Role models are those who take us beyond statistics and Excel-files, who open the eyes and hearts and make us willing to discover new paths. A good role-model is seldom someone you choose, it is not about having an idol. It is someone, who beyond boundaries manages to break through time and history and wake you to call for engagement in society. The sparkle, the passion one need to take on political challenges from the heart.
Dag Hammarskjöld (1905–1961) UN Secretary-General 1953–1961. He was Governor of the Riksbank (the central bank of Sweden), State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, minister without portfolio and a member of the Swedish Academy. As Secretary-General of the United Nations, Hammarskjöld played a very active diplomatic role in the conflicts that went on. His quiet diplomacy proved to be very effective and won great respect. Dag Hammarskjöld died in unclear circumstances in a plane crash in 1961. Posthumously, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Hammarskjöld’s arrival at the United Nations can be seen as something of a fresh start in the political world. The Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had recently died and the U.S. had elected a new president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Hammarskjöld was very cautious in the beginning. He gave the impression of being shy, but friendly. He went around and shook hands with all employees in the United Nations Headquarters.
In the UN Secretariat, there was chaos. Therefore, Hammarskjöld’s first challenge was to try to resolve the problems. He proposed new rules, reorganized the staff and removed unnecessary middle management. Hammarskjöld also managed to decrease costs and showed a great interest in the UN Building’s art and architecture. He, for example, was deeply involved in the interior design of the UN Meditation Room. When Hammarskjöld took office, McCarthyism was at its peak. The United States put heavy demands on its UN officials and Trygve Lie had allowed FBI agents into the UN Building. Dag Hammarskjöld was very critical because of this and he made sure that the FBI left the UN Building.
Dag Hammarskjöld strongly believed that the UN’s main task was to keep the peace. And he saw peace as the basis for social progress. Peace could be maintained through an enhanced respect for international law and of an independent, supervisory organization. He, however, was well aware of the criticism of the UN’s effectiveness, but defended the organization by saying that the UN was “not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell.” As Secretary General, his quiet diplomacy made impact all around the globe. Some examples:
1955 Negotiated the release of 11 U.S. airmen held in captivity in China, after being shot down during the Korean War while under UN command
1956 Formulates the mandate of the UN’s first peacekeeping force during the Suez Crisis
1958 Diplomatic intervention in the Middle East crisis
1959 Undertakes an extensive journey on the African continent in order to brief himself on the situation in the United Nations’ new member countries
1960 The Congo Crisis breaks out, and Hammarskjöld acts swiftly to deploy UN troops
“Public debate in the UN is dominated by the same differences among the parties as international political life as a whole. But behind closed doors these differences are diluted. The human factor carries more weight there, and confidential exchanges are possible even across frontiers which otherwise appear impassable.”
– Quote from speech by Dag Hammarskjöld in Copenhagen, 2 May 1959
“All suffer is boundless, which you have to try to mitigate.” (Wallenberg’s view on the situation when he arrived to Budapest Sunday the 9th of July 1944.)
Raoul Wallenberg was born 1912 in Lidingö, Stockholm, Sweden. He belongs to one of the most renown families in Sweden. The Wallenberg family has provided Sweden with bankers, a bishop and diplomats during several generations. Raoul’s father, Raoul Oscar Wallenberg was an officer in the navy, and a cousin to Jacob and Marcus Wallenberg, two of Sweden’s most famous bankers and industrialists
In 1930, Raoul Wallenberg graduated with top grades in Russian and drawing. In 1931, after his army service he traveled to the USA to study architecture. Raoul graduated with honors in 1935 from the University of Michigan in the United States and received a medal for his impressive academic record. Raoul cooperated in business together with Koloman Lauer, a Hungarian Jew. Lauer was a director of an Swedish-based import and export firm specializing in food and delicacies.Due to Raoul’s excellent language skills and his freedom of movement in Europe, he was a perfect business partner. Within eight months, Raoul was a co-owner and international director of the Mid-European Trading Company. During his trips to Nazi-occupied France and Germany itself, Raoul quickly learned how the German bureaucracy functioned. He also made several trips to Budapest, where he visited Lauer’s family. Hungary was still a relatively safe place, although in hostile surroundings.
But things in Hungary changed rapidly. The Holocaust reached the country. In June 1941, Hungary joined Germany in the war against the Soviet Union. After the German defeat at Stalingrad, the Hungarian government attempted to pull out of the alliance with Germany. During March 1944, German troops invaded Hungary. Hitler set up a new government faithful to Germany.A Special unit under the orders of Adolf Eichmann, began implementing the “Final Solution” within Hungary. Anti-Jewish decrees were passed. Judenraete were established across Hungary. A separate one was set up for Budapest, the capital.Between 15 May and 9 July 1944, approximately 430,000 Hungarian Jews were deported, mainly to Auschwitz. The majority of them were gassed on arrival; many more died with the camp over the next few months.
By late June 1944, Wallenberg had been appointed first secretary of the Swedish diplomatic mission in Budapest. His brief was to initiate a rescue action for the Jews. He was very eager to travel to Budapest, but first he wrote a memo to the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Wallenberg was determined not to let himself be buried in diplomatic protocol and bureaucracy. His methods were a serious departure from the conventional and often-protracted methods associated with diplomacy. He used bribes and threats of extortion to achieve his ends. Initially shocked by his efforts, the Swedish diplomats soon rallied to full support when they saw how successful he was at achieving his aims.
One of Wallenberg’s first tasks was to craft some kind of pass or paperwork that would help to protect Jews. His earlier interactions with both German and Hungarian officials had taught him that they had a weakness for fancy, official-looking paperwork that was heavy on stamps and signatures. Accordingly, Wallenberg ordered yellow passes with the coat of arms of the Swedish Crown printed in blue and adorned with the proper official stamps and signatures of the Swedish embassy officials.
Officially, the passes weren’t worth the paper on which they were printed. Practically, however, they were effective in protecting their bearers from being forced to wear the humiliating and potentially dangerous yellow patch of the Star of David that marked all Jews within the German sphere of influence. Often, Wallenberg relied solely on cunning and fearless, decisive action to shield Jews from Nazi hands. One very inspired action was to use available funds to create a network of houses that flew the Swedish flag, and which were designated as “official” Swedish territory, and which offered Jews a sanctuary in which they could find protection. These houses sheltered over 15,000 Jews from near certain death at the hands of the Nazis.
Sandor Ardai, one of the drivers working for Wallenberg, recounted what Wallenberg did when he intercepted a trainload of Jews about to leave for Auschwitz:
“He climbed up on the roof of the train and began handing in protective passes through the doors which were not yet sealed. He ignored orders from the Germans for him to get down, then the Arrow Cross men began shooting and shouting at him to go away. He ignored them and calmly continued handing out passports to the hands that were reaching out for them.
I believe the Arrow Cross men deliberately aimed over his head, as not one shot hit him, which would have been impossible otherwise. I think this is what they did because they were so impressed by his courage. After Wallenberg had handed over the last of the passports he ordered all those who had one to leave the train and walk to the caravan of cars parked nearby, all marked in Swedish colours. I don’t remember exactly how many, but he saved dozens off that train, and the Germans and Arrow Cross were so dumbfounded they let him get away with it.”
During the second week of January 1945, Raoul Wallenberg learned that Eichmann was about to set in motion a total massacre of the Jews living in Budapest’s larger ghetto. The only person who could prevent it was General August Schmidthuber, commander of the German troops in Hungary. Wallenberg’s ally Szalay was sent to find Schmidthuber and hand over a note which declared that Raoul Wallenberg would make sure that the general would be held personally responsible for the massacre and that he would be hanged as a war criminal after the war. The massacre was cancelled at the last minute as a result of Raoul Wallenberg’s intervention.
Wallenberg and his driver fell into the hands of the Soviet forces that captured Hungary in January of 1945. Raoul Wallenberg was captured by the Soviet Union and taken to the notorious Ljubljanka prison in Moscow. No one knows for sure what happened next, and the Swedish Government is still demanding an explanation. Raoul Wallenberg fought against one of the terror dictatorships of his time, and was killed by the other.
The actions of ´Raoul Wallenberg are a model for us, not least at a time when more people need to stand up against persecution, xenophobia and anti-Semitism.
“His intervention gave hope to victims, encouraged them to fight and resist, to hang on and bear witness. It aroused our collective consciousness. Remembering his life should be an inspiration to others to act; for our future generations to act; for all of us to act.”