Folke Bernadotte, Count of Wisborg (2 January 1895 – 17 September 1948), was a Swedish diplomat noted for his negotiation of the release of about 15,000 prisoners from German concentration camps during World War II. In 1945, he received a German surrender offer from Heinrich Himmler, though the offer was ultimately rejected.
After the war, Bernadotte was unanimously chosen by the victorious powers to be the United Nations Security Council mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1947-1948. He was assassinated in Jerusalem in 1948 by members of the underground Zionist terrorist group Lehi while pursuing his official duties.
Folke Bernadotte was the son of Oscar Bernadotte, Count of Wisborg (formerly Prince Oscar of Sweden) and his wife, née Ebba Henrietta Munck af Fulkila. Bernadotte's grandfather was King Oscar II of Sweden. Oscar married without the King's consent in 1888, however, thereby leaving the royal family, and was in 1892 given the hereditary title Count of Wisborg by his uncle, Adolphe I, Grand Duke of Luxembourg.
Bernadotte attended school in Stockholm, after which he entered training to become a cavalry officer at the military school of Karlberg. He took the officers exam in 1915, and became a lieutenant in 1918, subsequently moving up to the rank of Major.
On 1 December 1928 he married Estelle Manville of Pleasantville, New York (1904-1984), a wealthy American heiress whom he had met in the French Riviera. They had four sons: Gustaf (b. 1930), Folke (b. 1931), Frederik (b. 1934) and Bertil (b. 1935).
Following his marriage, Bernadotte represented Sweden in 1933 at the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition, and later served as Swedish commissioner general at the New York World's Fair in 1939-40. Bernadotte had long been involved with the Swedish Boy Scouts (Sveriges Scoutförbund), and took over as director of the organization in 1937. At the outbreak of World War II, Bernadotte worked to integrate the scouts into Sweden's defense plan, training them in anti-aircraft work and as medical assistants. Bernadotte was appointed vice chairman of the Swedish Red Cross in 1943.
While vice-president of the Swedish Red Cross in 1945, Bernadotte attempted to negotiate an armistice between Germany and the Allies. At the very end of the war, he received Heinrich Himmler's offer of Germany's complete surrender to Britain and the United States, provided Germany was allowed to continue resistance against the Soviet Union. The offer was passed to Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Harry S. Truman, but never accepted.
Just before the end of the war, he led a rescue operation transporting interned Norwegians, Danes and other western European inmates from German concentration camps to hospitals in Sweden. Around 15,000 people were taken to safety in the "White Buses" of the Bernadotte expedition, including between 6,500 and 11,000 Jews.
In April 1945, Himmler asked Bernadotte to convey a peace proposal to Eisenhower without the knowledge of Hitler. The main point of the proposal was that Germany would surrender to the Western Allies only, thus isolating the Soviets. According to Bernadotte, he told Himmler that the proposal had no chance of acceptance, but nevertheless he passed it on to the Swedish government. It had no lasting effect.
During World War II, Bernadotte led several rescue missions in Germany for the Red Cross. During the autumns of 1943 and 1944, he organized prisoner exchanges which brought home 11,000 prisoners from Germany via Sweden.
In the spring of 1945, Bernadotte was in Germany when he met Heinrich Himmler, who had become commander for the entire German army following the assassination attempt on Hitler the year before. Bernadotte had originally been assigned to retrieve Norwegian and Danish POWs in Germany. He returned on May 1, 1945, the day after Hitler's death. Following an interview, the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet wrote that Bernadotte succeeded in rescuing 15,000 people from German concentration camps, including approximately 8000 Danish and Norwegians and 7000 women of French, Polish, Czech, English, American, Argentinian and Chinese nationalities. (SvD 2/5-45). The missions took approximately two months, and exposed the Swedish Red Cross staff to significant danger, both due to political difficulties and by taking them through areas under Allied bombing.
The mission became known for its buses, painted entirely white except for the Red Cross emblem on the side, so that they would not be mistaken for military targets. In total it included 308 personnel (approximately 20 medics and the rest volunteer soldiers), 36 hospital buses, 19 trucks, 7 passenger cars, 7 motorcycles, a tow truck, a field kitchen, and full supplies for the entire trip, including food and gasoline, none of which were permitted to be obtained in Germany. After Germany's surrender, the White Buses mission continued in May and June to save approximately 10,000 additional people.
