A Northern Light for Europe’s Darkest Hour
STODDARD MARTIN enjoys a new biography of one of the most admirable – if enigmatic – figures of World War Two
THE HERO OF BUDAPEST: The Triumph and Tragedy of Raoul Wallenberg
Bengt Jangfeldt, translated by Harry D. Watson and the author. I. B. Tauris, 2014
Sweden is a country whose participation in the trauma of modern European history is of long-standing. Lutheran from early on, it played a significant role in the Thirty Years’ War, that catastrophe in which – as Schiller’s Wallenstein demonstrates – heroics did not always follow the script. Later in the 17th century Sweden began to wrest spoils from a declining Polish-Lithuanian empire, as did its quondam opponent Peter the Great. Not long into the next century, the Nordic land’s Drang nach Suden was ended by Charles XII overreaching and the valour of Ukrainian Cossacks, which Byron glamorized in Mazeppa. Sweden’s receding influence in east central Europe was hastened by the advent of other ‘Greats’ – Catherine in Russia, Frederick in Prussia – and by the start of the 20th century it was hardly even primus among Scandinavian pares, having lost both Finland and Norway during a long 19th century of diplomatic manoeuvre set off by Napoleonic upheavals.
Its ancient dynasty was deposed in the same phase that saw the downfall of the French ancien régime, but it retains a monarchy to this day in consequence of having invited one of Bonaparte’s maréchals to become heir apparent shortly before the collapse of his empire. The irony is not atypical. Cleverness, coolness and compromise allowed Bernadotte and his heirs to survive Metternich-ean reaction; similar characteristics marked 20th century Swedish governments’ tergiversations as Europe descended towards its darkest hour. During the interval, great banking and trading families had grown up to be powers in the austere land, not least the Wallenbergs, whose influence over politics, diplomacy, social and cultural life was second to none. Raoul Wallenberg, the ‘hero of Budapest’, was a scion of this clan. His legend belongs to the genre of what may befall young men of privilege if they are so lucky or so rash as to offer themselves up in service as saviours.
Raoul’s initial expectations in life were perhaps less great than is generally assumed. His father, for whom he was named, died of a rare cancer at age 25 shortly before he was born. Raoul Jr was raised under supervision of his paternal grandfather, a naval officer, diplomat and entrepreneur who took no direct role in running the family bank but by dint of first-born status expected his son and eventually grandson to take it on. Scions of a younger brother’s branch, being tracked for the bank from an early age, had a head start on their cousin – Raoul’s grandpa, fearing the lure of social life for a rich boy in Stockholm, preferred him to get his education in the outer world. Periods in Germany and France were followed by university in America, at Ann Arbor in Michigan, not the Ivy League – grandpa feared that similar lures lurked on the more social and élite East Coast. From this regimen Raoul gained fluency in four languages (he learned some Russian too), a sense of self-sufficiency, ease of relating with all sorts of people and a penchant for fun. Hitchhiking became his favourite mode of travel; despite being mugged once on a midwestern road, he kept to it.
He studied to be an architect and once back in Europe in 1938 expressed admiration for the ‘genius’ of Albert Speer, ‘which reflected a striving for “bigness” [that] has long been suppressed in Europe’[i]. He was proud to a point of hubris of a drop of Jewish blood in his veins – ‘A person like me, who is both a Wallenberg and half-Jewish, can never be defeated’[ii] – though he was in fact only 1/16th Jewish, on his mother’s side. Despite this, he seems to have taken little note of Kristallnacht or its portent for a people he would later be engaged to save. In common with many in the international élite of the day, other Wallenbergs appear to have had a touch of social anti-Semitism about them, which may occasionally have been directed at the ‘outsider’ in the cousinage. In any case, none rushed to welcome Raoul into management of the bank; so with characteristic chutzpah he threw himself into trade and teamed up eventually with Kálmán Lauer, a Hungarian Jew who emigrated to Sweden in 1939 yet wished to continue to deal in livestock and foodstuffs with his native country and other regions of what was or soon to be a Nazi-dominated continent. Given his languages, connections and charm, Raoul seemed a perfect young operative to cultivate.
