Raoul Wallenberg as Universal Hero
Heroes of the 20th century were typically national heroes. National heroes are characterized by their willingness to sacrifice themselves for their nations, such as the countless soldiers who died while serving their countries, or through their extraordinary achievements in science, sports, or culture. Yuri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut of the USSR, was such a figure, as are contemporary celebrated athletes, who win medals for their nations, as well as civil heroes like Gandhi or Mandela.
National heroes such as these and others who were placed on a high pedestal during the 19th century were celebrated as great men of their nations and in this capacity strengthened the nation-building process. The bourgeois example of the great son of the city, whose role was meant to manifest the power of that class, was also idealised. In contrast to such identities and functions, Raoul Wallenberg represents a different hero type: the non-patriotic or universal hero.
Since the 1980s Wallenberg has been widely remembered for his humanitarian activities on behalf of the Hungarian Jews in Budapest at the end of World War II. He is known as the Swedish diplomat who disappeared into the Soviet Gulag in 1945, celebrated in many parts of the Western world as a great humanitarian, an exemplary role model who is used to teach human rights or civil courage. There exist 31 Wallenberg monuments in twelve countries on five continents: from Hungary to Sweden, from Canada to Chile, from Australia to Russia.
The fact that Raoul Wallenberg is commemorated in so many countries worldwide reflects a change in attitude towards the hero-concept. It reflects the wish to find a figure which is considered a hero irrespective of national borders, religious beliefs, and ethnic identification. What is it that makes Wallenberg so suitable to be used in this manner? And do the forms of commemoration also reflect this change in attitude? Has the monument genre - misused by fascism and Stalinism, succeeded in finding new forms and acting as an adequate medium to commemorate a hero of our times?
In my dissertation, A Hero’s Many Faces. Raoul Wallenberg in Contemporary Monuments (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2009), I explore what makes Wallenberg such a suitable hero icon in many democratic countries and in an age of globalization. His story incorporates a classical hero narrative which has survived the ‘un-heroic’ 20th century. And more than that: Wallenberg succeeds to represent a new hero-type and in so doing succeeds to imbue the monument genre with new meaning. By investigating how the different understandings of Wallenberg are expressed by the artists in their monuments, I demonstrate that the genre answers to the demands and ideals Wallenberg strove for and personified. In rendering the given subject, the artists have created new forms and contributed also to the personal monument genre, making it more democratic.
The paper concentrates on Wallenberg’s heroic characteristics and his suitability to serve as a hero in the 21st century. A selection of Wallenberg monuments will illustrate this hero-framing and how it affected the entire monument genre.
Essex university, 2009.
‘My Hero’ Defining and Constructing Non-Military Heroism. Joint Postgraduate History Conference. 23 - 25 June 2009, Department of History, King’s College, London.