In Dubio Pro Sőderblom?
By Susanne Berger
Omi Söderblom, Söderblom och Wallenbergaffären: Nytt ljus i ett trauma. Carlsson Bokfőrlag, October 2021, 432 pages (ISBN: 9789189063907)
A deep and lasting trauma
The much-anticipated new book by Omi Sőderblom is finally here and it is sure to keep researchers and analysts busy for a long time. It raises many important questions that deserve thorough additional investigation. As the author indicates in the foreword, the text is an attempt to shed fresh light on the more than seven decades old Wallenberg affair, through the eyes of one of its central and most controversial protagonists – the Swedish diplomat and former Minister to Moscow (1944-1946), Staffan Sőderblom (1900-1985) who also happens to be the author’s granduncle. Her father was the prominent jurist and former head of the Konstitutionsutskott (KU) Robert Sőderblom, son of Staffan’s brother Helge.
The subtitle – new light in a trauma – is revealing: The tragic loss of the young Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg and the inability to rescue him after he disappeared in the Soviet Union in January 1945 has cut wounds that are deep and lasting. Through more than 400 pages Ms. Sőderblom describes the serious effect of this traumatic event not only on Raoul Wallenberg’s family, especially his parents and siblings, but also on Swedish officials like her granduncle who were tasked to solve his disappearance. She, too, has lived with the fall out all her life and bears the requisite scars. This is a personal book, but not as much as possibly hoped for or expected.
Staffan Sőderblom has been accused of singlehandedly sealing Raoul Wallenberg’s fate when, in a meeting with the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in June 1946, he suggested that Wallenberg was most likely dead. The meeting has been considered disastrous and decisive [for Wallenberg’s fate] by most experts. Drawing on personal recollections and with the help of several new and unique sources, including letters and other documents that were previously inaccessible, his grandniece attempts to set the record straight and to tell the story through Staffan Sőderblom’s eyes. In this the author succeeds, although with somewhat mixed and often perplexing results.
Four new pieces of information
First and foremost, the book serves as a stark reminder how difficult and elusive the search for historic truth can be and how much it varies in the eyes of the beholder.
This past August, at a hearing in the Swedish Parliament, Omi Sőderblom announced that her book would reveal four major news items that would let the Wallenberg affair appear in a whole new light. As it turns out, of the four pieces of information, three are intriguing but not necessarily sensational. They include the fact that Staffan Sőderblom already in March 1945 was informed of the remarks made a month earlier by the former Soviet Ambassador in Stockholm, Alexandra Kollontay, to Ingrid Günther, wife of the Swedish Foreign Minister [Christian Günther], that Raoul Wallenberg was safe and under Soviet protection in Hungary. Sőderblom supposedly received the message from the young Swedish diplomat Sverker Åstrőm who accompanied Ambassador Kollontay when she was recalled home to Moscow [on March 18, 1946] by the Soviet government. Ms. Sőderblom provides no documentary proof for her claim and Sverker Åstrőm did not mention the episode in his memoir (Ȍgonblick – från ett halvsekel i UD-tjänst, e-book, 2012). Minister Sőderblom immediately discussed the information with Mrs. Kollontay (which was partly known from previously published sources) and recommended that Swedish officials establish direct contact with her.
The other revelation is a meeting Staffan Sőderblom had with Swedish Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson (whose daughter was married to Staffan Sőderblom’s brother Jon Olof Sőderblom) in November 1945, a month before Sőderblom was to meet the Soviet diplomat Alexandr Abramov (who headed the Scandinavian Department of the Soviet Commissariat/Ministry for Foreign Affairs). While in Stockholm, Sőderblom had apparently conducted a meticulous review of all known facts concerning Wallenberg’s disappearance and concluded that he almost surely died in Hungary, as the result of an accident. The information suggests that Sőderblom’s presentation the following month to Abramov, when he stated that it would be “splendid” if Soviet authorities could provide confirmation of Wallenberg’s death, was made with the full knowledge and consent of his superiors in the Swedish Foreign Office, as well as the Prime Minister. However, here too, no documentary sources exist that could confirm what exactly Hansson and Sőderblom discussed.
