Features Raoul Wallenberg: Myths and truths
A hundred years have passed and Raoul Wallenberg is currently the subject of much publicity.
Published on balticworlds.com on juni 28, 2012
A completely unremarkable birth announcement was published in the Stockholm papers in the summer of 1912. On the 4th of August, a chilly and rainy day, Raoul Gustaf Wallenberg was born at Kappsta in the residential city of Lidingö just north of Stockholm. His only parent was his mother Maj Wallenberg, née Wising. His father, the young naval officer Raoul Oscar Wallenberg, had died of cancer three months before.
A hundred years have passed and Raoul Wallenberg is currently the subject of much publicity, including two extensive biographies: journalist and author Ingrid Carlberg’s Det står ett rum här och väntar på dig [There is a room here waiting for you] (Norstedts) and Slavonic scholar Bengt Jangfeldt’s Raoul Wallenberg. En biografi [Raoul Wallenberg. A biography] (W & W). This is a worthy but deeply tragic story: it reflects two major European dictatorships like a drop of water in which one can read the salinity of the entire ocean, to quote the Swedish publisher Torgny Segerstedt in Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfarts-Tidning during the years of the Second World War. But Raoul Wallenberg’s fate also points to the future, to the increasingly topical discussion of human rights. The books are something of an accomplishment in both respects.
Raoul Wallenberg’s first three decades passed in the shadow of the leading figures of the Wallenberg family of bankers and financiers who enjoyed a prominent position in Swedish business, particularly since the collapse of the Kreuger empire in 1932. Raoul’s father was a cousin of bankers Jacob Wallenberg and Marcus Wallenberg Junior. His grandfather Gustaf, who died in 1947, stepped in as his father figure and adviser; the letters between Gustaf and Raoul have been published under the title Älskade farfar [Beloved grandfather] (1987). Jangfeldt provides a thoughtfully arranged and formulated depiction of this time. Carlberg’s book is more personal, with her own perceptions of people and settings interspersed into an account that could have been somewhat more disciplined.
The era that shaped Raoul Wallenberg’s international reputation was brief but dramatic: six months as first secretary to the Swedish diplomatic mission in wartime Budapest, where he was given the US-funded assignment to rescue “as many people as possible” from the deportations to extermination camps that had begun in the Hungarian countryside and had now reached the Jews of Budapest. These events are thoroughly described by both authors.
The final period of Raoul Wallenberg’s life does not even permit anything like reliable delimitation or description. Nevertheless, it began in a way that seemed safe enough: on 16 January 1945, Soviet foreign officer Dekanozov informed Swedish envoy to Moscow Staffan Söderblom by letter that Wallenberg had been found in Budapest and that the Soviet authorities had taken steps to protect him and his possessions. In the summer of 1947, after two and a half years of silence, the Soviet Union declared through Deputy Foreign Minister Vyshinsky that Wallenberg was not in the Soviet Union and was “unknown to us.” Ten years later, testimony from repatriated Italian and German prisoners of war made that position untenable. Supported by a certificate issued by Smoltsov, prison doctor at Lubyanka Prison in Moscow, Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko now declared that Wallenberg had died of a heart attack on 17 July 1947 and that his arrest and detention had been the illegal decision of Abakumov, head of the SMERSH counter-espionage agency executed for his crimes in 1954. No other documents had been found.
But the situation changed in 1980s. Wallenberg’s registration card at Lubyanka, calendar, and passport were found and presented to his half-siblings Guy von Dardel and Nina Lagergren in 1989. Joint Swedish-Russian committees of inquiry were able to identify some – albeit often redacted – information in the prison records (Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs new series II:52, Stockholm 2000). A Swedish official inquiry into the actions of Sweden arrived at the title and conclusion Ett diplomatiskt misslyckande [A failure of diplomacy] (Swedish Government Report SOU 2003:18). But much of the overwhelming weight of new information is still resting precariously on a quagmire.
Carlberg superbly and persuasively depicts events behind the scenes in 1945-1957, especially the interviews with Wallenberg’s fellow prisoners at Lubyanka in 1947. Jangfeldt’s book may be thick enough to qualify as a tome but there are still quite a few omissions, although he demonstrates his certainty in the reproduction of documents (see below under ”Myth or Truth,” numbers 7 and 10). The recently published book ”The Envoy”, the title of the Swedish translation is ”Raoul Wallenbergs sista dagar”, by the British journalist Alex Kershaw is well written but an unfortunate example of the tendency to mix fact and fiction in historical and biographical works.
