On January 17, 1945, during the Siege of Budapest by the Red Army, Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved thousands of Jews in German-occupied Hungary during the Holocaust, was arrested by Soviet secret police on suspicion of espionage, never to be seen again.
In the late 1930s, 24-year-old Raoul Wallenberg was working in Stockholm at the Central European Trading Company, an export-import company trading between Sweden and Central Europe. The company was owned by Kálmán Lauer, a Hungarian Jew, who had started to find it increasingly difficult to travel to his native Hungary, as the country began moving deeper into the German orbit.
Under the regency of former Austro-Hungarian admiral Miklós Horthy, the newly independent Kingdom of Hungary had indeed passed a series of anti-Jewish measures, modeled on Germany’s so-called Nuremberg Race Laws, which restricted Jews from certain professions, reduced the number of Jews in government and public service jobs and prohibited intermarriage.
With Hungary becoming a member of the Axis powers in 1940 and later joining the Nazi-led invasion of the Soviet Union, Raoul Wallenberg began traveling frequently to Hungary to conduct business on Kálmán Lauer’s behalf and also to look in on members of his extended family who remained in Budapest. He soon learned to speak Hungarian, and within a year, became a joint owner and the International Director of the company.
But the situation in Hungary quickly began to deteriorate as the tide of the war decisively turned against Germany and its allies. Following their catastrophic defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943, in which Hungarian troops fighting alongside German suffered terrible losses, the regime of Miklós Horthy began secretly pursuing peace talks with the United States and the United Kingdom.
Aware of Horthy’s deceit, Adolf Hitler ordered the occupation of Hungary in March 1944 and placed the regent under house arrest. A pro-German puppet government was installed in Budapest, with actual power resting with the German military governor, SS-Brigadeführer Edmund Veesenmayern, bringing the relative security from the Holocaust enjoyed by the Jews of Hungary to an end.
Although most Jews in Hungary had indeed been protected from deportation for the first few years of the war, the Nazi regime and its accomplices, under the personal leadership of SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann, began the mass deportation of Hungary’s Jews and Roma to extermination camps in Nazi-occupied Poland.
In the spring of 1944, following the first reports of the persecution of Jews in Hungary, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt dispatched to Sweden US Treasury Department official Iver C. Olsen, who was secretly working for the Stockholm branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), in search of someone willing to travel to Budapest under diplomatic cover and lead a rescue operation.
In Stockholm, Olsen established contact with a relief committee composed of many prominent Swedish Jews, which included Kálmán Lauer. After the committee’s first choice to lead the mission Folke Bernadotte, chairman of the Swedish Red Cross and a relative of the Swedish king, was rejected, Kálmán Lauer suggested Wallenberg as a potential replacement, emphasizing Wallenberg’s familiarity with Hungary.
Raoul Wallenberg was initially considered too young and inexperienced. But despite initial differences between Sweden and the United States, he was eventually appointed to lead the mission after the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs agreed to the American request to assign Wallenberg to its legation in Budapest in exchange for a lessening of American diplomatic pressure on neutral Sweden to curtail their nation’s free-trade policies toward Germany.
Wallenberg in Budapest
When Wallenberg reached the Swedish legation in Budapest in July 1944, the intense Nazi campaign to deport the Jews of Hungary had been under way for several months. Eichmann and his associates had already deported more than 400,000 Jews by freight train, most of them to Auschwitz, and by the time Wallenberg had arrived, there were only 230,000 Jews remaining in Hungary, out of a population that once numbered close to three-quarters of a million.
With fellow Swedish diplomat Per Anger, Raoul Wallenberg began issuing hundeds of fake protective passports, which identified the bearers as Swedish subjects awaiting repatriation and thus prevented their deportation and exempted them from having to wear the yellow badge required for Jews. Through promises and empty threats to the Hungarian foreign ministry, Wallenberg managed to raise the quota to 4,500 protective passes, while issuing more than three times as many protective passes as he was officially allowed.
Raoul Wallenberg allegendly even climbed the train wagons, stood on the tracks, ran along the wagon roofs, and stuck bunches of protective passes down to the people inside. At times, German soldiers were ordered to open fire but were so impressed by Wallenberg’s courage that they deliberately aimed too high. Wallenberg could jump down unharmed and demand that the Jews with passes leave the train together with him.
Budapest under siege
By October 1944, with the Red Army closing in on the Hungarian capital, Miklós Horthy once again attempted to negotiate a separate peace with the Allies, hoping to surrender to the Soviets while preserving the Hungarian government’s autonomy. But, anticipating Horthy’s move, Hitler removed the regent from power and replaced him with the leader by the far-right National Socialist Arrow Cross Party, Ferenc Szálasi, who received a free hand to continue the terror against the Jews.
Shortly after, the Red Army launched a direct offensive against Budapest. It was during that time that Raoul Wallenberg began renting 32 buildings in Budapest, hanging Swedish flags on the front and declaring them to be protected by diplomatic immunity, which eventually sheltered more than 10,000 Jewish refugees. Other neutral legations in Budapest soon started to follow Wallenberg’s example, and a number of other diplomats began issuing their own passes.
By January 1945, with Budapest now encircled by Soviet forces, Wallenberg discovered that Eichmann had planned to massacre the thousands of remaining Jews in Budapest. He sent a note to Major-General Gerhard Schmidthuber, the supreme commander of German forces in Hungary, explaining how he would be held personally responsible for the massacre if it proceeded and that he would be hanged as a war criminal after the war, and the massacre was stopped at the last minute.
Two days later, the Red Army occupied Budapest and found 97,000 Jews alive in the Hungarian capital’s two Jewish ghettos. In total 120,000 Jews survived the Nazi extermination in Hungary.
Wallenberg’s arrest and disappearance
On January 17, with fighting still raging in the streets of Budapest, Raoul Wallenberg was taken to visit the Soviet military headquarters in the city of Debrecen east of Budapest. On his way out of the capital with Russian escort, Wallenberg and his driver stopped at one of the “Swedish houses” to tell his colleagues where he was going, adding “whether as a guest or prisoner I do not know yet.” He was never seen again.
In March 1945, the Soviet-controlled Hungarian radio announced that Raoul Wallenberg had been murdered on his way to Debrecen, probably by Hungarian Nazis or Gestapo agents. But information about Wallenberg after his detention is mostly speculative. It is widely believed that he was transported by train from Debrecen, through Romania, to Moscow, where he was transferred to the KGB’s notorious Lubyanka Prison where he died in 1947.
Documents recovered in 1993 from previously secret Soviet military archives and published in the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet show that an order for Wallenberg’s arrest were transmitted to the Red Army’s headquarters on the day of Wallenberg’s disappearance. His relationship with the intelligence agencies battling each other in wartime and postwar Hungary suggest that Moscow may have perceived the Swede as a spy for the West.
Yet, the motives and circumstances behind Wallenberg’s arrest and imprisonment remain mysterious and are the subject of continued speculation, more than 75 years after his disappearance. The Wallenberg family and generations of researchers have relentlessly pursued the possibility that the Swedish diplomat survived long after 1947, as a secret prisoner in the Soviet gulag system.
Although some have claimed that Raoul Wallenberg rescued as many as 100,000 Jews during his time in Budapest, many historians have argued that, while the so-called ‘Swedish Schindler’ did save about 7,000 to 9,000 Jews, his rescue operations were greatly exaggerated in Western anti-Soviet propaganda in order to make his murder seem worse.
More than 500,000 Jews and 28,000 Roma are believed to have been deported after the German occupation of Hungary.
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.