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Some Things Are Worth Fighting For

  • Susanne Berger

It has now been ten years since a joint Swedish-Russian Working Group presented its report on the fate of Raoul Wallenberg in the Soviet Union following his arrest by Russian troops in Budapest in January 1945, a few months before the end of  World War II.  In spite of the Working Group’s efforts, the full facts of Wallenberg’s fate remain unknown.

Not surprisingly, relatively little  progress has been made  since the case moved from an official investigation to a  subject of historical inquiry. Although researchers have produced  quite a few  new insights,  without strong official Swedish support there is no way to effectively pressure Russian authorities to present the key files necessary to answer the remaining questions. In other words, we know crucial documentation is available, but we are not allowed to see it, nor do we get adequate help to obtain access to it.

Nevertheless, there have been some important breakthroughs since 2001. We do know now without a shadow of a doubt that Russian officials intentionally withheld information from documentation presented to the Working Group as early a 1991,  when the group began its work. The documents were censored not primarily out of concern for Russian secrecy  and privacy laws (that issue could have been easily circumvented), but clearly to prevent Swedish officials from learning information that would have led them to question the longtime Soviet version of Raoul Wallenberg’s fate, namely that he died of a heart attack on July 17, 1947 in Lubyanka prison. The censored material – which remains secret to this day – would have shown that with great likelihood Wallenberg was interrogated by Soviet Security officials six days later, on July 23, 1947. If such information had been received in 1991, it might have set the whole inquiry of the Working Group on a different path.

The actions of the Swedish side also leave a few question marks. For example, in 1997 Russian officials  informed the Working Group that Russian Foreign Ministry archives contain a number of secret coded telegrams which make direct reference to Raoul Wallenberg, although the Russians claim they  include no information about his fate. For that reason, Swedish officials agreed not to insist on a review of the documentation, even though the material may have proved valuable for our inquiries in other ways. Fourteen years later, the cables still have not been released. The same is true for a wide range of investigative files  and other documentation from Russian intelligence archives that have remained completely inaccessible to researchers.

Such facts, however, have not spurred Swedish officials of today to take more energetic actions.  One  exception is the letter written by Swedish Ambassador to Moscow,Tomas Bertelman, in November 2009 in which he requests clarification of  new information received  that Wallenberg was held as Prisoner Nr. 7 in late July 1947 in Moscow. More than a  year later, this letter still awaits an answer from his Russian counterparts and serious follow-up from the Foreign Office in Stockholm.

Historically, the  unsolved cases  of  other missing Swedes have suffered from similar problems:  These cases include the disappearance of a DC-3  on a reconnaissance mission with an eight men crew over the Baltic sea in 1952  – four men remain unaccounted for – as well as questions about the fate of about one hundred Swedish sailors who disappeared without a trace in the years 1946-1981, while travelling the dangerous coastal route between Sweden and communist Poland. It further includes a number of foreign as well as Swedish citizens who agreed to spy for Sweden during the Cold War in the Baltic  nations and  other iron curtain countries. Some of these individuals have never been  publicly identified.

All these cases faced and continue to face serious obstacles preventing a full resolution: Layered secrecy, fading memories, and the increasing urgency of present day matters. With events like the recent horrific suicide attack in central Stockholm on the rise, modern day threats of terrorism and other turmoil obviously must take priority in the minds of decision makers. However, the growing disconnect with the past, especially the failure to  thoroughly probe the background of lingering historical questions and to draw appropriate lessons, comes at a price. We are currently witnessing some of the associated consequence of this failure  right in front of our eyes. Swedish  journalist Dawit Isaak is suffering  his ninth year in captivity  in Eritrea where he is held without official charge or trial. He is well on his way to joining the ignominious line of unsolved disappearances, with no solution in sight.  It will not be long before there will be regretful calls to accept that he cannot be saved. His case will be whispered about in the corridors of power and his papers will remain  classified  as “secret” for at least thirty years, when we will all find out what exactly went so terribly wrong.

To be fair, diplomacy is often a thankless job. Any course of action on behalf of individual citizens in trouble must be evaluated in the harsh light of real-life consequences, be it  Cold War tensions or the treacherous conditions of  an ever more integrated world  and its complex political alliances. No one expects or wants Sweden to jeopardize security, peace or future prosperity of the majority for one single person or a handful of citizens. However, the available options for action are often not as  limited as portrayed by  professional politicians. Sweden has a long history as an arbiter of diverse interests and as such, it has a wide range of contacts to draw on. Also, functioning democracies – as distinct from authoritarian regimes – voluntarily embrace standards of conduct which explicitly demand transparency to protect the rights of individuals.  If those are ignored or relativized, we embark on a slippery slope.

