Raoul Wallenberg

Background

The First World War ends on 11 November with the signing of a general armistice. Germany has accepted a humiliating defeat. The German king has been forced to abdicate and the Austro-Hungarian Empire has been destroyed.

Hungary proclaims its independence. In 1919 communists seize control of the government and announce the establishment of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. The communists are ousted the same year by a military junta. A campaign of "white terror" by the new regime targets communists, socialists, Jews and leftist intellectuals. About 5,000 are executed and 75,000 jailed. Nearly 100,000 flee into exile. Hungarian Jews suffer particularly badly.

In 1910 Hungarian Jews number around 900,000, or about 5% of the population. They make up the bulk of the country's middle class and dominate the finance and business sectors of the economy. By 1945 only about 120,000 Jews remain. More background.

Mini biography

Born on 4 August 1912 in Kappsta, on the island of Lidingö, about 5 km to the northeast of Stockholm.

The Wallenberg's are the wealthiest and most prominent family of financiers in Sweden. His father, Raoul Oscar Wallenberg, dies of stomach cancer three months before Wallenberg is born. His mother, Maria Wising Wallenberg, remarries in 1918. She has two more children, a son and a daughter, giving Wallenberg a half-brother and a half-sister.

Wallenberg is mentored by his grandfather, Gustav, who is the Swedish ambassador to Japan. After finishing his schooling and compulsory military service, Wallenberg spends a year in France.

1920 - A conservative government is elected to power in Hungary. Miklos Horthy, a former commander-in-chief of the Austro-Hungarian navy sits as "regent" above the government. Horthy has the power to dissolve the parliament, appoint the prime minister, veto legislation and command the armed forces.

In June the reparations for Hungary's involvement in the First World War are finalised. Hungary loses more than two-thirds of its pre-war territory. Transylvania is ceded to Romania. Croatia, Slavonia and Vojvodina go to Yugoslavia. Slovakia becomes part of Czechoslovakia.

1931 - Wallenberg travels to the United States to study architecture at the University of Michigan. He will graduate with honours in February 1935 and return to Sweden.

In Hungary, meanwhile, Gyula Gombos, a far-right reactionary and vehement antisemite, is placed in charge of the Hungarian Government.

While his supporters steadily increase their influence within parliament, Gombos cultivates the fascist leaders in surrounding countries. He visits Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and is the first foreign head of government to meet with Adolf Hitler after the Nazi leader is appointed German chancellor in 1933. A trade agreement with Nazi Germany will help Hungary rise out of the Great Depression.

German influence also helps Hungary regain territory lost in the 1920 war reparations settlement. Between 1938 and 1941 Hungary doubles in size, winning back parts of southern Slovakia in 1938, Carpatho-Ukraine in 1939, northern Transylvania in 1940 and parts of Vojvodina in 1941.

However, while territory is recovered and the economy rebounds from the effects of the Great Depression, Hungary's Jews face mounting persecution from the country's increasingly radical antisemites.

1935 - Unable to work as an architect in Sweden, Wallenberg takes a job in Cape Town, South Africa, with a Swedish building supplies company. Six months later he travels to Haifa in Palestine and takes up a position at the Holland Bank. It is in Palestine that Wallenberg first meets Jews who have fled Nazi persecution in Germany.

1936 - Wallenberg returns to Sweden and concentrates on pursuing a career in business.

In Hungary, Gombos announces that he will introduce a Nazi-like, one-party, fascist state. Gombos dies in October. His successor introduces a so-called Jewish Law limiting Jews to 20% of the positions in designated businesses and professions. A second, harsher Jewish Law passed in 1939 broadens the definition of "Jewishness" and further limits their participation in society.

Over the coming years the level of government-sanctioned persecution will escalate. Jewish property will be expropriated. Jews will be banned from buying real estate and working in the media. Sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews will be outlawed. Conversion to Judaism will be forbidden. Ultimately Jews will be deported to Nazi death camps.

1939 - German troops invade Poland on 1 September. Britain and France declare war on Germany two days later. The Second World War has begun.

Poland is overrun within a month. Denmark and Norway fall in April 1940. The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France are invaded the following month. By the middle of June 1940 France has surrendered.

Sweden remains neutral throughout the war, enabling its embassies and missions around Europe to remain open and active.