Bernadotte recounted the White Buses mission in his book The End. My Humanitarian Negotiations in Germany in 1945 and Their Political Consequences, published on June 15, 1945 in Swedish. In the book, Bernadotte recounts his negotiations with Himmler and others, and his experience at the Ravensbrück concentration camp.
Following the war, some controversies have arisen regarding Bernadotte's leadership of the White Buses expedition, some personal and some as to the mission itself. One aspect involved a long-standing feud between Bernadotte and Himmler's personal masseur, Felix Kersten, who had played some role in facillitating Bernadotte's access to Himmler, but whom Bernadotte resisted crediting after the War. The resulting feud between Bernadotte and Kersten came to public attention through British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper. In 1953, Trevor-Roper published an article based on an interview and documents originating with Kersten. The article stated that Bernadotte's role in the rescue operations was that of "transport officer, no more". More damagingly, Kersten was quoted as saying that, according to Himmler, Bernadotte was opposed to the rescue of Jews and understood "the necessity of our fight against World Jewry".
Shortly following the publication of his article Trevor-Roper began to retreat from these charges. At the time of his article, Kersten had just been nominated by the Dutch government for the Nobel Peace Prize for thwarting a Nazi plan to deport the entire Dutch population, based primarily on Kersten's own claims to this effect. A later Dutch investigation concluded that no such plan had existed, however, and that Kersten's documents were partly fabricated. Following these revelations and others, Trevor-Roper told journalist Barbara Amiel in 1995 that he was no longer certain about the allegations, and that Bernadotte may merely have been following his orders to rescue Danish and Norwegian prisoners. A number of other historians have also questioned Kersten's account, concluding that the accusations were based on a forgery or a distortion devised by Kersten.
Some controversy regarding the White Buses trip has also arisen in Scandinavia, particularly regarding the priority given to Scandinavian prisoners. Political scientist Sune Persson judged these doubts to be contradicted by the documentary evidence. He concluded, "The accusations against Count Bernadotte ... to the effect that he refused to save Jews from the concentration camps are obvious lies" and listed many prominent eyewitnesses who testified on Bernadotte's behalf, including the World Jewish Congress representative in Stockholm in 1945.
Following the 1947 UN Partition Plan, on 20 May 1948, Folke Bernadotte was appointed the United Nations' mediator in Palestine, the first official mediator in the UN's history. In this capacity, he succeeded in achieving a truce in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and laid the groundwork for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.
At the end of June 1948, Bernadotte submitted his first formal proposal in secret to the various parties. It suggested that Palestine and Transjordan be reformed as "a Union, comprising two Members, one Arab and one Jewish". He wrote that: "in putting forward any proposal for the solution of the Palestine problem, one must bear in mind the aspirations of the Jews, the political difficulties and differences of opinion of the Arab leaders, the strategic interests of Great Britain, the financial commitment of the United States and the Soviet Union, the outcome of the war, and finally the authority and prestige of the United Nations.
As far as the boundaries of the two Members were concerned, Bernadotte thought that the following "might be worthy of consideration."
After the unsuccessful first proposal, Bernadotte continued with a more complex proposal that abandoned the idea of a Union and proposed two independent states. This proposal was completed on September 16, 1948, and had as its basis seven "basic premises" (verbatim):
The proposal then made specific suggestions that included (extracts):
Bernadotte's second proposal was prepared in consultation with British and American emissaries. The degree to which they influenced the proposal is poorly known, since the meetings were kept strictly secret and all documents were destroyed, but Bernadotte apparently "found that the U.S.-U.K., proposals were very much in accord with his own views" and the two emissaries expressed the same opinion. The secret was publicly exposed in October, only nine days before the U.S. presidential elections, causing President Truman great embarrassment. Truman reacted by making a strongly pro-Zionist declaration, which contributed to the defeat of the Bernadotte plan in the UN during the next two months. Also contributing was the failure of the cease-fire and continuation of the fighting.
After Bernadotte's death, his assistant American mediator Ralph Bunche was appointed to replace him. Bunche eventually negotiated a ceasefire, signed on the Greek island of Rhodes. See 1949 Armistice Agreements.