The third previously unknown piece of information concerns a verbal promise that Hansson made to Staffan in 1945, that he would appoint him Ambassador to Paris. According to Omi Sőderblom, this promise supposedly underscored Hansson’s confidence in Staffan Sőderblom’s abilities – a far cry from the general perception that her granduncle’s faculties had begun to diminish or that his position in the Swedish Foreign Ministry was questioned as a result of the public criticism of the accommodationist policies he and his colleagues had pursued during World War II. The idea that Staffan Sőderblom has been unfairly singled out for this critique has been presented also by other historians (see, for example, Kent Zetterberg’s essay about Staffan Sőderblom in Svenska Diplomatprofiler under 1900 talet, ed.: Gunnar Artéus and Leif Leifland, Stockholm 2001).
The fourth revelation is a major one – a letter dated May 9, 1946, from Sőderblom to his colleague Ulf Barck-Holst in Moscow, which purportedly shows that contrary to prior claims, Minister Sőderblom’s meeting with Stalin was well known and approved beforehand by top Swedish government officials (unnamed), including the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, and even the Swedish King [see transcription and translation of the letter below]. This is a crucial new insight, with potentially serious implications. In fact, Omi Sőderblom also reveals that already in March 1946, Staffan Sőderblom had mentioned his wish for seeking a meeting with the Soviet leader in a letter to Günther’s successor, Ȍsten Undén.
However, the May 1946 letter, too, contains certain question marks and lingering ambiguities. A supposed meeting with Stalin is never directly mentioned, nor is the Raoul Wallenberg case explicitly referenced in it. This may have been due, of course, to the sensitivity of the issue. Omi Sőderblom argues that the main purpose of the meeting with Stalin was to discuss the question of Raoul Wallenberg’s fate. She supports this claim by pointing to a letter written by Staffan Sőderblom to another colleague, Olle Jődahl, in 1951, but the issue remains far from clear. Initially, the wish to improve and normalize Swedish-Soviet relations, through the conclusion of a large Swedish-Soviet credit and trade agreement, appears to have been the main motivating factor for seeking a meeting with the Soviet dictator. (This seems supported by the fact that the persons mentioned in the letter are Swedish trade officials as well as two aviation experts).
This may be the reason why the book’s introduction by Swedish historian and intelligence expert Professor Wilhelm Agrell, himself an authority on the Wallenberg case, reads oddly distant and restrained. He does not hail the information presented as a watershed moment or a “breakthrough”, as the author does, but rather emphasizes what remains the central problem in the Wallenberg case: While Wallenberg’s disappearance clearly never ranked as a high priority on the official Swedish political agenda, why exactly “was the Swedish disinterest [in Wallenberg] and the unwillingness to deal with anything related to the issue so strong?”, Agrell asks? Omi Sőderblom’s book fails to answer these questions, but this is clearly not her interest or priority. Instead, the author’s singular focus is to explain and justify her uncle’s perceptions and actions in the Wallenberg drama.
“Duty above all”
An accomplished jurist in her own right (she is retired from her position as judge with the Swedish Court of Appeals [Svea Hovrätt]), Omi Sőderblom starts her account with an impassioned plea to assess events and people in the context of their time. “Everything else is a historical fraud [bedrägeri]”, she writes. And she does much to provide important context for her granduncle and his exceptional career. A high school graduate at 15 years of age, who finished his law studies at age 21, Staffan Sőderblom was the scion of a prominent family in Sweden’s intelligentsia which prized intellect and professional accomplishments over status and material wealth. His father was the legendary archbishop Nathan Sőderblom, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1930.
She effectively conveys the formality of the times, with its strict code of behavior, language and dress, which did not allow for overt expression of emotions or feelings. They were to be kept hidden or only permitted to be revealed indirectly, in circumscribed form, through humor or laconic asides– something Staffan very much excelled at. Omi Sőderblom cites one of his father’s colleagues who describes a certain “Family Cult” [Familjekult], a sense of intellectual superiority, that looked down on other less accomplished or less intelligent people. Despite a loving atmosphere, a “cool distance” pervaded the Sőderblom home, the author explains. “Duty above all” was the family motto, and it is easy to see how this maxim shaped her granduncle both as a person and a diplomat.
From the time he joined the Swedish Foreign Office in 1921, Staffan Sőderblom made a brilliant career, becoming at age 37 the youngest head of the Foreign Ministry’s prestigious Political Department, a position he held through World War II, until the spring of 1944, when he was appointed Swedish Minister to Moscow. Omi Sőderblom argues that the criticism her granduncle endured for his supposed mishandling of the Raoul Wallenberg case, has not only been deeply hurtful and unfair, but has led to a distorted and seriously flawed account of Sweden’s wartime policies.
Due to a period of disarmament in the interwar period, Sweden’s military position was left seriously weakened. This placed an extraordinary amount of pressure on the country’s small diplomatic corps throughout World War II. Most importantly, it was primarily due to Sőderblom’s skillful maneuvering and pursuit of pragmatic policies, “free of illusions” [illusionfri], that Sweden avoided a potentially devastating German occupation, as had been the fate of Sweden’s Nordic neighbors. He also played a central role in the decision-making process and a policy of “bureaucratic resistance” that led to Sweden opening its borders to the more than seven thousand Jews from Denmark and other Nordic countries. For those who accuse Staffan Sőderblom of Nazi sympathies, his grandniece recounts how he was raised in a household where respect for other cultures and religions, as well as empathy for the weak, was prized and where the matriarch Anna Sőderblom throughout her life was deeply engaged in the promotion of various pacifist causes, including numerous Jewish aid and rescue initiatives during the war. Potential controversies, such as the fact that as head of the Swedish Foreign Ministry’s Political Department Staffan Sőderblom in 1941 secretly agreed to supply the German Legation in Stockholm with at least some military information about the Soviet Union (for example, via the German Air Attaché in February 1943) the author does not address. (see C.G. McKay, From Information to Intrigue, p. 217).
The treacheries of hindsight
Again and again Omi Sőderblom stresses how fraught with problems hindsight can be, especially when the formal record is incomplete or intentionally disguised (to evade censorship or various forms of surveillance). She argues that her granduncle’s critics, in their “cowardly pleasure to accuse”, as she puts it, generally tended to omit important details and facts that did not fit their expectation. Appearances can be both confusing and misleading, she argues: What may appear as excessive servility or eagerness to please, may in fact be a cleverly disguised negotiation tactic. Similarly, many people failed to realize that Staffan Sőderblom’s perceived coolness and arrogance hid a sensitive and empathetic soul.
Because Staffan Sőderblom was both unable and unwilling to mount a spirited defense against the withering criticism he had endured in later years (due to physical exhaustion and a mental breakdown suffered in 1951 he entered into early retirement in 1954) Omi Sőderblom has made it her stated cause to speak on his behalf. She insists that Staffan Sőderblom tirelessly pursued all possible avenues to obtain clarity about Wallenberg’s fate. She clearly feels there is no reason for the apology issued to Raoul Wallenberg’s family by the former Swedish Prime Minister Gőran Persson in 2001 (which she does not mention), for the serious passivity and lack of determined action that marked the official Swedish handling of Raoul Wallenberg’s disappearance during the crucial period of 1945-47.
She reminds readers that the Wallenberg case was only one of many pressing and extremely complex issues diplomats like her granduncle faced at the time. They ranged from the politically charged question of the return of close to 150 Baltic prisoners to the Soviet Union in early 1946 to securing critical goods for the Swedish economy, such as coal, from Soviet occupied Poland. The consequences of failure in any one of these tasks could have spelled disaster for Sweden. Consequently, the pressures on top diplomats like Staffan Sőderblom were enormous. And, as his colleagues acknowledged, he had been carrying the heaviest burden all through the war.
Omi Sőderblom further asserts that of all Swedish officials Staffan Sőderblom was really the only one who truly empathized and took determined action to win clarity about what happened to Raoul Wallenberg. Almost immediately after the young man’s disappearance, Sőderblom seized upon a central problem: since Wallenberg’s official mission had ended and his diplomatic passport had expired, his uncertain official status left him exposed and vulnerable. However, this vital issue remained unaddressed by the Swedish officials in charge back in Stockholm.
The glorification of a flawed and yet mythical hero
Unfortunately, in Omi Sőderblom’s understandable wish to restore her granduncle’s reputation (and despite her stated promise to approach her analysis with “a cool head” [kyligt]), her book often reads like an angry plaidoyer. Her frankly stated exasperation that a “flawed hero” like Raoul Wallenberg – whose actions were often controversial and whose accomplishments (according to certain observers) were possibly exaggerated – was lifted to almost mythical heights in the post-war era, while Staffan Sőderblom, the (supposed) true hero of the story, was dragged through the mud, colors everything she writes. Consequently, Ms. Sőderblom loses no opportunity to extol her granduncle’s intellectual and rhetorical brilliance, his exceptional linguistic skills (he spoke five languages fluently, including Russian), his iron discipline and capacity for work, as well as his razor-sharp analytic ability. She portrays any potential misstep as a supposedly wise and ”listig” [clever] tactic, only to be misunderstood and misconstrued by his jealous and intellectually inferior colleagues. Halfway through the book one longs for the strong hand of an editor who would eliminate at least half of the barrage of references praising the Minister’s quick mind and his penchant for clever bon mots.
It can certainly be difficult to judge or infer the true meaning of statements made in diplomatic dispatches. Nevertheless, one cannot help but wonder if Staffan Sőderblom may not have applied his linguistic skills too subtly when he expressed himself so carefully that at times even his colleagues were unsure about his true meaning. The fact that he repeatedly felt compelled to downplay the crimes of the Stalinist regime in official communiques, including the atrocities committed by Soviet military occupation forces in Eastern Europe, for fear of provoking his Soviet hosts, leaves an uncomfortable impression. One can imagine the strain such forced verbal gyrations imposed on its practitioner. Staffan Sőderblom’s colleagues undoubtedly felt that his cautious approach and eagerness to please frequently went too far. “[Sőderblom] is completely gripped by messianic thoughts [messiastanke] concerning the Soviet Union,” Sven Grafstrőm, Deputy Head of the Political Department of the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, noted in his diary. And even Ȍsten Undén remarked that after the meeting with Stalin, Sőderblom sounded ”like he had viewed the face of God.”
A lack of understanding of the structure and function of the Soviet administrative apparatus
Regrettably, the author frequently engages in highly selective choices and tendentious interpretation of historical sources, a sin she repeatedly decries in other writers. This tendency ultimately undermines the value of her analysis. Especially troubling are her comments regarding the actions and events connected with Raoul Wallenberg’s detention and imprisonment in the Soviet Union. They reveal a serious lack of knowledge and understanding of the decision- making processes of the Soviet leadership, as well as the structure and functioning of the Soviet administrative apparatus as a whole.
Among the most objectionable statements is her claim that Soviet military counterintelligence (SMERSH) would not have detained Raoul Wallenberg if he had not committed a serious offense, when it is clear that that Soviet military forces routinely detained foreigners, including, diplomats (along with their wives and children), in warzones on the flimsiest of pretexts. (The author also apparently is not aware that Raoul Wallenberg’s diplomatic colleagues who were permitted to travel home to Sweden, were detained by NKVD troops, not SMERSH); that the head of SMERSH – and later Minister of State Security – Viktor Abakumov could have ordered the detention and imprisonment of Raoul Wallenberg without the knowledge and approval of Stalin (an absurd assertion, which also misinterprets a citation from the official Eliasson Commission Report of 2003 [SOU 2003:18]); and – most strikingly – that Raoul Wallenberg may actually never have been imprisoned in the Soviet Union, which ignores reams of evidence, including Russian archival documentation, as well as a first-hand account from Wallenberg’s cellmate in the Lubyanka Prison Gustav Richter.
There are other highly questionable statements concerning the “old friendship” between Staffan Sőderblom and the Soviet diplomat Mikhail Vetrov (no real friendships with foreigners were possible for Soviet officials); the suggestion that because the so-called Dekanosov Note from January 16,1945 (in which the Deputy Foreign Commissar Vladimir Dekanosov informed Sőderblom that Raoul Wallenberg and his property had been taken under official Soviet protection in Budapest) did not include any hints that Wallenberg would be arrested, the Swedish Minister could not ever imagine that the Soviet authorities had any bad intentions against him; and, finally, that Stalin had no idea who Raoul Wallenberg was when he met the Sőderblom in June 1946 (This issue will be discussed in some detail below).
The strained (and downright false) argumentation presented in these passages is presumably meant to serve as a justification for Staffan Sőderblom’s firm conviction and stubborn belief that Wallenberg had fallen victim of an accident while still in Hungary – even after Soviet (and later Russian) authorities acknowledged in 1957 that they had lied for more than a decade about the young Swedish diplomat’s incarceration in the Soviet Union. It would have been much better for both the author and the Minister to simply state that on this point, the otherwise brilliant diplomat was clearly wrong.
In dubio pro reo
While Staffan Sőderblom, of course, had no way of knowing that the Deputy Commissar of Defense Nikolai Bulganin had ordered to arrest Raoul Wallenberg January 17, 1945, he should have been aware of the various rumors about such a detention and, therefore, the possibility that Wallenberg could well be alive. (Technically speaking, Raoul Wallenberg was never formally arrested. He had the status of a ‘detained prisoner of war’). Omi Sőderblom barely mentions any of these rumors or statements. Instead, she edits and selects key phrases from certain witness accounts, apparently to bolster her argument why the Minister concluded as early as April 1945 (!) that Raoul Wallenberg was dead. For example, she emphasizes the fact that the Swiss diplomat Harald Feller who had been detained at the same time as Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest and who was released in early 1946, told Swedish officials that “[the fascist Hungarian] Arrow Cross wanted to murder Wallenberg.” However, she does not cite Feller’s additional statement that he feels “there is good hope that Wallenberg is alive”, nor a report from the Swedish Embassy in Switzerland which emphasized that “the Russians for months withheld information about Feller’s whereabouts”, in response to official inquiries. (Report from the Swedish diplomat Lars von Celsing, March 15, 1946).
