The Universal Hero Raoul Wallenberg

08-04-2009 , by Tanja Schult


In Sweden, many people are quite tired of Raoul Wallenberg. They, as Swedes, may not shout out directly ‘Do not bother us with this old story again’ but from their reluctant reactions you recognize at once, you better be quiet. However, their reactions could also be understood in a more positive sense. In Sweden, heroes are not very popular – it is a nation driven by the wish to build a democratic society which should be open for each and every one; that also means that no one should stick out! If we leave out the moral guilt official Sweden feels for one of their greatest sons, whom they ingloriously abandoned after the end of World War II when Raoul Wallenberg became a prisoner of the Soviet Union, we understand that the Swedish reactions are not quite as inappropriate as they may seem at first.
In fact, a hero is an anachronism in democratic societies. The hero disagrees with the idea that all human beings are egalitarian. The hero sticks out. Democracies are meant to make the hero, at least the hero of history, the hero of determinative historical action, dispensable. Bertolt Brecht reminds us in his Galileo Galilei, ‘unhappy the land that needs heroes.’ As American philosopher Sidney Hook argued in 1945, the hero could even be a threat to democracies, because he is able to change the course of history and consequently is able to endanger the given democratic system.
Still, there is a longing for heroes even in most democratic societies. Today, Raoul Wallenberg serves as a role model for a universal policy based on human rights in many countries throughout the world. How does this come about? Who was this man? What in his biography, what aspects in historiography make him such a suitable hero-figure even today in the 21st century, after the hero-concept as been misused by Fascism and Stalinism?
Let’s first take notice of the classical hero patterns that even this hero is bestowed with.

The Hero’s Origin

Raoul Gustaf Wallenberg was born in Stockholm on 4 August 1912. He was not only born on a Sunday but with a caul about his head, which, according to popular belief, is considered to be a sign of luck, an omen that the child is distinguished by greatness of mind and even equipped with supernatural powers. However, the hero’s origin is often foreshadowed by tragedy, and so is the case even here. Raoul’s father died from cancer at the age of 23, three months before his son was born. Raoul’s mother, only 20 when she married, had not even reached 21 at the time she was widowed.
But Raoul Wallenberg was not a nobody. Another important aspect of the hero’s story is his famous family ties. Raoul was a descendant of one of Sweden’s most distinguished, affluent and socially prominent families, the Swedish Rockefellers so to speak, who for generations played an important role in the country’s economic, political, and social life. Raoul, who should have been the imperial’s heir but was pushed aside, nevertheless turned out to be the best that the Wallenberg family was ever able to anticipate with its name. While other members of the family were, to some extent, discredited because they profited from the war by doing business with both Nazi Germany and the Allies, Raoul Wallenberg, the educated architect and businessman, became later known for having saved 100,000 Jews from Nazi persecution. As the Guinness book of records mentioned, no other human being has ever accomplished a similar rescue. Of course we know that Wallenberg did not accomplish this rescue singlehandedly but still this recognition is part of the myth that surrounds the historical figure.

The Call to Adventure

We have already touched upon another classical hero pattern; without a challenge, without peril, there is no hero. The classical hero ventures out into a world full of danger, leaving the safety of his home. Raoul Wallenberg was 31-years old when he left his secure homeland, the neutral Sweden, to save the Jews of Budapest. After their occupation of Hungary, the Germans had deported more than 400,000 Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Wallenberg, as a third secretary of the Swedish legation and
provided with money from the American War Refugee Board, arrived in Budapest on the 9 July in 1944 to save the remaining Jews of Budapest. Wallenberg did not resist the call of history. And besides the acceptance of the first challenge, namely to go to Hungary and help the persecuted, Wallenberg met his real challenge in October 1944, after the Arrow Cross coup. Although he originally planned to return home by the end of September 1944, he remained in Budapest when the political situation became worse. In fact, the following months after the coup turned out to be the most difficult for both the persecuted and the helpers and Wallenberg became the legendary figure posterity remembers him for.