The Hungarian connection attracted the attention of others who by 1944 needed a paladin to rescue what they could of that nation’s 800,000 Jews. The relatively mild fascism of Admiral Horthy, who had ruled the county since the crushing of Béla Kun’s communist régime of 1919, was in process of being supplanted by German occupation and the fanatically anti-Semitic native Arrow Cross party. A War Refugee Board was set up by President Roosevelt at the behest of Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau and funded partly by wealthy American Jews; the OSS man in Stockholm knocked heads together with Lauer, the chief rabbi, and ‘righteous gentiles’ to find a man to front an operation. Despite a well-publicized speech by the king against the activity against Jews throughout Europe, the Swedish foreign office was not uniformly eager to associate itself with a project that could be construed as less than wholly neutral. Even so, once a Wallenberg had been recruited, it agreed to give him cover as one of its civil servants on an official humanitarian mission.
Thus began a six-month descent into an inferno – the final machinations and collapse of fascism, with all the terror, starvation, rape and pillage it entailed, followed by even more shocking rampages on arrival of the Red Army in frigid January 1945. Wallenberg’s mission between early summer of ’44 and this end-game was to round up Jews in Budapest who could be shown to have a link to Sweden, thus saving them from transport to labour camps and the death to come for their fellows in the countryside. Exploiting a non-combatant status shared with the Vatican, Switzerland and Spain, he used bribery, fiction, fraud, back channels to the Arrow Cross, cat-and-mouse games with Eichmann, promises of postwar protection for ‘good Germans’, indulgence of Himmler’s offers of ‘blood for goods’, pliability of the SS man-on-the-ground Kurt Becher and playing off actors against one another[iii]. He was a Wallenberg and many Germans saw Sweden as their best hope for facilitating a separate peace with the Western allies, or at least leniency from them as they faced annihilation from the East. Horthy had supported Hitler mainly out of fear of Bolshevism and loathing for the post-WWI Treaty of Trianon, which had reduced Hungary to a rump, and Wallenberg was not above playing to these emotions in order to hide chattels and stockpile food for his ghettoized protégés. In his months in Hungary, he also architected a plan for the country’s renewal after the war – a scenario in which, it is fair to assume, his experience as a trader with Lauer and his link to a leading international capitalist family played their roles: i.e., it would be far-fetched to suppose that he envisaged a Marxist satellite state, let alone return to anything like the revolutionary Leninism that had flamed up briefly under Béla Kun.
We can never know. The plan went with Wallenberg when he ‘crossed the line’, evidently to treat with the Soviets as they entered a city that their mortars were turning to rubble. From his bunker in the vault of a bank as well as other no longer safe Swedish houses, he collected and packed into his car’s petrol tank currency, jewels, gold – booty from Jews he had been sheltering, which otherwise might have vanished in the chaos. The Russians proved to be captors, not saviours. The car was stopped; treasure and documents vanished; Wallenberg was held without charge by the counterespionage unit SMERSH. He found himself shortly in the notorious Lubyanka prison in Moscow, to be interrogated on suspicion of being a German collaborator, a trafficker in stolen goods, a Western spy with a conspiratorial agenda against the USSR and/or all of the above. His protests of diplomatic status proved of no avail and claims of working only to save a threatened people evoked derision from some in the increasingly anti-Semitic Stalinist milieu. Did he infuriate his jailers by self-confidence and an air of superiority which, it is said, had sometimes cowed their equivalents of the Arrow Cross and even SS? Was he beaten? tortured? injured? disfigured? From the time of his disappearance until his supposed death by heart attack, aged 34, in March 1947, nothing is clear. This was a time of the miasma of gulags and closing of an ‘Iron Curtain’.