During 1939 Wallenberg joins the Central European Trading Company, a food-trading business owned by Kálmán Lauer, a Hungarian Jew. It is via Lauer and the trading company that Wallenberg becomes acquainted with Hungary.

During his business trips to Germany, Hungary and Nazi-occupied France, Wallenberg will also witness first-hand the treatment dealt out to Jews by the Nazis and their allies.

Meanwhile, in Hungary, the Arrow Cross (Nyílas - the Hungarian equivalent of Germany's Nazi Party) wins the second highest number of votes at elections held in June.

1940 - In September Hungary grants free passage to German troops travelling to Romania. On 20 November Hungary formally allies itself to Germany, Italy and Japan.

1941 - Germany invades the Soviet Union on 22 June. As the Germans march east they systematically exterminate the Jewish communities in their path.

Hungarian troops join the Germans on their march east. By January 1942 one third of Hungary's armed forces are committed to the Soviet campaign. They also become involved in battles against the Western Allies.

In July 1941 Hungry begins to cooperate in the Nazi persecution of the Jews. About 18,000 Jews are deported east from Hungary to newly occupied territory in the Soviet Union. About 15,000 of the deportees will be executed by the Nazis. Six months later Hungarian troops massacre 2,600 Serbian and 700 Jewish hostages near Novi Sad in Yugoslavia.

1942 - On 20 January the Nazis complete the planning for the Endlosung (Final Solution), the extermination of the Jews, Gipsies, Slavs, homosexuals, communists, and other "undesirables" and "decadents" in death camps run by the Schutz-Staffel (SS), Hitler's personal guard, and controlled by the Gestapo, the secret state police. About six million European Jews die in the following 'Holocaust'.

Speaking at meeting outside Berlin, SS officer Reinhard Heydrich says, "As a first step in the 'Final Solution' of the Jewish question, it is first of all planned to put the Jews to work in the East. This will already eliminate a large number through natural wastage. The remnant that will have to be dealt with appropriately."

Most (about 4.5 million) of those to be killed come from Poland and the Soviet Union. About 125,000 are German Jews.

The Holocaust also claims about 500,000 Gipsies, between 10,000 and 25,000 homosexuals, 2,000 Jehovah's Witnesses, up to 3.5 million non-Jewish Poles, between 3.5 million and six million other Slavic civilians, as many as four million Soviet prisoners of war, and up to 1.5 million political dissidents.

1943 - The war turns against Germany in the winter of 1942-43 when the Germans and their allies are defeated at Stalingrad (now Volgograd). Hungary's Second Army is decimated during the Soviet counterattack. About 40,000 Hungarian soldiers are killed and 70,000 wounded.

By the end of 1943, the Soviets have broken through the German siege of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) and recaptured much of the Ukrainian Republic.

The Western Allies take Africa in 1943, land in Sicily and Italy, and prepare for the 'D-Day' landings on the Normandy beaches in France on 6 June 1944 and the invasion of Germany six months later. Soviet troops, meanwhile, advance from the east.

1944 - The Hungarian Government begins to waver in its support for Germany. In response, Nazi troops occupy the country on 19 March. A puppet government headed by a Nazi supporter increases Hungary's contribution to the Nazi war effort and crushes dissent. Political leaders are jailed and unions are dissolved. The deportation of Jews to Nazi death camps in Poland begins.

The operation is directed by Adolf Eichmann. Called "the architect of the Holocaust," Eichmann is the Nazi officer responsible for the deportation of Jews throughout Europe.

Jews from the countryside are the first to be targeted, with over 437,000 being sent to their deaths at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is the largest deportation operation in the history of the Holocaust, and one of the quickest, beginning on 14 May and ending on 9 July.

A wave of international protests helps end the operation, including a direct request from Swedish King Gustav V to Hungarian head of state Miklos Horthy that the deportations be stopped.

The Swedish Legation in Budapest, the capital of Hungary, is also allowed to issue provisional passports and certificates to Jews with links to Sweden, saving about 700 from deportation.

Before the deportations begin about 725,000 Jews live within Hungary. When they end only about 260,500 survive, mostly in Budapest.

Meanwhile, the newly-formed US War Refugee Board and the World Jewish Congress ask the Swedes for help in organising a rescue mission for Jews in Hungary. When Jews in Sweden are approached for advice Kálmán Lauer recommends that Wallenberg be selected as the operation's front-man.

