Humanistic philosophy in action

The true test of Raoul Wallenberg’s important legacy.

June 15, 2019 21:41
Raoul Wallenberg

Raoul Wallenberg. (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)


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Raoul G. Wallenberg (1912-?) was a Swedish businessman and diplomat. He is remembered for the remarkable courage he showed when in July 1944, at age 31, he accepted a diplomatic appointment to go to Hungary to protect the Jews of Budapest from the ruthless Nazi death machine.

By the time Wallenberg arrived, the Nazis had killed 400,000 Jews of the Hungarian countryside and approximately 200,000 Jewish residents left in Budapest were about to meet the same fate. Driven by Wallenberg’s relentless energy, a wide network of diplomatic colleagues and members of the Hungarian resistance managed to save thousands of Budapest’s Jews. 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 Swedish prime minister Göran Persson in 2001.

The 75th anniversary of Swedish diplomat Wallenberg’s humanitarian mission to wartime Budapest in July 1944 to protect Hungary’s remaining Jewish population gives rise to a wide range of reflections and emotions. The brutality and the extent of the Holocaust in Hungary are staggering – 500,000 Jews murdered in just a few months, immediately before and after the German occupation of the country in March 1944. The Allies essentially stood by, unwilling to intervene; a shameful failure that will forever mar the record of the victors.
There has been much debate in recent years about how to assess Wallenberg’s role and achievements during this horrific period in Hungarian history. How effective were his rescue efforts? How many people did he actually save?

It is perhaps the wrong question to ask. Ultimately, Wallenberg’s enduring legacy rests far less in the number of people he rescued than in the humanitarian spirit he embodied and the courage he displayed.

One could argue that Wallenberg’s mission was little more than a small ray of light in an otherwise disastrous failure to stem the tide of the Holocaust. His mission, backed by the United States and the Swedish government, was conceived late and haphazardly, at best, with no organizational plan to speak of.

Yet in the hell that was Budapest in the second half of 1944, Wallenberg’s efforts – carried out with crucial support from his Swedish colleagues, the Hungarian resistance and the diplomatic representatives from Switzerland, the Vatican and other neutral countries – managed to protect, house and feed many of the close to 200,000 Jews left in the city. In addition, thousands of unsung heroes, not-so-ordinary Hungarian citizens, risked their lives every day on the streets of Budapest, against overwhelming odds.

Some of these rescue efforts were made possible by the fact that the Nazi leadership in Hungary – realizing the war was almost certainly lost and fearing the rapidly advancing Red Army – wished to accommodate international opinion to some degree. One must remember, however, how small this opening was and what extraordinary determination and commitment it took for Wallenberg and others to take advantage of it.

In the end, the number of people Wallenberg’s mission was able to aid directly – about 30,000 – was comparatively small. The impact he made, however, was fundamental. Per Anger, Wallenberg’s diplomatic colleague who was himself honored by Yad Vashem for his rescue work, once said that what made Wallenberg different was that he was “a true humanitarian.” What Wallenberg brought to Budapest was the idea of possibility – the hope that rescue was indeed attainable. He worked day and night, driving himself to exhaustion and ignoring the threats to his own life. It was this relentless attitude, the will to take action and to sustain it, combined with a unique talent for organization and negotiation, which turned a small Swedish protective effort into an extensive rescue operation with safe houses, organized food and clothing supplies and with care offered to orphans and the sick.

Wallenberg’s extraordinary spirit, his almost reflexive determination to jump into the fray to help others, is the enduring legacy that has captured the world’s imagination. The Jewish community of Budapest certainly understood what they had witnessed. When Wallenberg disappeared in January 1945, after he was detained by Soviet military counterintelligence units, there was an almost instantaneous outpouring of emotion from survivors, who held a moving memorial service in his honor.

Miguel Cervantes once said that “in order to attain the impossible, one must attempt the absurd.” That approach defined both Raoul Wallenberg’s mission and Raoul Wallenberg the man. He was soft-spoken, but had a steely determination. He was daring, courageous and impatient. He chafed at bureaucratic restrictions – he was impulsive, creative and empathetic. Wallenberg infuriated his opponents and also quite often his colleagues.

He could be pragmatic and yet, at heart, he was an idealist. His mission was true humanistic philosophy in action. He led by example, making it clear that to counter horrendous crimes like genocide, every person is called upon to take a stand. And we all know how difficult this really is. Activism all too frequently imposes a brutal price on those who dare to stand up and speak out. Unfortunately, Wallenberg himself was no exception. The man who managed to save so many was shamefully abandoned, not only by his own country, but also by the US government, which had initiated and supervised his mission, and sadly, also to a large extent by the international Jewish community after the war.

Wallenberg’s closest family, however, never gave up the fight to rescue him. They, too, faced a nearly impossible task, which they shouldered with the same unyielding mindset Wallenberg had shown in Budapest. For decades, his parents, Maj and Fredrik von Dardel, as well as Raoul’s siblings – his half-brother, Guy von Dardel, and his half-sister, Nina Lagergren – were forced to wage an exhausting two-front war: Trying to confront the Soviet authorities, while also having to deal with the confounding lethargy of the Swedish government that did not want to provoke its powerful neighbor to the east. Not even for a man who today is celebrated as one of Sweden’s most important cultural symbols – a representative of everything that is good and right about the country and its people.

Not surprisingly, many important questions about Wallenberg’s mission and his fate remain unanswered. There exists little appetite in his home country for a full reckoning with the past. This includes the 10-year bilateral Swedish-Russian investigation of the Wallenberg case in the 1990s, as well as the work of a special Swedish commission that examined the official Swedish handling of Wallenberg’s disappearance in the early 2000s.

As for the Russian authorities, they have shown no willingness to abandon more than seven decades of blatant and willful obstruction in the case. The Swedish government in particular must do a better job of pressing the Russian Federal Security Service to release key documentation that continues to be classified in its archival collections. This material can almost certainly establish the full facts about Wallenberg’s imprisonment. It is no longer a question if the truth is known, but rather why neither side seems to have the political will to reveal it.

Today, we are once again keenly aware that the line separating democratic societies from authoritarian regimes is very thin indeed. Remembrance is the key step that enables us to learn from history, to avoid repeating the same mistakes over and over.

So is the search for historical truth – about the real causes of antisemitism and xenophobia, about mass repression and the Holocaust, and about millions of political prisoners all over the world, past and present, who are incarcerated without due process, deprived of even the most basic human rights.

Seventy-five years after Raoul Wallenberg pointed the way with his spirited example, such an unvarnished and direct accounting remains the true test of his legacy, for all of us.

Susanne Berger is a historical researcher. From 1995-2000 she served as an independent consultant to the Swedish-Russian working group that investigated the fate of Wallenberg in Russia. She is the founder and coordinator of the Raoul Wallenberg Research Initiative (RWI-70).

Dr. Vadim Birstein, a biologist and historian, was a member of the first International Commission on Raoul Wallenberg headed by Prof. Guy von Dardel, Wallenberg’s half-brother, in 1990-91. He has published many articles on the Wallenberg case and is the author of the books The Perversion of Knowledge: The True Story of Soviet Science (2001) and SMERSH, Stalin’s Secret Weapon: Soviet Military Counterintelligence in WWII (2012), which was translated into several languages.

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