Instead, she counters potential criticism with the rhetorical question why her uncle should not have relied on the assessment of various high level “experts” like the renowned scientist Albert Szent-Győrgyi – the 1937 Nobel Laureate in Medicine for his discovery of Vitamin C – who, as a member of the Hungarian resistance, had spent some months under the protection of the Swedish Legation in Budapest? Szent-Győrgyi told Minister Sőderblom during a visit to Moscow in May 1945 that the conditions in Hungary were such that “one could meet death at every street corner… and thousands of people died namelessly in that way.”
Here one gets a whiff of the intellectual snobbery the author referred to earlier as a family trait. The answer to the posed question is simple: While Staffan Sőderblom should perhaps not be judged or condemned too harshly for arriving at the conviction that Raoul Wallenberg was dead, the fact remains that he, and especially his superiors in Stockholm, violated a fundamental legal principle with which they were all undoubtedly familiar: in dubio pro reo – Latin for “when in doubt, in favor of the client” (literally “the accused”). Even if the chance of Wallenberg’s survival appeared small, on the basis of the evidence available at the time – in absence of a clear confirmation of his death, it could not be excluded that Wallenberg was possibly alive. Fredrik von Dardel, Wallenberg’s stepfather and himself a trained jurist, repeatedly stressed this very point, including in a letter he sent to Staffan Sőderblom, dated July 18, 1946, after several unsuccessful attempts to meet with the Minister (who had returned briefly to Stockholm, after his meeting with Stalin, before taking up his new position in Bern on July 1, 1946).
An asset or a liability?
As an experienced diplomat and trained legal expert, Sőderblom knew very well that, strictly speaking, the official Soviet “receipt” that the Swedish government had received for Raoul Wallenberg – the Dekanosov Note of January 16, 1945 – remained technically very much valid (despite all the author’s attempts to dispute this fact). Moreover, the onus of explanation for what had happened to Raoul Wallenberg – an official Swedish representative who should have been protected by diplomatic immunity (!) – rested squarely on the shoulders of Soviet authorities. It was not the task of a Swedish diplomat to lay the possible answer into the mouth of representatives of a foreign power, as the Eliasson Commission summed up the issue in its final report.
Despite all exculpatory details cited by Omi Sőderblom – including Staffan Sőderblom’s deep sympathy for Raoul Wallenberg’s mother, and his sense of duty as a diplomat to represent his country’s interest – the tragic fact remains that in Sőderblom’s mind, and apparently also in the mind of many of his colleagues, the conclusion that Wallenberg was dead became essentially dogmatic. They simply could not imagine that if Wallenberg were alive, the Soviet authorities would not inform the Swedish government (through Staffan Sőderblom’s supposedly close contact with Soviet officials like Mikhail Vetrov) or Wallenberg himself would not be able to establish contact. In this context, some of Staffan Sőderblom’s shortcomings as a diplomat become evident which several of his colleagues who worked closely with him repeatedly complained about (including the Swedish diplomat Ingemar Hägglőf who served with Minister Sőderblom in Moscow). They included a certain lack of imagination, a pronounced unwillingness to listen to advice, and a frequent tendency to jump to premature conclusions.
Omi Sőderblom does her best to blend out all these potentially problematic issues from her account, even to the point of ignoring obvious contradictions. For example, she argues that Swedish-Soviet relations improved markedly in 1946, mainly due to her uncle’s diplomatic skill. She does not mention the crucial role a major Soviet policy shift towards Sweden played in this development, ordered by Stalin and the Politburo in early April 1946, to counteract the growing British and U.S. influence in Scandinavia. Also, by that time, both Swedish and Soviet officials apparently considered Staffan Sőderblom more of an obstacle rather than an asset. Ȍsten Undén decided in March 1946 to replace Sőderblom with Gunnar Hägglőf (head of the Swedish Foreign Ministry’s Bureau for Foreign Trade during World War II) because – as Undén noted in his diary – the latter had “a greater interest in economic issues [than Sőderblom]” and “Hägglőf judges the situation more objectively and clearly than Sőderblom”. The Soviet Envoy to Stockholm Ilya Chernyshev subsequently suggested in a letter dated March 30, 1946 and addressed to Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov, that “with the aim of improving our [mutual] relations with Sweden, we should bring about a recall of Sőderblom and replace him with a more objective and authoritative person.” And he added: “The Swedish government which is also interested in an improvement of relations with us will remove Sőderblom if we only give the slightest hint about it.”
So, while Staffan Sőderblom’s recall from Moscow may have suited him for personal reasons (he felt exhausted and was about to get married), as Omi Sőderblom states, his removal was clearly also due to wider political consideration. In particular the Swedish business community had asked for a stronger, more forceful representative of its interests.
Another example: The author briefly references a key meeting with Alexandr Abramov on March 9, 1946 in which Sőderblom explained that he “once again reached the conclusion that Raoul Wallenberg is no longer alive” [emphasis added] and that he decided to provide new information [from witnesses] in the hope that this “possibly will help to find out in what circumstances he died.” [emphasis added]. However, the message Sőderblom had received from Stockholm prior to the meeting showed a small but important difference in formulation which the author does not discuss. Sven Grafstrőm wrote that he is forwarding new details from witnesses so that it “possibly would help to obtain some information about what happened to Raoul Wallenberg after the 17th of January.” [emphasis added]
A mother’s intuition vs a diplomat’s calculation
Omi Sőderblom’s determined rebuttal and consequent dismissal of all criticisms of her relative stands in stark contrast to the unsparing profile she offers of Raoul Wallenberg’s mother Maj von Dardel. The author describes how a desperate mother’s refusal (or inability, as her detractors would have it) to accept her son’s supposedly certain death, caused even those persons who were most sympathetic to her suffering, like Staffan Sőderblom and her powerful Wallenberg relations (the bankers Marcus and Jakob Wallenberg, Raoul’s cousins once removed), to turn their backs on her. That the lack of decisive action by these very persons, and their unwillingness to acknowledge any chance that Raoul Wallenberg could be alive, seriously added to Maj von Dardel’s already extreme despair, the author does not mention.
The fact remains that despite all of Staffan Sőderblom’s cool analytical ability and intellectual brilliance, it was Raoul Wallenberg’s distraught mother who got it right – she felt intuitively that when the Swedish Minister met the Soviet leader in June 1946, her son was very much alive. As it turns out, he was imprisoned at that very moment a short distance away from Swedish Embassy and the Kremlin.
A diplomatic triumph or a lost opportunity?
By the spring of 1946, Staffan Sőderblom’s conviction that Raoul Wallenberg was definitely dead was momentarily shaken. After a conversation with Alexandr Abramov in late April 1946, Sőderblom wondered if “against all expectations”, Wallenberg could be alive. This impression was further strengthened by the sudden release that same month of the Swedish journalist Edvard of Sandeberg who had been imprisoned in the Soviet Union since 1945, along with several other Swedish citizens. To his credit, Sőderblom informed Ȍsten Undén who was not interested in pursuing the issue further. In the end, as a loyal diplomat, Sőderblom essentially had no choice but to go along with Undén who, according to the author, wanted only one thing – “to draw a line [literally “cut off the issue”] and close the file”. It remains unclear how much Sőderblom shared Undén’s position and how much of his own doubts remained. As his grandniece sees it, Staffan Sőderblom tried to do his best, under the circumstances, and acted well within the spirit of his official instructions. “He did tactfully what could be done”, the author concludes.
Omi Sőderblom clearly objects to the idea that the words her uncle eventually spoke to Stalin left little doubt that they primarily reflected Undén’s wishes (to close the case). That said, it is difficult to follow Omi Sőderblom’s claim that Staffan Sőderblom’s conversation with Stalin as such constituted “a triumph for Sweden”, “a miracle of almost of biblical dimensions.” Instead, the question very much lingers – not discussed or explored by the author – what Stalin must have made not only of Staffan Sőderblom’s presentation to him, but also of the latter’s many repeated requests to Soviet diplomats over the previous year and a half to declare Raoul Wallenberg dead?
