Research Update on Raoul Wallenberg

-by Susanne Berger

Nov 14, 2008

Raoul Gustaf Wallenberg (1912-?) Swedish business man and diplomat.

The question of what exactly happened to Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg after his 1945 disappearance in the Soviet Union remains one of the biggest unsolved mysteries of the Cold War period.

In July 1944, Wallenberg was selected to go to Budapest to help protect the local Jewish population from fierce Nazi persecution. His humanitarian mission was supported and financed by the U.S. War Refugee Board and other entities, including the American Joint Distribution Committee. Since Germany's occupation of Hungary in March 1944, about 500,000 Jews had been deported from the Hungarian countryside to concentration camps in Poland and Czechoslovakia. By the time Wallenberg arrived in Budapest, only about 250,000 Jews remained in the capital.

Through the distribution of Swedish protective passports and the implementation of a well organized support network which provided food, clothing and protective housing, Wallenberg and his wide array of co-workers from all strata of Hungarian society managed to extend vital aid to thousands of people. In January 1945 Wallenberg was arrested by Soviet troops in spite of his status as a diplomat representing a neutral country. He was subsequently taken to Moscow where he disappeared. In 1957, Soviet officials announced that he had succumbed to a heart attack in Lubyanka prison in 1947. This claim has never been substantiated. Soviet authorities presented as their only proof a note from the head of Lubyanka's sanitary department, A.L. Smoltsov. The origin of this document remains unclear, and important questions persist about its content. Over the years, witnesses have reported seeing Raoul Wallenberg in different prisons and camps throughout the Soviet Union. None of these reports have been confirmed, but many fundamental questions remain.

In 1989, then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev invited Raoul Wallenberg's family to Moscow. Soviet authorities handed over Wallenberg's belongings, including his address book and calendar, his diplomatic passport, bills of foreign currency, as well as his prisoner registration card. Soviet officials claimed that these items had been accidentally discovered during renovation work in the KGB archives. The existence of these items has raised serious questions about whether additional information about Raoul Wallenberg's imprisonment in the Soviet Union exists which so far has not been released.

Successive Soviet and Russian governments have insisted that Raoul Wallenberg died or was killed in 1947 without offering any documentary or other evidence in support of this claim. Russian officials argue that the circumstantial evidence in the case is so strong that it allows no other conclusion than that Raoul Wallenberg was executed. Furthermore, since key documents in the case were supposedly destroyed a long time ago, the full circumstances of Wallenberg's fate cannot be established. Until recently, the Swedish government formally rejected this position and argued that until incontrovertible proof is offered, Wallenberg's fate remains an open question. Over the past year, however, the Swedish position appears to have shifted, with the present Swedish Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, repeatedly signaling that Sweden no longer insists on the full facts about Raoul Wallenberg's fate.

The Russian side has retrenched even further in its attitude to the case. This found its most glaring expression in the September 2007 comments made during the formal handover of KGB records in the case by current head of the Russian Federal Security Services (FSB), Nikolai Patrushev, to the director of the yet to be created Russian "Museum of Tolerance," Rabbi B. Lazar. By reviving the Soviet era claim that Raoul Wallenberg had most likely died of a heart attack in prison and that no further information exists in Russian archives, Patrushev dealt a serious setback to the official Russian position. The Wallenberg question does, however, currently remain on the official agenda of both Sweden and Russia.

Investigators working in Sweden have faced difficulties as well. No systematic analysis and comparison of eye-witness testimonies was conducted for years. Over the years, the Swedish government has taken a largely legalistic approach to the question of Raoul Wallenberg's fate, placing the burden of proof for his possible survival on investigators and Wallenberg's family before insisting on full disclosure from the Soviet and later Russian government. A great number of witness statements, dating from 1980 to the present did not become available to investigators and the public until 2001 (by which time the Swedish-Russian Working Group had already presented its report). Numerous important archival collections are not accessible to researchers, in particular documentation concerning other Swedish prisoners held in the Soviet Union in the time period from 1945-1975. Despite repeated requests, Sweden has not provided a comprehensive list of all Swedish citizens held in Soviet captivity. This information is essential for a proper analysis of eye-witness testimonies in the Raoul Wallenberg case as well as related inquiries. The archive of the Wallenberg family also has remained off limits to most investigators. Its material could provide important background information about Raoul Wallenberg's early activities and connections, as well as the family's actions before and after his disappearance.

