Reflecting on Raoul Wallenberg’s fate 75 years after his disappearance

On January 17, 1945 – 75 years ago – Raoul Wallenberg was arrested by the Soviet military intelligence apparatus, never to be seen again.

Raoul Wallenberg  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Raoul Wallenberg
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
On January 17, 1945 – 75 years ago – Raoul Wallenberg was arrested by the Soviet military intelligence apparatus, never to be seen again.
Born in Sweden in 1912, Wallenberg, was a scion of one of the most powerful and influential families in his country. His father, a naval officer, had died before he was born and he was raised by his mother, Maj and his step-father, Fredrik von Dardel, with care and love, under the close supervision of his paternal grandfather, Gustaf Wallenberg, an experienced diplomat.
Both the first cousins of his late father, Marcus and Jacob, were in charge of the Wallenberg economic empire at the time, with major stakes in Swedish industrial and financial sectors. Following the advice of his grandfather, young Wallenberg pursued a degree in architecture from Michigan University and gained experience in trade and finance in South Africa and Haifa (during the British Mandate period, before the founding of the State of Israel).
It is believed that Raoul wanted to work in his family’s business concern, but while Jacob kept a cordial relationship with his young second cousin, the latter ended-up working with Koloman Lauer, a seasoned Jew from Hungary, who had set-up a successful international trade company.
Prompted by Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., President Roosevelt in early 1944, set-up the War Refugee Board (WRB), a US executive agency with the mission to save the lives of civilians being slaughtered by the Axis. Coincidentally, Morgenthau’s own father, Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, Sr., was one of the personalities who decades earlier denounced the great tragedy of the Armenian genocide.
By early 1944, some 400,000 Hungarian Jews had been deported to Auschwitz, leaving behind approximately 230,000 Jews facing a similar bitter destiny. It became immediately apparent that the most pressing mission of the WRB was to try and save the remaining Jewish community in Hungary.
President Roosevelt’s administration came-up with the idea of involving Sweden in this effort, mainly due to its neutral status. At the same time, the Allies were displeased with Sweden’s neutrality and particularly because this Scandinavian country was engaging in active trade with Germany during World War II, supplying crucial raw materials to its military apparatus. In line with Sweden’s policy, the Wallenberg business concern was playing a major role in trading with both the Allies and the Nazis.
Through contacts made by Koloman Lauer and with his recommendation, Raoul Wallenberg was picked to lead the ambitious mission of trying to save Hungarian Jewry, with the green light of the Swedish government, who was eager to cleanse its image with the Allies.
DEVOID OF ANY DIPLOMATIC experience, 32-year-old Wallenberg arrived in Budapest on July 9, 1944. The rest is history. Millions of words have been rightfully written about his feats.
In six months of feverish work, as secretary of the Swedish legation, he managed to save the lives of tens of thousands of Jews in Hungary.
He applied unorthodox methods, including bribery, cajoling, threatening and, above all, courage and ingenuity. For instance, the Schutzpasses he designed, which lacked any official validity, appealed to the German fondness for stamps and colors and provided the holders some degree of protection as if they were legitimate passports.
On occasion, he risked his own life by pulling rounded-up Jews awaiting deportation or execution, demanding that the Nazi officers at once release “his Swedish citizens”.
By January 1945, 6 months into his mission, most of the Jews were saved by Wallenberg and it was clear that the Soviets were going to become the new rulers in Hungary. Preoccupied with the future of his ‘saved’ “Jewish Refugees,” he arranged a meeting with Marshal Rodyon Malinovsky, the Supreme Commander of the Soviet Military, precisely to address this matter. The meeting was supposed to take place at the Soviet Military Headquarters in Debrecen, on January 17, 1945.
Against the advice of his colleagues, Wallenberg went ahead with his plan and left Budapest by car. His loyal assistant and driver, Vilmos Langfelder, was behind the wheel.
Upon arrival – instead of being treated as guests – both were immediately arrested by the SMERSH (the Soviet Military Intelligence) and transferred to Moscow for interrogation.
The question why Wallenberg was arrested by the Soviets is still shrouded in mystery. There are many conjectures but one thing is clear. The abduction and probable further assassination of Raoul Wallenberg and Vilmos Langfelder were ordered or, at least authorized, by the Soviet Supreme Leader, Joseph Stalin.
In those days, human lives were worth very little, especially in the Soviet Union under Stalin’s rule.
Historians are still debating whether Stalin thought that Wallenberg was an American spy or perhaps, the tyrant wanted to blackmail his powerful family in Sweden, since he certainly was aware of their business dealings with the Germans. Stalin might have thought that the Wallenberg family might be able to persuade the Swedish government to offer favorable loans or other incentives to the Soviets.
Back in the 90s, two Dutch authors, Gerald Aalders and Cees Wiebes, wrote a fascinating book called The Art of Cloaking – the Case of Swedish Ownership. Their book dwells on Swedish firms that supported Nazi financial and industrial leadership and underscores the case of the Wallenberg family’s bank, Enskilda, which according to the authors, acted as a cloak for the Nazi regime helping major German companies, such as Bosch, Krupp and IG Farben hide their foreign subsidiaries in order to avoid confiscation by the Americans.
One cannot rule-out that Soviet intelligence was aware of these alleged cloaking efforts and either wanted to extract information from Raoul about this issue or use him as a bargaining chip against his powerful relatives.
The writer is the founder of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation.