27. April 2021

Staffan Söderblom's Severe Guilt Complex

By Susanne Berger and Vadim Birstein     

 

Staffan Söderblom at age 79. Source: Veckojournalen, February 19, 1980

Recently discovered documentation contained in Staffan Söderblom's official (Swedish Foreign Ministry) personnel file raises new questions about what caused the severe mental breakdown he suffered in 1951 which ultimately led to his early retirement. The Ambassador's controversial role in the Raoul Wallenberg case may have not been the only reason for his condition.

 

New research findings in the Raoul Wallenberg case could lead at least to a partial reevaluation of the behavior of several key actors in the Wallenberg drama, including that of Staffan Söderblom, the controversial Swedish Ambassador to Moscow from 1945-46. Raoul Wallenberg was a young Swedish businessman and diplomat who disappeared in January 1945 from Budapest, Hungary after successfully protecting the lives of tens of thousands of Budapest's Jews during the Holocaust. Wallenberg was detained by Soviet military counterintelligence and taken to Moscow.

Söderblom has been heavily criticized for his disastrous remarks to Iosif Stalin during a rare personal audience with the Soviet leader in June 1946. Most experts believe that Söderblom's statements signaled to Stalin that the Swedish government had no interest in Wallenberg and, in essence, sealed his fate. During the meeting, which lasted a mere five minutes, Söderblom chose to express his personal opinion that Wallenberg may have fallen victim to an accident and that he wanted the Soviet authorities to confirm that they had not been able to ascertain Wallenberg's whereabouts.

The full motives behind Söderblom's behavior have remained obscure. Two official Swedish inquiries - the bilateral Swedish-Russian Working Group (1991-2000) and the so-called Eliasson Commission (2003) - concluded that Söderblom acted on his own accord, without direct instruction from his superiors. In fact, the report of the Swedish Working Group from 2001 went so far as to suggest that Söderblom may have already exhibited a certain "lack of judgment", due to the onset of psychological problems that would some years later become disabling. In response, Söderblom's nephew, the appeals court judge Robert Söderblom, filed a formal complaint with the Swedish Chancellor of Justice (Justitiekanslern or JK), an official, inter-agency review board, about the unauthorized revelation of private medical information and for failing to disclose that the Ambassador's mental health faltered only in 1951, a full six years after the events in Moscow. The request was dismissed without further action.

In fact, Swedish officials had more substantial information about Staffan Söderblom's mental health crisis available to them which suggests that it was not necessarily only linked to the Wallenberg case.

Söderblom's Foreign Ministry personnel file contains notes taken in 1953 during a phone conversation with Professor Bernhard Jacobowsky, a prominent psychiatrist at Uppsala University Hospital (Akademiska sjukhuset) whom Söderblom consulted. Shortly after his posting to China in the autumn of 1951, Söderblom had suffered a severe nervous breakdown and it was hoped that a return to Sweden would improve his condition. According to the notes in Söderblom's file, Professor Jacobowsky concluded, that - while otherwise healthy - the Ambassador's condition was debilitating:

Söderblom[1]  suffers from a guilt complex, both in terms of his service and his private life, which J considers to lack any basis.

 On the outside, he seems perfectly healthy and would certainly be able to carry out various tasks impeccably.

 His memory of China is completely obliterated and is unlikely to return.

 He refuses to submit to the treatment in the future that J recommends because he himself believes that his condition is not due to illness but lies on the moral plane instead of the psychological.

J can therefore not give him further help. J thinks it would be a good thing if he got a job as

this would lead to a counterweight [counteraction] to his introverted thoughts.

 The risk of relapse must be taken into account.

Assuming the notes are an accurate reflection of Professor Jacobowsky's statements, they offer an interesting and slightly more nuanced picture of Söderblom's condition. He seemed clearly conflicted both about his professional and private life. Possibly most interesting is his statement that his main problem lay on "the moral plain", and that it was not chiefly a psychological issue.

