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Raoul Wallenberg

in Dinah Sehlton (ed), Encyclopedia of Genocide, Macmillan 2004, Vol. III, p. 1137-1140).

Raoul Wallenberg (1912- ?) has entered history as a courageous third party, a humanitarian activist who took considerable personal risks to save men, women and children from impending genocide. In the summer and fall of 1944, and until his disappearance in January of 1945, Wallenberg was attached to the Swedish Legation in Budapest, where he conducted a special rescue mission to save many thousands of Hungarian Jews from deportation to the Nazi extermination camps.

His noble example demonstrates that individuals can make a difference in opposing governmental crime, even in wartime. Wallenberg had no kinship to the victims, he did not have to get involved or take any risks; he was a Lutheran by faith and a neutral Swede by nationality, and yet he accepted a difficult and dangerous assignment in a foreign country, a mission which he carried it out with skill, determination and courage.

Wallenberg was born on 4 August 1912 in Stockholm to an aristocratic family of industrialists and bankers. In 1930 he graduated from secondary school with top marks, in particular in Russian, which would serve him well in his later career. Following compulsory military service, he went to the United States to study architecture at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbour, from which he received in 1935 the degree of Bachelor of Science. Following his return to Sweden, he took a position with a Swedish firm in Cape Town, South Africa, engaged in the sale of building materials. In 1936 he was employed at a branch office of a Dutch bank in Haifa, Palestine (today Israel): In Palestine he met Jews who had fled from persecution in Germany. Back in Sweden he became the business partner of Kálmán Lauer, a Hungarian Jew based in Stockholm and director of the Central European Trading Company, an import and export firm specializing in fine foods such as foie gras . In 1941 Raoul became foreign trade representative of the firm and in this capacity travelled to many European countries, including Hungary, Germany and Nazi-occupied France.

The Second World War will be remembered as the stage for the second major genocide of the 20 th century, following the Ottoman extermination of the Armenians, a macabre dress rehearsal. Hitler's “final solution of the Jewish question” first consumed the Polish, Baltic, Ukrainian, Russian and West-European Jews from countries under Nazi occupation. Until 1944 the 700,000 Jews in Hungary had been spared, since Hungary's head of State Admiral Miklós Horty was an ally of the Germans and thus Hitler's henchmen could not freely operate there. This situation changed when Horty realized that the war was lost and that it would be good for Hungary to bail out in time. Hungary was therefore occupied by the Nazis in March 1944, and the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau began. The first victims were the Jews from the countryside, more than 400,000 of whom were deported in the months of May-June 1944.

Faced by grave danger, some of the Jews in Budapest sought protection from the embassies of neutral countries, especially those Jews who could show some special links with those countries and thus request special passports. The Swedish Legation in Budapest was fast to issue some 700 temporary passports, by virtue of which the holders were exempted from having to wear the Star of David . In view of the magnitude of the problem, Valdemar Langlet, head of the Swedish Red Cross, provided assistance to the Swedish Legation, renting buildings in the name of the Red Cross and identifying these buildings as “Swedish Library” or “Swedish Research Institute”, although they were essentially intended as hiding places for Jews. Furthermore, the Legation turned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Stockholm and requested more staff.

Meanwhile, following the establishment of the American War Refugee Board in 1944, an organization whose task was to save Jews from Nazi persecution, the World Jewish Congress held a meeting in Stockholm to organize a rescue mission for the Hungarian Jews, and considered sending Count Folke Bernadotte, chairman of the Swedish Red Cross and a relative of King Gustav V. When the Hungarian government did not approve Bernadotte, Raoul's business partner Lauer proposed that Wallenberg be sent instead.

In late June 1944 Wallenberg was appointed first secretary of the Swedish Embassy in Budapest and granted very broad powers of initiative, not having to clear his decisions concerning the rescue mission with Stockholm or with the Swedish Legation in Budapest, at the time headed by Minister Carl Ivar Danielsson and assisted by his deputy Legation Secretary Per Anger.

When Wallenberg arrived in Budapest on 9 July 1944 only about 200,000 Jews were still in the capital. At this juncture SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann intended to deport all of them within a few days, but King Gustav V of Sweden addressed a letter to Miklos Horty containing a humanitarian appeal to stop the deportation of Jews. Upon Hortys intercession, the deportations were cancelled. It is speculated that SS-Chief Heinrich Himmler was attempting to negotiate a separate peace with the Western Allies and that he thought he would improve his negotiating position by making certain concessions on the Jews

Wallenberg's first task in Budapest was to design a Swedish protective passport ( Schutz-Pass ), printed in blue and yellow (Sweden's national colours) bearing the Three Crowns heraldry in the centre. Although these “protective passports” were not documents customarily recognized in international diplomatic practice, they did appear official enough and impressed the German and Hungarian authorities sufficiently to persuade them to leave the bearers in peace. Initially 1,500 such passports were issued, soon thereafter another 1,000, and eventually the quota was raised to 4,500. It is estimated that Wallenberg actually issued more than three times that many. Meanwhile his department at the Swedish Legation continued to grow, eventually employing 340 persons and volunteers, and harbouring 700 persons who lived on the premises.