Ten myths or truths about Raoul Wallenberg
Myth or Truth 1: As a young man, Raoul was not held in high esteem by the influential members of the family, who could later have done more to secure his release.
Very early on, Marcus had upon one occasion questioned Raoul’s grandfather’s financial judgment. Many years later, Jacob and Marcus Junior believed Raoul had the gift of gab, a euphemism for being a bit of a chatterbox, which was inconsistent with the family motto: ”To be, not to be seen.” Raoul himself evinced not only a certain distance to Jacob in particular, but also main interests that leaned in a direction other than the world of banking, primarily architecture, the field of his professional education during his years in Ann Arbor, Michigan and his most noted contributions in Sweden before he was sent on his mission to Budapest.
Conclusion: Largely true.
Myth or Truth 2: Some people doubted he was the right person for the job in Budapest.
Through Jacob Wallenberg’s intervention, Raoul had secured a position with the Central European Trading Company (Mellaneuropeiska Handelsaktiebolaget) at Strandvägen 7 A in Stockholm. The company imported food products and delicacies from other countries, significantly including Hungary. When the Jewish persecutions intensified in Hungary, the World Refugee Board established by US President Roosevelt sought a person from a neutral country who could perform important work in Hungary. The solution was cooperation with the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs. The chief rabbi of Stockholm, Marcus Ehrenpreis, met with Raoul, who had been suggested by the head of the company Kálmán Lauer. At first Ehrenpreis thought Raoul was not up to the task, but later changed his mind. In July 1944, Raoul Wallenberg went to Hungary as first secretary to the Swedish foreign mission.
Conclusion: Largely myth. Wallenberg was an unknown quantity; the evaluation of his contributions came later.
Myth or Truth 3: He may have rescued as many as 100,000 Jews from the Holocaust.
His main method was to put Hungarian Jewish citizens under Swedish protection by means of protective passports. This was not mainly a desk job and was instead usually done out in the field at the sites of deportation marches and railway stations. His department purchased entire buildings in Budapest. Ten thousand people may have been rescued this way but the exact number is unimportant. A special question underlies the significantly higher figures: that of the international ghetto and Raoul Wallenberg’s possible influence on its having been spared. The argument he made to those in power was often that they would be held accountable after the war, whose coming end could already be sensed through the sounds and sights of the Soviet artillery. Enzyclopedie des Holocaust (Zurich 1995) gives Wallenberg a significant part of the credit for that 100,000 of the 200,000 Jews living in Budapest in the interwar era were still alive after the war in the large ghetto and the ”international ghetto” in Budapest run by Sweden and four other neutral states.
Conclusion: Myth. His contributions were not widespread enough to warrant giving him credit for having rescued all 100,000 survivors.
Myth or Truth 4: There was reason to distrust the protective passports because they were also used by Nazis.
There was a wide variety of protective passports including those issued by Waldemar Langlet, Swedish representative to the Red Cross, and by five neutral states. In the chaos of Budapest, these passports were traded on the black market and the existence of forgery workshops should not come as a surprise. However, several people including Per Anger, second first secretary to the Swedish diplomatic mission, have stated that Raoul Wallenberg carried out his operations with the greatest possible care. He did not believe there was any proof that some of these passports may have been used as ”bribes” by Wallenberg’s department.
Conclusion: Generally true, but a myth with regard to Wallenberg.
Myth or Truth 5: Raoul Wallenberg invited Adolf Eichmann to dinner and challenged his worldview.
Some authors, including Paul A. Levine in Wallenberg in Budapest (2010, also available in Swedish translation from the original English) have questioned whether the dinner ever took place. Levine is supported by forthcoming publications about Wallenberg. Jangfeldt is convinced the dinner happened and sees no reason why those who related the story, including second secretary Lars Berg, would have invented it. Carlberg suggests that Eichmann may have been confused with Himmler’s special representative, SS officer Kurt Becher. But Raoul met both several times – a surely necessary aspect of his work – and his colleagues should certainly have understood to differentiate between them.
Conclusion: The arguments that this is a myth are so far not persuasive.
Myth or Truth 6: He was arrested by Soviet troops because his car was filled with valuables.
This theory is propounded mainly by Jangfeldt, but is also mentioned by Carlberg. It was related to me in Budapest in 1965 by an older civil servant in the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Trade. He considered it generally accepted truth in his circles. Interestingly enough, it was linked to later accusations against security agency head Abakumov, who allegedly helped himself to valuable assets that had come under the control of the Red Army.
