At the outbreak of World War 2, Sweden had already been at peace for almost a century. With Hitler’s Wehrmacht on the march across Europe and conquering territories across northern Europe and the Nordic region, the encircled Swedish government led by Per Albin Hansson had to engage in cunning realpolitik to prevent the German war machine from riding through the country.
On the one hand, Sweden had to allow German soldiers to transit across territory from Germany to other parts of Europe, on the other hand they closed a blind eye to humanitarian saints like Raoul Wallenberg – the saint who saved tens of thousands of lives in Hungary.
Raoul Wallenberg (pronounced Wallen-beri) was also known as the Angel of Budapest.
A tree stands at the Nybrohammen in memory of his deeds.
Born in 1912, Wallenberg was an architect and businessman by trade. He grew up in a well-off and highly educated family and matriculated in the University of Michigan where he learnt his architectural trade. But he was not an arrogant man, unlike many aristocratic rich young people, Wallenberg did odd jobs during his college years and explored the United States as a hitchhiking hobo, writing to his grandfather, “when you travel like a hobo, everything’s different. You have to be on the alert the whole time. You’re in close contact with new people every day. Hitchhiking gives you training in diplomacy and tact.”
Beginning in 1938 Hungary under the admiral and regent Miklos Horthy, sensing the influential rise of the Third Reich, passed more and more anti-Semitic laws.
Hitler was ready to destroy the Jewish people, the swish of his bloodlust reached people like Anne Frank.
This caused a close business associate of Wallenberg, Kalman Lauer to find it increasingly difficult to travel to Hungary. Wallenberg helped him by traveling to Hungary in his stead and learnt to speak Hungarian. Jews were heavily discriminated against for 6 years but the Holocaust did not reach them.
However, as the tide of war turned, Horthy decided to turn on his partner Hitler and engage in talks with the United States and Great Britain. Horthy’s secret talks were no match for the SS and news soon reached Hitler.
“Enter Hungary” came the order from an enraged Hitler. The meagre Hungarian force proved no match for the German panzer tanks.
Under new leadership and a puppet goverment, the holocaust came to Hungary. Barely a month after taking over, Nazi soldiers deported Hungarian Jews to polist extermination camps like Auschwitz.
The atrocities in Hungary made global headlines and an effort to save the Jewish people was launched with the establishment of the War Refugee Board. The person chosen to enter Hungary was a Swedish royal, Folke Bernadotte. He was however refused entry into Hungary and so the Board turned to Wallenberg.
Wallenberg was a late arrival, but the time he arrived, some 400,000 people had already been deported and only 230,000 Jewish people remained in the country. Prior to his arrival, the Spanish diplomat Angel San Briz managed to save some 5,200 Jews by expatriating them to Spain, but he was ordered out of Switzerland and was unable to continue his work.
The Swedish chief diplomat in Hungary, Per Anger argued that all Swedish people even those of Jewish origin should be allowed to be free the identifying badge and repatriated to Sweden. As this was done, Wallenberg quietly gave out protective passports (fake documents) to these people. The documents looked real and it fooled the German and Hungarian soldiers. Wallenberg then rented houses in the heart of Budapest and declared them Swedish extraterritory, effectively putting these people in Swedish land. At its height this action inspired some 350 people to assist him. In total almost 100,000 Jews were saved by their efforts.
And then, he disappeared. After the Soviet Union entered Hungary in early 1945, Wallenberg vanished without a trace. He was presumed to have been abducted and later killed by Soviet counter-intelligence agencies during the Soviet Seige of Budapest.
Wallenberg’s story is today immortalised in schools and awards all across the world and an exhibition in his name at Stockholm’s Army Musuem.
The Army Museum was opened in 1879 and occupies a former artillery depot that was used for almost 300 years since the 17th century. The current buildings were completed in the 18th century.
In addition to the Angel of Budapest, the Army musuem also showcases the more morbid, mundane and violent parts of war – including the the life of Swedish soldiers from the 16th century,
spoils of war defeated enemies,
and punishment for military crimes.
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