Susanne Berger
Senior Fellow, The Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights (RWCHR)

Not everything is relative – Raoul Wallenberg in the Postmodern Age

August 4th marks Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg’s 111th birthday. In 1944, Wallenberg accepted a diplomatic appointment to Nazi occupied Hungary where he managed to protect the lives of thousands of Jews. What Wallenberg brought to Budapest was the idea of hope and possibility – that, against all odds, rescue was indeed attainable and that humanistic ideas could prevail. His unflinching activism has crucial relevance and implications for today.

Raoul Wallenberg in the company of his aides, 1944. MEMORIAL DE LA SHOAH


A group of Hungarian Jews being forcibly displaced in Hungary in 1944. MEMORIAL DE LA SHOAH

Myth making is always a form of simplification. When it goes too far, the essence of any problem is lost.

The dangers of mythification

Historians and journalists view events through a variety of prisms, so it is important to understand the philosophical underpinnings of their respective analyses. The case of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg is no exception. The past three decades have seen increasing efforts to arrive at a deeper, more realistic interpretation of both his person and his humanitarian mission to Hungary at the end of World War II, to protect the last surviving Jewish community in Budapest.

The historian Paul Levine (who passed away in 2019) argued that the post-war “myth making” around Raoul Wallenberg has prevented a realistic evaluation not only of his achievements but of the events in Hungary in general.[1] Specifically, Levine pointed out that far from acting alone, Wallenberg’s mission was made possible by a wide variety of factors – from the Swedish government’s decision to pursue a policy of ‘bureaucratic resistance’, formally backing the issuing of Swedish protective documents, the famous “Schutzpässe“ (protective passports) that were of doubtful legal validity; to the wide network of aides, fellow diplomats and members of the resistance who provided crucial manpower, expertise and local contacts.[2]

Levine undoubtedly has a point: In the end, “myth making” is always a form of simplification. When it goes too far, the essence of any problem is lost. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary to place Wallenberg into the broader historical context, because only then can the mechanisms of the Holocaust on all sides – perpetrators, victims, rescuers and bystanders – be fully analyzed and understood.

Protective document issued to Erika Vermes by the Swedish Red Cross in Budapest. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Erica & Joseph Grossman

Levine concluded that despite its postwar acclaim, the official Swedish protection effort was little more than a small ray of light in an otherwise disastrous failure to stem the tide of the Holocaust.

Backed by the United States and the Swedish government, the humanitarian mission was conceived late and haphazardly at best. It was seriously underfunded and had no organizational plan to speak of. Before Wallenberg ever arrived in Hungary, more than 500,000 Jews had been deported and killed by the gruesomely effective Nazi war machinery. The Allies essentially stood by, unable and in part unwilling to intervene.

Swedish protective passport issued in 1944 by the Swedish Legation, Budapest. Sold by RR Auction

Questioning Wallenberg’s role as a heroic figure of the Holocaust

Other Swedish historians like Klas Åmark or Attila Lajos have gone even further, questioning to what degree Raoul Wallenberg should be considered a heroic figure of the Holocaust at all. [3] How effective were his rescue efforts, in the end? How many lives did he actually save? Do people really remember him for his courageous actions or mainly because he disappeared?[4]

Such an analysis can be taken to absurdity, as Lajos did in his 2004 dissertation. [5] Lajos argued that in 1944, Hungarian Jews were not the helpless victims historians had made them out to be. There existed after all dozens of active resistance groups in the country. Since, in Lajos’s view, the Jews were not helpless, they did not require a heroic rescuer. Ergo, Raoul Wallenberg cannot be considered a heroic figure.

The possible exaggeration of Raoul Wallenberg’s achievements, while certainly of concern, is merely one aspect of a much bigger problem. This is the overall simplification of events – political, social and economic – which has led to serious distraction from the deeper questions about the origins and dynamics of genocide.

One can take issue with Lajos’s argumentation in various ways – a look at Hungary’s Jewish deportation statistics for 1944 alone would make a good start.[6] In the end, Lajos and others fail to acknowledge a broader issue: The possible exaggeration of Raoul Wallenberg’s achievements, while certainly of concern, is merely one aspect of a much bigger problem – both for Holocaust research and the Wallenberg case itself. This is the overall simplification of events – political, social and economic – which has led to serious distraction from the deeper questions about the origins and dynamics of genocide, as well as those surrounding Wallenberg’s mission and his subsequent fate.[7]

The postmodernist perspective and historic truth

What many people may not realize is that, for better or worse, these deeper, multileveled analyses reflect the so-called postmodern influence in current political thought. Postmodernist ideas, in their various guises and precursors like structuralism and deconstruction, are everywhere. It is a system of thought that had its early roots in World War I (and was further accelerated through World War II), formulated as an attempt to explain the horrors humanity had wrought upon itself, leading in the process to a revolution in art, music, philosophy and the social sciences.

