Saved Thousands During The Second World War

Raoul Wallenberg was a man of outstanding individual courage, humanity and decisiveness. By the end of the Second World war, the young architect and businessman Raoul Wallenberg saved the lives of tens and thousands Hungarian Jews. Some estimates suggest that he saved as many as 100 000. 

From the moment he arrived Budapest in July 1944 as Secretary to the Swedish Legation, he became an unusually successful diplomat. He is said to have had a strong effect on his opponents; particularly able as negotiator with a natural authority that made people listen. He also had a remarkable linguistic talent. 

Raoul Wallenberg made tireless negotiation efforts and actions of various neutral diplomatic missions. The Papal Nunciature and the International and Swedish Red Cross saved as many as 100,000 Hungarian Jews from Nazi persecution. It is well-known that it is thanks to Wallenberg leading the negotiations directly with Adolf Eichmann and the Hungarian Nazi Arrow Cross, that made this possible.

Handing out ‘Schutzpass’

Among other measures Wallenberg took to save people’s lives – and one of the first things he did – was to hand out protective passports, ‘Schutzpass’, and set up safe houses for Jews. The blue passports with the three yellow cronors symbolising the Swedish State, were provisional passports giving Jews the status of Swedish citizens.

Thanks to these passports, at least some Jews could escape the fate of being brought to different labour camps, mainly at the Austrian border, by trains or in “death-marches”. 450,000 were deported in Hungary, and all of them perished.

Another thing Wallenberg did, was to draw up a post-war plan on reconstruction and employment opportunities for deportees. It was this plan Wallenberg brought with him on the day he left the Swedish Legation on 17 January 1945, to visit the Soviet military headquarters in Debrecen in the eastern part of Hungary.

Raoul Wallenberg was an unusually brave and tireless diplomat.

Disappeared on January 17, 1945

Wallenberg was on his way to visit the Soviet military headquarters, with the reconstruction plan in his briefcase. But, the plan never saw the light. That day, Wallenberg met his own fate. He was captured and detained by Soviet forces – no-one still knows why. It has been said that some suspected that he was a spy on behalf of the Americans. His connections with high-level German politicians have also been brought forward as motifs for his detention.

According to Soviet sources and the so-called Smoltsov Report, which was document carried out by the Lubyanka prison Doctor’s son, Smoltsov, Wallenberg died in the Lubyanka prison in July 1947 from infarction. At the time, it was not uncommon to use cardiac infarction as a cause of death used to conceal unnatural death, i.e., death by execution or ill-treatment. The accuracy and authenticity of the report is disputed.  

During confidential talks between Swedish and Russian diplomats during the last decade, the Russians stated that Wallenberg in reality was executed.

While this version has also been brought forward during interviews undertaken in connection to a recent report on the fate of Raoul Wallenberg undertaken by a Swedish-Russian working group, no proof or evidence has been found to confirm this theory.

In the preface of the report, the Swedish Secretary of State, Hans Dahlgren, makes the following remark of Raoul Wallenberg:

He did not ask what needed to be done. He did not need a decision-making process in the face of evil. His unerring moral compass indicated the path that he should take… Raoul Wallenberg thus set an example. He knew that we need not always be prepared to do what is right. He showed that we are all able to meet a challenge.

Overview: Wallenberg’s Work and Life 

The Early Years

  • 1912. Raoul Wallenberg was born into the renowned Swedish Wallenberg family of bankers, politicians and diplomats. He later graduated with honors in architecture at the University of Michigan in the United States. During the early years of Wallenberg’s career, hispaternal grandfather, Gustav Wallenberg  a respected diplomat, is cruial to Raoul.
  • The elder Wallenberg takes on the education of Wallenberg, and raises him as a ‘citizen of the world’. He makes sure that Raoul learns languages, travels abroad and takes on various commercial positions.After high school and completing the Swedish military service, Wallenberg spends a year in Paris. Thereafter, he goes the US, to study architecture at the University of Michigan. He is a top student, and graduates in 1935.
  • Working Life and Diplomatic Efforts
  • 1936. After graduation, Raoul Wallenberg returns to Sweden. Shortly, he leaves again to work commercially in South Africa and Haifa, Palestine. During his time working at a Dutch bank in Haifa, he becomes aquainted with anti-semitism.
  • In 1941, Raoul Wallenberg is appointed foreign trade representative of the Central European Trading Company whose director was Kálmán Lauer. Through Lauer, a Hungarian Jew, and his family, Wallenberg makes his first acquaintance with Budapest and Hungary through visits in the country between 1941 and 1943.
  • March 19, 1944, Hitler invades Hungary. The new leadership turns over the Hungarian Jews in the countryside to the Nazi’s. 450 000 people are deported and almost all of them dies. Hitler sends Eichmann to Hungary as a Nazi official responsible for overseeing the extradition of Jews to death camps. Eichmann’s mission is to make sure all Hungarian Jews are liquidated. In the summer of 1944, it becomes apparent that the more than 200,000 strong Jewish Community in Budapest, which had been untouched so far, comes into direct life-threatening danger.
  • July 1944. At the Swedish legation, in similarity to other neutral legations, provisional passports are being issued. This is by no means enough. More passports and other measures of protection are needed. Sweden needs to help accelerate the procedure of protection.
  • Negotiations between the Swedish Foreign Ministry, the American War Refugee Board and the World Jewish Congress, results in the decision that a Swede would be appointed in order to lead a mission to rescue the Jews of Budapest. Wallenberg is recommended by his former manager, Kálmán Lauer, who says that “Wallenberg is “right man for the job”, possessing all qualities needed.
  • July 9, 1944. Raoul Wallenberg arrives in Budapest as secretary to the Swedish Legation. He had no prior background in diplomacy. At that time, the Nazis had scrapped the deportation trains ,after an intervention by King Gustav V of Sweden. But, instead the Jews were brought to different labour camps, mainly at the Austrian border, by other trains or in “death-marches”.
  • Wallenberg launches the “protective” passports, Schutzpass. At first, he can only make a thousand copies, but manages to raise the quota to 4,500 passports, while other estimates point at triple that amount.Wallenberg, operates from special department within the Swedish Legation and is assisted by more than 300 volonteers. Wallenberg’s relief work also involves the establishment of thirty two so-called “safe houses” under the protection of the Swedish Legation. 15-20,000 Jews are said to have been rescued in this way.

Raoul Wallenberg: His Life and Afterlife.
Lecture by Lund University history professor Ulf Zander


Jan Eliasson,
former Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, about Raoul Wallenberg (in Swedish)

Read more 

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