

After the war, he became President of the ICRC, serving from 1945 to 1948. Organizationally, he increased the integration of the international Red Cross institutions and the national Red Cross Societies. Politically, his term was controversial as he maintained the ICRC's existing policy of strict neutrality in international disputes, which led to the ICRC refusing to officially condemn the Nazis as their atrocities came to light. His strong anti-Communism even led to him considering Nazism the lesser evil. During this period, he simultaneously served from 1945 to 1949 as the Swiss envoy in Paris.

After 1949, he returned to his academic career, publishing a number of books on history over the next several decades. In 1954 he was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. He died in 1974 in Vinzel. His wife died in 1989.


  • Der Berner Schultheiss Charles Neuhaus (1925)
  • Richelieu (4 vols., 1935–67)
  • Gestalten und Mächte (1941)
  • Reden und Aufzeichnungen (1952)
  • Meine Danziger Mission, 1937–1939 (1960)
  • GW (6 vols., 1971)
  • Memorabilien (1977)
  • Briefe: 1908–1974 (1986)


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