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'Wallenberg and Isaak are still worth fighting for'

'Wallenberg and Isaak are still worth fighting for'

Published: 26 Jan 2011 09:09 GMT+01:00
Updated: 26 Jan 2011 09:09 GMT+01:00

With Swedish journalist Dawit Isaak in prison in Eritrea and questions still swirling about the fate of Raoul Wallenberg, historian Susanne Berger argues that Sweden needs to do more to shorten its ignominious line of unsolved disappearances.

It has now been ten years since a joint Swedish-Russian Working Group presented its report on the fate of Raoul Wallenberg in the Soviet Union following his arrest by Russian troops in Budapest in January 1945.

Not surprisingly, relatively little progress has been made since the case moved from an official investigation to a subject of historical inquiry. We know crucial documentation is available, but we are not allowed to see it, nor do we get adequate official help from the Swedish government to obtain access to it.

Nevertheless, there have been some important breakthroughs since 2001. We do understand now that Russian officials intentionally withheld information from documentation presented to the Working Group as early as 1991, when the group began its work.

The documents were censored not primarily out of concern for Russian secrecy and privacy laws (that issue could have been easily circumvented), but clearly to prevent Swedish officials from learning information that would have led them to question the longtime Soviet version of Raoul Wallenberg's fate, namely that he died of a heart attack on July 17, 1947 in Lubyanka prison.

The censored material would have shown that with great likelihood Wallenberg was interrogated by Soviet Security officials six days later, on July 23, 1947. If such information had been received in 1991, it might have set the whole inquiry of the Working Group on a different path.

The actions of the Swedish side also leave a few question marks. For example, in 1997 Russian officials informed the Working Group that Russian Foreign Ministry archives contain a number of secret coded telegrams which make direct reference to Raoul Wallenberg, although the Russians claim they include no information about his fate.

For that reason, Swedish officials agreed not to insist on a review of the documentation. Fifteen years later, the cables still have not been released. The same is true for a wide range of investigative files and other documentation from Russian intelligence archives that have remained completely inaccessible to researchers.

Historically, the unsolved cases of other missing Swedes have suffered from similar problems. These include the disappearance of a DC-3 with an eight-man crew on a reconnaissance mission over the Baltic sea in 1952 – four men remain unaccounted for – as well as questions about the fate of about the one hundred Swedish sailors who disappeared without a trace in the years 1946-1981 while travelling the dangerous coastal route between Sweden and communist Poland.

It further includes a number of Swedish citizens as well as foreign citizens who agreed to spy for Sweden during the Cold War in the Baltic nations and other iron curtain countries. Some of these individuals have never been publicly identified.

All these cases face serious obstacles preventing a full resolution: layered secrecy, fading memories, and the increasing urgency of present day matters. However, the growing disconnect with the past comes at a price.

We are currently witnessing some of the associated consequence of this failure right in front of our eyes. Swedish journalist Dawit Isaak is suffering his tenth year in captivity in Eritrea where he is held without official charge or trial. He is well on his way to joining the ignominious line of unsolved disappearances, with no solution in sight. It will not be long before there will be quiet, regretful calls to accept that he cannot be saved.

To be fair, diplomacy is often a thankless task. However, the available options for action are often not as limited as portrayed by professional politicians. Sweden has a long history as an arbiter of diverse interests and as such, it has a wide range of contacts to draw on.

Also, functioning democracies – as distinct from authoritarian regimes – voluntarily embrace standards of conduct which explicitly demand transparency to protect the rights of individuals. If those are ignored or relativised, we embark on a slippery slope.

As regards the core issue, the safeguarding of human rights, we have come a long way since the end of World War II, but two fundamental challenges remain: first, the legal status of human rights continues to be precarious. In spite of impressive progress, we still face serious hurdles when it comes to enforcement aspects, as the Dawit Isaak case graphically illustrates.

Secondly, this ambiguity is enhanced by a fast moving global economy which places a premium on pragmatist deal making in the fight to stay one step ahead of competitors, while struggling to accommodate the demands of a supposedly principled political agenda.

Regarding the issue of missing Swedes in the Cold War era, strategic compromise – driven by both pressing need and inherent tendency – appears to have guided Sweden's approach over the years. For as yet undetermined reasons, in these discussions the Swedish government has often failed to take advantage of serious investigative options on the table, leaving both researchers and the public wondering as to the reasons why.

Now that Russia has essentially achieved its decades-long quest for membership in the World Trade Organisation (WTO), obtained in part through Swedish mediation, it will perhaps be more inclined to reveal additional information on historical issues. Sweden would do well to show a bit more muscle when it insists that the men who disappeared have an intrinsic value to the country that time cannot change.

It would be a great tribute to the spirit of Raoul Wallenberg whose 100th birthday will be celebrated in 2012 and whose rescue mission to Budapest rested on the very premise that there are things worth fighting for – namely people's lives – no matter how uncertain the outcome.