Surprisingly, the Wallenberg case was not the subject of close scholarly examination until 1990, when, on the initiative of Wallenberg's half-brother, Dr. Guy von Dardel, "The International Commission on the Fate and Whereabouts of Raoul Wallenberg" was created. The group, consisting of international scholars and human rights activists, was allowed to visit Vladimir prison, the Soviet Union's most important isolation facility. [1] There Commission members reviewed the entire prisoner 'kartoteka' and photographed about 1,200 cards for further analysis. Out of these efforts grew the Swedish-Russian Working Group which continued to study the case in Russia from 1991 to 2001. The work faced serious difficulties, including lack of direct access to original documentation, and almost no access to key intelligence files, especially from military and foreign intelligence collections. In 2001 the group published two separate final reports, one from the Swedish and one from the Russian side. In its presentation, the Swedish Working Group outlined seventeen questions which the Russian side can and has to answer before any binding conclusions about Raoul Wallenberg's fate can be drawn.

The four independent consultants who served on the Swedish side of the Working Group—Dr. Marvin Makinen, Susan Ellen Mesinai, Susanne Berger and Ari Kaplan—also issued their findings in three separate research reports, available online at www.raoul-wallenberg.asso.fr (research). These reports probe issues such as the many unsolved questions concerning the Soviet system of numbering secret foreign prisoners, especially in Vladimir, where witnesses reported hearing of or meeting an as yet unidentified Swedish prisoner in the time of 1950-1965. Related to this is a testimony from a former employee of Vladimir prison who recalled meeting a secret foreign prisoner whom Russian authorities have so far not identified. The research also covers behind the scenes contacts between Sweden and the Soviet Union in the Raoul Wallenberg case in the 1950‘s and 60‘s; in particular several missed opportunities to exchange Raoul Wallenberg or to obtain clear information about his fate.

In 2005, the independent consultants published an appeal to President Vladimir Putin outlining ten concrete questions which Russia should answer immediately in order to resolve the question of Wallenberg's fate. No answer to this letter has been received.

In 2006, in the run-up to the G-8 meeting in St. Petersburg, the independent investigation drafted an open letter to the G-8 members to urge Russia to provide full access to key documentation it holds in its archives concerning the Wallenberg case. The letter drew signatures from various international supporters in Sweden and abroad, including British authors John Le Carré and Gitta Sereny, as well as former Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar.

A recent op-ed piece in the Swedish press (Sydsvenskan, May 14, 2008, see www.raoul-wallenberg.asso.fr) outlines some of the documentation which urgently needs to be reviewed in Russian archives. The Swedish government so far has taken only limited steps to obtain access to the material. At issue are Russian operational intelligence collections, including Russian foreign and military intelligence reports from Hungary and Sweden during the time Raoul Wallenberg was active in Budapest; the personal and investigative files of Wallenberg's cellmates and individuals closely associated with his case, important statistical records from the MGB/KGB and Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), which traced foreign prisoners by various categories, including nationality; diverse Soviet administrative records, especially confidential correspondence files between the Soviet security services and the Soviet leadership, and special collections of the Communist Party, Central Committee and Politburo. A proposal by several Wallenberg researchers to form a small new commission of experts who should receive special authorization from Russia to review key documentation from these collections was rejected without discussion by the Swedish Foreign Office in June 2007.

In 2002, the Swedish government established a commission to study the Swedish foreign policy establishment's handling of the Raoul Wallenberg case from 1945 to the present. The commission's report, formally presented in March 2003, is available online, (Ett diplomatiskt misslyckande: Fallet Raoul Wallenberg och den svenska utrikesledningen; SOU 2003:18.), and is reviewed in the research section here.

A database which includes almost all witness testimonies from 1945-present, as well as many Russian documents concerning Raoul Wallenberg's imprisonment which were made available to the Swedish-Russian Working Group, is accessible at http://raoul.dev.bazment.se/

Additional information regarding current Wallenberg research can be found at the following websites:
-www.raoul-wallenberg.asso.fr
-www.vadimbirstein.com

[1] The Members were: Professor Guy von Dardel, Dr. Vadim Birstein, Dr. Rolf Björnerstedt, Dr. Mikhail Chlenov, Professor Irwin Cotler, Alexei Kartsev, Dr. Kronid Lubarski, Professor Marvin Makinen; Alexander Rodnyansky, and Arsenii Roginski.

Official Swedish government information about Raoul Wallenberg is available at http://www.regeringen.se/


Images courtesy of Guy von Dardel.

Experts & Staff