Wallenberg is appointed as a secretary at the Swedish Legation in Budapest at the end of June 1944. Though superficially an employee of the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, he actually receives instructions from the World Refugee Board. The Board, along with the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, also provides the funding for the operation.

When Wallenberg arrives at Budapest on 9 July the city's 230,000-strong Jewish community remains under threat. Jewish homes have been seized and their businesses and bank accounts have been confiscated. Jews have little freedom of movement and are regularly attacked by uniformed Arrow Cross militiamen.

Wallenberg begins to use all means available to him to secure the safety of the Jews, assembling a staff that will come to number over 300 to implement his plans.

Wallenberg devises a "protective passport" to complement the "provisional passports" already issued to Jews by the Legation. Though holding no real legal authority, the "protective passports" will save thousands of Jews.

Safe houses under the full protection of the Swedish Government are set up throughout the city. The houses provide Jews with shelter from the Nazis and the Hungarian fascists.

Bribes are paid, threats are made and favours are asked to rescue Jews. When the need becomes more desperate the format of the protective passes is simplified so that even more can be handed out.

Per Anger, a Swedish career diplomat serving in Budapest at the time, later recalled Wallenberg's impact on the staff at the Legation.

"At first he shocked some of us professional diplomats with his unconventional methods," Anger said, "But we soon realised that his working methods were right."

When asked by Anger why he took such risks, Wallenberg replied, "To me there's no other choice. I've accepted this assignment and I could never return to Stockholm without the knowledge that I'd done everything in human power to save as many Jews as possible."

Wallenberg establishes a network of contacts within the Hungarian fascist movement and the Budapest police. He confronts the Germans directly, including Adolf Eichmann.

In September the advancing Soviet forces reach Hungary. Chaos ensues. When, on 15 October, Miklos Horthy announces he wants to negotiate a peace deal with the Soviets the Arrow Cross, led by Ferenc Szalasi and aided by the Germans, seize power.

The Soviet occupation of Hungary will be a drawn out campaign. The Soviets will not enter Budapest until 16 January 1945 and the last of the German forces will not be driven from the country until 4 April 1945, leaving the Nazis and the Arrow Cross with between three and six months to continue with their plans for Hungary's Jews.

Arrow Cross militiamen terrorise the city, killing over 10,000 Jews. On 17 October 1944, Adolf Eichmann returns to Hungry to complete his work.

Beginning in November, the deportations resume. Thousands of Jews are forced on 150 km "death marches" from Budapest to the Austrian border, from where they are taken to concentration camps in Austria and Germany.

Wallenberg intercepts the marches, handing out food, clothes and medicines and cajoling guards and officials to release Jews who hold protective passes. He uses similar methods to rescue Jews being transported by rail.

When, in the days before the Soviets capture the city, the Nazis and Arrow Cross militia threaten to massacre the inhabitants of Budapest's largest Jewish ghetto, Wallenberg intervenes.

Through an intermediary he warns the commander of the German SS troops stationed in the city that he will ensure that the commander is called to account as a war criminal if the massacre proceeds. The Germans retreat without initiating their plan.

In all, Wallenberg's efforts, along with those of the Swiss Consulate, the Pope's representative in Budapest, the Red Cross, and others, have saved the lives of as many as 120,000 Hungarian Jews.

About 70,000 remain alive in the ghetto. Another 25,000 have survived in Wallenberg's safe houses. Around 25,000 more have hidden elsewhere. They are the only substantial community of Jews left in Europe.

Wallenberg, however, is unable to save himself. On 17 January 1945 he is called to the Soviet military headquarters at Debrecen, 190 km east of Budapest. Neither he nor his driver ever return.

Wallenberg is arrested by Soviet military intelligence and transported to the Lubyanka prison in Moscow. Because of his associations with the US War Refugee Board it is likely that the Soviet's suspect Wallenberg of being a US spy. They may also think he is spying for the Germans.

Wallenberg never emerges from the Soviet penal system.

The Soviets later report that he died while in custody on 17 July 1947. According to the report, the cause of death was a heart attack. Wallenberg's body is said to have been cremated without an autopsy.

On 27 November 2000, Alexander Yakovlev, a senior Russian official, claims that Wallenberg was executed. "We do not doubt that he was shot at Lubyanka (prison)," Yakovlev says. "We must put an end to this story, which has acquired an acute international significance and has been poisoning the atmosphere for a long time."

However, Yakovlev presents no documentary evidence to support his claim.

