Folke Bernadotte and the White Busses – Myth and Truth

At the end of the Second World War, a part of the concentration camp prisoners was rescued through various initiatives. They escaped the increasing cruelty, hunger, starvation, chaos and the death marches. The most known action is that of the so-called White Buses. An action led by the Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte.

In the course of time, this successful humanitarian action has been subject to critical review particularly in Sweden and Germany, however Bernadotte’s fame in the Netherlands seems indisputable. Probably, among others, owing to the gratitude of the rescued. Here a quote from a book, that was published in 2020 by Verbum: The story went that the Swedish diplomat Count Bernadotte was present on the spot and drove past the column in a small Fiat and managed to convince the German leader under threats that no more prisoners would be shot. It relates to the statements by Israel Kleerekoper and Maurice Werkendam about the death march from the Sachsenhausen camp between 21 and 26 April 1945. It cannot have been Bernadotte. He drove from Hohenlychen to Friedrichsruh early April 21 and from there to Padborg. The ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) however was active in aid of the prisoners from Sachsenhausen (1).

Bernadotte also appears in the accounts of the women who came to Sweden from the Ravensbrück concentration camp and from Hamburg at the end of April 1945. Bernadotte became the target of their gratitude and they saw him in places where he has not been. Mrs. Liemburg van Egteren describes the arrival of the Red Cross in Ravensbrück: White buses with red crosses, they came to fetch the Dutch women, the 200 remaining of the once approx. 800. One or another Norwegian or Swedish prince came to rescue us. In any case, a group of men who looked at us so beautifully and honestly and who had everything edible with them. Oh, I will never forget that moment. Few Swedes could have been among the men who looked so beautiful and honest. The leader of the convoy that picked up the Dutch women (Hallquist) and his driver (Ringman) were Swedes, and the Swedish doctor Arnoldsson was also present in Ravensbrück those days. However, the majority of the approximately 240 Dutch women were not picked up with the so-called White Buses. They were taken to the Danish border in trucks from the ICRC. The drivers of these trucks were Allied prisoners of war, mostly Americans or Canadians. At the same time, a column of Danish Ambulances with sick people left Ravensbrück for Denmark. The only Bernadotte to have been to Ravensbrück was Maria Bernadotte, the older sister of Folke Bernadotte. She took part in the White Buses campaign as a nurse. The Dutch Jewish women of the Philips Kommando and the Diamant group who came to Sweden from Hamburg also mistakenly saw Bernadotte as their saviour. These women came from satellite camps of Neuengamme. They arrived in Hamburg via Beendorf (near Helmstedt) after a terrible train journey.

For example, a description on the Jewish Monument stated: Hendrika van Polen ultimately survived the Holocaust. She was liberated through the mediation of the head of the Swedish Red Cross, Count Folke Bernadotte, and repatriated from Sweden to the Netherlands in 1945 (source Wikipedia). Bernadotte had nothing to do with the liberation of these women. The approximately 2900 women left Hamburg on 30 April 1945. The last White Buses had left Germany on 28 April and Bernadotte was in Copenhagen on 30 April.

The trains for the transport from Hamburg to the Danish border were organized by Obersturmbannführer Franz Göring (not related to Hermann Göring). Franz Göring was the right hand of the SS General Schellenberg.

Bernadotte was the perfect leader for the White Buses expedition. No doubt about that. He had the authority to lead and to withstand opponents like Himmler. He spoke fluent German and radiated an aura of calmness and confidence. The problem is that at the end of the action he received tribute for  accomplishments, which were not his work. To be fair, he was also in some instances falsely accused. Ignored by Bernadotte, Felix Kersten (Himmler’s masseur) took revenge on Bernadotte with forgeries. The most complete description of the White Buses campaign was published in 2002 as a book entitled “Vi åker till Sverige”. In it, the author Sune Persson pays much attention to defending Bernadotte against criticism from the Danish physician Johannes Holm and the English historian Trevor-Roper.

Johannes Holm wrote the book “Sandheden om de Hvide Busser” (The truth about the White Buses) in 1984. This was a much-needed appraisal of the Danish part in the rescue operation. With some reproaches to the address of Bernadotte. The Danes had been evacuating their prisoners since two months when Bernadotte became active. Though Holm does not seem to have been an example of modesty either. After Bernadotte’s arrival, Holm conducted more or less his own rescue operation with the help of Karl Rennau, an associate of Heinrich Müller, the chief of the Gestapo.

The English historian Trevor Roper already published a book in 1953 entitled “Kersten, Himmler and Count Bernadotte”. Sune Persson sharply criticizes this book in “Vi åker till Sverige”. To the disadvantage of Bernadotte, Trever-Roper had accepted Kersten’s testimony. Thirty years later, the German magazine STERN became the victim of Trever-Roper’s carelessness. Trever-Roper had declared Hitler’s diaries fabricated by Walter Kujau to be 99.5% genuine. Sune Persson’s prejudiced point of view, on the other hand, caused some counter-reactions. In the “Dachauer Hefte” of 2008 appeared a contribution by Izabella A. Dahl entitled “Die weißen Busse und Folke Bernadotte”. Ingrid Lomfors saw the action “White Buses” very critically. Hers is the book “Blind Fläck”. Her criticism of the White Buses campaign takes too little notice of the dilemma in which the campaign found itself. The success of the White Buses campaign is due to people who wanted to rescue and did not strictly adhere to the rules.