Omi Sőderblom tries to portray her uncle as the one diplomat who cared, who possibly developed doubts that Raoul Wallenberg was really dead, and who felt it was his duty to present his country’s official interests, while managing – in what she considers a masterful move – to obtain Stalin’s “personal promise” to investigate Raoul Wallenberg’s fate. That the Swedish Minister could not confront the Soviet leader directly and accuse him of a crime is well taken. However, Omi Sőderblom’s claim that Stalin did not know about Raoul Wallenberg prior to his meeting with Staffan Sőderblom is extremely doubtful. He was familiar with the Wallenberg family since the 1930s and Raoul Wallenberg could not have been detained without Stalin’s direct order. Most importantly, the Swedish protocol of the meeting shows that the Soviet leader was clearly very well briefed before his meeting with the Swedish envoy. This is evidenced, among other things, by his knowledge of the fact that the Soviet authorities issued instructions to protect the Swedish diplomatic personnel in Hungary in early 1945. Additionally, Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Solomon Lozovsky who was at least partially responsible for the Wallenberg question, was present during the meeting.
Therefore, many crucial questions remain. They include the precise motivation behind Sőderblom’s meeting with the Soviet dictator and specifically how exactly it came about. While it was definitely unusual for Stalin to receive the Swedish Minister, it should also be noted that just about a week before, on June 6, 1946, Stalin had met with an official Danish delegation which was in Moscow for the then-ongoing trade negotiations. That was the day Sőderblom approached Molotov with his wish to see Stalin. We still do not know why Stalin agreed to meet Sőderblom or who exactly helped to facilitate the audience. This includes the somewhat unclear role Alexandra Kollontay, if any, may have played in the preparations. Her discussions with Minister Sőderblom and other Swedish diplomats in Moscow during the years 1945-47 could not have happened without the knowledge and instructions of her superiors at the Soviet Commissariat/Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Interestingly, Omi Sőderblom reveals that the stenographic notes of the meeting (dictated to the wife of Ulf Barck-Holst by Staffan Sőderblom directly after the meeting with Stalin and later stored in a Swedish safe deposit box) differ in some details from the official account submitted by Staffan Sőderblom to Stockholm. However, she does not detail what these notes contain. This is one of several potentially very important sources of additional information mentioned in her book for researchers and historians to explore further. This list also includes several of Staffan Sőderblom’s private letters and other unpublished sources, including the memoir of Ulf Barck-Holst’s daughter Maria.
A serious political failure, with many questions left unanswered
While providing some important background details on the Swedish side in the Wallenberg case, the book unfortunately does not fill other crucial gaps in the record. We learn very little about what Staffan Sőderblom knew about Raoul Wallenberg or what he thought about him. (They shared at least one close friend – Hermine von Essen (born Tersmeden), wife of Rutger von Essen. Hermine was a guest at one of Raoul Wallenberg’s cocktail parties in December 1943). The author mentions the suspicions and rumors that Wallenberg may have been involved in the unauthorized handling of gold and jewelry deposited at the Swedish Legation in Budapest [by persecuted Jews and other individuals] but does not go into any further detail. The book also does not address the potentially important role of the powerful Wallenberg family in the efforts to seek Raoul Wallenberg’s release, in particular about the still unknown content of Marcus Wallenberg’s letter from May 1946, addressed to Alexandra Kollontay, which Sőderblom took to Moscow, and the meeting Staffan Sőderblom had with Jakob Wallenberg on July 4, 1946, following the meeting with Stalin. While Ȍsten Undén obviously wished to “close the book” on Raoul Wallenberg, as a “stőrendes Element” (disrupting element) to his overarching wish to establish good relations with the Soviet Union, it is far from clear why the Wallenberg brothers would have quietly acceded to Undén’s wishes and abandoned their own relative.
Other open questions include the role of Sverker Åstrőm in the Wallenberg drama who worked with leading officials, including Staffan Sőderblom, in the Political Department of the Swedish Foreign Ministry from 1944 until 1946. Åström later rose to become one of Sweden’s top diplomats for more than three decades. During the 1950s, Åström was directly in charge of the Raoul Wallenberg case. His career was overshadowed by persistent suspicions that he may have functioned as a Soviet asset during his time in office (which Omi Sőderblom does not mention). These rumors have not been fully resolved and Åström’s file in the Swedish Security Police remains largely inaccessible.
