BOOK REVIEW: Raoul Wallenberg by Ingrid Carlberg

Raoul Wallenberg: The BiographyRaoul Wallenberg: The Biography by Ingrid Carlberg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is the most recent of the many biographies of Raoul Wallenberg. Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat during the Second World War who is credited with saving thousands of lives. He was posted to Budapest with an assignment of issuing protective passports to Hungarian Jews. Hungary was a last bastion of Judaism among Nazi controlled / allied countries, but in the summer of 1944 they began mass deportation to the death camps in Poland. Protective passports from the neutral country of Sweden staved off deportation for many.

As dangerous as Wallenberg’s life was during his assignment to Budapest when he was constantly at odds with the Arrow Cross Militia (the Hungarian fascist party) and the Nazis who put them in power, the most intriguing part of Wallenberg’s life story may be his disappearance. In January of 1945, as he was seeking contact with the commander of the Red Army in Hungary to facilitate a post-War reconstruction of Budapest, he was arrested by the Soviets and surreptitiously moved to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow. The Soviets denied having Wallenberg, but facing overwhelming evidence from released prisoners who came into contact with Wallenberg in Lubyanka and Lefortovo prisons eventually made the Soviets recant. In the 1950’s they admitted they’d had him while making the suspect claim that he’d died of natural causes in 1947. There remains a great deal of mystery surrounding the case. Why they arrested Wallenberg in the first place? Why didn’t they release or exchange him like other foreign diplomats they had in custody. If they executed him – why’d they do it and why’d they do it when they did it. [There were claims by prisoners stating that they’d met Wallenberg in Gulag camps in the 1960’s and even into the 70’s (though the latter claims are more suspect.)]

In a bold move, this book is written in the old school style, which is to say chronologically. This may not seem odd for those who’ve been reading biographies and autobiographies for a long time. It’s how historians always used to write their books, and it certainly seems like a logical arrangement for the telling of historical events. However, the mode today is to start in media res, or in the middle of the exciting bits, and to sprinkle in only what is absolutely necessary of backstory as one goes along. Because of a combination of intense competition for one’s reading time and what seems like the diminished attention span of today’s average reader, it’s really quite brave for Carlberg to start with 150+ pages discussing: Wallenberg’s parents and grandparents, his days in America as an architecture student studying a form of building design that would be considered virtually useless when he returned to Sweden, and his attempts to get started in business in the years between his return to Sweden and his entry into the diplomatic corps. That said, this first of the three parts that make up the book is well done and more interesting than one might expect. It doesn’t suffer from the painful dryness that is so common when one discusses ancestors and the subject’s childhood. It’s not just that Carlberg keeps an eye on what data might be useful for the reader later in the book. In fact, I’d say that what makes the first part interesting isn’t that it shows us how Wallenberg’s youth forged him into an inevitable hero. Rather, it’s that we come away with a picture of a somewhat shiftless kid from the least wealthy limb of a family tree of a rich family. It’s not that he was born to be a hero that makes his background fascinating; it’s that he was in many ways an ordinary fellow whose decisions at critical moments made him a hero.

As mentioned, the book’s 23 chapters are divided into three parts. The first part, as described, is Wallenberg’s background. The second part explores his actions while posted to Budapest. This is when he had to deal with the likes of Adolf Eichmann and – at the very end – rogue elements of the Arrow Cross Militia who were engaged in killing sprees. The third part covers the period of Wallenberg’s arrest and disappearance at the hands of the Soviet Union. Many of the popular biographies of Wallenberg were written in the 1980’s, during a period of reawakened interest in his fate but when the Soviets were just beginning to loosen up, and so this version does contain a little bit of new information that came out during the Glasnost years and subsequently.

The book has a substantial group of black and white pictures of relevant people and documents. There are also modern-day descriptions of the author’s visits to various key places in Wallenberg’s story including various offices and residences, as well as Lefortovo prison. These are short (a few pages at most) and are interspersed with the chapters around which that locale was relevant. Some of them involved talking with people who had insight into Wallenberg’s life and other places are occupied by individuals with little to no knowledge of Wallenberg. There is a detailed accounting of sources, including both a bibliography and lists of interviewed individuals and unpublished sources.

I found this book fascinating. I will admit that I didn’t get hooked right away. While there was enough in part one to keep me interested, the book doesn’t become truly gripping until the second and third parts. In part three, it becomes genuinely hard to put down.

That said, if one is hoping for a work that resolves all questions, that work doesn’t yet exist, and it’s less and less likely that it ever will given the way the Soviets purged Wallenberg from documentation (very few references were found during the Glasnost era investigation) and apparently cremated his body. Few people remain alive who were involved and their memories are adversely effected by time. Still, Carlberg offers excellent insight into what went wrong on the Swedish side that may have contributed to Wallenberg’s demise. The Swedish diplomat jumped to conclusions that probably hurt Wallenberg’s survival odds. There are a few brief scenes in the book that are visceral, and one of these involves the degree to which that one diplomat was haunted by his missteps in the case. (Another involves a cudgel-wielding former KGB-interrogator who threatened Wallenberg’s step-brother when the relative tried to visit to find out more. If the sparse documentation is to be believed, the retired KGB man may have been the last person to speak with Wallenberg. But the man clearly wanted to put that behind him.)

There were just a couple of questions that I wish had been addressed by the book that weren’t. Carlberg is keen to point out that it appeared that the Soviets were hinting that a teen-aged Baltic refugee, Lydia Makarova, could be a possible exchange for Wallenberg. (The Swedish diplomats were too dense to get this at first because one had concluded Wallenberg died in Hungary and another – higher up — didn’t believe in quid pro quo life trades.) I can see how this Lydia Makarova wasn’t really relevant to Wallenberg’s story. She was just an extremely high value subject, but I couldn’t help but wonder why they would want a teen-aged girl so badly that they’d have been willing to take the public relations nightmare of admitting they abducted a diplomat regarded as an international hero. With the book weighing in at over 600 pages, I can see why there was reticent to investigate this further just to scratch an itch of curiosity, but still the itch remains.

I’d highly recommend this book. I’ve read other books on Wallenberg, and believe that this book offered substantial value added – particularly regarding the investigation of Wallenberg’s disappearance.

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5 Fascinating Mysteries for Skeptical Pessimists

Being a rational skeptic by nature, I’m not the easiest target for those peddling mysteries. Any mystery that can feasibly be a hoax by a single person or a small group of people (e.g. crop circles), I assume was a fake.  Any mystery that  could be accounted for by a person misidentifying his or her mushrooms (e.g. out-of-body experiences and maybe the odd alien abduction), I assume is a case of hallucination. Any innocuous naturally occurring phenomena (e.g. the Taos Hum), I assume is just a matter of the limits of our current understanding. So, most of the time I dismiss “mysteries” as pranks that succeeded or natural phenomena that occur under rare “perfect storm” conditions resulting in phenomena we don’t yet understand.

That said, I’m sucker for intrigue, and there are some astounding mysteries out there.

5.) The Fate of Raoul Wallenberg

The Facts: Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat assigned to Budapest, Hungary during the Second World War. He’s credited with saving thousands of lives during the Holocaust by issuing protective passports from his neutral homeland that kept the bearers from being deported to extermination camps. In January of 1945, Wallenberg sought to make contact with the Soviets, who were mopping up the fascist forces in and around Budapest, in order to facilitate a smooth aftermath of the Battle of Budapest. He succeeded, but got more than he bargained for when the Red Army arrested him and he was shipped to Moscow to serve time in the notorious Lubyanka and Lefortovo prisons.

The Soviets claimed that they had no knowledge of Wallenberg. They suggested that he’d probably been killed trying to get to Debrecen to meet with the Red Army General who commanded forces in the area. (Debrecen is a city in Eastern Hungary, near the Ukraine, and was the HQ of Soviet military forces fighting in Hungary at the time.)

Then, when prisoners from various other countries started being released in exchanges, they reported having been in contact with Wallenberg (often through a tap code that has been used the world over to circumvent rules preventing prisoners from talking.)

In the fifties, after Stalin died, the Soviets finally admitted that they’d had Wallenberg but that he died in 1947 of natural causes. (The claim that the young (early to mid 30’s), healthy, and vigorous man having a heart attack strained credulity for people ranging from those who’d conversed with him in prison to Soviet officials during the Gorbachev Era (i.e. the late 1980’s) who’d began to come clean about the matter. The Soviets had been lying through their teeth for decades and so “we don’t know any more than that” wasn’t a convincing answer even though it’s possible that it was true by that time.) At any rate, even up into the early 1960’s there were credible claims of prisoners who stated that they’d been in the Gulag with Wallenberg, and into the 1970’s there were less credible claims.

The Questions:  1.) Why’d they take Wallenberg in the first place? He wasn’t particularly high up in the diplomatic corps, nor had he had a career that would have exposed him to a treasure trove of government secrets. Furthermore, while one wouldn’t think of him as a high value target, he was a public relations nightmare waiting to happen because he’d saved so many lives (eventually the United States and a number of other countries made him an honorary citizen and he came to be considered one of the great heroes of the Holocaust.) In short, on the face of it, he seems like a high risk / low reward prisoner. 2.) When did he die? Was it 1947, as the Soviets claimed? Was it 1962, or thereabouts, as prisoners had claimed? Or might it have been even later? 3.) How’d he die? Was it really natural causes? (It would have been hard to believe in the late 40’s when he was a 35 year old man who’d been imprisoned only a couple years and not in a labor gulag, but: a.) it can’t be ruled out, and b.) it’s quite possible if he died many years or decades later under forced labor camp conditions.) Was he poisoned at Lubyanka, or simply shot dead?

The Most Credible Solution: As for why the Soviets took him, Wallenberg was in contact with people from many varied countries and segments of society, including Americans and even moderate / sympathetic members of the Arrow Cross Party (Hungary’s fascist party that was installed into power by the Nazis,) anyone who could be of help in saving lives was worth building relations with. Furthermore, Wallenberg was from a prominent Swedish family with its hands in many commercial pies internationally. All one really has to understand is that to Stalin and his henchmen, anybody who talked with Soviet enemies was an enemy spy.

So why did they “disappear” him? This is a case in which wishful thinking and naivete was probably fatal. The Swedish diplomat, Staffan Söderblom, became convinced that Wallenberg had been killed inside Hungary while moving through the dangerous war zone, and, crucially, he told his Soviet counterpart as much. What evidence made him think this — besides Soviet disinformation — probably just that it would make his life much easier. I don’t mean to suggest Söderblom wished Wallenberg dead, but as a diplomat concerned with high level issues like trade agreements and security assurances, having relations hung up on the fate of one man was a pain in the diplomat’s keister. Söderblom did eventually accept the evidence and start doing his job, but by that time the damage was done. The Soviets believed they could keep Wallenberg without the public relations nightmare of being seen imprisoning an international hero because the Swedes didn’t seem to want him back very badly, and Stalin’s regime became invested in a lie that became progressively more costly come clean about.

I recently read Ingrid Carlberg’s biography of Wallenberg, she reports that the consensus view of the investigative group that took up the case during the Glasnost years was that Wallenberg likely did die in the summer of 1947, though no one believes for a moment that it was of natural causes.

 

4.) MH-370

The Facts: In March of 2014 a flight (Malaysian Airlines 370) took off from Kuala Lumpur, heading generally northeast toward its destination of Beijing. At some point over the Gulf of Thailand, near its transition into Vietnamese airspace, the pilot made final contact with air traffic control and then the plane disappeared (transponder turned off — though the plane does periodically appear on military radar it doesn’t induce a response.)

While the search begins  in the Gulf of Thailand and into the South China Sea, a private company that has satellite monitoring of jet engines, says it has data that shows the plane was in the South Indian Ocean. For the geographically-impaired, that means MH-370 was going south way down to the west of Australia. As the system that monitors engines wasn’t designed for locating said craft, the last known location is imprecise. The weather in that part of the Indian Ocean is notoriously rough. The plane still has not been recovered over four years later, though pieces from the wings have turned up in the Indian Ocean, verifying that it was going the wrong direction.

