Wallenberg – a brand name for Swedish heroism
17 April 2012
History transforms the memory of Raoul Wallenberg. For a long time, his name was associated with the inability of Swedish diplomacy to assert itself against the Soviet Union.
This year’s 100th anniversary of his birth emphasises his deeds rather than his fate. Raoul Wallenberg is becoming a strong brand name for Swedish heroism, according to Ulf Zander who has recently written a book on Wallenberg’s disappearance in 1945.
Historian Ulf Zander has spent several months in the archives of the Swedish government offices where the Ministry for Foreign Affairs documents about Raoul Wallenberg are kept. He has gone through material – everything from the inauguration of monuments to letters from Raoul Wallenberg’s sister, Nina Lagergren, to those in power in both East and West.
How can one summarise the Swedish authorities’ handling of the Wallenberg case in the 67 years since he disappeared?
“The Ministry for Foreign Affairs can be criticised for many initial mistakes”, says Ulf Zander. “Among other things, it took a long time for them to take any action at all. Wallenberg disappeared on 17 January 1945 when he was supposed to meet Soviet military officials. When the Swedish diplomatic corps in Budapest returned to Sweden at the end of the war, Wallenberg’s parents had not yet been informed of their son’s disappearance, in spite of the fact that he had been gone for several months”.
Ulf Zander thinks that the delay can partly be excused in consideration of the state Europe was in at the end of the war. It was a very chaotic time. People disappeared.
A fateful mistake was made by Sweden’s ambassador in Moscow at his first audience with Stalin on the Wallenberg matter. The ambassador said he himself did not believe that Wallenberg was alive, thereby missing a unique opportunity to put pressure on the Russians.
“We Swedes were simply afraid of the Soviet Union”, says Ulf Zander. “When American diplomats offered to help us in negotiations, we declined out of fear that this would be interpreted as choosing sides in the cold war”.
That Raoul Wallenberg was not in fact part of the diplomatic corps but was in Budapest on assignment from the Americans can also, according to Ulf Zander, have contributed to the diplomatic corps’ lukewarm commitment to his case.
Ulf Zander has observed how interest in Wallenberg has gone in waves. In 1956 and 1965 there were government investigations into his disappearance.
On these occasions interest in him increased, only to fall back again. However, the Wallenberg case did not elicit really great interest until the American TV series “Holocaust” at the end of the 70s. Raoul Wallenberg was not part of the story, but the TV series got people upset. And they were looking for a hero, a counterweight to all the evil.
“This is when people really started to pay attention to Raoul Wallenberg”, says Ulf Zander. A few years later, a TV series was made about him: “Wallenberg – the story of a hero”.
Another event that put Raoul Wallenberg back on the agenda was when the Soviet submarine U137 ran aground in the Blekinge archipelago in the autumn of 1981. Many people who had been committed to solving the Wallenberg case tried in vain to convince the Swedish government not to release the crew until information was provided about what had happened to Wallenberg. But right up until the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, silent diplomacy prevailed.
After the fall of the wall, the Wallenberg matter was once more taken up by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. A joint Russian-Swedish investigation was carried out, not revealing much new information, according to Ulf Zander.
“The information that emerged already in the 60s was probably correct, namely that Wallenberg died in 1947 in the Ljubianka prison”, he says.
This year marks the hundredth anniversary of Raoul Wallenberg’s birth and his name is highly topical once more.
In view of the celebration, Minister for Foreign Affairs Carl Bildt, among others, has stated that the jubilee is not to be about Wallenberg’s tragic fate but instead about his heroic deeds.
Ulf Zander interprets this to mean that the “Wallenberg case” is now taking on a new character: from being intimately associated with a failure of Swedish diplomacy in the past, it is now the image of a Swedish hero with whom we are working to be associated.
“You could say that Raoul Wallenberg is being Swedefied”, says Ulf Zander. “Previously, it was mostly the Americans, who were after all his commissioners in Budapest, who highlighted Wallenberg’s heroism. Now we are trying to retrieve a part of the Swedish hero’s honour for ourselves”.
Text: Ulrika Oredsson
More on Raoul Wallenberg
Raoul Wallenberg was a civil servant at the Swedish embassy in Budapest at the end of the war but was in fact there on commission from an American war refugee office. He had been carefully selected to help Jews escape deportation to Hitler’s extermination camps. With the help of Swedish ‘Schutz-Pass’, he saved tens of thousands of Jews.
On 17 January 1945, he disappeared as he was supposed to meet Soviet military officials. The last thing that is known for certain is that he was taken to the Soviet Union together with his Hungarian chauffeur.
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