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Raoul Wallenberg – Sweden's Not-So-Favourite Son

Raoul Wallenberg – Sweden's Not-So-Favourite Son

Published: 02 Jan 2012 15:23 GMT+01:00
Updated: 02 Jan 2012 15:23 GMT+01:00

The Swedish government has announced that it will designate 2012 as the official "Raoul Wallenberg Year" and the honour is more than deserved.

Planned events will highlight the remarkable courage the Swedish businessman showed when in July 1944, at age thirty-one, he accepted a diplomatic appointment to go to Budapest, Hungary to confront the ruthless Nazi death machinery.

By the time of Wallenberg's arrival it had swallowed up five-hundred thousand Jews of the Hungarian countryside and the less than two-hundred thousand left in the capital were about to meet the same fate.

Driven by the young Swede's relentless energy, a wide network of diplomatic colleagues and other helpers managed to save thousands of Budapest's Jews.

Already by the end of the war Wallenberg's reputation had achieved legendary status. However, in January 1945 the rescuer himself became a victim when he disappeared as a prisoner in Stalin's GULAG.

Largely abandoned to his fate by his home country, the disgraceful lack of efforts on his behalf prompted a public apology to Wallenberg's family by then Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson in 2001.

Sweden's relationship with what should be its favourite son has always been a complicated one. For his countrymen, he has often proved to be a problematic hero; someone who is admired, but not universally loved.

While Wallenberg's reputation has steadily grown abroad - he is an honorary citizen of the U.S., Canada and Israel - Sweden did not dedicate an official memorial in his honour until 1997. Not surprisingly, the 2012 commemoration is again geared largely towards a foreign audience.

"The official Raoul Wallenberg year serves primarily to use him to advertise Sweden abroad as a morally outstanding country," says art historian Tanja Schult who has studied Wallenberg as a cultural symbol.

"But it obscures the fact that the very qualities Wallenberg represents - independent, conscience driven action - stood in contrast to official Sweden's treatment of the European Jews, at least until 1942/43, and have been a major source of conflict with his own country."

A special exhibit highlighting Wallenberg's accomplishments in Budapest was previewed for only one day in Sweden, on December 20, before leaving on an international tour.

Wallenberg's message as someone who confronted hate, anti-Semitism and genocide should also hold special meaning for his home country where a recent survey found that 26 per cent of young adults between the ages of 18-29 would not mind living in a dictatorship.

By focusing the centennial almost exclusively on Wallenberg as a symbol of tolerance many researchers also worry that Sweden is once again sidestepping the complex and controversial questions that remain in connection with Wallenberg's fate.

This begs the question: Why can Sweden not do both? Honour his remarkable legacy and at the same time seize this golden opportunity to finally determine the full truth about his disappearance after being arrested by Soviet forces on January 17th, 1945?

Sweden's complex attitude toward Raoul Wallenberg is very much rooted in the country's conformist culture.

Right from the beginning, his life did not fit into the clear social parameters Swedes prefer. He was born a Wallenberg but was raised outside the influential banking family. He was an architect by training but worked as a businessman.

He was not a real diplomat, nor a real spy and for many years after he went missing he was considered neither truly dead nor confirmed to be alive.

Most importantly, like any visionary, he was not afraid to test boundaries and to break the rules while working in Budapest.

Still, the question remains why Swedish officials showed so little sympathy for Raoul Wallenberg after he disappeared.

The political sensitivities and uncertainties that characterized Wallenberg's mission (the U.S. government had originated and financed a large part of the project) as well as the chaotic conditions of the immediate post-war period alone cannot account for Sweden's extreme passivity.

One reason was clearly that as an official Swedish representative in Hungary Wallenberg had been wildly successful, yet in many ways this success carried the flair of an individualistic achievement. It did not altogether constitute a triumph of Swedish diplomacy.

In fact, many in the Swedish Foreign Office felt that both Wallenberg's methods and behaviour were highly "un-diplomatic", in the true sense of the word, and that through his unbridled enthusiasm he had created a crisis for himself and for them that they resented having to solve.

Swedish officials like to point to Wallenberg as an example of a diplomat who showed both unusual compassion and the courage to act, but they are less ready to acknowledge that Wallenberg's success highlights a fundamental contradiction.

While his official diplomatic status undoubtedly enabled Wallenberg to be effective, his correspondence also shows how much he chafed at the many bureaucratic strictures imposed on him.

Where the Swedish government was cautious not to push German and Hungarian Nazi authorities too hard, Wallenberg was constantly trying to find ways to maximize rescue efforts.

From the very beginning Wallenberg made it clear he did not simply want to protect only those individuals with close business or family ties to Sweden, but he also intended to use the system he and his colleagues were putting in place to save as many people as possible.

