Why the Wallenberg Arrest: The Puzzle
Would the release on January 12, 2001, of the findings of the two separate sections of the Swedish-Russian Working Group make the Wallenberg mystery less “curiouser”? Would it help solve the two questions that had been central from the beginning: Why was Raoul Wallenberg detained in the first place? What ultimately happened to him?
The Swedish report provided valuable documentary information indicating that the previous information about the date of Wallenberg’s detention by the Soviet military was in error and, in fact, that the traditional date of January 17, 1945, for the arrest, as stipulated in various biographies and studies, was incorrect. The new details sharply illuminated the question of motivation for the seizure. An official telegram from a Soviet military unit that had just taken a key Budapest location, Benczur Street, the site of the International Red Cross transport unit, carried a handwritten message stating that Wallenberg and his driver were “Detained on January 13.”32 On that day, Wallenberg had voluntarily called on Soviet military officials at the site. He explained that he hadn’t gone into hiding with the other members of the Swedish legation in other parts of the city because he was “responsible for the protection of 7,000 Swedish citizens [Hungarian Jews who have been given Swedish passports] in the eastern part.”
The military commander in charge had ordered Wallenberg to be transferred to another commander with “due attention to his security and comfort.” But, according to the Swedish study, that order had specified that Wallenberg “was not to have any contact with the outside world.” On the following day, January 15, the chief of staff of one major Russian military command in Hungary telegraphed the identical message regarding Wallenberg to the chief of staff at a second top command. These earlier reports became the basis for the message of Vladimir Dekanosov, the Soviet deputy foreign minister, to the Swedish legation in Moscow, on January 16, stating that Wallenberg was under the care of Russian troops in Budapest.
On the next day, January 17, a formal warrant for the arrest of Wallenberg was sent by the powerful Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Bulganin to Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, the chief Soviet military official in Hungary. A copy of the warrant was sent to Viktor Abakumov, then head of SMERSH, Soviet military counterintelligence. Wallenberg was to be brought directly to Moscow. That very same day, Bulganin issued an arrest warrant for Swiss diplomats Max Meier and Harald Feller. The warrant order specified that the Swiss were to be sent to Moscow “in the same way as Wallenberg.” Wallenberg was formally arrested not on January 17 but on January 19 and brought to Moscow on February 6.
The new documentation underscored that Wallenberg had been specially targeted for apprehension by the Soviet military a number of days before January 17, and that it was their intent to handle him in a distinctive manner. The initial term the Soviets used was “detained,” and he was to be kept as much as possible from the outside world. A second characteristic of the manner of treatment was noted in the reference to the two Swiss officials who were to he handled like Wallenberg. The Russians issued strict orders from the beginning that Wallenberg, in the words of the Swedish report, was to be treated “humanely” and not interrogated.33
A clerk who worked for Wallenberg later testified that the Swedish diplomat had been under Soviet surveillance since January 12 and was always accompanied by Soviet officers. At the same time, the clerk noted that Wallenberg was “well treated.” In the latter’s plan to go to Debrecen to visit Marshal Malinovsky and negotiate the possible return of Jewish property, Wallenberg took three suitcases, a backpack, and a large sum of money. But before leaving he gave the clerk a considerable sum of Hungarian money to pay for the upkeep of Jewish welfare shelters.
The decision to seize and detain Wallenberg was clearly taken at the highest level in the Kremlin. A communication by Abakumov to Molotov on December 1, 1945, specified that the arrests of Feller and Meier were in accordance with Stalin’s instructions. Stalin was also the apparent source for the order that their arrests were to be done “as in the case of Raoul Wallenberg.” At the same time, detention of Wallenberg and Langfelder was to be handled in an especially gingerly way. Both were told in Budapest and later upon their arrival in Moscow that they should not regard themselves as prisoners but rather as persons in protective custody. Indeed, they were taken on a tour of the famed Moscow subway system, almost like ordinary tourists.34
The American “Spy” Angle
If Wallenberg was targeted for detention at an early stage, the key question is why? In May 1996, a major American journal carried an article with the blazingly provocative headline that Wallenberg was a “spy” or “espionage asset” for the United States.35 But though the article was supposedly based upon a six-month investigation, it offered little new information or documentation of its thesis. Indeed, except for pointing out that Iver Olsen, the representative of the U.S. War Refugee Board in Stockholm who hired Wallenberg, was also in charge of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in the Swedish capital, the article was woefully lacking in substantive data.
That Olsen functioned in this dual capacity was noted in this author’s earlier monograph on Wallenberg-along with documentation that Kremlin agents had penetrated the OSS at a very early stage in the life of that U.S. intelligence service, from which the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) emerged.36 But did Wallenberg function as “an undercover agent for OSS”? The question was confronted head-on in the Swedish study. In the preparation of a detailed analysis of this allegation in its report, the Swedish group drew heavily upon extensive documents from the State Department, the OSS, and the CIA.37
The central point in the Swedish report was taken from an internal CIA document of 1955 that focused upon comments made by Iver Olsen. The report, referring to the internal CIA document, declared:
… when asked whether he [Olsen] had ever had operational contact with Raoul Wallenberg or used him operationally, Olsen repeatedly and categorically denied having done so. His contact with Raoul Wallenberg had been only in his capacity as WRB representative.38 The CIA document was then specifically quoted as saying: “Olsen was extremely emphatic on this point.”
The information was hardly surprising; it was also congruent with other known data, as noted in this author’s previous study. After hiring Wallenberg, Olsen stressed in initial and confidential communications to the State Department that the Swede was given to understand that his exclusive function was humanitarian-the rescue of Jews, and nothing beyond that. Moreover, the new Swedish study showed that the CIA had found no evidence that indicated Wallenberg was even aware of Olsen’s links with the OSS. Besides, the very nature of Wallenberg’s virtually superhuman efforts in his rescue work-laboring twenty hours a day, according to colleagues in this endeavor-precluded engaging in spying initiatives.