Tragic Fate

Another important hero-pattern is the tragic fate which, unfortunately, Wallenberg so undeserved had to bear, and many monument makers have taken this up in their Wallenberg memorials. The fact that Wallenberg never returned and the fact that his fate was never entirely settled (the latter maybe even more important) contributed to his story being kept alive. After the Russian ‘liberation’ of Budapest in January 1945, Wallenberg hoped to establish contacts with the Russians in order to help the Jews of Budapest, even after the end of the war. But instead he was transported to Moscow and transferred to Lubianka Prison in the beginning of February 1945. Until today it is not documented whether he was killed in 1947 or alive even later.
Like many of the classical hero-fighters, Wallenberg was vulnerable in the end. After successfully saving many lives, he was imprisoned, and unable to save himself. Although Wallenberg’s story had already started, during his days in Budapest, to develop into a myth, it is of course his unsolved fate (and how it was handled both by the Russians/Soviets and the Swedes) that contributed to the mythic dimensions of the Wallenberg story, opened speculations about his whereabouts and in this way kept his narrative alive.
So far some of the classical hero patterns – but which patterns made Wallenberg such a suitable modern day hero?

The Individual against a Cruel Regime

First of all, we have a strong individual who fought successfully against a dictatorship. Western societies are currently experiencing the age of the individual.
While many people today feel impotent against state power, and lost due to globalization, the action of single individuals reaffirms the belief that one person’s actions are still possible and influential. Raoul Wallenberg is often described as a David against a Goliath (although he acted on behalf of official Sweden and the American WRB and was equipped with diplomatic immunity). However, Wallenberg fulfills a common longing for an individual who is able to fight and succeed against cruel state-power. These views may be exaggerated but still, they hit the core narrative. Wallenberg, as an individual, made a voluntary decision that put his life in danger; he was not a career diplomat, he could have stayed at home, but decided not to.
The Civil Hero
Wallenberg fits in many ways into our common understanding of a modern-day hero. He represents resistance against injustice, represents the civil hero, a hero type that is relatively new in history. This type is exemplified by figures like Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela. But more than that, while these outstanding human beings fought for their own people or were active within their own countries, Wallenberg represents a different hero type; the non-patriotic or universal hero. Actually, it is this categorization that makes Wallenberg such an appropriate hero figure for so many societies in the Western world.

The Universal Hero

It is important to know about Raoul Wallenberg’s upbringing, his military service (which deserves much more attention, especially in this context, and I hope to provide this in a forthcoming text which, hopefully, will follow this online publication. In the meantime I refer to Lars Brink: När hoten var starka, 2009.) and the conditions for his missions were optimal preconditions for becoming a universal hero.
Wallenberg lived, what we would call today, a cosmopolitan life. His grandfather carefully prepared him to become a citizen of the world. His studies in the United States were meant to lead to a deeper understanding of the human nature and they taught him how to make useful contacts with people from all walks of life and culture which prepared him for a leading position in later business life. After his studies,
Raoul worked in South Africa and Palestine. Among the factors that contributed to Wallenberg being easily received as a ‘national’ hero in many countries, without actually being a citizen of those nations, was the cosmopolitan life he lived. In fact, he lived, worked or traveled on four continents, indeed in several of the countries where he later was honored in several ways, e.g. with the erection of 31 memorials in twelve countries on five continents.
Furthermore, Wallenberg had two employers, The Swedish Foreign Ministry and the American War Refugee board, and consequently, two nations behind him. Another factor contributing to him becoming a universal hero is that he saved not his own people, but Jews who were threatened with persecution and Wallenberg took the decision not to stand beside and remain a bystander. Many of the Jews he saved fled later, after the Hungarian uprising in 1956, to various parts of the world, and kept the memory of this universal hero alive in the many different nations where they established their new homes.
The fact that Wallenberg is not a national hero is of utmost importance. While other heroes were ‘always articulated through the ideological frameworks of gender, imperialism, and national identity,’ Wallenberg represents something different. He is a hero who, via his upbringing and education and by the circumstances of his mission in Budapest, crosses national borders, and is celebrated by nations to which he never belonged.

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