New Investigations New Questions

The Last Word on Wallenberg? New Investigations, New Questions
by William Korey

New Investigations New Questions

The January 12, 2001, Stockholm Press Conference

A BROODING, SOLEMN ATMOSPHERE, punctuated by one fervent mea culpa after another, enveloped the long-awaited press conference on January 12, 2001, in Stockholm. It was on that occasion that the repeatedly delayed, long overdue, and much anticipated studies by the Swedish-Russian Working Group on the fate of Raoul Wallenberg were released. The findings were a matter of intense worldwide interest, for Wallenberg was no ordinary figure. The UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, had singled him out as the "role model" for "moral behavior in the face of evil and injustice."1

But of course the role model never experienced personal recognition for his incomparable deeds. During his lifetime he received no high honors or peace prizes, no international acclaim, no encomiums from journalists, historians, church leaders, or statesmen. He never had a medal pinned on his chest, received an honorary degree, or heard the applause of the influential and the powerful. Nor did he ever experience the homely, profound satisfaction of human interaction with those whose lives he saved. To the contrary, through a mysterious chain of causation-yet to be completely unraveled-dark forces swallowed him, and "reasons of state" and an almost incomprehensible, Kafkaesque inertia kept him buried-dead or alive-in the belly of the beast where he underwent metamorphosis from hero into spectral nonperson.

Amid the horrors of the Holocaust and the near universal indifference of bystanders to the fate of Europe's Jews, Wallenberg was a towering moral exception, an individual who demonstrated, as Elie Wiesel noted, "what could have been done to save Jewish lives if more people had cared."2 Annan wondered aloud "why were there so few Raouls?" On the day of the press conference, the Times of London filed a story calling attention to "the example that he set [which has] exercised extraordinary power." The Times piece focused on his personal rescue of 20,000 Jewish lives, "an astonishing number for a single relatively unimportant official." That same day, a prominent official in Moscow, Aleksandr Yakovlev, gave the figure as 30,000, while Wallenberg's superior in the U.S. War Refugee Board estimated as early as June 1945 that Wallenberg's work in Hungary "paved the way for saving the lives of perhaps 100,000 Jews."3

The reports released on January 12 were nearly ten years in the making. In September 1991, the Swedish-Russian Working Group began its investigation into what happened to Raoul Wallenberg-and why-after he was seized by the Soviet military on January 17, 1945, and disappeared into the Gulag. The joint working group was created at what seemed a propitious moment. The newly appointed head of the KGB, Vadim Bakatin, was intent on transforming the secret police agency and planned an unprecedented opening of its files. The prevailing mood was one of goodwill, and a rare sense of optimism pervaded the discussions of independent investigators.

The collapse of the Soviet regime and Mikhail Gorbachev's presidency of the USSR suffocated many of Bakatin's bold initiatives, including those related to the Wallenberg case. Boris Yeltsin, the chief of the truncated Russian Federation, appointed a series of hacks from the traditional police bureaucracy to supervise the primary security agency of the state. Bakatin's planned reforms were simply buried. Within only a few months of the working group's inception, the pace of the official inquiry slowed considerably. Target dates for reaching conclusions were repeatedly missed, and independent investigations into archives were halted. The head of the Russian government's Committee for Archival Affairs, Rudolf Pikhoya, complained bitterly that the KGB had deliberately classified certain documents on Wallenberg as "operational intelligence" and, thereby, closed them to public scrutiny.4

Still, the Swedish-Russian Working Group plodded forward, holding a total of fifteen formal meetings along with a large number of informal ones in small groups. Some 200 documents from Russian archives were made available to the Swedish members of the group, but the KGB and its successor, the Federal Security Bureau, did not accede to all the requests for documents. About forty former KGB officials were interviewed, but a number of former KGB chiefs or their deputies refused to meet representatives of the working group. What the KGB provided fell far short of full and unrestricted access to the historical record.

The gravitas-and at least the semblance of the historicity-of the Stockholm press conference were reflected in the seventy-one blue binders of newly declassified documents sitting on a shelf like so many mute witnesses behind the seated Russian and Swedish members of the working group. But a commensurate sense of moral and historical weightiness was not reflected in the approved statement. A joint press release attempted a rhetorical and logical impossibility: setting a high-minded consensual tone while describing a fractious investigative process that was ultimately a fiasco. The group paid tribute to Wallenberg and his "self-sacrificing and invaluable efforts to save Jews in Hungary"5 while it pronounced its judgment that the "trials that befell him" in January 1945 and afterward could not but "arouse deep bitterness and compassion." Wallenberg's arrest was declared to have been "illegal" and the actions taken by the Soviet government nothing less then "criminal."