"In my opinion, the help project should continue on the highest scale," Wallenberg wrote in late July 1944.

To accomplish this, in August 1944 he sharply urged the Swedish Foreign Office "to sacrifice the sacred institution of the provisional passport and to grant [us] the full right to hand them out."

His request was not met, forcing him to rely on an alternate document, the by now famous "Schutzpass" (Protective Passport).

That his mission did not enjoy unanimous support at home found expression in the prescient warning issued by his friend and business partner Kalman Lauer, writing from Stockholm:

"Gratitude for your work you can probably not expect .... So be very careful before you throw yourself into any adventures."

Lauer realized that by confronting the enemy outside - Nazism -, Wallenberg would sooner or later also have to face obstacles within his own country.

In other words, what made him a hero in the world's eyes, showed up the serious weaknesses at home, something that many Swedish officials did not exactly welcome.

Former Under Secretary of State, Leif Leifland, who headed the Wallenberg investigation in the 1970's and early 1980's, suggests that one reason why Wallenberg has not been embraced in Sweden is that quite a few members of the diplomatic establishment resented his success.

"Frankly," Leifland says, "Raoul Wallenberg was not very popular."

One reason was the deeply ingrained German sympathies of the wartime Foreign Office. Another reason was that Wallenberg overshadowed the reputation of all other Swedish diplomats after the war.

"Everywhere they went, no matter what they did, the talk was always about Wallenberg - not about the clever and important things they did," Leifland says.

"For many, this was hard to swallow."

Sweden's former Ambassador to Hungary, Jan Lundvik, put it even more bluntly in an interview with the Wall Street Journal in 2009.

"They did not want him back," Lundvik told the paper.

It is therefore good to see that the Swedish government will finally show Wallenberg its long-overdue appreciation.

But why omit an important part of Raoul Wallenberg's personal story, as a victim of totalitarianism during the Cold War, and why not demand that justice is finally done, as a matter of principle?

Especially now, when new information has emerged that suggests the case can indeed be solved and that has finally proved wrong the long held official Russian claim that Wallenberg died on July 17, 1947 of a heart attack in a Moscow prison.

The currently available evidence leaves open the possibility that he lived after July 1947 for weeks, months or even years in Soviet captivity.

Why does Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, the official chairman of the Raoul Wallenberg Centennial, not firmly insist on full information from Russia's leaders who lied to an official Working Group as late as 2001 instead of meekly asking them yet once again for "an open archival policy"?

If anything, Sweden's limited approach serves as a reminder that while Swedish officials may like to invoke Wallenberg's spirit, they are still a long way from matching it.

Susanne Berger

Susanne Berger is a US-based German historian heavily involved in research into the life of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who helped prevent the arrests of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Second World War.

Paul Rapacioli (paul.rapacioli@thelocal.com)

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Your comments about this article

16:22 January 2, 2012 by rufus.t.firefly
It's pretty clear that Raoul Wallenberg is cynically used "to advertise Sweden as a morally outstanding country." The lack of any serious effort find out what really happened or to be more truthful about the Swedish government's behavior, both then and now, is telling.

He can't really even serve as a symbol of courageous moral action in a political culture where, even today, actions like his are not particularly admired.

I'd like to know more about who did what, to the extent it is possible, and see real public discourse. I'm dreaming.
20:30 January 2, 2012 by guliver
Raul Wallenberg is one of the angels who risked and gave their lives to save the Jews during the Holocaust,

I think that we the Jewish people in Israel and abroad have not done enough to discover what happened to him ,he should have been brought to his last way as an Hero,every one here has studied about him and his courageous acts during the 2ww specialy in saving the life of the Jews in Budapest,

May God bless his name for ever!

Israel
04:38 January 3, 2012 by Rökdal
Valdemar and Nina Langlet never was given enough credits for their work in Budapest either. http://www.vortaro.hu/langlet.htm
08:45 January 3, 2012 by Kevin Harris
The greatest tragedy about the mysterious and horrible death of Wallenberg is that so many people spend so much time speculating about it, they become distracted from his glorious life. He was the greatest Swede ever, a "moral giant", he well deserves his celebratory year. But he well deserves to be celebrated every other year too. Successive Swedish governments have found Wallenberg to be a bit of an embarrassment, particularly the Social Democrats, who struggle with his aristocracy, and their political sympathy for his murderers. Well done the Moderates for making a start at putting that right.
10:49 January 3, 2012 by Lavaux
This is without reservation the best article I've ever read on the Local. Keep up the good work!

A few comments. First, Sweden's foreign policy for the past 100 years has been to ensure that Sweden profits from conflict by supplying all combatants with Swedish commodities and manufactured goods while officially denouncing their belligerence and calling for peace. This foreign policy engenders obvious contradictions with Sweden's self-appointed role as humanity's conscience, which is why the Foreign Ministry despised Wallenberg, who had the unforgivable temerity to demand that they actually help him save lives. For the Swedish approach to work, the ideological must never confront the real, yet here was Wallenberg demanding that it must, thereby undermining the Swedish brand as humanity's moral role model.

