Book review: Raoul Wallenberg: The Biography

Ingrid Carlberg’s meticulously crafted biography of Raoul Wallenberg recounts the story of a man who had a hand in the survival of most of the Jews in Budapest who lived through World War Two, writes Neil Robinson.

Ingrid Carlberg


A better monument to a brave man

BY 1944 the Jewish community of Hungary was the last major concentration of European Jewry untouched by the Holocaust.

Hungary’s Jews were discriminated against by the government of Admiral Horthy, but as a German ally, Hungary was unoccupied by German forces and its Jewish population was spared the murderous attention of the SS.

This changed as the course of the war went against Germany and Horthy began to think about making peace with the Allied Powers to halt the oncoming assault of the Soviet Red Army. 

The Nazis could not afford Hungary making a separate peace and dropping out of the war. 

In March 1944 Hitler engineered the replacement of Horthy’s ministers with fascists from Hungary’s Nazi party, the Arrow Cross, and German forces occupied Hungary.

The apparatus of the Holocaust arrived in Hungary with the German troops. 

As deportations began to the death camps, the US government-backed War Refugee Board (WRB) contacted the Swedish government. 

The WRB wanted to send an emissary under Swedish diplomatic cover to disrupt Nazi plans to murder Hungary’s Jews.

The emissary sent in July 1944 was a Swedish businessman with links to Hungary, Raoul Wallenberg.

The choice of Wallenberg as the WRB’s emissary proved inspired.

Wallenberg was tireless in his efforts to save Hungary’s Jews. 

With few resources and often grudging acceptance of his status as a diplomat from the Swedish foreign ministry, Wallenberg improvised. 

He quickly built up a team of Swedes and Hungarian helpers. 

He designed and issued Swedish papers to enable Hungarian Jews to claim immunity from persecution as foreign citizens.

He intervened in Nazi and Arrow Cross raids to save Jews from execution or transportation to the death camps. 

He rented buildings and made them Swedish territory to provide protection for around 10,000 Jews. 

He cajoled and bribed Hungarian authorities to stop the death camp transports and to prevent a final massacre of the Budapest ghetto just before the city fell to advancing Soviet forces.

There’s no record of how many people Wallenberg saved through his actions, but in one way or another he had a hand in the survival of most of the Jews in Budapest who lived through the war.

There is no doubting his courage. Several of Wallenberg’s helpers were killed or disappeared. 

He worked on, despite death threats. He was imaginative and, as a temporary diplomat, he was willing to bend the rules and go beyond his foreign office brief.

Where did this heroism come from? 

Ingrid Carlberg’s meticulously crafted biography of Wallenberg shows that before 1944 there was little sign of the heroism that Wallenberg would show in Budapest. 

Indeed, Wallenberg’s life before Budapest was in many ways one of frustrated ambition and decidedly unheroic.

Wallenberg was born into a great Swedish banking dynasty, but his father’s death before his birth prevented Wallenberg from taking a place in the family business.

Wallenberg was dependent on his grandfather for his education and early career. 

His grandfather had fixed, and slightly odd, ideas about making Wallenberg an international businessman.

Wallenberg had to go to college in France and the USA, rather than in Sweden. After graduation his grandfather insisted that he work in South Africa and Palestine.

His peripatetic existence meant that Wallenberg’s ambitions were never fulfilled. 

He trained as an architect in the USA but lacked the connections needed to make a career as an architect in Sweden.

He made some money whilst working for Swedish businesses abroad on his grandfather’s orders, but never had the chance to take control of his own life and fate.

Wallenberg was able to return to Sweden after his grandfather’s death. His business

career was modest. He was sociable and popular but lacked the resources and stability to settle down and start a family. 

Promises of a position in the family bank never materialised.

When World War II began Wallenberg was approaching his 30s and drifting.

The mission to Budapest was Wallenberg’s chance to make a difference and he leapt at it.

One cannot help but feel from Carlberg’s account that Wallenberg’s decision to go to Budapest was driven by a desire to be free to act on his own for the first time, to show what he could achieve both to himself and to his family. 

His employers, the WRB and the Swedish foreign ministry, would have little control over his day-to- day actions. Wallenberg would be his own master and would be making a real difference for the first time in his life for a cause that was right.

No matter what Wallenberg’s motivation, his decision to go to Hungary was brave. 

It was also fateful and tragic.

As Soviet forces closed on Budapest Wallenberg went to negotiate with them to protect the enclaves of Jews that he had saved. 

After making contact with Soviet forces, Wallenberg vanished.

At first the Soviets reported he was in their safekeeping. They then claimed to have no knowledge of him. 

When reports showing that Wallenberg had been taken to Moscow emerged the Soviets first denied that they held him before claiming that he had been murdered by the Arrow Cross soon after contacting Soviet troops and that his body had disappeared.

Carlberg recounts the long campaign by Wallenberg’s family to get him back. 

The truth about his fate is still not known, nor are the reasons for his abduction by the Soviets. They may have believed him to be an American agent. 

In a sense, he was since his ultimate employer was the WRB. But this was no excuse; Wallenberg was no spy.

Wallenberg may have died or been murdered, in a Soviet jail in 1947. There are records that say he died of a heart attack, but no proof of their veracity.

He was ill-served by the Swedish foreign ministry and government. 

They did not press for his release from Soviet custody forcefully and were reluctant to let the Wallenberg case get in the way of good relations with the USSR.

Pressure on the Soviets to tell the truth about Wallenberg, and fame for his actions in Budapest, only came in the 1970s. 

His disappearance became a Cold War cause célèbre and a stick to beat the USSR with.

As a result, Wallenberg got the global recognition he deserved for his humanitarian work. 

Under Gorbachev the Soviets finally admitted that Wallenberg had been imprisoned and died in the USSR and returned some of his effects to his family. 

However, a full account of his arrest and death have never been provided, and as the archives have closed again may never be provided.

Carlberg’s biography is as complete a telling of Wallenberg’s story as we are likely to get until the Russian files on him are opened to independent researchers. 

Calberg makes Wallenberg’s story a very human one, both through her portrayal of Wallenberg’s early life and frustrations, and her descriptions of the loss that his family felt when he never returned and was never accounted for.

The result is a much better monument to a brave man than a simple tale of his heroic deeds could provide.


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