Tributes to Wallenberg were accompanied by laudatory exchanges about the friendly relations between the Russian and Swedish members of the working group. It was to be "emphasized," read the release, that "both sides have taken account of each other's opinions during the course of the work." The "cooperation" was characterized as "fruitful" and "in many ways, unparalleled." The result of this cooperative effort helped "create an atmosphere of confidence" between the two countries.

The high-flown rhetoric of these verbal bouquets must surely have embarrassed some of the key participants, for the fact is that the Swedish group encountered great difficulty obtaining information from Russian archives through their Russian colleagues. Their discomfiture must have been especially acute in light of the most stunning revelation at the press conference: the working groups had failed to reach a common conclusion. After ten years of supposedly collaborative collegial inquiry, the Swedes and the Russians issued two separate, contradictory, and wholly unbridgeable reports.

Running only thirty-four pages in length, the Russian report concluded that Wallenberg had died on July 17, 1947. Vyacheslav Tuchnin, the head of the group, pronounced himself "99 percent" certain that Wallenberg had been shot on that day.6 As for the 1 percent possibility that he had not perished then, Tuchnin chose not to elaborate. The far more voluminous Swedish report, totaling 362 pages-215 of text, the balance of documents-concluded that the evidence was incomplete and uncertain, making it "impossible to come to any firm conclusion about what happened."7 The head of the Swedish group, Hans Magnusson, observed that because definitive documentation of Wallenberg's death had not been produced, "therefore, we cannot exclude that he lived much longer."8 From his perspective, there was no "sustainable evidence" to establish for a certainty that Wallenberg had been murdered in July 1947.

The issuance of two irreconcilable reports produced a profound sense of anticlimax and irresolution at the press conference. But the mea culpa offered personally by Sweden's prime minister, Göran Persson, was more dramatic still, and even more historically significant. Before offering an abject apology for the failure of his government to conduct an aggressive search for the truth about the fate of its heroic diplomat, especially in the critical first years after his disappearance, Persson underscored and even extended the major theme of the Swedish working group's report. Noting that "since there is no unequivocal evidence of what happened to Wallenberg," he asserted that "it cannot be said that Raoul Wallenberg is dead."9 Up to that moment, no one in a position of public authority had ventured so close to explicitly stating the possibility that Wallenberg might still be alive. If he were alive, he would be nearing ninety years of age.

Persson's comments were brief, but they were memorably stinging in their criticism of Sweden's policy on Wallenberg during the first few years after his arrest by the Soviets. "Criticism," he said, was very much warranted "of the way in which the case was handled…." He would not blink the facts that were elaborated upon in the official report: "it is now clear that more energetic and purposeful action on the part of Sweden during the 1940s could have led to a more successful outcome for Raoul Wallenberg…." On behalf of his government, he expressed "our deepest regrets" to Wallenberg's relatives for Sweden's "mistakes."

Directly contradicting the press release of the Swedish-Russian Working Group, the prime minister went out of his way to stress that Stockholm did not regard the investigation into the fate of Wallenberg as closed. The joint group release had suggested precisely that: with the publication of the two reports, it said, "the group is concluding its work." In sharp contrast, Persson said: "I promise that our efforts to obtain an answer to what really happened to Raoul Wallenberg will be continued."

If the purpose for establishing the Swedish-Russian Working Group had been to bring closure to the Wallenberg trauma, it ended in failure. Magnusson's comments and the policy statement of the Swedish prime minister suggested that the end of the Wallenberg saga was nowhere in sight. Adding to the uncertainty were the reports of three independent consultants to the Swedish-Russian Working Group: Susan Ellen Mesinai of New York; Professor Marvin W. Makinen, a microbiologist from the University of Chicago; and Susanne Berger, a freelance journalist for European publications based in Washington, D.C. Regrettably, media reports of January 12 gave only scant attention to the consultants' reports-even though they were released at a separate press conference on that day in Stockholm. They were richly documented and warranted close scrutiny. Some of the consultants' findings were incorporated in the official Swedish working group report; some appeared in a more generalized form in articles written for the press either by another journalist or by one of the consultants.

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