Second, an individual Swede must never stand against or contradict his team, particularly when they are wrong and he is right. The fiction of Sweden's moral superiority relies on the cooperation of every individual member of the Foreign Ministry in suppressing every instance of the inhumanity and corruption rotting at its core, and any diplomat who steps out of line must be crushed. Wallenberg stepped out of line, so he was crushed. Better he rot in a Soviet gulag than tell a gaggle of journalists how he fought against the Foreign Ministry to save Jews.

Third, although Sweden played both sides of the Cold War from its inception just as it did during WWII, its elites' true sympathies lay with the communists. Knowing this, the Soviets exploited the Swedish Foreign Ministry as useful idiots willing to trumpet Soviet propaganda against NATO and the United States, slathered in the varnish of Sweden's fictional moral superiority. One can only wonder what boons the Swedish Foreign Ministry was able to extract from the Soviets in return for their cooperation beyond the imprisonment and murder of Wallenberg. I'd love to know, but I doubt they'll ever come to light.
13:14 January 3, 2012 by motti
@Lavaux,

Excellent synopsis and I agree with what you have stated except one tiny piece. Sweden would never supply Israel with arms to defend itself.

I am not sure what tiny Israel could have done about this wonderful man. Certainly, neither the mighty Soviet Union, nor the diplomatic pygmies in the Swedish Government ever responded positively towards Israel's requests.

At least Sweden produced this decent and honourable man. This is more than can be said about many other countries. Just look at Switzerland, only recently have it's citizens who helped Jews been "rebilitated" as decent Swiss. Only trouble is, just one Swiss has survived to be told that he has been "forgiven." for helping Jews during the genocide of European Jewry.

Wallenberg should be taught as a part of modern Sweish history in it's schools. And yes, well done to the Local.
16:27 January 3, 2012 by itsspideyman
As an American (with a Swedish fiance) I have known of the story of Raoul Wallenberg and his humanitarian fight. He is a hero here in the States and we accept him as one of our own.

I can understand the difficulites of confronting an embarrasing past. Here in the States we have our own. I very much admire the people of Sweden, I have been taken in as family, and I feel I understand the heart of the Swedish people. If I can give any advise, I would look to Raoul Wallenberg as an example. Be brave in your heart, have courage to explore the past, no matter what it brings. The past has no power, other than guide your thoughts of the future. Find out the last days of Raoul Wallenberg , his capture and his ultimate fate. When you do this, perhaps the spirit of Wallenberg will no longer wander between adopted countries, but can finally come Home.
19:00 January 3, 2012 by guliver
Roekdal

Thank you very much, I read with big interest about Valdemar and Nina,

Wallenberg is famous but there were many many simple people with good heart in all over Europe who risk their lives to save the Jews,I really do not know all of them and for me they are all to be admire like Wallnberg,

In Yad Vashem the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem there are all the names of these heroes,generally was planted a tree for the memory of that persons and under the tree there is a stone with their details,

Till today there are surviviours who remember these people and the state of Israel bring them and their families to a special cerimony in which they or their children get a medal and an honorable certificate,

May God bless all of them.
03:38 January 4, 2012 by Gadgetguy
The answer to Sweden's ambivalence to Wallenberg is far simpler, ANTI-SEMETISM STUPID! Saving Jews has never been popular; it was not and still today is not even though Jews by far are the most important racial group since the beginning of mankind.
13:51 January 4, 2012 by Streja
I find the article and comments a bit odd. Why do the posters here assume that kids in school don't learn about Raoul? What about the great movie with Stellan Skarsgård? It's not like Swedes don't know who he was and are not proud of him. Swedes perhaps don't brag about him like many other nationalities would.

Surely Sweden's history after the war is full of good stories about helping others? Does that not mean that we lernt something from the war and what happened?

Swedes are not all state officials either.
10:30 January 5, 2012 by rufus.t.firefly
First, although there are not many comments about this article, those that appear here reflect serious thought, a refreshing change from the usual stuff.

Second: @Streja: I appreciate your comments, and will look for the movie you mention. But it is fair and accurate to point out the ambivalence of Official Sweden in addressing Raoul Wallenberg's fate and to continue demanding a serious effort to get to the truth. The unanswered questions will remain a black mark on Sweden.
13:56 January 5, 2012 by KungsholmenGuy
I for one wonder about Lavaux's (post number 5) first long comment paragraph.