When on 15 October 1944 Horty announced that he was seeking a separate peace with the Russians, German troops quickly deposed him, and he was replaced by the leader of the Hungarian Nazis, Ferenc Szálasi, the leader of the Arrow Cross movement. Thereupon Wallenberg proceeded to expand the “Swedish hosues” to thirty-two buildings, mostly in Pest, where many of the Jews resided. The number of inhabitants of these houses reached 15,000. Meanwhile other diplomatic missions in Budapest also started issuing protective passports.

In November 1944 Eichmann forced thousands of Jews to leave Hungary by foot, some 200 kilometers to the Austrian border. Wallenberg distributed protective passports, food and madicine to many victims of these forced marches, and by threats and bribes persuaded the Nazis to release those who had been given Swedish passports. Then followed the deportations by trainloads, and again Wallenberg personally went to the train stations to save individuals. It is reported that he climbed on trains and passed bundles of protective passports to the occupants.

Early in January 1945 Wallenberg learned that Eichmann was about to liquidate the Jews in the ghettos. Wallenberg, with the assistance of an Arrow Cross member Pa'l Szalay, whom he had bribed, approached General August Schmidthuber , commander of the German troops in Hungary. Owing to this intervention, the massacre was averted On 12 January 1945, Soviet troops entered Budapest and found some 120,000 Jews still alive in the city. On 17 January Wallenberg and his chauffeur travelled to the Soviet military headquarters in Debrecen, East of Budapest. It appears that there he was arrested on suspicion of espionage for the United States and taken to Lubjanka Prison in Moscow, where, according to Soviet sources and the so-called Smoltsov Report, he died of a heart attack on 17 July 1947. Another version is that he was still alive in the 1970s and 1980s. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, new efforts were undertaken to clarify his fate, and in confidential talks between Russian and Swedish diplomats, the version emerged that he had been executed in 1947. A Swedish-Russian working group that looked into the matter found to hard evidence to support this theory.

It is ironic that Wallenberg was not arrested by Eichmann, which whom he frequently crossed swords, or by members of the Arrow Cross, who also wanted him dead. In a chaotic and absurd world, Wallenberg, the good Samaritan who saved tens of thousands of Jews from certain death, became an early victim of the cold war between the East and the West.

It is not certain exactly how many persons were directly or indirectly saved by Wallenberg's mission. Certain is that his tireless efforts, combined with the initiatives taken by Swedish Red Cross, by the International Committee of the Red Cross, by other diplomatic missions in Budabest, and by the Papal Nunciature saved as many as 100,000 Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust.

There are many parks, monuments, statues and Institutes named after him, notably the Raoul Wallenberg Human Rights Institute at the University of Lund in Sweden (

On 20 June 2000 the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan remarked at a memorial act in Budapest that “Raoul highlighted the vital role of the bystander, of the third party amidst conflict and suffering. It was here, in the face of despair, that his intervention gave hope to victims, encouraged them to fight and resist, to hang on and bear witness.”

Wallenberg is honorary citizen of the United States, Canada, Israel and the city of Budapest.

© Alfred de Zayas


Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2000). Raoul Wallenberg: Report of the Swedish-Russian Working Group , Stockholm.

Gann, Christoph (1999). So viele Menschen retten wie möglich . C.H.Beck, München.

Anger, Per (1995) With Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest: Memories of the war years in Hungary (translated from the Swedish by David Mel Paul and Margareta Paul). Holocaust Library, Washington, D.C.

Besymenski, Lew (2000). Die Wahrheit über Raoul Wallenberg: Geheimdokumente und KGB-Veteranen beschreiben die Mission und die Ermordung des schwedischen Diplomaten, der im Zweiten Weltkrieg Ungarns Juden zu retten versuchte . Steidl Verlag, Göttingen.

Derogy, Jacques (1980). Le Cas Wallenberg . Editions ramsay, Paris.

Gilbert, Joseph (1982) Mission sans Retour: l'Affaire Wallenberg . Albin Michel, Paris.

Handler, A ndrew (1996). A man for all connections: Raoul Wallenberg and the Hungarian state apparatus, 1944-1945 . Praeger, Westport, Connecticut.

Larsson, Jan, “Raoul Wallenberg” in

Marton, Kati (1995). Wallenberg: Missing Hero . Arcade Publishing, Boston.

Skoglund, Elizabeth (1997). A Quiet Courage, Per Anger, Wallenberg's Co-Liberator of Hungarian Jews . Baken Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Wallenberg, Raoul (1995). Letters and dispatches , New York.

Werbell, Frederick and Clarke, Thurston (1982). Lost Hero. The Mystery of Raoul Wallenberg , McGraw-Hill, New York.

© Alfred de Zayas

Institut Universitaire de Hautes Etudes Internationales, Geneva

Academie internationale de Droit Constitutionnel, Tunis

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