The Israeli government criticized Bernadotte's participation in the negotiations. In July 1948, Bernadotte said that the Arab nations were reluctant to resume the fighting in Palestine and that the conflict now consisted of "incidents." A spokesman for the Israeli government replied: "Count Bernadotte has described the renewed Arab attacks as "incidents". When human lives are lost, when the truce is flagrantly violated and the SC defied, it shows a lack of sensitivity to describe all these as incidents, or to suggest as Count Bernadotte does, that the Arabs had some reason for saying no... Such an apology for aggression does not augur well for any successful resumption by the mediator of his mission".
Bernadotte was assassinated on 17 September 1948 by members of the Lehi group, sometimes known as the Stern Gang. The assassination was approved by the three-man Lehi 'center': Yitzhak Shamir, Natan Yellin-Mor, and Yisrael Eldad, and planned by the Lehi operations chief in Jerusalem, Yehoshua Zetler. A four-man team lead by Meshulam Makover ambushed Bernadotte's motorcade in Jerusalem's Katamon neighborhood and team member Yehoshua Cohen fired into Bernadotte's car. Bernadotte and his aide, UN observer Colonel André Serot, were killed. General Aage Lundstrom, who was in the car, described the incident as follows:
“In the Katamon quarter, we were held up by a Jewish Army type jeep placed in a road block and filled with men in Jewish Army uniforms. At the same moment, I saw an armed man coming from this jeep. I took little notice of this because I merely thought it was another checkpoint. However, he put a Tommy gun through the open window on my side of the car, and fired point blank at Count Bernadotte and Colonel Serot. I also heard shots fired from other points, and there was considerable confusion… Colonel Serot fell in the seat in back of me, and I saw at once that he was dead. Count Bernadotte bent forward, and I thought at the time he was trying to get cover. I asked him: 'Are you wounded? He nodded, and fell back… When we arrived [at the Hadassah hospital], … I carried the Count inside and laid him on the bed…I took off the Count's jacket and tore away his shirt and undervest. I saw that he was wounded around the heart and that there was also a considerable quantity of blood on his clothes about it. When the doctor arrived, I asked if anything could be done, but he replied that it was too late.”
The following day the United Nations Security Council condemned the killing of Bernadotte as "a cowardly act which appears to have been committed by a criminal group of terrorists in Jerusalem while the United Nations representative was fulfilling his peace-seeking mission in the Holy Land".
Lehi took responsibility for the killings in the name of Hazit Hamoledet (The National Front), a name they copied from a war-time Bulgarian resistance group. The group regarded Bernadotte as a stooge of the British and their Arab allies, and therefore as a serious threat to the emerging state of Israel. Most immediately, a truce was currently in force and Lehi feared that the Israeli leadership would agree to Bernadotte's peace proposals, which they considered disastrous. They did not know that the Israeli leaders had already decided to reject Bernadotte's plans and take the military option.
Lehi was forcibly disarmed and many members were arrested, but nobody was charged with the killings. Yellin-Mor and another Lehi member, Schmuelevich, were charged with belonging to a terrorist organization. They were found guilty but immediately released and pardoned. Yellin-Mor had meanwhile been elected to the first Knesset. Years later, Cohen's role was uncovered by David Ben-Gurion's biographer Michael Bar Zohar, while Cohen was working as Ben-Gurion's personal bodyguard. The first public admission of Lehi's role in the killing was made on the anniversary of the assassination in 1977. The statute of limitations for murder had expired in 1971.
The Swedish government initially believed that Bernadotte had been assassinated by Israeli government agents. They publicly attacked the inadequacy of the Israel investigation and campaigned unsuccessfully to delay Israel's admission to the United Nations. In 1950, Sweden recognized Israel but relations remained frosty despite Israeli attempts to console Sweden such as the planting of a Bernadotte Forest by the JNF in Israel. At a ceremony in Tel-Aviv in May 1995, attended by the Swedish deputy prime minister, Israeli Foreign Minister and Labor Party member Shimon Peres issued a "condemnation of terror, thanks for the rescue of the Jews and regret that Bernadotte was murdered in a terrorist way," adding that "We hope this ceremony will help in healing the wound."
Bernadotte was succeeded in his position as U.N. mediator by his chief aide, the American Ralph Bunche. Bunche was ultimately successful in bringing about the signing of the 1949 Armistice Agreements, for which he would later receive the Nobel Peace Prize.