Sweden's approach to Eritrea and the Dawit Issak case should be equally clear cut. Unfortunately one does not get the sense that the Swedish Foreign Ministry is firing on all cylinders in this question either.

It should take its cues from past experiences. When diplomats talk only about the things they cannot do and why they cannot do them, it is generally a very bad sign. For Dawit Isaak today the past of his fellow vanished Swedes is casting a very ominous shadow indeed.

Susanne Berger is a historical researcher and former consultant to the Swedish-Russian Working Group that investigated Wallenberg's fate in Russia from 1991-2001.

Paul Rapacioli (paul.rapacioli@thelocal.com)

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Your comments about this article

14:29 January 26, 2011 by Rolle
Swedish diplomacy lacks the edge to tackle matters such as this. The way the gov't handled Mr. Wallenberg case was just pathetic. Letting Stalin, Soviet Union and the post-soviet Russia openly lie and mislead without any diplomatic consequence (in part because ministers Undén, and later Bodström).

I mean if a member of the Wallenberg family and a true hero of the holocaust suffered his fate, i sincerely don't know what to expect in Isaak's case... Let's hope for the best
15:17 January 26, 2011 by Kevin Harris
The biggest Raoul Wallenberg mystery of all does not concern his death; but is why a man of such moral magnitude and personal bravery is all but ignored in his own country? Were this "moral giant" - Ronald Reagan, born anywhere else, he would be justly celebrated as a national hero. He is better remembered in Israel and the US than in his own country. Why?

The mysterious circumstances of his death have distracted people from the glorious circumstances of his life. Please remember the 100th anniversary of Wallenberg's birth with a celebration of his life, not indulge in pointless investigations about his horrible death.

If you don't know what this man did, take the time to Google him. Susanne Berger, you are a historian. You should know better.
17:55 January 26, 2011 by Rolle
Mr. Harris, very interesting remarks. However i do feel Raoul Wallenberg has actually been treated with the deserved historical significance. Wallenberg is a subject of books, documentaries and most swedes have at least a faint idea of the man doings.

On the other hand, for what i've read, Israel hasn't exactly given him the 'hero' treatment he might deserve. There are but a few streets named after him.

As for the US, i think at least 8 out of 10 americans would be clueless if asked about Raoul Wallenberg. Spielberg made the 'Schindler's List' but not the 'Wallenberg Pass'.

But obviously, you're 100% right about one thing: Those who don't know what this man did, take the time to Google him. And if you want to know more, you could grab a couple of very interesting books on Amazon
18:37 January 26, 2011 by millionmileman
Two Great Human Beings
09:29 January 27, 2011 by RobinHood
I quizzed my three Swedish kids (15, 16 and 18) about Raoul Wallenberg.

The boy thought he played for ÖIS, one girl thought he had something to do with the war, and my eldest girl had heard the name at school, but couldn't remember who he was.

A Swedish national hero! I don't think so. He should be up there with Ataturk, Neil Armstrong, Joan of Ark, Nelson Mandela, the other Nelson, Florence Nightingale, and the other top class national and international heroes in the heroic hall of fame.

Come on Sweden, you have a fantastic role model who represents noble, dignified, peace loving, bravery and sacrifice at its best. Any sane person would be proud to aspire to Wallenberg's values. How about a national holiday in his honour, and an international prize, and a fund, for a man who was surely your greatest ever son.
14:13 January 27, 2011 by Syftfel
To attempt to draw a parallell between Raoul Wallenberg and and Isaak is a grotesque perversion of political correctness running amok. Raoul Wallenberg was a natural born Swedish citizen doing a heroic act. This Isaak is an immigrant from Eritrea who chose to keep his Eritrean citizenship when he became Swedish, and thus a dual citizen. Generally accepted diplomatic decorum dictates that Sweden can and should do nothing when the individual commits a crime in his "other" country of citizenship, against that country's laws, regardless of how offensive that law might be to Swedish, Christian, values. Isaak must have known this, and should not be able to expect consular assistance in this case! Sweden is well advised to keep out of Eritrea's internal affairs involving its own citizens. If she doesn't, Sweden is committing a breach of diplomatic etiquette.
10:25 March 7, 2011 by gww
Unfortunately, everyone keeps speaking about citizenship which doesn't even make any sense. Many people that have dual citizenship do so because they do not want to neglect their native county's identity. If a Swedish person was displaced because of a civil war and moved I'm sure they would get dual citizenship. A person should not have to foresee injustice and neglect their original citizenship to be protected. But I don't put all the blame on Sweden, NO country should sit by and watch such a travesty take place.

No trial? Harsh conditions? That's ridiculous, and I don't care where you're from. We can leave all the trite comments we want online in the comforts of our homes and offices, but if it were you rotting behind bars without chance to make your case I'm sure your tune would change.

Isaak is what you call a political prisoner. Often they have no criminal history and MANY times are activists or journalists who get locked away. Wake up people!!
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