If Hitler had still been alive this, none of them would have lived.
The year is 1944, the war in Europe has reached its final act. The Allies, invigorated by the entry of US forces have begun to push deeper and deeper into Germany – mounting their flags on Berlin was the prize. Hitler’s forces were getting desperate. His battle-hardened soldiers were decreasing in number and every extra body, from old men to young boys was being thrown at the advancing Allies, in a last ditch attempt to delay the seemingly inevitable.
In the years prior as Europe raged in the infernos of war and Hitler’s almost unstoppable military conquered where it went, tightening Hitler’s death-grip on the continent millions of people were put in concentration camps all over for nefarious purposes. Norway and Denmark were invaded by Nazi Germany in April 1940. Immediately upon declaring their victory, the Nazi began a reign of terror that would start with the imprisonment of resistance fighters and political threats in concentration camps deep in the heart of Germany. Finland had become a co-belligerent to the Germans in resisting Soviet invasion (a process considered remembered as vital to securing Finnish independence). Sweden, locked in the middle, had been politically neutral for a hundred years and continued its neutral policy – which required very deft diplomatic maneuvering.
Though it was officially ‘neutral’, there definition was theoretically flexible and the country had consistently bend that the definition to favour both sides of the war according to the needs of the time, notably during the Midsummer Crisis when the Swedish government had to make cold hard calculations to allow the Nazis passage from Norway to Finland to fight against the Soviets. Then there was, the breaking of the almost impregnable Geheimfernschreiber code, by Swedish cryptographers with information that was secretly shared with the Allies during the war.
Sweden’s position as a neutral party kept it in a state of tense security throughout the war, but it also allowed Sweden to play a central role in a highly risky safety job. As the Allies came bearing down on Germany and assassination, it became apparent that there was a huge risk that many prisoners would be put down, like animals because a desperate retreating force would see them as a drain on resources and a threat of insurrection. Foreseeing the risk, the Danish and Norwegian governments in exile began planning for ways to get as many of their citizens out of these concentration camps.
The Norwegian diplomat Niels Christian Ditleff who was based in Stockholm began lobbying the Swedish government to try to save as many Scandinavian prisoners as possible and coordinated his plans with the Danish Naval Admiral Carl Hammerich.
Back in Oslo, a similar plan was pushed by the Norwegian anti-Nazi lawyer Johan Bernhard Hjort was hatched to involve the neutral Swedes. Writing in a memo, Hjort advised, “It is therefore strongly suggested that the Norwegian government considers the possibility that the Swedish government could be induced to intervene to help at least the Norwegian and Danish civil prisoners in Germany, including those in prisons, with the aim of transporting them to Sweden, where they if feasible may stay until the war has ended.”
However the plan was not met with approval by the Norwegian government. The fiercely independent Norwegian government had no desire to give credit to the Swedes after the war, the very country they gained independence from, for saving their own citizens. To the credit of these individuals, especially Ditleff, they ignored the Norwegian governments protestations and continued to speak to Swedish notables while influencing his countrymen (they eventually came around).
The person he chose to speak to in Stockholm was Folke Bernadotte, the head of the Swedish Red Cross and a member of the Swedish Royal Family. Who took favourably to the proposal and launched negotiations with the then leader of the Third Reich Heinrich Himmler.
The programme was called the white busses after the buses which were painted white with a large Swedish flag and the name Sweden in Swedish and German, to keep everyone in the convey safe.
Tough negotiations even led to Himmler allow all Scandinavians (which he estimated at 2 or 3 thousand, while Bernadotte said numbered close to 13,000) to be put in a single camp with support from the Swedish Red Cross. The prisoners were kept all around Europe and so the vehicles had to go all around Europe to collect prisoners.
But the Nazis had a new demand, for space to be made for the Scandinavians all other nationalities had to be moved to other camps, and the White buses had to do it, there wasn’t much of a choice, the white buses now had to do the bidding of the Nazis. Through this all, the Swedes were only allowed to transport people and not go into the camp.
The White Busses and officers invovled in the operation (Source)
It took two weeks before the Swedes were allowed into the Neuengamme concentration camp, in the northern German state of Hamburg, where the Scandinavian prisoners were rehoused. It was by then end March 1945. The Soviets were closing in on Berlin and the transport through Germany was increasingly deadly. The bombs did not come from the Germans though, but the Soviets, who were blockading roads and bombing German cities. As things got serious, Bernadotte again approached Himmler to negotiate an evacuation of all sick prisoners regardless of nationality. He was finally given approval and the officers swung into action. From Hamburg and the rest of the German Reich, people were driven in this buses before being sent to Malmö, the nearest Swedish city where they would be safe.
Malmö opened up its doors, a reminder of which can still be seen today at the former citadel the Malmöhus.
300 people, 36 ambulances, 19 trucks, 7 cars and 7 motorcycles, saved 21,000 lives.
These people stayed in Malmö for slightly over a month, on 7th May 1945 Germany officially surrendered.
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