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What Happened to Raoul Wallenberg?

Historians/History
tags: Raoul Wallenberg



Ingrid Carlberg is a Swedish author and journalist. Her latest book, Raoul Wallenberg: The Heroic Life and Mysterious Disappearance of the Man Who Saved Thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust, was awarded the prestigious August Prize for nonfiction. The book also received the Swedish Academy's Axel Hirsch Prize, for a "biography of considerable artistic and cultural merit."

At first glance, this year’s two international news stories about the Swedish war hero Raoul Wallenberg might seem logically and causally related. In June parts of former KGB chairman Ivan Serov’s newly found and posthumously published diary was spread all over the world, presented as definite proof that Raoul Wallenberg was executed on Stalin’s order in 1947.  And then in October Swedish authorities made the historic decision to officially declare Raoul Wallenberg dead, seventy-one years after his disappearance in Budapest in 1945.

However, this causality does not exist—on the contrary.

Regrettably, it seems that the case of the missing Raoul Wallenberg, who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews in Budapest in 1944, never stops attracting bewildering and poorly grounded news coverage. Historically, during the Cold War, this was often explained by the interest in using the case for diverse psychological intelligence operations, both Russian and American. To mention one relevant example: The line of people claiming to have either seen Wallenberg in Russian prisons, or to know for sure how he died, has, after all these years, ended up being extremely long.

Nothing has yet been presented that links the publication of Ivan Serov’s new “testimony”  to such an operation. Still, I regard Serov’s conviction as just the most recent addition to that long line of unsupported arguing, since this piece of news on Wallenberg says more about the Russian interest in closing the case than in bringing all the necessary facts and documentation to the table.

  It is important to take into account that when it comes to the Serov “revelation” we are not, as many assume, talking about a diary that a former KGB chairman wrote when he was in charge at the time of Wallenberg’s arrest. Serov didn’t become chairman of the KGB until 1954. Neither are we faced with any new well-grounded facts from Serov’s alleged investigation into the Wallenberg case in the 1950s. No surprise, then, that not even Serov himself claims absolute knowledge. What the news from this “diary” boils down to is simply Serov’s personal conviction, as he dictated it to his son-in-law in 1987, that Wallenberg was executed in 1947.

Like Serov, we can all have our more or less well-grounded opinions about what happened to Raoul Wallenberg. Probably a few of these opinions are also close to the truth. We can even claim that the convictions of a former KGB chairman are worth being taken more seriously than most others. But Serov doesn’t prove anything, and he doesn’t present anything new that hasn’t been dancing around before in the Wallenberg saga. The status quo remains: No convincing evidence of Raoul Wallenberg’s destiny has ever been presented, nor any reliable explanation provided as to why Stalin’s regime arrested him. Serov’s conviction does NOT solve the mystery.

Stuck in the middle of this eternal and tragic drama is Raoul Wallenberg’s poor family. His ninety-five-year-old half sister Nina Lagergren still lives in Djursholm outside Stockholm, doing all she can to keep the memory of her brother alive. He was thirty-one years old when she saw him for the last time, as he passed Berlin on his way to Budapest. In August 2016 he would have turned 104.

Raoul Wallenberg’s family certainly did not take any new Russian diary into account when, in November 2015, they applied for an official death declaration for him. In 2015, seventy years had passed since Raoul Wallenberg was arrested in Budapest, which was commemorated in ceremonies throughout the year. As the family explained later, the application was connected to the fact that seventy years had passed, and it was a way for Wallenberg’s relatives “to deal with the trauma we have lived through, to bring one phase to closure and move on.”  

In the application to the Swedish Tax Agency the family underlined that there was no known date of his disappearance and no knowledge of his whereabouts. They expressed a wish that the Tax Agency’s necessary choice of a formal death date “would not impede continuing research on his destiny.”  Actually, efforts to find out the truth about Wallenberg were renewed, and redoubled in 2015. Parallel to the application, a new international research initiative on the fate of Raoul Wallenberg was created, the RWI-70 (The Raoul Wallenberg Research Initiative).

To understand the significance of this application you need to keep in mind the characteristics of the family’s seven-decade-long struggle to bring clarity to what happened to their dear son, brother, and uncle.

I find it appropriate to divide the so-called Raoul Wallenberg case into two principal periods: 1) The phase when the Soviet Union told the truth about Wallenberg. 2) The phase when the Soviet Union continued lying about the missing Swedish diplomat.

