Raoul Wallenberg’s legacy more important than ever
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear Laureate, Dear Friends
Seventy-five years have passed since that chilly Wednesday morning, 17 January 1945, when Raoul Wallenberg returned for the last time to get his belongings. The harsh winter had a firm grip on wartime Budapest, the streets were icy. But according to witnesses Raoul Wallenberg was in an excellent mood during his last hours in freedom, engaged in his usual witty chitchats.
Wallenberg had spent six months confronting evil in one of World war II:s largest rescue operations. He had played a key role when ten thousand of persecuted Hungarian Jews were saved from distinction in the “Budapest-hell on earth”. Finally, with the arrival of Soviet troops, he saw deliverance coming.
His conclusion? That evil had lost, once and for all.
Unfortunately, Raoul Wallenberg was wrong, not only when it came to his personal destiny.
Almost a life span after his brave rescue operations in Budapest 1944, one could have hoped that the lessons had been learned and passed on from one generation to the other. However, today
we seem to be closer than ever before to the evil, antidemocratic and racist social climate that Raoul Wallenberg experienced.
At least this is what our contemporary world looks like.
Even though the number of democratic countries remains high, we live in a time where more and more states are shifting in an undemocratic direction.
We have recently experienced the largest refugee crisis since World war II. An increasing number of hate crimes is reported, antisemitic threats and harassments are spreading. And the political debate is becoming increasingly polarized, with social division and a growing “us and them”-perspective as a consequence.
This climate would indeed have been familiar to Raoul Wallenberg.
The challenges that our democracies face today are of course in many ways different from those before and during World war II. Still we have a lot to learn from Raoul Wallenberg. When basic democratic values are attacked, we cannot remain bystanders. They can never be taken for granted.
From this perspective, it is interesting to follow Raoul Wallenberg not only in Budapest 1944, but also in Stockholm the years before his well-known rescue mission for the Hungarian Jews.
Raoul had spent the first half of the 1930’s abroad. He had been studying architecture in United States for several years and spent a year as trainee in various companies in South Africa and the British Palestine.
When he returned to Sweden in 1936, he experienced a growing xenophobia and antisemitism in his home country.
In 1938, for example, Sweden and Switzerland begged Germany to stamp a “J” in the passports of German Jews, so the border police could stop Jews from entering their countries.
And in Sweden, there had been repeated protests from various Swedish organizations against allowing German Jewish businessmen and doctors into Sweden. For economic competitive reasons it was said. But that was of course not the whole truth.
Raoul Wallenberg returned to Sweden with another perspective. During his period in Haifa, the British Palestine, Raoul lived in a colony of German Jews who had fled Nazi persecutions. This experience gave him insight into the severe conditions for the Jews in Nazi Germany, an insight that was rare in Sweden at that time.
Since then he was NOT, as most Swedes at the time, naturally inclined to view the persecuted European Jews from an ”us and them”-perspective. He only saw the ”us”, not from sentimentality, I would say, but more as a human, natural reflex.
He ignored the underlying antisemitic public sentiment and instead used to brag about his own tiny share of Jewish blood, telling people he was quarter Jewish or half Jewish although the heritage in reality was so distant that he at best could claim to be only six percent Jewish.
With his international and inclusive perspective Raoul Wallenberg was indeed not a mainstream figure in Stockholm in the late thirties. So, what did he do? What was Wallenberg’s options? What was demanded?
In his famous diaries the Jewish German author Victor Klemperer depicts everyday life during the Nazi regime in Germany. The detailed account is gripping reading as it allows the reader to experience the oppressive changes and people’s reactions to them as they occured, “in real life”.
You don’t have to read many pages of Klemperer’s notes from 1933, the first year under Hitler, before you stumble upon one of his most important observations: The silence. Jews were fired, newspapers were withdrawn, Jewish houses were occupied, but, as Klemperer writes, “all opposing forces as if vanished from the face of earth” (---) “There is not a sound from anyone and everyone’s keeping his head down”.
Later, after Klemperer was forced to leave his private house and was taken to a special Jewish housing, he wrote: “I am German waiting for the Germans to return. They must have hidden somewhere”.
Sweden remained an open democracy. Still the same passivity and silence existed there, with a few exceptions. Given Raoul Wallenberg’s background and inclusive perspective it is not surprising that he belonged to those who did NOT remain passive.
