Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg (1912-1947?)
One of the final lingering questions about the Second World War might possibly find an answer in the coming months. It concerns a Swedish architect and hobby diplomat who single-handedly turned what we think we know about twentieth century history entirely on its head. Most of us have long since forgotten him, but we do so at our own risk.
Raoul Wallenberg was a hero in an age of villainy. The 31-year-old Swede was horrified by the bloodletting he witnessed in Europe, particularly among the Jewish population of eastern Europe. He had studied architecture in Ann Arbor, and later worked for a lumber company in South Africa and for a Dutch bank in Haifa, Palestine, where he first encountered Jewish refugees from Germany. In 1942 and 1943, working for his family’s banking business, SEB, he travelled to Hungary, where he experienced fascism and government-orchestrated anti-Semitism firsthand. He also visited Berlin in 1938, where he insisted on rescuing a German-Jewish engineer from a concentration camp.
It was only his family connections, and his single-minded ambition to put an end to the slaughter, that enabled Wallenberg (who himself had some Jewish ancestors on his mother’s side) to have himself appointed First Secretary of the Swedish mission to the fascist, Nazi-allied Hungarian government. Arriving in Budapest on July 9, 1944, and financed by the American War Refugee Board, which sought to rescue Jews through neutral states like Sweden, Wallenberg presented the Hungarians with a list of 800 Hungarian Jews possessing some sort of (usually tenuous, if not downright imaginary) relationship with Sweden, whom the Swedish government promised to accept within its borders. He also worked together with the Swedish Red Cross and Swiss authorities, who likewise saved many thousands of Jews and other enemies of the Third Reich.
Over the next several months, Wallenberg and his staff of 300 – mostly local Jews – issued over 20,000 Swedish passports to Hungarian Jews, thus saving them from certain death. At the same time, he cooperated closely with leading members of the local Jewish community and also used his considerable diplomatic skills to drive a wedge between Hungarian fascists, many of whom had doubts about the Nazis’ anti-Jewish policy and saw the tide of war turning against them, and their more fanatical German allies. His influence over Hungarian dictator Miklós Horthy also helped stop the transport of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. Thanks to Wallenberg’s direct and indirect actions, some 70,000 Jews survived the Budapest ghetto. No one knows for sure, but is is possible that Wallenberg saved up to 100,000 Hungarian Jews from the gas chambers and the bullets of Himmler’s Einsatzgruppen.
Jewish couple in Budapest
In November of 1944, Wallenberg personally – and at appalling personal risk – rescued 200 Jews from a Nazi death march. Even though SS Holocaust coordinator Adolf Eichmann raved against “that Jewish dog, Wallenberg,” and swore he would have him shot, the diplomat miraculously continued his work without disruption.
Despite what you might think from the movies, Holocaust is a story of murder, not heroism, and not even Wallenberg could avert the ultimate disaster of Hungarian Jewry: In January of 1945, armed members of Hungary’s fascist Arrow Cross party, which had seized power in October of 1944 and was now about to be run out of the capital by the approaching Soviets, slaughtered up to 20,000 Jews on the bank of the Danube after first stripping them naked and then tossing the bullet-ridden bodies into the icy river. But Wallenberg was there too, pulling as many Jews as he could out of the killing zone, and even reclaiming their clothing.
Just shoes - Budapest's Jewish memorial on the banks of the Danube
But the Swede’s incredible luck was quickly running out. On January 13, 1945, Raoul Wallenberg left Budapest to meet the regional Red Army commander, Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, who had just arrived in southern Hungary. He hoped to convince the marshal to liberate the Budapest ghetto as soon as possible in order to prevent even more murders at the hands of the fleeing Arrow Cross militia. Marshal Malinovsky received him cordially. Wallenberg had his doubts, though. “I don’t know if they are protecting me or guarding me,” he told a friend in those confusing days. “I don’t know if I’m a guest or a prisoner.” On January 17, Nikolai Bulganin, Stalin’s deputy defense minister, issued a warrant for Wallenberg’s arrest. The Swede would never return to Budapest, nor would he ever taste freedom again.
Wallenberg’s fate remained uncertain throughout the Cold War, rather like Princess Anastasia and other cold cases. For years, Soviet officials claimed that he had either fallen in battle somewhere around Budapest or that he had died of a heart attack in a Moscow prison. It wasn’t until the Gorbachev era in the late 1980s that the Soviet government began releasing information. In 1989, Wallenberg’s half-siblings Nina Lagergren and Guy von Dardel, who had been demanding answers since the 1950s, received the diplomat’s passport, clothing, money, and personal diary from Moscow.
The post-Soviet government opened an investigation in 1991 together with Swedish investigators. Both sides issued a final report in 2000: Raoul Wallenberg presumably died in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison on July 17, 1947. Probable cause of death: A bullet to the back of the neck, the standard execution method for suspected foreign agents. The Swedish version of the report surmises that Stalin ordered the execution personally. Wallenberg’s American connections (e.g. with the War Refugee Board and the Organization of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA), as well as his contacts with the British and Swedish secret services, were probably his undoing. But it was more than just that. The trouble with Wallenberg is that he wasn’t very particular about which Jews he helped keep alive. A Soviet military intelligence report from February 1945 stated: “Instead of protecting the Soviet Union’s or Hungary’s interests, the Swedish Red Cross is protecting enemies of the Soviet Union and of the Hungarian people or is providing them with asylum or protection.” People were shot for far less in Stalin’s Soviet Union.
The announcement of Wallenberg’s "liquidation" remains controversial, however. It is possible – but not proven – that Wallenberg lived on for several years as a Gulag inmate under a different name. The Swedish version of the report states that “the burden of proof that Raoul Wallenberg is dead lies with the Russian government.”
Now, in 2012, the Swedish government is looking for solid answers. Foreign minister Carl Bildt is sending one of his top diplomats, Hans Magnusson, Sweden’s director of international development cooperation, who already examined Wallenberg’s fate in the 1990s, to Moscow one last time. “We have asked him to go there to see if he can find something,” Bildt told reporters yesterday, the sixty-seventh anniversary of Wallenberg's disappearance. “But we don’t have high expectations.”
But some of us still do. What we want to know is: Why did Bulganin have Wallenberg arrested? Why did Stalin have him shot? Who else was involved in the Jewish rescue operation? What role did Himmler and the senior SS leadership play in all of this? If the Nazis really were determined to exterminate every last Jew on the planet, then why did they ever let Wallenberg get away with his utterly implausible errand of mercy?
Now, in the one hundredth year of Wallenberg's birth, I think it’s time we found out.