Notes from a phone conversation with the psychiatrist Professor Jacobowsky, dated May 27, 1953, contained in Staffan Söderblom’s personnel file at the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

As one of the ten surviving children of the prominent theologian and Archbishop Nathan Söderblom - winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1930 -  Staffan Söderblom  always held himself to a high personal and professional standard. Extremely intelligent, with a facility for languages, he was "clear eyed … with a great capacity for work", as one of his colleagues described him. At age 37 Söderblom became the youngest head of the Foreign Ministry's Political Department.  According to numerous sources, he was self-centered and a hard task master who essentially kept his own counsel and tended to ignore other people's advice. At the same time, in later years, he was considered "exceptionally kind and considerate" to his staff.

However, to his grand-niece, Omi Söderblom, depression and mental illness ran in the family. Staffan's older brother Helge died at age 35, in a mental institution. It is not clear what exactly prompted Staffan Söderblom's breakdown in 1951, but according to the documentation in his file, it was severe. He suffered from paralyzing depression and insomnia. He also developed a serious persecution complex, seeing conspiracies and even assassination plots directed at him everywhere, including from the Chinese police. His staff worried that the Ambassador posed a threat not only to himself but possibly also to his wife and recommended an immediate return to Stockholm.

In the post-war years Söderblom had encountered withering public and internal criticism for his weak stance towards both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. So weak, in fact, that the Swedish Foreign Minister Östen Undén, who himself had a very pro-Soviet attitude, secretly arranged for his official recall in the spring of 1946. For years, Söderblom's extreme willingness to please and need for approval, coupled with his rosy assessment of the Soviet Union, had raised alarm among his colleagues.

Söderblom, who adhered to the strict tenets of realpolitik, obviously had vivid memories of his immediate predecessor as Swedish Ambassador in Moscow, Vilhelm Assarsson, who was declared "persona non grata" by Soviet authorities in 1943 and expelled.  As a result, Söderblom apparently felt that he had to act with great caution because everything he and his colleagues said about the Soviet Union would be monitored and reported back to the Soviet leadership. Still, Söderblom's willingness to ignore or excuse even the most heinous of Stalinist crimes prompted Sven Grafström, deputy head of the Foreign Ministry's Political Department, to note in his diary in 1944, "Söderblom is intelligent but not smart. … [He] … is completely gripped by a messianic idea about the Soviet Union. For those who want to listen, he sings Russia's praises and explains how extraordinary our relations with Moscow are. I think he will be life-threatening [on] the day when our relations with the Russians truly require a firm hand - and that day will come."[2]

In 1951, an internal Swedish Foreign Ministry review of the Wallenberg case was under way (the so-called Sjöborg investigation) which in February 1952 led to the first official Swedish request to the Soviet Union to release Raoul Wallenberg and to return him to Sweden - a full seven years after Wallenberg's disappearance. It is quite likely that Söderblom felt the pressure of the investigation, as well as the strong internal rebuke of his actions in the affair, rather acutely.

It is more difficult to assess what precise issue in Staffan Söderblom's private life contributed to his breakdown, including his statement that his problems belonged to the "moral plane". Söderblom had married relatively late in life, at age 46, the widow Margery Marian Fullerton-Carnegie.[3] By all accounts, his wife was attentive and supportive during his illness. She also stayed in contact with her sister-in-law (Staffan Söderblom's sister) Brita Söderblom and her husband Yngve Brilioth, the Archbishop of Uppsala (Nathan Söderblom's successor).

Given Jacobowsky's careful phrasing of Söderblom's statements to him and without more information about Söderblom's personal background, one is left to pure speculation. It is interesting to note that Jacobowsky chose to emphasize that Söderblom's apparent self-reproachment and resulting guilt complex "lack any basis". Still, the notes suggest that while his controversial role in the Wallenberg case may have contributed to his problems, it was not the only or perhaps even the decisive cause.

The Swedish Foreign Ministry tried to provide Söderblom with some meaningful work until 1958, when Östen Undén personally proposed that the former Ambassador conduct a formal review of the contentious Baltic Sea question, which involved various complex territorial disputes with the Soviet Union.

Söderblom is frequently portrayed as a shattered man in old age, obsessed with his role in the Wallenberg case and riddled with guilt to the point that he did little else but sit in his chair, mumbling incessantly the words "Wallenberg, Wallenberg".  There have even been unsubstantiated claims that he underwent a lobotomy to alleviate his mental anguish.

However, the image of Söderblom as a wreck of a man in his 70s is perhaps contradicted by two interviews he gave in 1980, at age 79, five years before his death; one to Swedish Radio and another to the Swedish magazine Veckojournalen.  In the radio interview the old Ambassador sounded perfectly lucid, offering a rather spirited defense of his actions in the Wallenberg case. When asked if he believed that he had handled Wallenberg's disappearance in the correct way, meaning that he and the Swedish government had done everything that could be done, Söderblom answered emphatically, "Yes, we did." He explained that the reason he had suggested to Stalin that Wallenberg perhaps had fallen victim to a car accident or robbers was that he did not wish to make it look like he was accusing Stalin directly of any crime.  He continued: "I was, of course, very eager to ensure that I raised the issue with the most powerful man in the country, so that it could not be said later on that we had not pursued the issue at the highest level possible." Söderblom then added: "I also perhaps hoped that if Stalin said the word, it should really give a result."[4] Interestingly, Söderblom concluded his remarks by saying that he considered Wallenberg's disappearance "to this day a mystery, because in other, similar cases we were treated better than others" (by the Soviet authorities, presumably).[5]

The interview was conducted in connection with the impending release of a large part of the Wallenberg case file by the Swedish Foreign Ministry in 1980. It is impossible to say if  Söderblom's statements reflected purely his personal view or if he consulted with the Foreign Ministry beforehand. Other Swedish officials, including Söderblom's successor as the Ambassador in Moscow in 1946, Gunnar Hägglöf, also issued what was generally seen as a preemptive public comment and defense of his own actions prior to the release of the documentation.[6]

Aside from failing to reference the information contained in Söderblom's personnel file, Swedish investigators omitted or misrepresented other crucial details in their respective reports. For some reason, the Eliasson Commission did not strongly emphasize the fact that precisely at the time of Ambassador Söderblom's meeting with Stalin, the Swedish government was eagerly pursuing a huge 1billion kronor ($300 million) Swedish-Soviet credit and trade deal. In fact, a high-level Swedish trade delegation had arrived in Moscow to begin the negotiations just two weeks earlier. Instead, the Eliasson Commission reached the questionable conclusion that the discussions about a Swedish credit and trade agreement did not begin in earnest until August 1946, a full two months after Söderblom's fateful discussion with Stalin - leaving Söderblom to shoulder the lion share of the blame for the Swedish government's disastrous handling of the Wallenberg case.

According to Söderblom's own report from June 18, 1946, he had received specific instructions before leaving Stockholm to emphasize the Swedish government's strong hope for good relations with the Soviet Union. He did just that in the meeting with Stalin and then raised the issue of Wallenberg's disappearance only when asked by Stalin if the Ambassador "had any wish" he would like to express.

The fact that Söderblom decided to mention the subject of Raoul Wallenberg at that moment is not nearly as surprising as the Eliasson Commission claims. In fact, in late May 1946 - just three weeks before his conversation with Stalin -Staffan Söderblom had carried with him a letter from the Swedish banker Marcus Wallenberg, addressed to the former Soviet Ambassador to Sweden Alexandra Kollontay who now lived in Moscow. While the exact content of the letter is not known, it clearly concerned Raoul Wallenberg (Marcus Wallenberg's cousin once removed) and - judging from Kollontay's reply sent on June 7, 1946 - apparently also referenced future economic relations with the Soviet Union.  It is doubtful that Söderblom could have delivered the letter without the knowledge and approval of Foreign Minister Undén.

During the preceding six months, Söderblom had asked the Soviet authorities at least twice before - in December 1945 and March 1946, respectively -  (in meetings with the head of the Scandinavian Department of the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs Alexander Abramov) to provide official confirmation that Raoul Wallenberg could not be found or was no longer alive. In fact, Söderblom indicated to Abramov that it was Alexandra Kollontay who had encouraged him to do so. During this same period several other Swedish Foreign Ministry officials, too, repeatedly insisted in both private and public communications that Wallenberg was either dead or could not be saved. They did so even when they received relatively strong indications that Wallenberg was possibly alive, as it happened in late August 1945, for example and, most notably, in March 1946, just six weeks before Staffan Söderblom's remarks to Stalin. The Swedish Foreign Ministry also did not seize upon the fact that two Swiss diplomats who had been detained together with Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest were released in January 1946.

Additionally, far from appearing afraid, Swedish diplomats felt surprisingly comfortable to discuss and secretly coordinate with their Soviet counterparts several highly sensitive issues, such as the transit of Soviet soldiers stranded in Norway in 1945 through Swedish territory back to the Soviet Union, as well as the forcible repatriation of 150 Baltic prisoners of war to the Soviet Union in early 1946. During these discussions, Swedish diplomats never insisted on obtaining full clarity about Wallenberg’s fate nor did they demand his return. Therefore, Staffan Söderblom's statements to Stalin at the time in many ways represented the Swedish government's official priorities at the time.  In that sense, they constituted the norm rather than the exception to the Swedish Foreign Ministry's position in the Wallenberg case.

According to the researcher and historian Peter Axelsson, key details of the planned Swedish-Soviet credit and trade agreement had remained essentially secret until the middle of May 1946. In fact, the full volume of the credit part - valued at about $300 million - was not disclosed until June 17, 1946 - two days after Söderblom met with Stalin. Anti-Soviet sentiment in Sweden was extremely high in 1946 (due the just mentioned forcible return of   Baltic refugees to the Soviet Union). As a result, Axelsson argues, Swedish officials faced a serious dilemma: If it had become known that the Swedish government was granting a huge credit to the Soviet Union while one of its own diplomats was being held prisoner or perished in the Soviet Union, it could have added to the already serious public outcry against the agreement and jeopardized the whole deal.

Axelsson concludes that leading Swedish officials were so eager to take advantage of Stalin's sudden willingness to reduce political tensions with Sweden, that they apparently felt they could not do two things at the same time: Successfully negotiate the terms of a Swedish-Soviet trade and credit agreement and at the same time press for answers about Raoul Wallenberg's disappearance. In short, Axelsson analysis suggests that Swedish officials made a conscious decision to prioritize Sweden's national interests, as they defined them, over the need to clarify the fate of one of his diplomats.

Even when the Swedish-Soviet trade agreement was concluded in record time in October 1946, Swedish officials, including Undén, did not bother to take up the Raoul Wallenberg case with their Soviet counterparts, even though they had several important opportunities to do so [including during a meeting with the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov at the United Nations in December 1946]. Just as telling is the fact that Ambassador Söderblom was never reprimanded for his confusing and half-hearted remarks by his superiors in Stockholm (and - interestingly - apparently also not by Marcus Wallenberg). Östen Undén steadfastly refused to believe that Wallenberg was ever held prisoner in the Soviet Union, even when confronted with the statements from Wallenberg's fellow prisoners, including his cellmate [Gustav Richter]. Like Söderblom, Undén was very much a proponent of realpolitik, as he made clear when he delivered a note on  March 9, 1956 to the Soviet Ambassador in Stockholm Konstantin Rodionov which stated that “the Swedish government would be satisfied with an answer that would hint at Wallenberg’s disappearance being an act of [the Internal Affairs Chief] Beria.”[7] Even though Beria had nothing to do with the Raoul Wallenberg case (which Undén did not know at the time), Undén clearly simply wanted the matter to be solved. Barely a year later, Undén concluded in a confidential internal memo in February 1957 that even if Wallenberg were alive and "in such a state that he could not be shown", it would be no reason "to hold a permanent grudge against the Soviet Union."[8]

Raoul Wallenberg's mother, Maj von Dardel - who in February 1945 had been personally assured by Ambassador Kollontay that her son was in Soviet hands and being treated well - was acutely aware of the Swedish Foreign Ministry's general attitude towards her son. She repeatedly decried the lack of enthusiasm displayed by Swedish officials and referred to the handling of her son's case as "cold blooded". As the former Swedish diplomat Jan Lundvik summed up the matter succinctly some years ago:"They did not want him back."