Very broadly put, postmodern philosophy questions our ability to be truly objective, no matter how hard we try. Postmodernists derived important inspiration from the natural sciences, especially physics, and in particular from quantum mechanics. Einstein’s Theory of Special and General Relativity (published in 1905 and 1915 respectively) – astonishing revelations that mass and energy are different forms of the same thing, that gravity is the result of the curvature of space and time, and that electrons may act as both a particle and a wave – shook peoples’ perception of nature, reality, and themselves to the core.

In 1927, the German physicist Werner Heisenberg took matters even further when he formulated the “Uncertainty Principle” which postulated that in the world of subatomic particles complete knowledge is impossible to attain: The more precisely you can measure the position of an electron, for example, the more uncertain is its momentum, and vice versa. In other words, you may be able to know one or the other but never both at the same time.[8] Perception, reality, knowledge – suddenly all appeared fluid and ephemeral, calling into question everything we like to call “fact”. This in turn led to the question whether there is or ever can exist any objective truth at all – a central issue, especially for sociologists and historians.

Prompted partly by these new insights, philosophers focused increasingly on the ambiguity of words in the evaluation of “truth” and “meaning” – from forerunners of postmodernism like Ludwig Wittgenstein, who explored the limits of language and logic, to more recent proponents like Jacques Derrida [9] who exposed the contradictions and tensions between language and meaning, both explicit and implicit. This discussion had important implications for the analysis of historic events, which led to new ways of thinking and the probing of concepts like “good” and “evil”, “morality” and “moral choices”, and even specific terms like “victims” and “heroes”. As a result, scholars began to examine the past more cautiously, asked more poignant questions and looked at issues from different angles and perspectives.

The train tracks to Auschwitz. Photo by Phillip Snell

Excessive nuance   =   inaction and paralysis

Consider the example of Auschwitz, the most notorious group of Nazi concentration camps in Poland from 1940-45. Altogether, about three million people were murdered there. Guilt and innocence can be easily apportioned in this situation, with clear distinctions between victims and perpetrators. However, in the years since World War II, more subtle questions have emerged on the issue of guilt: Are those who refused to bomb the railroad tracks leading to Auschwitz as responsible as those who operated the gas chambers? Do all Germans carry collective guilt for Hitler’s crimes? The victims, too, did not escape this critical examination. Did some Jewish leaders focus more attention and energy on creating a new homeland than on rescuing their own from certain death? Why has comparatively little attention been given to other victims of Hitler’s mania, such as the millions of civilians who died at the Eastern Front?

As mentioned earlier, such a more nuanced analysis is often not only helpful but necessary. However, some critics of postmodernism, like the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper, saw problems with such “relativism” being taken to its logical conclusion. Since postmodernists argue that everything we examine is socially constructed and a priori tainted by subjectivity, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to discuss people or events objectively, never mind judging them appropriately. Excessive nuance can, therefore, lead to inaction and paralysis. Taken to extremes, it will lead to the failure to draw any distinction between good and evil – what aboutism in modern parlance.

Karl Popper. Source: Wikipedia Commons.
Ludwig Wittgenstein. Source: Wikipedia Commons





Knowledge and openness as an antidote to autocracy

These concepts obviously have serious implications for the realm of politics, including international relations. As one analyst wrote, “If there is no objective international reality out there to understand, then our theories are in effect created by our values and beliefs and are nothing more than the reflections of ourselves and our own minds.” [10] In other words, without objective, universal truths, there also cannot be any universal values shared by all humanity. Just ask the UN Human Rights Council how difficult it is to gain consensus on that subject.

Popper’s main objection to postmodern thought was precisely this issue, namely that it often failed to provide workable application to problems in the real world. Specifically, Popper felt that human suffering could not be addressed through semantics or elaborate thought constructs alone, but that it required concrete actions, grounded in real-life experience. His recommended antidote for totalitarianism was openness – the free flow of ideas. His book The Open Society and its Enemies (1945) became the most influential philosophical textbook of the Cold War era, and heavily influenced leading politicians of the day. Former Czech President Václav Havel and other Eastern European leaders paid tribute to Popper’s philosophy as a catalyst in their fight against communism and the basis for restructuring emerging societies in Eastern Europe.

During the 1990s, the international financier and Holocaust survivor George Soros, Popper’s one-time student, heavily invested in post-communist research and education projects. His Open Society Foundations and the Open Society Archives in Hungary (OSA) not only reflect his deep admiration for his teacher, but his conviction that Popper’s concepts retain their applicability and relevance in the 21st century.[11]

A brief aside: With this background, it becomes quite clear why Soros has been singled out as the favorite target of the most fervent proponents of the post-liberal movement, such as  Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and former US President Donald J. Trump, and why they (and others in their mold) routinely vilify openness and democratic structures in general as the root causes of various social ills, in need of a “firm hand” to right the ship.

Not everything is relative – some things just are

How does all of this relate to Raoul Wallenberg? If in postmodern analysis victims can become “relative”, so can presumptive heroes and rescuers. Such critical debate is often a good thing. The world knows the dangers of blind adulation and simplistic (and often aggressive) moral certainty only too well.