What is now very clear as a result of Omi Sőderblom’s book is that Staffan Sőderblom definitely did not act simply on his own initiative when he asked for a meeting with Stalin, as had been the conclusion of two previous official Swedish investigations – that of the Swedish-Russian Working Group (1991-2000) and the Eliasson Commission (2003). Instead, Sőderblom apparently had the approval and at least general instruction of his superiors (Ȍsten Undén was known to give instructions prior to important meetings). “All in the government knew”, Omi Sőderblom writes, including the King, the Prime Minister, as well as the Foreign Minister, which makes the failure to secure Raoul Wallenberg’s release in her mind primarily a political and not a diplomatic one. Undén’s utter lack of interest in Raoul Wallenberg’s fate, including his failure to follow up in any determined manner Stalin’s statement that he would seek clarity about Wallenberg’s whereabouts (and even when urged repeatedly by Ulf Barck-Holst in the subsequent months to do so), is revealing and weighs heavily in the balance. The question why two official Swedish commissions were not aware of the various political background discussions and singled out Staffan Sőderblom as an easy scapegoat – making him into “a shooting target for a political stigmatization”, as Omi Sőderblom puts it – deserves a separate and thorough analysis.
This brings us back to the central question of the Wallenberg mystery – why Swedish officials so readily embraced the idea that Raoul Wallenberg was dead and worse, that even if he was alive, he could not be saved? Some Swedish officials like Ȍsten Undén apparently wished to prioritize the normalization of Sweden’s relation with the Soviet Union, as well as the quick conclusion of a huge Swedish-Soviet credit and trade agreement, over the tedious and difficult task to track down Raoul Wallenberg’s whereabouts. Omi Sőderblom suggests that potentially highly sensitive issues, such as Wallenberg’s known but poorly explored association with foreign intelligence activities (mainly American, but also possibly British, Swedish as well as Hungarian and even German ones) or the issuing of Swedish protective passports to dubious figures, including German and Hungarian Nazis, may have played a role in the Swedish government’s restrained attitude toward their missing diplomat. None of these issues have been explored in detail. If and how these factors, as well as critical omissions in the official record of the case, affected the Wallenberg investigation over the years, including the more recent official inquiries during the 1990s and early 2000s, must be urgently addressed. Raoul Wallenberg’s family has called for a new, independent investigation to determine if Swedish authorities in 1946 made a conscious, possibly intentional decision to abandon their own diplomat to his fate. Omi Sőderblom’s book now makes this request all the more pressing.
Dr. Vadim Birstein contributed to this review.
November 22, 2021
Note: The text has been adjusted from the original which erroneously claimed that the author Omi Sőderblom did not mention a meeting on April 9, 1946 between Alexandr Abramov and Staffan Sőderblom. The meeting is mentioned on p. 262.
For further reading
Letter by Staffan Sőderblom to Ulf Barck-Holst, May 9, 1946
Flasta, Skokloster May 9th, 1946
Everything has developed in the way that I hope you will find as satisfactory as I do. If everything goes as planned, I will fly with [Rolf] Sohlman, [Klas] Bőők and a few others and perhaps two aviation [flight] experts to Moscow. Hope Zina [Sohlman] will come along. They will stay with me. On the 18th of June I will leave my post and start [my position] in Bern on July 1st. You will be in charge [gérance] for a long period of time which will be lucrative and very prestigious [meriterande]. On June 6 I hope to have the medal ceremony, I have the King’s portrait for Madame [Mrs.] Kollontay, on the 16th will be the reception and farewell.
Keep everything secret. Perhaps [you can] prepare the division of my banking deposits [banktillgodohavande?] You have carte blanche. I have to take 5 [?]
The King was extremely kind [benevolent], as was the Prime – and Foreign Minister. The government was very, very skeptical [tveksam]. But I am deeply humbled and thankful.
Say hi to everyone!
P.S. Enclosure in [tjänsten?]
den 9 maj 1946
Allt har utvecklat sig på ett sätt, som jag hoppas Du skall finna lika tillfredsställande som jag. Om allt går efter beräkning flyger jag med Sohlman, Böök och några till samt kanske två flygexperter till Moskva. Hoppas Zina kommer med. De ska bo hos mig. Den 18 juni lämnar jag min post och tillträde i Bern den 1 juli. Du får en lång gérance, vilket blir lukrativt och mycket meriterande. Den 6 juni hoppas jag ha medaljutdelning, Kungens porträtt till fru K har jag, den 16 blir mottagning och avsked. Håll allt hemligt. Förbered möjligen uppdelning av mitt banktillgodohavande. Du har carte blanche. Jag måste ta XXXX (5 år/öre??) Kungen var ytterligt nådig, så ock stats- och utrikesministrarna. Regeringen har varit mycket, mycket tveksam. Men jag är djupt belåten och tacksam.
Bilaga i tjänsten.