Diaries of Ivan A. Serov, the first head of the Soviet Committee for State Security (KGB), also state that Wallenberg was executed. They do not provide a date but do claim the execution was carried out on the order of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and foreign minister Vyacheslav M. Molotov.

Other reports suggest that Wallenberg may have survived within the Soviet prison system beyond 1947.

Postscript: By March 1945, as the Western forces reach the Rhine River, Soviet armies have overrun most of Eastern Europe and are converging on German capital. By April an Allied victory in Europe is certain. On 7 May 1945 Germany surrenders.

The Hungarian Republic is proclaimed on 1 February 1946. Acting under the protection of the Soviet Union, the Hungarian Communist Party takes government. The communists will remain in power until 1990.

In the reparation settlement following the war Hungry loses all the territory gained between 1938 and 1941.

Ferenc Szalasi, the leader of the Arrow Cross, is tried as a war criminal in 1946 and sentenced to death. Adolf Eichmann escapes to South America. In 1960 he is kidnapped in Buenos Aires, Argentina, by agents of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, and taken to Israel for trial. Eichmann is found guilty of crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity and war crimes and executed on 31 May 1961.

In 1981 Wallenberg is made an honorary citizen of the US. In 1985 he is made an honorary citizen of Canada, and in 1986 an honorary citizen of Israel. Israel also recognises him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, an honour reserved for those who saved Jews during the Holocaust. In 2013 Wallenberg is declared the first ever honorary citizen of Australia. In 2014 he is awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the US Government's highest civilian honour.

A monument commemorating Wallenberg is unveiled in Budapest in 1987.

In 2000, after nine years of investigation, a joint Swedish-Russian Working Group is unable to reach a definitive conclusion about Wallenberg's fate.

"Unfortunately, we still do not have a complete, legally tenable account of Raoul Wallenberg's fate or the reasons for his arrest, despite the tremendous efforts of everyone involved," the report of the Swedish members of the working group says.

"Documents appear to have been destroyed, key persons have died or are either unable or unwilling to remember. It is not therefore possible to close the Raoul Wallenberg file. ...

"The Russian announcement of Raoul Wallenberg's death could only be accepted if it were confirmed beyond any reasonable doubt. This has not happened, partly for the want of a credible death certificate, and partly because the testimony about Raoul Wallenberg being alive after 1947 cannot be dismissed. The burden of proof regarding the death of Raoul Wallenberg lies with the Russian Government."

However, the Russian members of the working group maintain that Wallenberg died in prison on 17 July 1947.

In 2001 a memorial honouring Wallenberg is unveiled in Stockholm.

On 17 January 2012, government ministers from Hungary, Sweden and Israel convene in Budapest to launch a year-long commemoration of Wallenberg's life. The ministers are joined by members of Wallenberg's family and Jews he saved.

Events scheduled for the Raoul Wallenberg Year include a memorial concert on April 15, the issue of a Wallenberg postage stamp on May 10, conferences, and a September memorial event at the Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest.

At the start of January 2013 the Swedish Government announces that Wallenberg will be honoured each year on 27 August with an annual commemoration day.

Wallenberg is formally declared dead by Swedish authorities in October 2016. It is 71 years since his disappearance.

Comment

The disappearance of Raoul Wallenberg stands as one of the cruellest twists of the Second World War.

Here we have a man who selflessly and courageously saves more European Jews from the Holocaust than any other person. With the danger apparently past, this man is arrested and detained by the Soviets, for reasons unknown. To all intents and purposes he is then abandoned by his homeland. After spending more than two years in detention he is most probably executed, perhaps by firing squad, perhaps by some more sinister means. No one really knows. Those responsible for his demise at first deny any knowledge of his fate. Then they provide a story, then another, then another following that. But no definitive evidence of what befell Raoul Wallenberg is ever produced.

And there is another twist to Wallenberg's fate that is even more cruel. In his last hours of freedom Wallenberg was still attempting to secure the safety of Budapest's Jews. He travelled to the Soviets knowing he was at risk but still with the welfare of the Jews uppermost in mind. He wished to save them from any Soviet aggression. He succeeded, but could not prevent Soviet suspicion and intrigue from entangling him.

Raoul Wallenberg's fate illustrates that there is no justice in war. No justice in war, and little anywhere else. Wallenberg didn't "deserve" his fate, but, in a world without justice, "deserve" doesn't mean a thing.