The fact that there wasn’t a huge and readily visible debris field limits the ways that the jet could have gone into the water. Experts are divided into those who think the pilot must have made a controlled landing on the water and then let the plane sink (Note: this wouldn’t be like Capt. Sullenberger landing on the Hudson as the waves would have been as high as a few meters) and those who think the plane may have gone in nearly vertically as it plummeted out of the sky, the fuel tanks having run dry, and the engines powerless.

The Questions: 1.) Was it done on purpose or was it the result of an accident? [Spoiler Alert: While there remain many disagreements among experts on specific details of the crash, all the experts seem to agree that the pilot, Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah, had to have been an active participant in creating this tragedy.] If we assume that the overwhelming evidence pointing to the pilot’s participation (presumably in a suicide + mass murder), there remains a gripping mystery. Why go to all that trouble to make the plane disappear? There are a few cases of pilot suicide with mass murder, but in those cases the pilot just flew the plane into the Earth. Shah took hours flying, going to great lengths to make certain the plane would be as hard to find as he could make it. If he actually landed on the water, that would have been six or so hours flying — ostensibly with the crew and passengers incapacitated by depressurization. Angry suicidal psychopaths don’t seem likely to care whether the murder instrument is found or not. If he was the unusual suicidal person who wanted to create a mystery, he must have known that the very activities he took to make the plane hard to find would make him look guilty. (i.e. If he thought that making it look like an accident by not allowing the black box to be found would make his loved ones look fondly upon him, he must have realized the chain of actions needed to achieve that lost flight would look like a willing hand was in control. i.e. catch-22.) 

The Most Credible Solution: The Australian 60 Minutes did a fascinating Special Edition on MH-370 just recently. They layout many of the reasons that the pilot must have been involved. There was an early thought that the pilot might have been making an emergency course correction due to a breakdown when he lost consciousness along with the passengers and crew (due to depressurization) and then the plane just flew until it ran out of gas on that random heading. However, it became clear that the pilot made specific course corrections long after the transponder went silent. Why the pilot made sure the plane would be as hard as possible to find is hard to explain.

 

3.) Frank Olson: Murdered or Psychedelic Trip Gone Wrong?

The Facts: Frank Olson was a scientist and biological weapons expert who nominally worked for the Army at Fort Detrick, MD, but who’d been assigned to work for the CIA on a program that would become infamous: MK Ultra. MK Ultra was an umbrella project for many programs involving behavioral modification and mind control. Among the most disturbing element of MK Ultra involved unwittingly dosing people with LSD (a hallucinogenic substance) in order to see how they would behave (and whether such behavior was exploitable for the CIA’s purposes.)  On November 19 of 1953, Frank Olson was surreptitiously dosed with LSD by Sidney Gottlieb — the head of MK Ultra and Olson’s CIA boss. Nine days later, Olson jumped out of a 13th floor hotel window in New York City.

The official claim was that Olson committed suicide while experiencing a severe psychotic breakdown. (“Suicide” may or may not have meant that Olson desired to end his life. It could have been an accident owing to his loss of touch with reality. In other words, the CIA claimed that Olson jumped out the window under his own propulsion, whether he did that because he wanted to die or because he thought he could fly is anyone’s guess.)

Olson’s family, notably his son Eric, claims that Frank Olson was increasingly despondent — presumably unnerved by the amoral world he’d been caught up in since being assigned the CIA job on MK Ultra —  but that he was by no means on the verge of a complete psychotic breakdown. Eric Olson believes his father was physically defenestrated.

The Questions: 1.) Was Frank Olson murdered? 2.) If so, was he physically forced out the window or was he loaded up on hallucinogens and driven to madness via Scarecrow (i.e. the Batman villain) tactics?

The Most Credible Solution: Most of the books and documentaries come down on the side of Olson having been murdered, but that’s not to say that there is an overwhelming case for murder. This is part of what makes this type of mystery interesting to me (this also applies to the Wallenberg case.) Once one strays from the path of virtuous behavior — as both Stalin and Sidney Gottlieb did — no one is going to believe in accidents anymore — even if that’s really what happened.