The main problem with the theses advanced by postmodernist philosophers and historians is that, in the final analysis, some things are not relative. They simply are. Just like you cannot be a little bit pregnant, you cannot be relatively dead. The victims of Auschwitz provide chilling confirmation. In that sense, human rights cannot and should never be treated as an abstract concept. As we see right now so starkly in the brutal conflicts of Ukraine, Tigray and Iran: they will always be rooted in the very real – not theoretical – suffering of individual human beings. To borrow a phrase from the American religion scholar Cornel West, human rights are always “tactile,” not merely cerebral.

Just like you cannot be a little bit pregnant, you cannot be relatively dead. The victims of Auschwitz provide chilling confirmation.

Raoul Wallenberg understood this better than anyone. Taking action matters – it invigorates and affirms our ability to affect change. When facing the difficult decision to confront a dangerous situation or not, he did not hesitate, but dove straight in – in direct defense of his fellow human beings, and at great personal risk.

The contemporary relevance of Wallenberg’s activism clearly does not rest in the number of people he rescued but in the humanitarian spirit he embodied and the courage he displayed. His official status as diplomat of a neutral country enabled him to be effective and he had the help of many people who have not received proper credit. But Raoul Wallenberg inspired those around him and that will always be one of his greatest accomplishments.

The struggle between democracy and totalitarianism ultimately centers around the question of how to balance the rights and lives of individuals vs the overarching interests of the state. What Wallenberg brought to Budapest was the idea of hope and possibility – that, despite all odds, rescue was indeed attainable; and that humanistic ideas could prevail. Implicit in this is the realization that the failure to act makes you a silent accomplice to evil. On this point alone Wallenberg leaves all postmodern parsing firmly in the dust, with crucial lessons and implications for today.

I would like to extend my sincere thanks to Professor Per BauhnEmeritus Professor of Practical Philosophy, Linnaeus University, Sweden, for generously sharing his valuable insights and comments.

Recommended reading

Per Bauhn. The Value of Courage. Nordic Academic Press, 2003

David Edmonds and John Eidinow. Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers. Harper Collins, 2001

Christopher Simpson. The Splendid Blond Beast: Money, Law, and Genocide in the Twentieth Century. Grove Press, 1993.


[1] Paul A. Levine. Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest: Myth, History and Holocaust. Vallentine Mitchell, 2010

[2] The mere fact that the Swedish Legation remained open and operational in Budapest allowed the protective effort to continue. Other historians have argued that Wallenberg’s success was made possible largely because by the end of the war, the Nazi leadership in Hungary wished to accommodate international opinion and was therefore open to some negotiations and concessions.

[3] Klas Åmark. Förövarna bestämmer villkoren. Raoul Wallenberg och de internationella hjälpaktionerna i Budapest. [The perpetrators set the terms. Raoul Wallenberg and the international aid operations in Budapest]. Albert Bonniers Förlag, 2016. Attila Lajos. Hjälten och offren: Raoul Wallenberg och judarna i Budapest [The Hero and the Victims: Raoul Wallenberg and the Jews in Budapest]. Växjö, 2004.


[4] A few days before Wallenberg’s arrival in Hungary, a crucial early rescue action was taken by Lt. Col. Ferenc Koszorús of the Hungarian General Staff. On July 5, 1944, Koszorús ordered his First Armored Division to oppose pro-Nazi forces loyal to László Baky, a state secretary in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, who had ordered the deportation of Budapest’s Jews. The action delayed the fascist coup by three crucial months and facilitated the protective actions for Budapest’s approx. 200,000 surviving Jews by Sweden and other neutral governments. See Géza Jeszenszky (ed.), July 1944: Deportation of the Jews of Budapest Foiled. Reno, Nevada: Helena History Press, 2018.

[5] ibid

[6] The spontaneous outpouring of emotion immediately after Wallenberg disappearance from survivors who held a moving memorial service for him would be another.

[7] On the complex dynamics of genocide: Christopher Simpson. The Splendid Blond Beast: Money, Law, and Genocide in the Twentieth Century. Grove Press, 1993.

[8] Any predictions of behavior or movement of particles therefore involve varying degrees of probability but can never be stated with complete certainty.

[9] Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) is generally considered a Poststructuralist.

[10] David Patrick Houghton. Positivism ‘vs’ Postmodernism: Does Epistemology Make a Difference? International Politics, 2008. “There is, and can be, no privileged or objective standpoint that one can use to make sense of reality”, he added.

[11] Since 2015 the Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives. Founded in 1995, the Open Society Archives were originally part of the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, Hungary. Since 2020 CEU operates from Vienna, Austria, after the Orbán government changed the rules of accreditation for foreign universities.

About the Author
Susanne Berger, founder and coordinator of the Raoul Wallenberg Research Initiative (RWI-70), is a Senior Fellow at the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights in Montreal, Canada. She served as an independent consultant to the bilateral Swedish-Russian Working Group on Raoul Wallenberg from 1995-2000.
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