August 27, 2013

BOOK: “Twilight in Budapest”

A new book by Swedish-Hungarian author Gellert Kovacs manages to shed  light on important aspects of Raoul Wallenberg’s rescue mission, with potentially serious implications for Wallenberg’s fate


Gellert Kovacs
“Skymning i Budapest”
Carlsson, 2013
364 pages, plus 16 page photo insert
ISBN 978 91 7331 571 5


The new findings presented by historian Gellert Kovacs in his fascinating  book, “Twilight in Budapest”, (“Skymning i Budapest” “Carlssons, 2013), give rise to important old and  new questions about Raoul Wallenberg’s activities in Hungary in 1944  as well as those of other  diplomats at the Swedish Legation, Budapest.  The same applies to the extent of Allied intelligence operations in Hungary and  what implications these activities may have had for Wallenberg’s fate after 1945.  The research  may help to shed additional light on Stalin’s presumed reasons  for arresting Raoul Wallenberg and his decision not to release him, as well as the motivations that may have guided Swedish handling of Wallenberg’s disappearance after the war.

Kovacs’ examination of statements given by witnesses who were active in the armed resistance in Budapest in 194  paints a much more nuanced picture of Wallenberg’s network of contacts than  previously understood These oral histories have often been neglected in favor of reliance on official documentary sources. “Twilight in Budapest”  shows that in doing so, vital details and connections of Wallenberg’s activities may have been overlooked.

This includes, for example, Wallenberg’s much discussed involvement in saving the large Budapest Ghetto from destruction by the Germans as Soviet forces encircled the city  in January 1945. Kovacs’  analysis makes it clear how Wallenberg had an essential role in the protection of the Ghetto and its 70,000 inhabitants, even though he himself had already left Budapest at that time.

The first-hand accounts   Kovacs cites  in some detail also provide added insights into the efforts by the resistance in the autumn of 1944 to provide the Western Allies with up-to-date information about the events unfolding in Hungary, including  efforts to smuggle out evidence of war crimes committed by the advancing Soviet army. According to witnesses, Wallenberg participated in several key meetings where these issues were discussed. Allegedly two sets of these records were delivered to Allied forces in Italy, one set went to the Vatican and another supposedly has remained concealed in Hungary.

The book provides a myriad of new details about how Wallenberg’s organization was able to function so effectively. As Kovacs puts it, Wallenberg made  use of a then quite modern management style, functioning much like present day CEO,  delegating tasks while intricately weaving together and steering his complex network of aides. Wallenberg’s support staff came from a cross section of Hungarian society – including the aristocracy, the church and  the military -  involving civil servants, diplomats, students, housewives, soldiers, scientists, businessmen, farmers and even artists.

Kovacs  shows how the perception of Wallenberg as the lone hero who defeated his Nazi opponents while  protected by little more than personal courage and his diplomatic passport definitely belongs to the realm  of myth.  One perhaps unintended benefit of this  book is that through its in-depth examination of all facets of the Swedish rescue effort, it manages to highlight the often understated  depth and scope of the Hungarian resistance movement  and its many dedicated members who have never received the recognition they deserve.

However, the author also makes it clear that Wallenberg’s near legendary reputation after the war is richly deserved.

He traces in detail the day-to-day operations of the truly astounding rescue apparatus Wallenberg and his aides put together that provided  effective aid across a wide spectrum of need, such as the delivery of food stuffs and clothing,  the assignment of armed guards for the  protected Swedish houses, as well as care offered  to the orphaned and the sick. The use of well-placed informers allowed for quick, targeted responses to new arrests and even planned deportations.

Kovacs’ research underscores Raoul Wallenberg’s basic approach to his mission, namely one that blurred  the lines between humanitarian actions and active resistance. Wallenberg obviously felt these two had to go hand in hand, since defeat of Nazi Germany would be the most  effective way of ending the atrocities committed against Hungary’s Jews.  Reading the book, one feels reminded of Wallenberg’s statements before his departure from Stockholm in July 1944, that he  wanted to provide truly meaningful assistance, instead of  becoming simply one more cog in the bureaucratic machinery.

Wallenberg’s hands-on approach, which – as Kovacs now relates – apparently also included use of his diplomatic car for the transport of weapons and ammunition on behalf of the resistance, would constitute the logical extension of this thinking.

Like  the newly reported collection  and sharing of actionable intelligence via a radio transmitter located in the Swedish Legation, Budapest – to alert  Allied forces in Malta who would then go on to bomb barges on the Danube river carrying vital oil supplies for the German Wehrmacht – Wallenberg’s alleged role in helping the Hungarian underground  would have meant involvement of official  Swedish diplomatic personnel in military style operations. This, of course, would have constituted a serious breach of Swedish neutrality.

If indeed  confirmed, these findings also  raise  serious questions  about Wallenberg’s colleagues at the Swedish Legation, Budapest,  especially about  First Secretary Per Anger, who worked closely with Wallenberg.  What did he know about these issues and did he have any role in them? And were  any of these actions cleared with the Swedish Foreign Ministry in Stockholm in advance? Another important issue is what  exactly Anger and his fellow diplomats told the Russians about their own as well as Wallenberg’s activities when they met Soviet officials in early 1945.

