Raoul Wallenberg was born to one of the most famous families in Sweden, which gave the world generations of bankers, diplomats and politicians. His father, Raoul Oscar Wallenberg, a young naval officer, was the cousin of Jacob and Marcus Wallenberg, the two most renowned bankers and manufacturers of Sweden. He died of a malignant tumour at age 23. Raoul was born in Stockholm on 4 August 1912, three months after his father died. His mother, Maj Wising, the daughter of Per Johann Wising, a famous professor of neurology, remarried after her husband’s death in 1918, to Fredrik von Dardel, General Manager of Karolina Hospital in Stockholm. Wallenberg’s brother and sister, Guy and Nina, were born of this marriage.

Raoul’s education was taken over by his paternal grandfather, Gustav Wallenberg, a Member of Parliament and ship broker, later ambassador to Turkey. Tradition has it that the family also wanted Raoul to be a banker, but he was more interested in architecture and commerce. His grandfather soon taught him to be independent at a young age and strove to give him an international vision. To this end, he was sent abroad every summer to learn languages. He visited England, France and Germany, and he did so completely alone, without company. At age 12 his grandfather called him to Constantinople, and the young boy saw the series of demonstrations held in Belgrade at that time.

He completed primary school in Stockholm and went on to study at the Swedish State Experimental School at age 9. In spring 1930 he passed the final examinations, with honours in Russian and Art. Afterwards, he worked for the world-famous Stockholms Enskilda Bank for a month then completed compulsory military service as a guardsman. From 1931 he studied architecture at the University of Michigan in the US. After graduation in 1935, he went to South Africa and secured a job with a Swedish company in Cape Town. Six months later his grandfather found him a job at a Dutch bank in Palestinian Haifa.

It was in Palestine that he first met Jews fleeing Germany and was deeply shocked by their accounts of persecutions. In 1936 he returned to Sweden and engaged in international trade. He joined Közép-európai Kereskedelmi Rt., a trading company established by Sven Salén and Hungarian-born Dr. Kálmán Lauer. The company primarily did business with food shops. During the war the company was even able to supply food to Red Cross institutions in Central Europe. Wallenberg developed an increasingly intensive interest in humanitarian work at his negotiations with Red Cross bodies. He soon became a shareholder and international director of the company due to his language skills and the ability to freely travel Europe. He visited German-occupied French territories and even Germany, where he became familiar with the labyrinth of German bureaucracy. Also, he visited Hungary several times.

After the Germans invaded Hungary, the Jews threatened by deportation tried to request passports from neutral countries. The Swedish Legation issued provisional passports (Provisorikt Pass) to people who had relatives or significant business relations in Sweden.

In 1944 the US also asked the Swedish Government to take action in Hungary. The Swedes decided to send someone to Hungary to obtain information and provide help. They contacted Dr. Lauer, who was thoroughly familiar with the conditions in Hungary, to give them advice. Lauer offered Wallenberg, but first he was found unfit for the job. Later a representative of the US War Refugee Board also contacted Dr. Lauer with a similar request, and he offered Wallenberg again. This time his proposal to send Wallenberg to Hungary as the humanitarian attaché of the Swedish Legation was accepted.

To avoid being entangled in protocol and bureaucracy, Wallenberg asked for a free hand to take action without the consent of the Swedish ambassador. He also asked permission to send his reports out of the ordinary way, by courier.

Sweden’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs agreed to give Wallenberg a free hand to rescue people, including attempts to save lives by bribery. They gave him a tacit consent to contact the Hungarian Government and confidential people opposed to the Germans, whose list was given to him at the Embassies of the UK and the US in Stockholm. He was also permitted to shelter persecuted people at the Legation as necessary and to issue the documents required for immunity. He had the right to officially ask Horthy for an audience to gain his intervention, too. Also, he had to contact then Prime Minister Sztójay to pressure him as far as possible. By virtue of the agreement, the King appointed Wallenberg to serve as Legation secretary.

Wallenberg arrived in Budapest on 9 July 1944. By that time the Jews enclosed in rural ghettos had been deported, and Eichmann was already planning to remove the Jews from Budapest. However, in early July, Regent Horthy ordered the deportations to stop due to a letter from the King of Sweden and by international pressure.

Wallenberg abandoned the traditional methods of diplomacy for nearly any opportunity, from bribery to threats of blackmail, to save lives. Initially, the staff of the Swedish Legation was shocked by his methods but came to give him full support at a later date, when they saw his successes.

Wallenberg first designed a Swedish protective passport which was suitable for certifying before the Hungarian and German authorities that its holder stood under the protection of the Swedish Legation. Initially, he was allowed to issue 1,500 such ‘Schutzpassen’, then managed to raise that number to 4,500. In actual fact, however, he issued many more passports. His office staff were also recruited from among protected people. The number of the office’s staff grew to several hundreds but even so they often had a hard time doing the job.

After Szálasi took over, Wallenberg was forced to make even greater efforts to save the people under his protection as Arrow Cross men ignored most certificates of immunity. Therefore Wallenberg increased the number of Swedish “safe houses”. More than thirty buildings in Pest held the Swedish flag and were declared by Wallenberg to be under Swedish diplomatic immunity. Within a short time 15,000 residents moved into the houses.

Soon other neutral countries followed the example of Wallenberg, issued protective passports and built safe houses for certain refugees.

Towards the end of the war, when the situation became totally hopeless, Wallenberg designed a simplified protective passport which only included his signature. In those confused circumstances even this was sufficient.

After that, however, the Government declared all protective passports to be invalid. Wallenberg secured the intervention of the wife of Foreign Minister Baron Kemény to ensure that the Swedish protective passports be recognised as valid again.

Wallenberg also attempted to aid the endless columns of Jews marched towards the border at the order of Eichmann. Together with his colleagues he tried to retrieve the holders of Swedish protective passports from the wagons and marching columns and to give food and medications to people who became exhausted from the march on foot, starving and often sleeping under the sky.
In late 1944 Wallenberg removed the Legation’s operation from Buda to Pest. The people under his protection were no longer in real safety in the international ghetto or the safe houses. In the uncontrollable situation, various Arrow Cross groups took arbitrary action, evacuated even safe houses and removed their residents. However, Wallenberg and his colleagues rushed to the spot and freed the people under their protection each time they had been notified.

In January 1945 Wallenberg learnt that Eichmann was planning a full massacre in the ghetto. Wallenberg interceded with Pál Szalai, who cooperated with him, so the German commander prevented this action.

Two days later the Soviet troops reached both ghettos in Budapest. According to research estimates, Wallenberg saved thousands of people.

On 17 January 1945 Wallenberg left Budapest for Debrecen, never to arrive there. It is supposed that he and his chauffeur, Vilmos Langfelder, were taken by force to the Soviet Union. Reliable eye witnesses reported he was detained by the NKVD in Moscow and put in Lubyanka prison together with Langfelder. On 8 March 1945, at Soviet pressure, Hungarian Radio announced that Wallenberg had been murdered by Arrow Cross men or Gestapo agents on the road to Debrecen. By contrast, in 1957 they claimed that he had died ten years before in Lubyanka prison. The 1990s saw new doubts emerging around his death, and intensive research resumed about his personality.