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 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.