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​Harald Edelstam

The Raoul Wallenberg of the 70'

​Harald Edelstam

​Harald Edelstam courtesy of Edelstam Family

The embassy of Sweden to Rome will dedicate a tree in its garden to diplomat Harald Edelstam, on whom Gariwo, “the Garden of the Righteous Worldwide”, has bestowed the title of “Righteous”. The tale of the Swedish diplomat was reported to Gariwo and its Chairman Gabriele Nissim by the students of Science and Maths high school “Rummo” of Benevento and by journalist Enza Nunziato, their coordinator in the research for Righteous figures in contemporary history.

In 1974, when I was transferred from Buenos Aires to Santiago of Chile, where the Italian embassy hosted a hundred political refugees, and the embassies of other countries welcomed – or had welcomed – dozens persecuted people, in the circles of the Chilean left a name was uttered respectfully and gratefully: the one of Harald Edelstam, Head of the Swedish mission, he had arrived in Santiago in 1972, then declared a “persona non grata” by the junta and expelled from Chile in 1973.

The diplomats accredited in Santiago commented with admiration, albeit with some reservations, the surprising developments of Edelstam’s action to the defense of the persecuted by the military regime.

The Chilean rightwing hated him. They accused him of creating unjustified problems to the junta for a “political benefit” back in his home country, which would be granted to him by his friendship with Olov Palme, the Swedish Prime Minister.

The press of the regime, i.e. the whole media that circulated then, did not miss any occasion to denigrate him. Newspapers had often written that inside the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Edelstam was fiercely disapproved of because of his unpredictable behavior and his repeated stances against the Junta and the Chilean militaries, beyond any ministerial instructions or diplomatic conventions between States.

Then the Chilean rightwing found it unforgivable that Edelstam used the correspondents of the international press accredited to Santiago to report about the most critical features of the ongoing crackdown and the inadmissible human rights violations carried out by the Armed Forces and the Security Services, including the DINA (Direcciòn de Inteligencia Nacional), which actually responded to Pinochet.

Unconditional praise of Edelstam’s conduct came also from the higher ranks of the Chilean Catholic Church, in particular the Vicarship of Solidarity, established to assist the growing numbers of poor and persecuted people, and from the International Organizations accredited to Santiago, which, cautiously and with discretion, dealt with the protection of the persecuted.

In Santiago you breathed a heavy air. Regime opponents were arrested and jailed by the military and police forces. Moreover many of them disappeared, adding up to a long list of desaparecidos, the missing people. Going to court would have no effect. The suspected citizens were unceasingly hunted by the Services. By night, protected by the curfew, the DINA agents circulated on vehicles without plate, free to act off the sight of any witness.

This was the scenery in which Harald Edelstam found himself operating to the defense of the persecuted of the military regime, often at his own risk, acting most always upon his own impulse, without the “cover-up” or the instructions of the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and sometimes disobeying the indications that came to him from Stockholm.

Edelstam’s “adventure” in Santiago started with the military coup of 11 September 1973 and the following crackdown.

A first awesome gesture of condemnation of the regime sparked a lot of surprise, perplexity and uncertainty, as Edelstam managed to enter the Cuban embassy, surrounded by the coup armed forces, and said without any previous instructions from Stockholm – that his country “would take care of the Cuban interests”. This technical formula expressed the idea that Sweden would take charge of the protection of citizens, officers and the Cuban diplomatic buildings in Chile. Edelstam reaffirmed his purpose with unprecedented firmness, opposing with his own body the entry of a military tank into the garden of the Cuban embassy in the days that followed the coup. The junta expelled from Chile all Cuban diplomats, accusing them of infiltrating the State administration with their agents to accelerate the expected rise of the “revolution of the proletariat”.

The embassy of Sweden and the more spacious embassy of Cuba would become, ever since the first days of the coup, the “sanctuaries” of opponents, men and women hunted by the regime. It is necessary to assist them, offer them food, lodging and medical aid, provide them with ID cards, obtain from the military authorities their authorizations for expatriation, identify the third countries willing to welcome them. Edelstam turns to Stockholm for help, and they send a young officer of the Swedish embassy to Buenos Aires.

Edelstam soon became an “expert” in negotiating with the militaries the release of the detainees, their delivery to Swedish care, even making use of somehow irregular papers. He stepped in not only to the defense of Swedes and Cubans, but also of citizens of other Latin American countries run by military regimes, which had obtained political asylum in Chile. He managed to access every place, including jails, concentration camps, the notorious Santiago stadium, too, to go to people’s rescue.