Former U.S. President George Bush’s famous dictum that “history is all in the past” may appeal to the young diplomatic go-getters of today, especially those emboldened by the first whiff of political power. There are ‘real’, pressing  issues to solve – and what does that have to do with “old” cases? Quite a lot in fact. Because  even though they seem worlds apart, the problem-sets  at the heart of these older cases are not so different from the conundrums diplomats wrestle with today.

As regards the core issue, the safeguarding of human rights, we have come a long way since the end of World War II, but two fundamental challenges remain:  First, the legal status of human rights continues to be precarious. In spite of impressive progress, we  still face serious hurdles when it comes to the enforcement aspects, as the Dawit Isaak case graphically illustrates.  Secondly, this ambiguity is enhanced by a fast moving global economy which places a premium on pragmatist deal making in the fight to stay one step ahead of competitors, while struggling to accomodate the demands of  a supposedly principled political agenda.

For democratic countries, the ever-increasing pressure for compromise can be a double-edged sword. It can be a great engine of positive change, as Barack Obama’s triumphant ride to the White House in 2008 attests.  Or it can  mean refusal to take a firm position on issues that perhaps should not be so readily accommodated, such as failing to hold Bush era public servants accountable for their sometimes egregious violations of domestic and international law in the fight on terror; or taking a more emphatic stand with Russia and its precipitous erosion of civil liberties.

Regarding the issue of  missing Swedes, strategic compromise –   driven  by  both pressing need and inherent tendency – appears to have guided Sweden’s approach over the years. Unconfirmed reports have been persistently circulating that in the 1990’s Sweden came to an understanding with Russian officials to  present a limited solution in the case of the 1952 disappearance of the DC-3 aircraft:  Russia would for the first time formally admit that its airforce had shot down the  plane, and both countries would accept that not all documents would be disclosed. In the Raoul Wallenberg case too a similar inclination to stop short of a full resolution may have been the preferred outcome for both sides.  It is impossible to know if these reports are true or simply unwarranted speculation. What is objectively true is that Sweden  has repeatedly failed to take advantage of serious investigative options on the table, leaving both researchers and the public wondering why. The question of how much credit or blame Swedish diplomacy ultimately deserves for any progress or lack thereof in both the DC:3 and the Wallenberg sagas remains an interesting one.

Needless to say, as historical researchers we continue to find ourselves at a distinct disadvantage in our efforts to bring about full disclosure of Wallenberg’s fate and that of other missing Swedes. We face mountains of historical debris with our little archeological trowels, surrounded by a dizzying array of competing interests, old and new, that directly affect the progress we make on specific issues.

Now that Russia has  essentially achieved its decades long quest for membership in the World Trade Organisation (WTO), obtained in part through Swedish  mediation, it will perhaps be more inclined to reveal additional information on historical issues. But with new crises popping up every day, it will require above all  sincere political will from all affected parties to finally put the complete facts on the table  If possible, Sweden should show a bit more muscle when it insists that the men who disappeared have an intrinsic value to the country that time cannot change, regardless if they served as official representatives, as secret agents or if they were mere victims of accidental circumstances. In the Wallenberg case, researchers have repeatedly called for formation of a new, small investigative group that would focus exclusively on review of original intelligence documentation that so far has remained classified. With official backing such a review can efficiently balance Russian secrecy concerns with the rights of Wallenberg’s next of kin to learn the truth about his fate. It would  be a great tribute to the spirit of Raoul Wallenberg whose 100th birthday will be celebrated in 2012 and whose rescue mission to Budapest  rested on the very premise that there are things  worth fighting for, – namely people’s lives -no matter how uncertain the outcome.

Sweden’s approach to Eritrea and the Dawit Issak case should be equally clear cut. Unfortunately one does not get the sense that the Swedish Foreign Office is firing on all cylinders in this question either. It should take its cues from past experiences. When diplomats talk only about the things they cannot do and why they cannot do them, it is generally a very bad sign. Past is not merely prologue, as Shakespeare put it, but inevitably, the past is always present. And for Dawit Isaak  today the past of his fellow vanished Swedes is casting  a very ominious shadow indeed.

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