THE BLOG

What Raoul Wallenberg Can Teach Us About Syria

Co-authored by Erik Brattberg

During his brief stopover in Stockholm today, President Obama made a symbolic visit to the city's Great Synagogue to pay tribute to the great Swedish hero, Raoul Wallenberg. We are pleased he did that. Also, it is important to know: Raoul Wallenberg was not a Jew. He was a Protestant, but with strong values of humanity and responsibility for his fellow humans.

In his address before the synagogue on the eve of the Jewish New Year Rosh Hashanah, Obama made a vivid point by drawing parallels between the Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews during World War II and the need for international intervention to save lives in present-day Syria. In the words of the president, Raoul Wallenberg's actions should serve as a reminder "of our power not simply to bear witness, but also to act."

Raoul Wallenberg might have been active in Budapest (one of the authors grew up in the very district where he was setting up his "protected" houses). Still, Wallenberg is a universal hero; his message reverberates after 70 years.

Indeed, the legacy of Raoul Wallenberg is evermore relevant. His experience during the darkest days of the war shows the need for courage and action amidst evil and violence. Acting on his own initiative, facing all odds, Raoul Wallenberg managed to save tens of thousands of the remaining Hungarian Jews from perishing in the Holocaust through providing them with protective Swedish passports, hiding them in his "houses." In doing so, he attracted not only criticism from his peers but also risked his own life. Wallenberg did not consult his superiors; he did not wait for instructions or approval: He took the decision and acted.

As one eyewitness of the trains loaded with Jews departing Budapest for Auschwitz recounted:

... [Wallenberg] climbed up on the roof of the train and began handing in protective passes through the doors which were not yet sealed. He ignored orders from the Germans for him to get down, [they] began shooting and shouting at him to go away. He ignored them and calmly continued handing out passports to the hands that were reaching out for them...After Wallenberg had handed over the last of the passports he ordered all those who had one to leave the train and walk to the caravan of cars parked nearby, all marked in Swedish colors...[T]he Germans and Arrow Cross were so dumbfounded they let him get away with it.

Wallenberg's bravery and steadfast determination to save lives lies in stark contrast to the current debate going on inside the Congress, the hesitation over whether or not to intervene in Syria. While the latest reports of the Assad regime using chemical weapons against its own citizens are alarming in and by themselves and worthy of retaliation, we must not overlook the fact that the Syrian civil war has already cost 100,000 lives and given rise to more than 2 million refugees.

While some members of Congress are right in pointing out that military strikes against the Assad regime are a risky enterprise that would certainly come with high political costs, the alternative of standing idly by is unacceptable for the country that prides itself as being the moral leader of the world. The same Congress that as recently as last year awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor to Raoul Wallenberg must today pay heed to his example.

As the president reiterated during his Stockholm visit, the credibility of the U.S. and the international community (i.e. the "democratic and free world") is at stake here. Those who oppose some kind of intervention in Syria must answer the following question: What to do about the ongoing atrocities occurring there? As Raoul Wallenberg illustrated -- ultimately with his own life, dying in a Russian prison -- it is not enough to simply oppose violence; one must also actively pursue peace.

It is a good thing that Obama made this speech in Sweden, a small European country that is an important member of the European Union. It is important for Europeans to understand that once and again, the United States is taking upon itself the burden of acting on behalf of the civilized, free world. Europe is not doing itself a favor by shying away from the same action it is expecting from the Americans. Because whatever the public argument, most Europeans feel that something must be done. The message Obama delivered, and the arguments we are making here, are not just directed against Congress. It is a message for Europeans and Americans, politicians, intellectuals and simple citizens alike. Given that Syria is in Europe's backyard, it should shoulder the burden of intervention as well as the rebuilding of a free Syria.

Walking through the halls of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, some of the most striking pieces on exhibition are the documents related to the inaction of the United States and its allies to bomb the death camps. Millions of Jews could have been saved. Indeed, military action is a terrible thing and should always be the last course of action. However, inaction to fight back evil is something that can haunt democracies forever. Obama deserves all the support he can get. Taking the tough road of military action, however painful it is, is the least bad of all the bad options on the table right now.

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