Swedish Ambassador to Australia, His Excellency Sven-Olof Petersson: 100th anniversary of Raoul Wallenberg - a Swedish hero! (presentation and Q&A notes)
The Ambassador spoke at length, eloquently and movingly, about the life of Raoul Wallenberg on the centenary of his birth, an event that the Swedish Government has specifically chosen to commemorate in 2012. He explained that last week he and the Israeli Ambassador to Australia planted 10 trees in his memory.
The Ambassador spoke with feeling about the need to properly memorialise the Holocaust, especially given that the Holocaust generation has now largely passed away. The Ambassador believes the Holocaust must be part of living history, not history of events that live only in the past, and that there is educational curriculum in place in Sweden to ensure this occurs. He explained that in 1998 a taskforce was established by the Swedish education department to teach children in schools about the Holocaust. A current campaign is a forum for living history and the Holocaust is being taught through the school curriculum. He also sees this as a necessary step to combat the scourge of Holocaust deniers.
Sweden’s Raoul Wallenberg is for the Ambassador a symbol of the real, tangible difference one individual can make. The Ambassador stated that the greatest danger a society faces is not evil people, who will always exist, but the good people who choose to stay silent in the face of evil.
The Ambassador related a number of details about Wallenberg’s life. He was born into the most important industrial banking families of the time, but his family did not believe he was a suitable candidate to undertake the commercial duties required of a family representative. As a result he was dispatched to the US to study architecture, after which he worked in South Africa and then later spent six months in Haifa. It is notable that his business partner, Kalman Lauer, was Jewish.
The Ambassador explained that Sweden was the only country to support and help the American operation, which sought assistance from all the neutral states. By chance the US Embassy was in the same building as the food company which was owned by Raoul Wallenberg and his Jewish partner, so when the Refugee Board was established, Kalman Lauer met the Director in the elevator and she asked him if she knew of anyone dynamic and energetic who could carry out emissary services for refugees from Budapest. Financed by the US under the cover of a Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg was the man.
The Ambassador then fielded questions from the audience.
He was asked why there is overt antisemitism in Sweden – the incidence of the false reporting and allegation of the Israeli Defence Forces harvesting organs was cited as an example.
The Ambassador began his reply with a history related to the issue. Sweden was neutral in World War II, and this has established itself as part of the cultural mindset. Neutrality became fixed in Swedish policies and consciousness, which in part suggests a natural sympathy for those they consider to be the underdog. The problem for Israel is that it is seen as part of the West, whereas the Palestinians are considered the underdog. Regarding the specific matter that was mentioned, the Ambassador advised that the Swedish media was severely criticised for its malicious and false reporting about the IDF.
Regarding the Arab Spring, he does not believe there are clear-cut predictions that can be made, but it is possible there will be a lowering of the threats to Israel while these countries deal with their internal forces and pressures. Nevertheless, in the region as a whole, the immediate future appears very dark, particularly given the reach for hegemony by Iran. This will become more of a European problem, given America’s pivot to Asia and its reduced reliance on Middle East oil.
The Ambassador spoke of Sweden’s strong welfare system, where the average tax rate is 45% but services are robust and considered part of the social fabric. He noted that its third biggest export country outside Europe is Australia, especially for mining equipment. It is notable that Sweden has avoided much of the Euro crisis because it was forced to restructure in the early 1990s.
The Ambassador placed in perspective some other issues of alleged racism against Jews, especially the unfortunate incidents in Malmo. He pointed out that some personality issues regarding officialdom infected Malmo, that these were condemned by the Government, and that there are strong information programs in schools to counter racism.
Notably, immigration from Arab countries into Sweden is significant, especially when reunion programs are included. Although they have enriched the culture, there has also been hatred that has been imported. There must be a huge effort at integration. The current refugee intake (since the commencement of the Syrian civil war) is around 50,000 refugees a year (not including their families), which is very significant in a country of only nine million. A corollary of this is the demographic situation, which relies on immigration for the population to be sustained. To combat the ageing pressures on the economy, the retirement age has been increased to 67 with incentives.
The Ambassador also addressed questions about Julian Assange. He emphasised that the Swedish judiciary is independent from the government, so he cannot make specific comment on the case. However, he did strongly address the defamation against the Swedish judicial system by followers of Assange, and pointed out that despite suggestions otherwise, while Sweden has an extradition agreement with the US, they cannot extradite a person for a “political” or a “military” crime and not for any other crime if the person runs the risk of being executed. He also stated that the criminal charges raised in Sweden must be addressed in Sweden, as any Western country would demand.