This did not mean, however, that the Soviet military and intelligence forces, profoundly xenophobic and deeply anxious about foreign spies, might not still have suspected Wallenberg of engaging in espionage. In May 1945, an American brigadier general who had inquired of Soviet military authorities in Budapest about the fate of Wallenberg and the Swiss diplomats, Meier and Feller, received the impression that the new Budapest authorities might have evidence that the three had possibly cooperated with the Nazis.39 An associate of Wallenberg in the Swedish legation, Lars Berg, later related that the Russian occupiers, in questioning the non-Swedish staff members as well as the Swedish diplomatic staff, has accused the legation of espionage and issuing false documents and protective papers to Hungarian fascists.
A central allegation was that some of Wallenberg’s protective passports designed to help Hungarian Jews escape the Nazi death camps might have fallen into the hands of Hungarian Arrow Cross members. Data confirming this charge are unavailable. That sizable numbers of such passports ended up in wrong hands seems highly doubtful. As Wallenberg and his associates in the rescue mission were anxious and determined to concentrate on saving Jews, meticulous care must have been taken to prevent passports from falling into the hands of non-Jews.
Wallenberg and Berg were said by Soviet interrogators to be German spies and, as for humanitarian rescue work, the Soviet questioners would maintain that it was “impossible” that Wallenberg would risk his own life to save Hungarian Jews.40 One document that did surface during the early nineties was a draft prepared in April 1956 by Foreign Minister Molotov and KGB chief Ivan Serov that reported that Abakumov had accused Wallenberg of espionage on behalf of Germany. The draft was sent to the Central Committee of the party and constituted an attempt to put all the blame for Wallenberg’s death upon Abakumov. The draft was rejected by the Central Committee.41
If the main hypothesis of the Soviet interrogators was that the Swedish legation was involved in German espionage against the Soviet Union, it was also “suspected of spying for the Americans and for the British.” That the latter suspicion would last for some time is indicated in the following assertion made in the Swedish report:
In an emotional outburst in 1979, the Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Zemskov told the Swedish Ambassador in Moscow that Raoul Wallenberg had been spying for the USA and that the Americans privately admitted this. The Swedish report carried a dozen pages of speculation on why Wallenberg had been arrested, all of them reflecting in one way or another the thought that he had been engaged in espionage.42 One of the surprising sources cited was Pavel Sudoplatov, a former top aide to the notorious Lavrenti Beria. According to Sudoplatov-as reported in the Swedish report-the chief of the SMERSH Front Directorate told him sometime in the fifties that “it was widely known that Raoul Wallenberg was in contact with German intelligence.” Wallenberg was also believed by Sudoplatov’s SMERSH source to have been an “established asset” for the American and British intelligence services.
Sudoplatov’s speculations on the Wallenberg case appear in his book Special Tasks, which he is reported to have written several years before his death.43 But that book was subjected to devastating criticism. The attacks focused principally on the author’s allegations that leading American scientists in the atomic bomb project, Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and Enrico Fermi, as well as the distinguished Danish physicist Niels Bohr, had all supplied Soviet agents with “the most vital information for developing the first Soviet atomic bomb….” A top level authority on atomic espionage, Thomas Powers, reviewed the book and found the sensational charges lacking “supporting details” and in the few cases when “details are cited, they are irrelevant or blatantly wrong.”44 The book’s allegations were found “to evaporate on scrutiny.” In general, Sudoplatov’s work “is an unrelieved mess-contradictory, often incoherent, riddled with error, unsupported in its major claims.”
Powers was not the only expert who trashed the book. America’s preeminent authority on the Soviet Union, George Kennan, said it was “marked by extreme vagueness.”45 Another leading scholar on Soviet affairs, Walter Laqueur, dismissed most of the claims of Special Tasks, saying the adage Let the Buyer Beware “should be printed in giant lettering on the cover of this book.”46 More recently, the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars carried a detailed review of the Sudoplatov book on its Website calling it a “mishmash of absurdities.”47
As for Sudoplatov’s chapter on Wallenberg, it was not drawn from firsthand knowledge or firsthand sources; he acknowledged that his sources were secondhand and that much of his thesis was purely personal speculation. Indeed, he did not hesitate to use the phrase “my speculations” even when making definitive statements on Wallenberg. As for the Smoltsov Memorandum, he swallowed it whole. Even more disturbing was his contention that at the time of Wallenberg’s arrest in Budapest, the Swedish diplomat was “deeply involved in the evacuation of Jews from Germany and Hungary to Palestine.” The statement has no basis in fact and reflects extraordinary ignorance.
It is significant that when Special Tasks was first published, Professor Marvin Makinen, a key consultant to the Swedish-Russian Working Group, sought an interview with Sudoplatov but was refused. For all his inadequacy as a source, Sudoplatov echoed the thinking of numerous officials in Moscow’s intelligence apparatus. The Swedish report concluded that:
The Russians were convinced in 1945 that Raoul Wallenberg had undercover assignments, at all events ran errands for the Germans and, they strongly suspected, cooperated with American intelligence as well. The Russians were certainly convinced that the Jewish rescue action was only a cover for espionage.48 It certainly required a distorted mindset to believe that Wallenberg served simultaneously as an agent of the Nazis and the Americans, then at war with each other. Besides, a cool, rational assessment of the subject would indicate these suspicions had not a scintilla of evidence in support of them. But, as the Swedish report noted, Stalin “suffered from spy-mania.”