 

2.) S.S. Ourang Medan

The Story: In 1947 or 1948 (sources vary), a distress call was received from a merchant vessel, S.S. Ourang Medan, near the Straits of Malacca (between Malaysia and Indonesia.) The radio operator claimed that the Captain and some (possibly all. he couldn’t say) of the crew was dead. The message ended with “I die” and then radio silence. Another vessel responded to find that the entire crew was all dead, stiff as if frozen and littered around the decks as if each man died where he’d stood.  As the assisting craft prepared for an investigation, they were forced to flee because an intense fire flared up at ship’s stern. The Ourang Medan burned and then sank.

The Questions: What killed the crew? Was it an accident, perhaps resulting from the leakage of a hazardous chemical cargo, or was there something more nefarious afoot?

The Most Credible Solution: Fascinatingly, the most credible solution to this mystery may be that S.S. Ourang Medan never existed (the photo above isn’t the Ourang Medan, and, in fact, the ship didn’t appear by that name in the registry.) The whole event may have been some kind of urban legend or sophisticated hoax. This may be a bit of an unsatisfying solution, and it seems to violate my principle of not taking interest in mysteries that could be (and, thus probably are, hoaxes.) However, I still find this one interesting because the story was repeated so many times with the exact same details, and by credible sources. That’s pretty impressive if it was a hoax, and leaves open the possibility that it wasn’t a hoax at all. If it’s not a hoax, the most credible solution would be that the ship carried a lethal and flammable chemical until it experienced  a leak.

 

1.) Dyatlov Pass Incident

The Facts: In January of 1959, nine experienced hikers set out on a trek in the Ural Mountains. When they didn’t return when they were supposed to in early February, a search party was dispatched. Because these were knowledgeable outdoors-people and they’d left a route-plan, it didn’t take long to find their tent (as shown) and soon thereafter they started to find the first of the trekkers’ corpses. Though it took more than two months of searching to find the last four.

That’s when it got weird. They found the corpses on the order of a  mile down slope, and all of them were without their boots and were inadequately dressed. Their boots and outerwear were all in the tent, along with the makings of the fire that someone had been setting up to keep them warm for the night. The first several bodies they found showed no sign of physical injury and seem clear cases of death by hypothermia. Among the bodies found later there were a some blunt force trauma injuries and a few strange physical anomalies (e.g. one corpse was found missing a tongue.) There were a whole host of  bizarre features that added to the mystery. For example, one of the individuals was found wearing two watches.

As I’ve mentioned, these were experienced hikers. Some were on the hike in part to obtain the highest level grade for outdoors skills available in the Soviet Union. These young people weren’t like Christopher McCandless (subject of Krakauer’s Into the Wild) who went into the wilderness by himself with inadequate knowledge of survival in harsh conditions and got himself killed. They were also, by all accounts, teetotalers, and, therefore, wouldn’t have gotten drunk and stupid.

The Questions: What drove nine experienced campers out of their tent and to their death by hypothermia in the darkness? And, oh yeah, if your theory could explain all the other weird stuff, such as one person wearing two watches, one person missing her tongue, and a couple people looking like they’d been battered with baseball bats, that would be great.

The Most Credible Solution: There are a truly vast range of theories out their from credible sounding avalanches to unlikely assaults by demon dwarfs. Adding to the range of conspiracy theories is that this took place during Soviet times. During Stalin’s days, these kids wouldn’t have been allowed to trek into the wilderness like this at all, but even with the easing of prohibitions under his successors, it remained believable that these college students saw something they weren’t supposed to see and paid for it with their lives.

That said, Donnie Eichar in his book Dead Mountain, paints a compelling and science-based argument that the culprit was naturally occurring infra-sound that resulted from wind blowing around the rounded mountain top. Said sonic phenomena has been known to make people spontaneously nauseous and prone to panic attacks. Incidentally, the curious missing tongue might simply have been due to the fact that the girl’s face ended up partially in flowing water (and it took a couple months to find her so bacteria had time to do its thing.) The blunt force trauma was all found among the latter recovered bodies who took so long to find because they’d fallen down a ravine (hence the bruising.) The watches may have been as simple as someone saying, “Here, hold my watch,” to someone who was getting ready to do some other task, so that person put on the second watch to free up his hands. Or it could have been a mindless action under panic-induced duress.