Other forces at work, or not so, were also opaque. Such is the conclusion of Bengt Jangfeldt in his formidable account of the affair, a narrative thick with detail of the Budapest inferno but never bogged down in pursuit of the many threads as to who Wallenberg truly was[iv] and what occurred between his last sighting and reports of his demise. Jangfeldt portrays an exceptional adventurer fully capable of being a double-dealer if needed, even ‘triple thinker’ to use Edmund Wilson’s term[v]; this makes it quite easy to understand how his captors might have viewed him as playing for personal gain or an enemy spy. But Jangfeldt also wonders about the role of official Sweden, eager for trade deals in Stalin’s new east central Europe and under a socialist administration of its own. Why didn’t it push harder for information about this illustrious son? And why, to raise Jangfeldt’s most barbed final question, didn’t influential members of the Wallenberg family do more?
One answer might go like this. Great families, like great corporate entities of all kinds – political, commercial, covert – have their essential economy. Individual members grow up to slot into roles or not as case may be, for better or worse: the flourishing or at least survival of the group depends on it. There is inevitable ruthlessness in this process, if not always conscious. Raoul Wallenberg, like Byron, could not have been an organization man in an establishment mould – the absence of father and eccentric tutelage by grandfather destined him for a more romantic agenda, even if romance was part of what that tutelage was meant to discourage. In the end Raoul (his name is said to derive from a character in Dumas[vi]) had to behave like some latter-day Sydney Carton, a Christ-hero amid scenes of ghastly upheaval. His cousins safe in Stockholm running the bank were perhaps not discontent that they did not have to share desk-space or boardroom with a flamboyant rival, and lifted only a few fingers to find out what had happened to him. The Swedish F.O. did likewise, even while others – in Hungary, the U.S. and Israel – busied themselves in raising a new young man of privilege into status of a latter-day Don Carlo reaching down to help les misérables, a Byron breathing his last to combat tyranny. Glorious apotheosis! Yet what comfort for a body rotting away and probably finally poisoned in some noisome space out of Darkness at Noon?
This is often the real end of daredevil service. And while the bravery of Raoul Wallenberg is beyond question, the legend surrounding him may be misleading, in this respect: whatever he did, whatever he achieved, whatever heroism he displayed – even his martyrdom, if it was that – involved the efforts and interests, good and bad, of countless others operating on the same ground at the time; and much of what he accomplished may have come to pass via them anyway. He was no doubt exceptional – certainly few appear to have given up such comfort as his pedigree promised. But the sacrifice was rich in incentives: he had at his command vast resources and was invested with an extraordinary type of insurgent-official authority. The mission was heady. He took it, presumably in full knowledge of the risks, for that reason. It would be disingenuous to suppose that there was not an element of vanity in his motives, possibly even competitive (familial) pride. Dreamers on heroism of the future be warned: read his life as a cautionary tale as well as an incitement to go get recruited.
Dr. STODDARD MARTIN is a publisher, and the author of numerous books on nineteenth and twentieth century culture and history
[i] In a letter to an American friend, quoted by Jangfeldt, 144.
[ii] A statement Wallenberg made to a friend during his military service in 1930, quoted Ibid., 146.
[iii] I wrote about contingent matters in an essay about Rudolf Kastner in Quarterly Review Winter 2009-10.
[iv] One aspect in which Jangfeldt’s account is too sketchy is Wallenberg’s private life. Girlfriends are mentioned but the nature of relationships with them is not made clear. The impression is that Raoul was a ‘young man in a hurry’ with too much to accomplish to have time for more than dalliance and, after all, his grandfather had consistently warned him off falling into the clutches of women unless and until he was ready to marry. Perhaps a postwar Raoul Wallenberg might have found a wife and become a paterfamilias in traditional mode, but for all one can tell a playboy nature might have led him in quite other directions.
[v] Wilson’s term became a title of a book of essays which appeared some years after his classic on the genesis of modern socialism and communism To the Finland Station (1940).
[vi] The son of Athos in The Three Musketeers. Jangfeldt takes the idea from Wallenberg’s half-sister, 4.