Review: Last Days of the Reich, by Count Folke Bernadotte

Before he was the United Nations peace envoy to the Middle East during the first Israeli-Arab war, Count Folke Bernadotte played a central role in a bizarre series of meetings with Heinrich Himmler and other leaders of Hitler’s Germany in the final days of the Second World War.

Bernadotte’s mission, in his role as a leader of Swedish Red Cross, was to negotiate the release of Norwegian and Danish prisoners held in German camps. But inevitably, Himmler tried to use him to mediate a deal with General Eisenhower to end the war in the West — and allow German armies to turn their guns on the advancing Soviet armies.

In the end that deal fell through, though Bernadotte’s humanitarian efforts were more successful.

The count came under criticism for his apparent friendliness towards the Nazis, a point addressed by his children in a 2009 foreword to the book. Among others, the noted historian Hugh Trevor-Roper believed Bernadotte to have been anti-Semite. Bernadotte’s book was largely ghost-written, as his children point out, and it is quite evident where Bernadotte’s story ends and where the professional writer begins.

As it is based on his diaries and reports from the spring of 1945, Bernadotte is able to comment favourably on his first meeting with Himmler and describes in some detail his attempts to persuade the Nazi leaders how humanitarian gestures at this time, weeks before the end of the war, would help them, not least in ensuring that the legacy of the Third Reich is not further tarnished. (He actually writes such things in the book.)

Here and there, one finds mentions of how absolutely evil the Nazi regime was, but these feel like additional material added by the ghost writer, and do not come from the original reports.

Three years after the book was written and published, Bernadotte was assassinated in Jerusalem by terrorist from the Stern Gang, who believed — as did many others — that Bernadotte was no friend of the Jewish people.