A good book was released in 2019: “Handelsresande i liv” (Trading in lives) by Lena Einhorn (2). The subtitle is significant: “About determination and hesitation in the shadow of war”. It is mainly about Gilel Storch, a wealthy Jewish Latvian who fled to Sweden during the Second World War. This man did everything to save Jews. The book gives an interesting picture of other actors in the rescue actions, including Bernadotte. It refers to the book “Slutet” (the last act) by Bernadotte, which was created shortly after the action. Why Bernadotte credits almost everything to himself and writes some untruths. Lena Einhorn sees a connection with the national self-perception. Also the Swedes themselves felt the need to pat themselves on the back. Bernadotte saw himself as the initiator, the negotiator and the executor of the action. However, his actual function only began on 16 February 1945 with his visit to Berlin. Months before, other persons such as the Norwegian, Niels Christian Ditleff and the Danish-Norwegian couple Hammerich had prepared the action. The significance of Bernadotte’s negotiations with Himmler of 16 February and 21 April 1945, is relative. At least with regard to the release of non-Scandinavian prisoners. Shortly before, the Swiss Musy had succeeded in ransoming 1200 Jewish prisoners. Hitler had become furious about this and Himmler could only make vague promises as far as the non-Scandinavian prisoners were concerned. At the second meeting between Himmler and Bernadotte on 21 April 1945, Himmler agreed to the release of further women in Ravensbrück. However, this was more of an act of desperation than the result of negotiations. Himmler knew the game was over. The Russians were in front of Berlin and the men from the nearby Sachsenhausen concentration camp were already marching west.

In fact, the same also applies to the actual liberation of the Norwegians and Danes who gathered in the Neuengamme concentration camp. They were also first let out of the gate when the British force was approaching. Bernadotte had received orders from Sweden to collect the Norwegians and Danes in Neuengamme and to take them from there to Sweden. The collection in Neuengamme was allowed, but the Germans had refused Bernadotte the release from Neuengamme.

In the story of the White Buses, apart from the Danes and the Norwegians, the ICRC and the Swedish government also fall short. The International Red Cross became active for the concentration camp prisoners late. However, they had already achieved something before Bernadotte entered the scene. The ICRC reported 14 April, a week before Bernadotte’s second meeting with Himmler, that the Germans were “accessible” about an evacuation of prisoners from the concentration camps (3). On 20 April, the Swedish government informs the ICRC to accept to receive an unlimited number of prisoners (4). This was the breakthrough that saved hundreds of lives. The ICRC then wanted to take the prisoners to Sweden by ship across the Baltic Sea, but it was too late for that (5). Although the ICRC provided a number of trucks, the command of the evacuation from Ravensbrück to Sweden fell primarily to the White Buses action.

However, the largest number of women who came to Sweden shortly before the end of the war owe their rescue to an SS man. The aforementioned Franz Göring organized two train transports. On 25 April, nearly 4000 women were able to leave Ravensbrück and April 30 about 2900 women were evacuated from Hamburg. The question is whether Bernadotte was still aware of this. On 25 April and 26, 1945, a number of women and a Swedish driver were killed in air raids on their way to Sweden. Bernadotte then saw the action as closed (6). According to the aforementioned Lena Einhorn, the large-scale humanitarian commitment of the Swedes was, among other things, a response to the pressure exerted by the Allies on Sweden to give up their neutrality and join the war against Germany. The Swedish government was more concerned about their reputation abroad than the success of Bernadotte. After the end of the war, Sweden took in thousands more from the concentration camps. With the support of the USA and the UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) but nevertheless a great achievement. Count Bernadotte a great personality who tragically died way too soon but overrated in terms of the rescue operation. His attitude towards the Jewish prisoners is judged differently. Lena Einhorn found evidence that clears Bernadotte of a disinterest for Jewish prisoners. He followed the line of his government. On 27 March 1945, the Swedish government gave him the following priority (7): Scandinavian first, then non-Scandinavian, primarily French women. Finally, if the opportunity arises and does not cause difficulties, Jews. That was the position at the end of March. Four weeks later things looked much better.

The fact that many Jewish women nevertheless came to Sweden, even before the end of the war, is due in particular to Gilel Storch, Norbert Masur, Felix Kersten, Walter Schellenberg, Franz Göring and a coincidence. Hitler did not stand the thought; the Russians would liberate Polish women in Ravensbrück. Schellenberg and Göring took advantage of this declaring as many Jewish women as possible as Polish. The final practice of the priorities, as to who was and who was not taken to Sweden is a separate story.

The text of this page appeared as an article in the November 2022 edition of the Bulletin of the “Stichting Vriendenkring Neuengamme”, entitled “Folke Bernadotte en de Witte Bussen – Mythe en Waarheid” 


(1) „Dokumentation über die Tätigkeit des Internationalen Komitees vom Roten Kreuz zugunsten der in den deutschen Konzentrationslagern inhaftierten Zivilpersonen“, page 104 and according „Das Internationale Rote Kreuz und das Dritte Reich“, page. 502 went Willy Pfister of the IRC with food parcels to Sachsenhausen and accompanied the Death march till the arrival of the Americans.

(2) Appeared already in 1998 as a TV Broadcast

(3) G 44/R DTCm 3343

(4) G 44/R DTCm 3383

(5) After the war, the same ships did bring many survivors from, among others, Bergen-Belsen to Sweden.

(6) Graf Bernadotte….teilte mir mit, … Ungefähr 12.000 bis 15.000 Frauen werden zurückbleiben [Ravensbrück], da für sie eine Evakuation wegen Mangel an Transportmitteln unmöglich scheint. Das… [ICRC] in Lübeck hilft bei der Evakuation mit 15 Caminions (Schreiben von B.H.Wahlter, Delegierter des (schweizer) Bundesrat für Int. Hilfswerke vom 27.4.45. Archiv ICRC G44/R-219.03

(7) PM, 27 march 1945. UD 1920 års HP1619, Riksarkivet (from „Handelsresande i liv”)