The truth period was about a month long, from January to February 1945. The lying phase now amounts to more than seventy years.  Believe it or not, in the beginning there was actually normal diplomatic correspondence between Sweden and the Soviet Union concerning Raoul Wallenberg’s whereabouts.  When the Red Army approached Budapest at the end of 1944, the Swedish envoy in Moscow, Staffan Söderblom, was instructed to ask the Soviet Foreign Ministry for protection for the Swedish Budapest diplomats. The Second Ukrainian Army in Budapest received that order.

On January 13, 1945, Raoul Wallenberg initiated contact with the Soviet soldiers. They simply reported it back home. A certain Wallenberg had voluntarily crossed the front and was now under Soviet protection. The message was forwarded to the Swedish envoy and the Foreign Ministry in Stockholm. In Stockholm the reaction was, “Oh, wonderful, at least one of the Swedes in Budapest is safe .”

Wallenberg’s first contact with the Soviet commanders was also quite friendly. He even had dinner with the officer who first handled his request. They toasted each other and gave speeches. He spent several days walking around different army units, his goal being to reach the highest command, General Rodion Malinovskij, further east in Hungary.  Wallenberg even returned to Budapest to get his things before he disappeared.  After this, there was a sudden change in tone. An order for his arrest was issued in Moscow, signed by deputy defense minister Bulganin, but originally issued by Stalin. Raoul Wallenberg was transported by train, with his driver Vilmos Langfelder, all the way to Moscow without Sweden raising any further questions about him.  On February 6, 1945, they were both registered as prisoners in the Lubyanka prison in central Moscow.

The Swedish lack of reaction during these weeks was, of course, stupid, but so far maybe understandable. In Stockholm at this point, everyone was more anxious about the Budapest diplomats that had NOT been heard from. Still, a single formal diplomatic note about Wallenberg during this period of truth might have changed the outcome. By the end of February it was already too late for that kind of normal diplomatic communication. The everlasting period of Soviet disinformation, campaigns, and lies had begun.

We know today that Raoul Wallenberg was alive in Soviet prisons for at least two and a half years, so the great puzzle in this tragedy is not why he was seized, but why the Russians did not let him go. For this, unfortunately, the Swedish government has a great deal of responsibility.  I don’t hesitate to call what later happened the Swedish betrayal of Raoul Wallenberg.

The change in the Soviet messages, from the period of truth to the long period of lies, first took the shape of rumors spread at diplomatic parties and via Soviet-controlled radio stations. The new information that was spread in February and March 1945 was simply the opposite of what had been said before: Now it was claimed that Raoul Wallenberg had disappeared in Budapest and had most likely died in an accident.

The first serious Swedish betrayal came right away—because the first people to swallow this malicious Soviet misinformation were the Swedish diplomats, both those on their way back from Budapest and those in Moscow.  With one important exception: Per Anger, Wallenberg’s colleague in Budapest. But unfortunately nobody listened to him. Therefore, you might say that already in April 1945 this rumor was transformed into some kind of unofficial truth in the corridors of the Foreign Ministry in Stockholm: Raoul Wallenberg was most certainly dead.

This laid a tragic foundation for all the missed opportunities that later emerged. It didn’t exactly help that the Swedish post-war foreign policy toward the Soviet Union could be summarized as attempting to keep Stalin in a good mood, out of fear of drastic and more violent Soviet actions toward Sweden. Addressing the Raoul Wallenberg case was not seen as a way to keep relations smooth and friendly, which unfortunately, in the eyes of the social democratic government, became one very strong reason for not doing it.

The most important of the missed opportunities that followed was the Soviet initiative toward a prisoner exchange at the end of 1945. What makes this strategic move even more interesting is that Moscow at the same time pursued negotiations regarding an exchange of two imprisoned Swiss diplomats, Harald Feller and Max Meier—whose order of arrest happened to be issued the same day as that of Raoul Wallenberg. The negotiations with the Swiss succeeded, and some Soviet citizens imprisoned in Switzerland were exchanged for the two Swiss diplomats.  The parallel Swedish case, involving Raoul Wallenberg, failed.

So successful had the misinformation campaign been that the Swedish ambassador in Moscow, Staffan Söderblom, instead of discussing exchanges privately, asked his counterpart at the Soviet Foreign Ministry to issue a statement indicating that Raoul Wallenberg was dead—if for no other reason than to relieve Raoul Wallenberg’s mother from her “false hopes.”  At that time Raoul was of course alive in the Lefortovo prison. But that scenario didn’t seem to have occurred to Staffan Söderblom.