Just as relevant is the question of  what happened after the Legation members returned home to Stockholm a few weeks later.  Was the distinctly passive attitude of the Swedish government  to Wallenberg’s disappearance in January 1945, as Kovacs says, a direct result of his  somewhat reckless actions in Budapest, possibly exacerbated by  Sweden’s fear of Soviet authorities who now held vital evidence of Swedish breaches of neutrality, in a variety of matters, including  still largely unexplored deals involving Hungarian and German Nazi officials? Such perceived violations would have weighed even more heavily because Sweden formally represented Soviet interests in Budapest.

In the background loomed the rising Swedish-Soviet tensions in the Baltic countries. All this raised the specter of Soviet blackmail, a point  that has been argued by former Swedish Foreign Ministry archivist Göran Rydeberg: “If there were Swedish fears of [future] Soviet aggression,” Rydeberg wrote in an official report on the Wallenberg case from 2001, ” it would conceivably have led to a wish to distance the Swedish personnel from Wallenberg’s activities.”

In this connection, renewed questions arise about the ultimate aim  of Swedish/Allied intelligence cooperation in Hungary. Very clearly, by 1944. Sweden had provided the U.S. with assistance on a relatively broad scale, including support for rescue operations  in the Baltic countries sponsored by the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) These aroused strong Soviet suspicions, for a variety of reasons, but also  because some of the individuals involved were Fascist sympathizers, even war criminals, who had ties to local SS organizations.

A strong indication of similar extensive assistance in Hungary was the known  deliveries in 1943 and again in September 1944 of at least three radio transmitters to Budapest by  Swedish intelligence representatives via the  Swedish diplomatic pouch. The two latter sets  had been intended for use by the resistance in preparation of a possible uprising, in the wake of a hoped for Allied invasion. Now we finally have some indication  as to what other purposes such transmitters may have served, even though the  invasion plans fell through.

The memoirs of SI Intelligence Chief in Stockholm, Robert T. Cole, make it clear that the Swedish-American clandestine exchanges directly involved  Raoul Wallenberg.  Cole says that before Wallenberg left for Budapest, the two met to discuss America’s overall “interests and contacts” in Hungary, with an eye towards  U.S. post war interests throughout Central and Eastern Europe. These aims  also included the wish to protect Hungary’s considerable economic assets which  involved important Western economic holdings, including those of Sweden. (The same was obviously true for the Baltic countries).

Other OSS documentation of the time shows  that  once the war ended, the foreign branches of Swedish companies were to serve as important collection points for intelligence about the Soviet Union, to be shared with Western intelligence services.

If the new findings are confirmed, the engagement of Swedish diplomatic representatives  in an  ongoing military conflict  could have had truly significant ramifications, on a variety of levels; this includes the question how Stalin decided to handle Raoul Wallenberg’s case in the decisive summer of 1947 (when Wallenberg is alleged to have  died in Soviet captivity)  and why at least three individuals  who had been  closely associated with Wallenberg and Allied intelligence operations  in Budapest ended up as highly secret, numbered prisoners in the Soviet Union’s notorious Vladimir prison in the early 1950’s.

Did Raoul Wallenberg indeed quickly outlive any usefulness for  the Soviet leader? Or did Stalin delay a final decision about Wallenberg’s fate, at least for a while,  because he considered him relevant  “for the larger political game”, as a former high-ranking Soviet intelligence official suggested  some years ago?

“Twilight in Budapest”  gives strong new  impetus for additional research into  the overall scope and purpose of Wallenberg’s mission, its associated aspects, his contacts before going to Budapest, as well as possible Soviet perception of Wallenberg  as an ‘agent’ of broader, long term Western aims in what Stalin considered a traditional Soviet sphere of influence.

The military defeat of Nazi Germany would have been a mere technicality in this scenario. Stalin’s main  concern was that ultimately the U.S. and Great Britain would make common cause with their former enemy and turn as a united front against the Soviet Union. Wallenberg’s elaborate plans for post-war restitution of Jewish property  must have further added to Soviet suspicions about the fundamental nature of his mission. The young Swede was, after all, a member of one of the most powerful financial families in Europe; one that was viewed by Stalin as possibly hostile and yet also useful to the Soviet Union.

After almost seven decades since Raoul Wallenberg’s disappearance, we  should finally be able to obtain answers to most  of the still unsolved questions. Soviet field agents filed extensive reports about what they saw and heard in Budapest (and Stockholm!), yet almost none of this documentation has been made available to researchers. Similarly, important internal Soviet era correspondence records between the Soviet leadership and key figures in the Soviet  Foreign and  Military Intelligence services have remained inaccessible.

Unfortunately, Swedish officials have not made a determined  push to facilitate a comprehensive review of this material by international experts.  Gellert Kovacs’ instructive new book provides all the more reason for that to change.

One small drawback: The book lacks an index and it could have benefitted from tighter editing, which overlooked a few basic mistakes.   A more extensive bibliography would be equally helpful. These oversights  will hopefully be corrected in future editions and are in part compensated for by a spectacular 16-page photo insert. The publication is currently only available in Swedish, but awaits very welcome translation into English and Hungarian.

S. Berger