The action of the Swedish diplomat is estimated to have helped rescuing about 1,500 refugees and wanted people in a few months.

Without going overly into detail, in Santiago there were rumors that Edelstam had often acted at his own risk, showing an exceptional courage, an extraordinary boldness, and a total selflessness. He had often clashed even physically with undercover agents of the Services, militaries, carabineros, and had always done so in order to defend persecuted people he did not know and he might well never see again. He had gotten to the point of hiding and letting expatriate political exponents of the Chilean left who were highly “sensitive”, whose life would otherwise be marked.

In the story of this exceptional diplomat, there had already been some significant precedents ever since the time of his mission to Berlin (1941), and then to Oslo (1942). In both countries, nobleman Edelstam and his wife Louise von Rosen had managed to establish polite relations with the Nazi authorities, which would make it possible to the Swede to step in to the defense of his protégés.

In his home in Berlin, in the neighborhood of Kurfürstendamm where numerous Jews lived, the persecuted of the racist laws had already found shelter thanks to him. In Berlin, Edelstam had gotten to know ambassador Morla, exeptional Chilean diplomat who in Madrid, during the Spanish civil war, had offered shelter and protection to nearly 3,000 persecuted. In more than one occasion, Edelstam had expressed a wish to draw inspiration from his action.

In Nazi-occupied Norway, the Swedish diplomat had not only hidden in his residence some Jews and partisans, but had also driven them with his car with the diplomatic sign toward the Swedish border, which meant rescue. He had organized in the basements of his embassy an underground typography, used by the resistance forces, until the Gestapo started chasing him. He was “accidentally” run over twice by a truck, and then he underwent a shooting attack. To Edelstam, nothing else remained left than to take his wife with him and escape on a small car toward the Swedish border …

At this point an unavoidable question sets itself before us: In the face of exceptional circumstances that put the safety of life of our fellow people, both individually or as a minority group, to risk, can a diplomat legitimately act without or against the instructions of his Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to offer shelter to those in need? In Santiago, under a merciless military dictatorship. Edelstam took “humanitarian initiatives” and acted normally without or even against the written or oral instructions from his ministry. He certainly knew that the highest ranks of the Swedish establishment and part of the political establishment – except for Prime Minister Olov Palme – did not subscribe to his actions.

Enrico Calamai, vice-consul of Italy to Buenos Aires under the military regime (1974), hid and rescued dozens Italians and descendants of Italians chased by the armed forces and police for political reasons. Calamai certainly did act, to a high personal risk, against the will of his chief, the consul general, and his ambassador, and at any rate without the cover-up of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He has paid a high professional price for this.

Italian diplomat Tomaso de Vergottini, head of mission to Santiago under Pinochet (1974), rescued some hundreds people who were politically persecuted by the military junta, to his and his family’s risk. Also de Vergottini and his closest aides acted without any precise ministerial instructions to defend a number of political persecuted in Chile.

These exemplary diplomats, and first of all Harald Edelstam, acted under the urge of a strong ideal impulse, in favor of people whom they had never seen before, without waiting for anything back, sometimes even to the risk of their lives, seemingly “senselessly”. No government can ask his diplomats to risk as they did while doing their duty. They acted nearly always without any instructions, sometimes even against some instructions, only assisted by their own courage, well aware that they might be “censored” by their administration afterwards.

In my opinion, Harald Edelstam and the people who followed his example acted correctly, choosing to defend the Human rights of the persecuted above any other consideration, heralds of what today Gariwo calls as “the diplomacy of good”, as Gabriele Nissim wrote in his magnificent “Charter of Responsibilities 2017”. From this viewpoint, the value taking priority over any other consideration is the human being: his dignity, justice, decency and love.

Such a man, brimming with sense of responsibility toward his neighbour, is the role model that Harald Edelstam righteously embodies. He sets himself as an example for his fellow men, above all for the young people who are about entering this rather gloomy period of our history, of which it is said that “time is out of joint”. The tree, which upon the will of the Swedish ambassador to Rome, Robert Rydberg, will be dedicated to Edelstam, is a sign of his entry into the “Forest of the Righteous Worldwide”, and a present and future warning for everybody.

Emilio Barbarani, Italian Ambassador in Santiago del Cile

Analysis by Emilio Barbarani, Italian Ambassador in Santiago del Cile

6 November 2017

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