The aforementioned new research findings also raise questions about what Staffan Söderblom and Swedish Foreign Ministry officials knew about Raoul Wallenberg's personal background as well as his contacts and activities in Budapest in 1944. A document released by the Wallenberg family archive (Stiftelsen för Ekonomisk Historisk Forskning inom Bank och Företagande, SEHFBF) late last year shows that Staffan Söderblom met with Jacob Wallenberg (Marcus Wallenberg's brother) on July 4, 1946, just three weeks after the former's meeting with Stalin.  It is not known what the two men discussed, but it is safe to assume that the conversation concerned at least in part Raoul Wallenberg's disappearance and Söderblom's meeting with the Soviet leader. The conversation was almost certainly prompted also by the sensational new information that had just been received from a returned former prisoner in the Soviet Union, the journalist Edward af Sandeberg, who reported that two witnesses had confirmed to him that Raoul Wallenberg also was imprisoned there.

Source: Stiftelsen för Ekonomisk Historisk Forskning inom Bank och Företagande (SEHFBF), Document no 89. Visitor index card in Stockholms Enskilda Bank for Staffan Söderblom, Envoye, Ambassador. https://qbank.wallenberg.org/mb/_download.php?media_ids=53816&template=original&h=18fccdc5c9f26abf8644bbadb7dc52a7&p=dccda36951e6721097a93eae5c593859

Interestingly, the Swedish Foreign Ministry had worked hard to obtain af Sandeberg's release. In fact, during the period from June 1945 - April 1946 the Swedish officials placed 17requests to Soviet authorities on his behalf, far more than for their missing diplomat.

Rumors circulated within the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs well into the early 1950s that Raoul Wallenberg had repeatedly snubbed authority in Budapest. His colleagues described him as "dumb-daring" and having acted in an "extremely selfish" manner, putting their lives at risk and endangering Swedish interests. The Swedish historian Bengt Jangfeldt has suggested that these claims were possibly linked to Raoul Wallenberg supposedly taking charge of a certain amount of gold jewelry and other valuables before his departure for Debrecen, without obtaining prior permission These items had been stored at the Swedish Legation on behalf of persecuted Jews. Others have claimed that Wallenberg and his colleagues bribed certain Hungarian and German Nazis with Swedish protective papers.

While Wallenberg's activities in Budapest were mainly humanitarian, his work also involved other aspects, such as contacts with and active support for the Hungarian anti-Nazi resistance and efforts to safeguard the extensive interests of Sweden and the Western Allies in Hungary. According to the statements of several witnesses, on at least one occasion, Wallenberg transported weapons and ammunition in his diplomatic car and even offered financial support for the purchases of arms and other supplies. There are also several unconfirmed reports that Raoul Wallenberg and other members of the Swedish Legation collected information about atrocities committed by the Red Army in Hungary and Poland. Additionally, Wallenberg had plans to create an extensive new organization after the war dedicated to the restitution of Jewish property and the reconstruction of Hungary that were sure to raise the suspicions of Soviet authorities.

New research  further indicates that Raoul Wallenberg may have had knowledge and possibly some connections to Swedish intelligence operations in Hungary in 1943-1944. These operations began in the autumn of 1943 and were carried out in close cooperation with American, Hungarian and also British intelligence representatives. They were at least partially directed against the Soviet Union and may have already involved important post-war considerations. Swedish participation in such actions were complicated by the fact that since June 1941 Sweden officially represented Soviet interests in Hungary. The timing of the start of these wartime Swedish intelligence operations in Hungary – almost a full year before Wallenberg’s diplomatic appointment in July 1944 – raise the question if his selection for the humanitarian mission to Budapest was as unexpected as it has generally been portrayed. A closely related question is how the Swedish government's possible concerns about the public disclosure of its extensive neutrality violations in Hungary and other potentially controversial revelations may have affected the official handling of Raoul Wallenberg's fate, in 1945 as well as in later years.

