A biography of “the dashing Swedish diplomat who dared to breach Hitler’s inner circle during the waning days of World War II.”
Emling (Setting the World on Fire: The Brief Astonishing Life of St. Catherine of Siena, 2016), a senior editor at AARP.org, introduces us to Folke Bernadotte (1895-1948), a member of the Swedish royal family who was in a unique position to promote humanitarian projects throughout his long career. Health problems derailed his military career, but he maintained an interest in diplomacy. He represented Sweden’s king at Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition in 1933 and served as Swedish commissioner general for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Later, he became vice president of the Swedish Red Cross. Though Sweden had practiced active neutrality since the 1920s, that stance was growing increasingly difficult to maintain in the face of rampant German aggression. In the spring of 1943, word leaked that Germany planned to round up and deport all the Jews in Denmark, and Danish physicist Niels Bohr convinced the king to allow the Jews into Sweden. Over the course of two weeks, fishermen ferried 8,000 to safety. Bernadotte was responsible for the first prisoner exchange between the Allies and Germany, a massive effort that benefitted thousands of POWs. With the end of the war looming, German prisoners were being quickly exterminated. Heinrich Himmler knew the war was lost, and Bernadotte convinced him to let Scandinavian prisoners be removed to a camp near Denmark. Himmler also hoped Bernadotte would carry a capitulation offer to Dwight Eisenhower. In March 1945, Bernadotte’s “White Buses,” under strict German control, retrieved prisoners from a series of camps. In April, Himmler finally said he could evacuate any prisoners he liked. Added to the white buses were more than 7,000 women from Ravensbrück.
Emling effectively shows her subject’s “extraordinary feats” as well as the immense difficulties facing those involved in humanitarian work during World War II.