This may have been part of a general conspiratorial image of Wallenberg created by the Soviet authorities, including the negotiations for a separate peace that the Western Allies are claimed to have engaged in with Germany during the final phases of the war, which is a fundamentally untrue claim. What actually happened were certain German attempts to make contact. Wallenberg’s purported role in the matter was alleged in 1´961 in the English-language Soviet journal International Affairs by journalist Lev Bezymenski. The article is not mentioned by Jangfeldt or Carlberg.
It may be added that Wallenberg had on his person his own plan for the reconstruction of Budapest, which called for the return of confiscated property to the former owners.
Conclusion: The theory is at any rate not a complete truth.
Myth or Truth 7: The Wallenberg matter was never communicated to Soviet authorities outside the security service.
This was the principal theme of the Soviet letter in 1957, but it was made clear during perestroika that the arrest order, which has been preserved, was issued by Bulganin, then deputy commissar of defense. Jangfeldt provides an accurate translation of the order. Carlberg’s version gives the impression that the order was initiated by SMERSH, but the document actually only reads “copy to SMERSH.” But it may very well still have been based on a SMERSH report – we do not how events played out prior to the order.
In 1948, the Soviet authorities admonished Alexandra Kollontai to stop asking questions about Wallenberg because he was dead, according to her secretary Emmy Lorentzon, whom Jangfeldt quotes.
Conclusion: The theory is a myth.
Myth or Truth 8: The widespread opinion at the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs was that Wallenberg was an outsider beyond the context of his foreign ministry career, which may have led to a failure of commitment to him both during his time in Budapest and, above all, during subsequent investigations.
We know that both the head of the Swedish mission Ivan Danielsson and his colleague Lars Berg objected to Raoul’s unconventional methods, but there is no evidence of lack of solidarity on their part. We can thus speak of a post-war failure of diplomacy. In Foreign Minister Östen Undén’s case, his disinclination to pursue the matter may be seen as a consequence of his reluctance to disturb Sweden’s relations with the Soviet Union at a sensitive phase. Moreover, he was a professor of private law and not of international law as Carlberg – and many others – claim, although he was the international law expert at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs during the war years.
Envoy to Moscow Staffan Söderblom’s belief, recounted in his infamous farewell meeting with Stalin in 1946, must have been understood by Stalin to be Sweden’s official position: Wallenberg had somehow died in the confusion in Hungary in 1945. As a belief this was not unusual; as a statement before Stalin it was indefensible and inexplicable if one chooses not to refer to Söderblom’s mental instability. No reprimand was ever made.
Conclusion: There is some support for the theory, but there were other decisive causes behind the “failure of diplomacy.”
Myth or Truth 9: Swedish Professor Nanna Svartz was asked at a medical congress in 1961 whether she would like to see Wallenberg.
Ironically enough, Nanna Svartz was the personal physician of Alexandra Kollontai, Maj von Dardel, and Swedish Prime Minister Tage Erlander. When she reported what she had heard from a Russian colleague at a congress in Moscow, her account was accepted with strong faith by Erlander and initially by Undén, who must have been terribly disillusioned by the 1957 letter. Wallenberg was supposedly at a mental hospital and in very poor condition. When asked whether she would like to see him, she supposedly (and remarkably) said that it was unnecessary. Sweden requested Wallenberg’s repatriation on these grounds, which were far more tenuous than Dekanozov’s virtually ignored information in 1945. Jangfeldt omits this event entirely, surely on the basis that he considers it a false trail based on misunderstanding. Carlberg devotes 20 pages to the issue, which I think is appropriate considering the role it played then, although a critical analysis would have been justified. One gains a picture of the continuity of the Wallenberg matter.
Conclusion: The entire story is an enigma and certainly a myth.
Myth or Truth 10: Raoul Wallenberg died of a heart attack in Lubyanka Prison on 17 July.
This is the content of the so-called Smoltsov report. It may in truth have been signed by the person whose name appears under the certificate and at about the point in time stated. The cause of death is another story. Jangfeldt has tracked down three similar cases in which heart attack or, in one case, pneumonia were given as a cover for an execution in Lubyanka. There was a notorious poison laboratory at the prison where Wallenberg may have met his fate. The date has been questioned, especially after statements that one ”Prisoner No. 7” interrogated with Wallenberg’s fellow prisoners on 22-23 July 1947 was actually Wallenberg himself. So, he is supposed to have been interrogated along with other prisoners who were questioned by reason of his death!
Conclusion: The theory is a myth regarding the cause of death but has otherwise not yet been fully clarified.