As we mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we are taking a look at a less known royal who helped save thousands during World War II – including hundreds of Danish Jews from concentration camps – Count Folke Bernadotte.
Folke Bernadotte (b. 1895) was the son of Prince Oscar and Princess Ebba of Sweden and the grandson of King Oscar II and Queen Sofia of Sweden.
When World War Two began, Folke worked to integrate the Boy Scouts into the Swedish defence plan. He had been the director of the Swedish Boy Scouts since 1937, and as the war broke out, he had the boys trained in anti-aircraft work and how to be medical assistants.
It was during this war that the Count showed his true colours – by helping save thousands from the Nazis.
During 1943 and 1944, he helped secure prisoner exchanges where 11,000 prisoners were brought home from Germany via Sweden. He also worked with the Red Cross, leading several rescue missions in Germany.
He met Heinrich Himmler, who asked him to pass along a peace proposal where Germany would surrender to the US and UK but not the Soviet Union. This proposal was not known to Adolph Hitler. The Count told him that it wouldn’t work, but he did pass the message along to the Allies and Swedish government.
In the final months of the war, Count Bernadotte was the negotiator for the rescue operation that saw thousands of inmates in German concentration camps brought to hospitals in Sweden. Svenska Dagbladet reported later that around 15,000 were rescued in the two-month mission; 8000 of them were Danes and Norwegians while the other 7,000 were French, Polish, American, Czech, British, Chinese and Argentinian. They were women who came from the female concentration camp Ravensbrück north of Berlin.
In the final weeks, over 6,000 women were gassed in Ravensbrück, while others were shot, sent on death marches or starved. They were both Jewish and non-Jewish. Some had been imprisoned elsewhere, like Auschwitz, before being transferred to Ravensbrück during the war.
Members of the Red Cross risked their lives to go on the dangerous rescue mission through areas where Allies were bombing to help the prisoners (they travelled in white buses with the distinct red cross so that they would not be confused for military targets). They were taken to Denmark and then on to Sweden.
Even after Germany surrendered, the Count helped rescue around 10,000 more from concentration camps. Newsweek reported that 7,000 women were rescued from Ravensbrück while up to 14,000 prisoners (different genders, religions and nationalities) from other concentration camps were also saved.
Count Folke Bernadotte was later named “United Nations Mediator in Palestine” in May 1948 as part of the first official mediation in UN history. He helped secure a truce in the Arab-Israeli War and submitted two proposals to attempt to sort the Israel/Palestine conflict. Just a few months later, in September, the Count was assassinated by armed members of the Lehi (a Jewish Zionist group). The UN condemned the killing, and the Lehi group initially denied responsibility. They later admitted to the assassination saying he was a puppet of America and the Arabs and a serious threat to what was the emerging state of Israel.
He is buried in Prince Oscar Bernadotte’s family tomb at the Northern Cemetery in Stockholm.
Count Folke Bernadotte was married to American Estelle Romaine Manville with whom he had four sons.