Half a year later Wallenberg was still alive, in that same freezing cold prison. Then, in June 1946, Söderblom managed to be one of the extremely few foreign diplomats who was granted an audience with Stalin himself. Unfortunately Söderblom chose the same strategy during this historic meeting, reassuring Stalin that he personally was convinced that “Wallenberg had fallen victim to an accident or an assailant.”

Finally, in the summer of 1947, Sweden managed to get an official answer out of the Kremlin regarding the whereabouts of Raoul Wallenberg. Not surprisingly, it was a lie. Wallenberg had in fact been imprisoned for more than two years and his name had already caused trouble at the Police Bureau. But the official message to Sweden in 1947 read that Wallenberg was “not to be found in the Soviet Union and he is unknown to us.”

Sweden was confronted with a humiliating Soviet lie. But the Swedish government couldn’t imagine lies on such a high political level and believed every word. Sweden resigned from pursuing the matter without ever officially demanding the release of Raoul Wallenberg. The betrayal went on and on. Year after year Raoul Wallenberg’s family fought alone for the truth, repeatedly and brutally thrown between hope and despair.

In 1955, suddenly, thousands of German prisoners of war were sent back home from the Soviet Union. The Swedish Foreign Ministry sent some officials to Germany to meet with them, and quite a few of the prisoners reported that they had been in contact with a Swedish prisoner called Raoul Wallenberg. In October 1955, Foreign Ministry staff even managed to interview Gustav Richter, Raoul Wallenberg’s first cellmate in Lubjanka. Intense information gathering began. By coincidence the Swedish prime minister was scheduled for a first official visit in Moscow on Easter in 1956. He brought all the new evidence with him, and suddenly the Swedish words took on some significance. The prime minister was even convinced that he would bring Raoul Wallenberg back to Sweden that spring of 1956. So were Wallenberg’s mother and stepfather. But the only result he got from his effort was that the lies from the Soviet side changed.

Faced with so much evidence the Kremlin had to do something, so Soviet officials were given the order to come up with something that could pass as a “half truth,” a possible disease or something. The first suggestion was to tell the Swedes that Wallenberg had died of pneumonia in the Lefortovo prison. One year later the official response to Sweden was yet another lie: The Soviets admitted that Raoul Wallenberg HAD in fact been imprisoned in the Soviet Union. Now they claimed that he unfortunately died of a heart attack in his cell in the Lubjanka prison the 17th of July 1947.  Even today, this is the official Russian version. We all know it is a lie and we are still waiting for the convincing proof as to what happened.

Given this historical record it is not surprising that Raoul Wallenberg’s family has been struggling against everything that could be interpreted as an unfounded death declaration. As long as his death was not proven, they had to keep in mind that he COULD still be alive.

For the same reason Raoul Wallenberg’s mother Maj von Dardel tried to stop all initiatives to raise statues throughout her lifetime. She disliked ceremonies commemorating her son, since their mere existence could be regarded as a resignation. All energy was to be put into the search for truth and, ultimately, her son’s release. But slowly, with time, the family has resigned itself, for obvious reasons. I could feel it during our frequent meetings when I wrote my book. It became obvious when Raoul Wallenberg’s half sister, Nina Lagergren, had her eleventh great grandchild in 2011. The little boy was given the name Raoul, a name that had been sensitive within the family and not used as a given name for any newborn child for decades, reserved as it was for the Raoul who was yet to come back. *

Four years later the family was ready to apply for the death declaration of Raoul Wallenberg. The application thereafter followed the usual routine for missing people. On March 22, 2016, the Swedish Tax Agency made its first decision, in which it concluded that Raoul Wallenberg was to be regarded as a missing person as of July 31, 1947. Following Swedish law, the authority then published an official classified ad asking Wallenberg to present himself at the tax agency before October 14, 2016. He did not.

The consequence was obvious. On October 26, 2016, the Swedish Tax Agency officially declared Raoul Wallenberg dead.  The death date was set as July 31, 1952, a mathematical conclusion given that Swedish law states the formal death date for missing persons should be five years after their disappearance.  A huge step was taken. Hereafter, all energy is to be put in solving the seemingly eternal mystery: What happened to Raoul Wallenberg?

* Within the family, the name Raoul was up until 2011 only given as a middle name, never a first name.



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