If I would have to list the five most famous Swedes, no doubt Dag Hammersköld would be one of them. He served as the second secretary general of the NATO, and died in a suspicious plane cash in 1961. I also immediately think of Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of the world-wide IKEA furniture empire. Others who might be near the top of the list would include (collectively) the famous Abba-group, Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite who gave his name to a series of prestigious prizes, and perhaps film maker Ingmar Bergman. But I would certainly also include Raoul Wallenberg.
This week I discovered in a Swedish bookstore a new biography of this important Swede, that I could not resist buying (Bengt Jangfeldt: Raoul Wallenberg—en biografi; Publisher: Wahlström och Widstrand, 2012). In the last two daysI have already read a substantial part. Wallenberg was born one hundred years ago (August 4, 1912) in one of the richest Swedish families. It was the intention that he would be educated to get a leading role in the family baking business. But things turned out differently. At the beginning of the Second World War he entered the Swedish diplomatic service for a special ssignment in Hungary. He would receive immense fame because of his heroic role in saving many thousands of Jewish lives. But when the Red Army, in January 1945, conquered Budapest, Wallenberg was arrested on suspicion of espionage. He died, most likely in 1947, in a prison in Moscow under circumstances that have remained unclear until today.
Wallenberg did not live beyond the age of about 35 years, but his short life had great significance. How did he so quickly attain to such a prestigious post, and could he become so influential? The first hundred pages or so of the book answer that question. He had a most privileged upbringing. He was able to travel extensively and could register for the best study programs that were available. In his holidays improving his skills in foreign languages was high on the agenda. His name opened doors for him everywhere and a single letter from a family friend was enough to provide him with an effective recommendation.
When reading such a biography, one cannot help but wonder how others would done if they had been born and raised into a similarly privileged home. Who knows what many of them might have achieved? Come to think of it: What possibilities might have opened for me, had I not been born into a simple, poor family in a small village in a rural area north of Amsterdam, but would have come into this world with a name that opens doors, with parents with good academic degrees, etc.?
It is better to quickly stop thinking along those lines. There are plenty of people whose cradle was also found in a prosperous suburb, but who do not profit from their privileged start in life. A few days ago I happened to see a sad example of this on a website where super rich kids tell about the ways in which they throw around their money and are engaged with things that radiate boredom on all sides.
Yet, there are also lots of examples of men and women who did not have a golden spoon in their mouth when they started life, but who—often against the stream—have succeeded in building a life of significance, for themselves and for others. I just hope that others might include me in that category.