Clearly Sweden benefited immensely from its iron ore trade, and other commerce, with Germany during WWII. Are there no wartime government cabinet documents that can be accessed now that would prove that the highest levels of Swedish government were instrumental in attempting to frustrate Wallenberg's attempts to save Jews? (which would obviously have angered their number 1 commerical trading partner). Sadly human nature is such that financial issues often trump other factors.

If the disapproval of Wallenberg reached the Swedish foreign ministry from the highest levels of the Swedish government, then the diplomatic corps would be merely guilty of treating Wallenberg the way they were told to. Not admirable for anyone to have been unhelpful to Wallenberg, but it would be good to know what authority was calling the shots (unless it was the sociological factors mentionned in Lavaux's 2nd and 3rd paragraphs).

Could the slow response to recognize Wallenberg be directly or indirectly attributable to the desire to downplay his heroism by one or more influential (but embarassed) political families in Sweden?
18:13 January 5, 2012 by cogito
@Lavaux, right all the way through (#5)

What boons did the foreign ministry extract?

We'll never know most of it.

It is well known in diplomatic circles, however, that one renowned Swedish ambassador to the USSR returned home with a quantity of rare silver Russian antiques.

Although this was in principle illegal, somehow he was permitted, unofficially, to take the precious objects out of the country.

In exchange for...?
18:33 January 5, 2012 by Observant
The main reason why the b@stard Swedish Government at the time and NOW are not worried over Raoul Wallenberg is solely because the Swedes were NOT neutral in the Second World War they were on the side of Germany.

So any investigations into Wallenbergs whereabouts would be against the attitude of the German people and German state. Seeing that Wallenberg helped so many hundreds of Jews escape the German NAZI war machine.

Any Swedish involvement into Wallenbergs disappearance would be insulting to Sweden's dearest NAZI and SS regime of whom the Swedes hold very dearly to this very day!!! For what reason only God knows!
19:52 January 5, 2012 by philster61
Any Swedish involvement into Wallenbergs disappearance would be insulting to Sweden's dearest NAZI and SS regime of whom the Swedes hold very dearly to this very day!!! For what reason only God knows!"

Guess its genetic...... Swedes after all are descended from the Krauts.....
05:10 January 6, 2012 by jimfromcanada
Congratulations to the Swedish Junior hockey team for winning the Gold medal!
08:06 January 8, 2012 by RobinHood
Before and at the beginnng of the war, many Swedes were sympathetic to the Nazis. Living opposite the seemingly next great super power triggered a political process called Finlandisation, where a small weak country bends over backwards to please its huge aggressive neighbour - or else. That is how Sweden avoided the fate of Denmark and Norway. But by the end of the war, it was clear Sweden had backed the wrong horse, and shifted its sympathy towards the allies, and somewhat cynically rediscovered its neutrality. Wallenberg was dispatched to Budapest, in the last stages of the war. By then the allies had realised the mechanics of the Final Solution, and Budapest was next on the list for "cleansing". Wallenberg's mission was triggered at US request, they were looking for a German speaking neutral diplomat to disrupt Eichman's plans in Budapest. Wallenberg fitted the bill.
18:38 January 11, 2012 by CJ from Sunshine Desserts
I think that Sweden collectively, and Swedes in general have a guilt problem over WWII, they did nothing to stop Hitler, and in principle supported him until 1942-43. Sweden & in particular the Swedish industrialists owning the arms maufacturing and the iron ore made fortunes doing business with Germany. Name me one of those dynastical families ?thats right the Wallenbergs. After WWII Sweden has persued a policy of open door immigration & usually from third world counrtries of politically challenged. Perhaps an attempt to make amends for WWII?. Neither did they take sides during the cold war, rather hiding behind "neutrality"...of course Södertälje has taken more refugees from Iraq the the whole of the USA. But who cares ? ...and they still have a" Palme" group !omg what a country
01:19 January 17, 2012 by Keith #5083
I sincerely hope that this 'memorial year' in his memory will give rise to a much greater understanding and appreciation of what he achieved.

In Karlstad we can see a much-loved statue of a serving maid.When and where shall we see the statues/memorials to a man whose ethics and morality rose high above what could be reasonably considered as normal?

All nations are compromised in war. All governments walk a fine line between the protection of their populations and the pursuit of idealogy in time of war.Some examples appear to suggest that there were no lines at all.

Some nations, despite these considerations, give birth to individuals who rise above all these things in the simple name of compassionate humanity.

Whatever the failures or successes of Sweden, it is to be remembered that Sweden birthed this incredible man. To celebrate Raoul Wallenberg is also to celebrate a potentiality that has it's origins in Swedish society.
21:42 January 17, 2012 by Karcsi
On all your behalf remembering Raoul Wallenberg these days all over the world

I placed my flower at his statue here in Budapest.
23:53 January 21, 2012 by willowsdad
Gadgetguy (#9): Satire?
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