Why Didn't the Swedes Mobilize to Save Holocaust Hero Raoul Wallenberg?

The very belated confirmation of the death of the Swedish diplomat raises new questions about economic and political interests – of the Swedish government and of his family – that may explain why the affair was not settled 70 years ago.

David Stavrou
David Stavrou
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David Stavrou
David Stavrou

A few weeks ago, the death was announced in Sweden of a person who almost certainly died decades ago. The individual in question, the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, has been missing since 1947, when he is presumed to have been in the hands of the Soviet secret services, held in Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison. In the absence of an official Russian statement about Wallenberg’s fate, and because investigators and researchers were unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Wallenberg was executed or died in prison, the Swedish authorities never formally declared him dead. That situation ended last March, when the Wallenberg family asked the Swedish Tax Authority, which oversees the population registry in the country, to pronounce him officially dead. The authority announced that if Wallenberg did not appear before it, or if no additional information was received concerning his case within six months, he would be declared dead.

“The official date of his death is 31 July 1952,” Pia Gustafsson, a senior official at the Tax Authority, said at the end of October. She added, according to the Guardian newspaper, “This date is purely formal. Legally, we must choose a date at least five years after his disappearance and there were signs of life until the end of July 1947.” A statement issued by the family noted that the declaration of death “is a way to deal with the trauma we lived through, to bring one phase to closure and move on.”

The Wallenberg case is closed, but many questions remain unresolved. What really happened to him? Why were no greater efforts made by his government to locate him? Were any of the authorities involved interested in silencing the affair? And why did his family wait 70 years before deciding to “move on”? That’s a rather odd phrase in this context, since Wallenberg’s parents committed suicide in 1979, his brother died seven years ago and his sister is now 95.

The story of Wallenberg’s disappearance begins in July 1944, when he arrived in Budapest as a diplomatic envoy under an American-Swedish appointment. This was made possible when the then-newly created American War Refugee Board chose Wallenberg as its representative in Budapest and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of neutral Sweden agreed to the American request to assign him to the local Swedish legation. By then, some 432,000 Hungarian Jews had been deported and most of them were murdered in Auschwitz over a period of just a few months. Wallenberg’s official mission was to reduce the scale of the disaster, and he was indeed able to save many of the thousands of Jews still remaining in Budapest from a similar fate. He issued them Swedish protective passports and hid them in buildings he rented, while holding negotiations with the authorities that allowed many Jews to survive.

At the end of the war, the Russians, who now occupied Budapest, arrested him on suspicion of espionage. According to most researchers and available testimonies, he was executed in 1947, at the age of 34. Surprisingly, even though he was declared one of the Righteous Among the Nations by Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in 1963 and was hailed internationally as a symbol of heroism and moral action – the Swedish government did not make a great effort to discover what had befallen him and did very little to extricate him when it still might have been possible. Still more surprising is the fact, confirmed by historical records and evidence, that his extended family did not mobilize to save him.

‘Sanctity of contracts’

To understand the Swedish passivity in this regard, it’s necessary to know something about the standing of the Wallenberg family in Swedish society. For the last 150 years, the Wallenbergs have been the richest and most influential family in the country. A large segment of the country’s industry and banking sector was and remains in their ownership, and they wield considerable political influence as well. Raoul Wallenberg did not reach the highest levels of the family’s business activity, but his mission to Budapest was known to and accepted by the family’s senior figures, Jacob and Marcus Wallenberg, Jr., his father’s uncles, who corresponded with him while he was in the Hungarian capital.

“On the one hand, Marcus, Jr. and Jacob acted as liaisons between the Swedish Foreign Ministry and the British and Germans, and they were certainly aware of the negotiations that led to the humanitarian mission of their relative in Budapest,” says Dr. Paul A. Levine, a Berlin-based historian who is an expert on Sweden’s role in World War II and has published a book about Raoul Wallenberg, in a Skype interview with Haaretz.

“On the other hand,” Levine continues, “the Wallenbergs had business and economic interests with the Germans. In May 1944, for example, just a few weeks before the invasion of Normandy, an American diplomat spoke with Marcus Wallenberg about the moral interest of stopping trade with the Germans. Wallenberg replied that they could not do that, because of binding contracts. When the diplomat said that at such times there were more sacred things than contracts, Wallenberg replied that there is nothing more important than the sanctity of contracts.”

Raoul Wallenberg.Credit: AP

The Wallenberg family’s ambivalence about the events in Europe in the 1940s was part of what Levine calls the “Swedish paradox” and the “myth of Swedish neutrality.”

“Before the war and at its start, the Swedes were indifferent to the fate of the Jews of Central Europe,” Levine says. “The indifference turned into active policy to rescue the Jews in 1942, with the start of the Final Solution in Norway, 50 percent of whose Jews fled to Sweden. In 1943, Denmark’s Jews were saved when they were offered a haven in Sweden. The diplomatic activity in Budapest saved up to 20,000 Jews [Levine rejects the “myth,” in his word, that Wallenberg saved 100,000 Jews], and thousands more were saved thanks to the White Buses of the Swedish Red Cross at the end of the war. The paradox is that during all this time the Nazi war machine and German industry continued to operate thanks to the iron ore supplied to them by the Swedes.”

Swedish economic interests also affected Wallenberg’s fate after the war, the historian adds: “Whereas Wallenberg’s parents made every effort to find out what happened to their son, the most influential branch of the family, headed by Marcus, Jr. and Jacob, could have done much more. They could have easily contacted the prime minister of Sweden in 1945-46 and demanded firmer action. But they did not do so.”

Swedish passivity in this regard is usually interpreted as a means for the neutral country to avoid angering the Russians. Levine, however, puts forward another reason. “After the war, the Wallenberg family wanted to have business dealings with the Soviets. They wanted to loan them about $250 million, and they, like the government, very much wanted to avoid irking Stalin.”

Is it possible that Raoul Wallenberg was abandoned to his fate by his government and his family because of economic considerations? Did the Swedes forgo the few levers of pressure on the Soviets that were available to them because of political calculations?

Just as there are different conjectures about Wallenberg’s physical fate, there are also diverse opinions on this subject. Levine notes that two Swiss diplomats were arrested by the Soviets in Budapest under similar circumstances and were returned to their country following aggressive negotiations by the Swiss. In contrast, the Swedes displayed moral apathy and a lack of empathy, and Wallenberg remained in prison. It was not until the late 1990s that the Swedes’ attitude toward Wallenberg and the Holocaust in general changed dramatically. At that time, the government, with the aid of academics such as Levine and Israeli Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer, initiated a series of educational, political and social projects regarding the Holocaust and Sweden’s problematic behavior during the war years.

For Raoul Wallenberg, it was too late, of course. All that remains now is to declare him dead and learn from his legacy. And that legacy is more relevant than ever. In a situation void of a moral compass, when most of Europe’s leading public figures responded to the Nazi death industry with a combination of survival instincts and economic and political considerations – Raoul Wallenberg belongs to the inspiring minority who differentiated between good and evil, and paid the highest price for his moral choices. That is his true legacy. Some would say that 21st-century Europe needs it no less than Europe of the 1940s.

The writer is a Stockholm-based Israeli journalist.

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