He did it in his own way, not by writing articles or by giving public speeches. Raoul was brought up in a famous Swedish business family and always obeyed his late grandfather’s mantra: never express your personal political views in public. In private Raoul was a convinced anti-Nazi, but he never publicly raised his voice on the issue. That was simply not his way.
Instead he confronted the underlying antisemitic and xenophobic climate in Sweden by his actions in everyday life. He did not only tell people, but above all showed that decency was NOT hiding somewhere, that standing up against evil and hate always was, and remains, a necessary condition for human coexistence.
Just to mention one example: When many Swede’s wanted to stop Jewish refugees from doing business in Sweden, Raoul Wallenberg systematically established contact with them and partnered with them in his business projects. It is worth noting that when he left for Budapest in 1944, the various businesses that Wallenberg had been involved in since he came back to Sweden in 1936, had had one thing in common, ALL his business companions were Jewish refugees.
My impression is that Wallenberg did not regard these initiatives as heroic actions, rather as normal human behavior in a difficult time. He was a cosmopolitan and just didn’t see the persecuted Jews from the dominating “us and them”-perspective. He only saw the “us”. Human beings were attacked. Period.
This attitude is also reflected in the way Raoul Wallenberg organized his large rescue mission in Budapest in the autumn of 1944. Given his international background and his pluralistic personal attitude it was after all not very surprising that Wallenberg accepted the difficult and dangerous task.
As a temporary Swedish diplomat, he was set to lead a joint Swedish American rescue operation to save what was left of Hungarian Jewry – the approximately 200 000 Jews that remained in Budapest.
Raoul Wallenberg was not the only neutral diplomat in the Hungarian capital that autumn, not the only one committed to extraordinary efforts for the persecuted Jews. But one thing that distinguished Wallenberg, besides the huge size of his organization, was once again his attitude.
The strategy Raoul Wallenberg chose was action, not only words.
As the others he produced an impressing number of diplomatic notes, but he didn’t stop there.
He built a businesslike organization with impressive practical efficiency, dealing with all the logistics following the higher purpose – to save as many Jews as possible.
Raoul Wallenberg’s organization established several offices in Budapest. In the end of 1944, they had over 30 houses in the international ghetto to administer and at least around 10 000 people to provide daily with food and other necessities.
They handled everything, from heating, broken windows and cooking for 1 500 people at the time to deliveries from several food supplies, Raoul and his organization even opened a Swedish Hospital in the International Ghetto, with around forty doctors.
The work was permeated with his uncompromising humanistic approach. Raoul Wallenberg still refused the “us and them”-perspective. He did not have the attitude of a Swedish diplomat giving a generous helping hand to the poor Hungarian Jews. He saw the mission as their common task and worked TOGETHER WITH the persecuted, in a joint challenge against Evil.
Among the 350 coworkers that Raoul Wallenberg had in his organization in the end, nearly all were recruited among the Hungarian Jews who had received Swedish protective papers.
If Raoul Wallenberg had lived today, I don’t think social media would have been his primary platform, he would not be trending on Twitter. He would applaud those who fulfilled these important tasks, but personally he would most likely do the same choice as in 1944. With his actions and his attitude – his moral courage – he would have shown the importance of not being a bystander when basic democratic values are challenged, when evil reveals itself, gains power and uses it.
He would most certainly tell us that when tens of thousands of people are fleeing from absolute evil, political declarations and emotional speeches are needed, but never enough, no matter how beautifully worded they are. What is needed is action, you have to organise, and deliver.
He would indeed have praised this year’s laureate, dr Amani Ballour.
Raoul Wallenberg was NOT passive and silent during those months in Budapest 1944. His actions so much provoked Mr Evil himself, Adolf Eichmann, one of the Holocaust’s chief architects, that Eichmann at one occasion made perfectly clear that he intended to “have the Jew-dog Wallenberg shot”.
The legacy of Raoul Wallenberg is more important than ever. And the key element and the takeaway from his actions is to be found in his inclusive and pluralistic attitude. His example teaches us to be persistent in never accepting any attempts to divide our societies. It teaches us to never capitulate to any evil viral social media campaign designed to increase polarization between groups.
To always reject the distinction between “us and them”.
As New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote in a recently published article: “Pluralists do not believe that human beings can be reduced to a single racial label. Each person is a symphony of identities. Our lives are rich because each of us contains multitudes. Pluralists believe in integration, not separation. (---) Pluralists are always expanding the definition of “us” not constricting it”.
So, let’s get started. Let us mobilize against evil and hate by creating a forever widening, compassionate and global “us”.
Raoul Wallenberg would have praised that.