2012 has been declared the Year of Raoul Wallenberg in Sweden and marks 100 years since the birth of the human rights hero. Here, Eskil Franck, Director of the Living History Forum in Sweden, explains the lessons that can be learned from the example of Sweden’s most famous diplomat.
The national institute that I am in charge of was founded on the belief that the living can learn from history. We can learn from Raoul Wallenberg’s efforts in Budapest: his courage, his audacity and his creative solutions which saved the lives of thousands of people. But we can also learn from all those who did nothing; those who saw what was happening, but chose to stand alongside and watch.
Most of us no doubt wish that we were endowed with the same courage as Wallenberg: the courage to take a step forward when it matters. But if we are honest, most of us probably wouldn’t dare – or may actually not want to. People in Nazi Germany saw the freight trains heading for the concentration camps. They heard their Jewish neighbours being harassed by the police and they witnessed their friends and colleagues being humiliated by the Nazis. All over Europe, millions of people chose to do nothing, to remain passive, despite knowing what was going on.
Being passive is not the same as being neutral. Choosing not to act also has consequences. If I choose not to intervene when I see another human being suffering, the aggressors may interpret this as me condoning their actions. The more people who passively look on, the easier it is for the rest of the group to make such an assumption. This was certainly true in Germany in the 1930s and it is still true today. Albert Einstein said that the world is a dangerous place, not because of the people who do evil, but because of those who stand by and let them.
The mission of the Living History Forum is to promote a greater awareness of genocide, particularly among young people. By highlighting the underlying factors that lead to genocide, we can learn from history, and here, the role of the Bystander is of central importance. In 2012, Raoul Wallenberg’s wartime deeds will be remembered around the world and the exhibition “To me there’s no other choice – Raoul Wallenberg 1912-2012” will tour several countries. Wallenberg made an active choice. He chose to do something rather than remain passive. To me, the most important lesson to learn from this is that we should reflect on our own choices in life – always.