Ervin Straub on Raoul Wallenberg's Extreme Altruism

In the excerpt from his book, The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence, psychologist Ervin Staub discusses the psychological and social background of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. Wallenberg led the rescue efforts that saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews at the end of World War II. Staub is a world renowned expert on the psychology of mass murder and genocide and was rescued in Hungary as a child.  

[The] Raoul Wallenberg . . . example shows the multiplicity of experiences and influences that at times join in leading to extreme altruism. He had a Hungarian business partner whose [Jewish] relatives were in immediate danger. He knew the relatives from business trips to Hungary, so he had a personal connection to people in need. His familiarity with Hungary also gave him some competence. While working [earlier] in Palestine, he had seen refugees arriving from Hitler's Germany; this direct contact with victims must have contributed to his concern and caring. He was asked to go Hungary by representatives of the American War Refugee Board; this request may have helped to define for him what was right and activate important values. Finally, Wallenberg was one-sixteenth Jewish. Wallenberg was a member of . . . an influential Swedish family. He had wide experience in work and travel under the guidance of his diplomat grandfather. At one point, his grandfather urged him join the family bank, but he refused. Later his grandfather died, his connection to the family was weakened, and when he changed his mind, he was not allowed to join the bank. His work as a partner in an export-import firm was less than fulfilling for him. Because he was not fully involved in pursuing a goal important to him, he was more open to other goals; the request was more likely to activate a desire or obligation to help.

In Hungary he started to help by creating [the Schutz Pass], impressive from the bureaucratic standpoint but of questionable validity, that gave thousands protection. He threatened, bribed, and cajoled high-level Hungarian officials. He personally intervened in many ways that required great courage, exposing himself to assassination attempts and the guns of Nazi guards. He showed great courage and self-confidence in dealing with Nazi officials, including Eichmann. His sense of invulnerability may have been inspired by his aristocratic background. Wallenberg . . . developed total commitment to saving Jewish lives. [He and] men [like him] may be regarded as “good fanatics,” people with an overriding commitment to a goal to which they subordinated all others. . . .

In conditions of extreme danger, people need support to evolve and maintain the motivation to help. As they begin to help, they also begin to create their own environment, their own context. They build connections to a community that supports them. Schindler was supported by the people he helped and also by outside contacts he made through his actions in behalf of Jews. For example, a delegation of Hungarian Jews asked him to come to Hungary to convince the skeptical Jewish community there of the existence of the camps and killing operations. This had to reinforce and support his identity as an ally, a helper of Jews; acceding to the request contributed to his evolution. As I wrote elsewhere, many rescuers were connected to “an elaborate network of people, required for the practical aspects of helping, but in my view also essential in giving emotional support and confirmation.”1


Connection Questions

  1. What are some of the “experiences and influences” that Staub says led to Wallenberg’s choice to help refugees?
  2. Create an identity chart for to create an identity chart for Raoul Wallenberg based on Staub's discussion. List some of the words Staub uses to describe Wallenberg's characteristics. What kind of person might he have been based on your list?
  3. According to Staub, what did Wallenberg and other rescuers need to stay motivated to help the Jews? What is one example that Staub gives, in Wallenberg’s case?
  4. In Staub's reflections on altruism and Wallenberg , which lessons seem particular to this history. What, if any, universal lessons might we draw from Staub's reflections on altruism and on Wallenberg's story?
  5. Staub also describes Wallenberg as a “good fanatic.” What is a fanatic? What influences someone to become a good fanatic?

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