More detailed information about Staffan Söderblom's state of mind and the factors that guided his actions in 1946 are expected to come to light sometime next year, when Omi Söderblom publishes her much anticipated book about her great-uncle. Hopefully it will provide some urgently needed answers to the question why the Swedish government's and the Wallenberg family's passivity in the Wallenberg case was so extreme. However, the members of Raoul Wallenberg's immediate family are not content to wait that long: This coming Monday/Tuesday [date to be set] they will submit a formal request to the Swedish Parliament to open a new investigation into the official Swedish handling of the Wallenberg case.

Contact: susanne.berger@rwi-70.de
Header photo: Nikita Tikhomirov, Moscow

 

Notes

[1] The text of the Swedish handwritten note reads as follows:

Söderblom

Prof. Jacobowski [sic] per telef. 27/5 -53

1. lider av ett skuldkomplex både beträffande sin tjänst och sitt privata liv som J anser sakna varje grund.

Till det yttre verkar han fullt frisk och skulle säkerligen oklanderligt kunna(?) sköta olika uppdrag.

Hans minne beträffande Kina är fullständigt utplånat och torde icke återkomma.

Han vägrar underkasta sig den behandling i fortsättningen som J rekommenderar enär han själv anser att hans tillstånd inte är sjukligt utan ligger på det moraliska planet i st. f. (= istället för) det psykologiska. J kan därför icke ge honom ytterligare hjälp.

J anser det vore en välgärning om han fick något arbete enär detta skulle medföra en(?) motvikt emot hans inåtvända funderingar.

Risken för återfall måste man räkna med.

[2] Sven Graftström's diary, December 4, 1944: "Söderblom lyckliggör Stockholm med sin närvaro. Han är helt gripen av en messiastanke beträffande Sovjet. För vem som vill höra på predikar han Rysslands lov och utlägger hur utomordentliga våra förbindelser äro med Moskva. Jag tror att han kommer att bli livsfarlig den dag, då våra relationer med ryssarna verkligen kräver ett fast handlag – och den dagen kommer."

[3] Margery Marian Fullerton-Carnegie, b. Lacey, was widowed in 1937. She had been married since 1920 to George David Howard Fullerton-Carnegie. They had three children together. She apparently knew Staffan Söderblom for many years before their marriage in 1946.

[4] January 30, 1980, Sveriges Radio. "Jag var ju mycket belåten med att få framföra det till den mäktigaste mannen I landet, därför att då kan det i varje fall inte sägas att man inte här drivit ärende så långt och så högt upp som det är möjligt.  Och det var för mig mycket värdefullt att det låg till på det viset , och sedan hyste jag kanske också förhoppningen att om Stalin sade ett ord att det skulle verligen ändå ge resultat."

[5] "Jag betraktar ju ännu denna dag Wallenbergs försvinandde, om man så får uttrycka sig, om ett mysterium, därför att i andra liknande fall behandlades vi bättre än andra."

[6] Gunnar Hägglöf, "När Raoul Wallenbergarkivet öppnas…" Svenska Dagbladet, December 7, 1979. In the article Hägglöf stated that he had suggested several measures to be taken by the Swedish Foreign Minister to apply pressure on the Soviet authorities to provide a clear answer about Wallenberg's fate, but that Östen Undén had rejected all proposals.

[7] L. P. Beria (1899-1953) was the Internal Affairs (NKVD) Commissar from November 1938 to December 1945, and from Iosif Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953, to June 1953, he was the Internal Affairs (MVD) Minister. On June 26, 1953, Beria was arrested and on December 23, 1953, the Special Court Session of the USSR Supreme Court sentenced him to death. He was immediately executed.

[8] The Raoul Wallenberg case file in the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, UD, P2 Eu 1, February 26, 1957. The memo was so sensitive that Sverker Åström, head of the Foreign Ministry's Political Department at the time, ordered it to be burnt after reading.

Quote: Susanne Berger and Vadim Birstein, "Staffan Söderblom's Severe Guilt Complex", RWI-70 News, April 28, 2021, URL: https://www.rwi-70.de/staffan-soederbloms-severe-guilt-complex/

URL: https://www.rwi-70.de/staffan-soederbloms-severe-guilt-complex/