Finland and Germany in WW II: Brothers in arms - and partners in crime?
By Ilkka Ahtiainen
It was an amazing discovery. Researcher Oula Silvennoinen recognised this immediately one spring day in 2006 as he was going through files at the Finnish National Archives in the centre of Helsinki.
Silvennoinen, who was researching wartime killings, had long wanted to go through a certain series of documents. The documents were those of the State Police (VALPO) - Finland’s secret police during the war.
“Almost the first document that I saw was a small, innocent receipt. It indicated that a Finnish interpreter had returned some property of the Defence Forces after completing his service with a unit called Einsatzkommando der Sicherheitspolizei”, Silvennoinen says.
The words have a familiar ring from the history of the Second World War. The ring is very sinister, calling to mind the darkest and grimmest side of Nazi Germany.
After the Nazis took power in Germany, the Sicherheitspolizei which the infamous Gestapo was a part of, operated with virtually unlimited authority at first in Germany, which had become a police state, and later in occupied areas. It was a political police force which investigated terrorised, and passed judgment on opponents of those in power.
The Einsatzkommandos were special units, who specialised in dirty work. These military police organised and implemented mass murders, whose victims were chosen primarily on the basis of political and ethnic criteria. In their hands, communists, partisans, and Jews were in serious jeopardy.
No such Einsatzkommandos were supposed to exist in Finland, even though it is known that Finland attacked the Soviet Union alongside Germany in the summer of 1941. The entire northern front line from Kainuu to the Arctic Ocean was the responsibility of German forces.
“According to historian Mauno Jokipii, the military cooperation between Germany and Finland in the north of Finland and Norway was ‘as clean as warfare can be’. Was this the case, or are there features in that warfare that make it necessary to re-examine perceptions of relations between Finland and Hitler’s Germany?” Silvennoinen writes in the foreword of his doctoral thesis.
Silvennoinen means no disrespect toward the deceased Jokipii, the author of a study, which has been considered a basic work of reference on how the Continuation War between Finland and the Soviet Union began, and Finnish-German military cooperation.
“The beginning of the Continuation War ends with the summer of 1941. Still on June 10th, the German army in Norway gave an order that all prisoners of war taken in the north should be handed over to the Finns. Based on what Jokipii wrote, he believed that this is what happened.”
This is not what happened. something made the Germans change their plans, and it was decided in Berlin that German POW camps should be set up in the northern part of the eastern front, as was done in other theatres of the war.
Two such camps were set up: Stammlager (Stalag) 309 in Salla, in an area that is now part of Russia, and Stalag 322 in Elvenes in occupied Norway.
The same rules applied at these camps that were in force in other sectors of the Eastern Front. The task of the Kommandos of the Security Police was to use interrogations and networks of informers to pinpoint the politically significant figures among the prisoners: civil servants of the Soviet State, members of the Intelligentsia, Communist Party members, and so on.
Jews were mentioned as a separate group, according to the racial doctrines of the Nazis.
The categorising of the prisoners had little significance as far as their fate was concerned. According to written instructions, all except those with some intelligence value were to be executed.
As a historian, Silvennoinen was aware of such practices.
It is precisely for this reason that a small, innocent receipt on the return of clothing supplies with a mention of the Einsatzkommandos startled Silvennoinen, as it linked Finland more closely than any previous find in an archive to the most inhumane aspects of German warfare.
“Until then I had only found strange notations without any explanation of what kind of cooperation took place.
When Silvennoinen went on to dig deeper, the overall picture began to take shape. He found information about a group of 12 Finns who were sent by the State Police to the north of Finland and placed at the disposal of the Einsatzkommando. It required interpreters and interrogators, and according to Nazi practice, the interrogators also had the power to impose sentences.
One of the interrogators was Veikko Heinonen. His situation report from the end of June, 1941, was perhaps the most important single document for Silvennoinen, as he sought to find out what the cooperation had really involved.
Heinonen’s survey deals with the number of prisoners at the Salla prison camp - Stalag 309.
“In the ‘pen’ for dangerous criminals (the camp for Jews and the political figures) there is usually very little talking, but in the last few days it has been completely silent. (A certain Wolkoff left for an unknown destination). The same goes for the camp for lower-ranking officers, who number 89, because three prisoners were taken out of there. In the big camp, prisoners have generally been content, because there it is possible to take ‘second helpings’ of food from time to time”, Heinonen wrote.
Heinonen would seem to have been a man of many words, as he put more information into his reports than was customary: “There are currently two candidates for liquidation in the lower officers’ camp, and one in the political camp. Their fate is already clear, and a final solution is expected in the coming days.”
The report was read in Helsinki by Aarne Rinne, chief of the VALPO investigation office, who felt compelled to write on the edge of the report: “No point in putting things like this on paper!”
Silvennoinen’s findings strike a blow at one of the most closely guarded articles of doctrine of recent Finnish history, known as the “separate war”. The aim of this thesis has been to maintain that in the Second World War Finland was engaged in its own fight, and was not involveed in the ideological war of destruction of its National Socialist brothers in arms.
Although a few postwar studies have questioned this image, it remains a so-called official truth: “For us the war meant a separate war against the Soviet Union, and we did not end up with a debt of gratitude toward others”, said President Tarja Halonen three years ago in a lecture she gave on Finland’s policy toward Europe in Paris.
So does the image of the nature of Finland’s cooperation with Hitler’s Germany need to be re-examined, as Silvennoinen urges at the opening of his thesis?
“The study is undoubtedly scientifically noteworthy, but even greater is its significance in the history of politics”, says Seppo Hentilä, Professor of Political History at the University of Helsinki. Hentilä knows only what has been reported in public about Silvennoinen’s work, but on their basis he is ready to say that the study is “a new nail in the coffin of the thesis of a separate war”.
“Or a bit more precisely: Silvennoinen’s results are startling, because they break the historical myth that has been created about our wars.”
The myth of a separate war has been a resilient one, and it has also been accepted in postwar Germany. For instance, in a few permanent exhibitions of wartime history in Berlin, the separate nature of Finland’s fight is mentioned.
“I would not necessarily have assumed that an Einsatzkommando would have operated in Northern Finland. It would have been possible for Finnish officials not to have tolerated something like that”, says Bernd Wegner professor of war history in Hamburg. He is one of the few German researchers to know the phases of Finnish and German wartime cooperation well.
But what got Finnish officials to tolerate the cruel practices of the Nazi dictatorship?
Bernd Wegner feels that the historical background needs to be kept in mind.
First of all, an ideological fight, fascism vs. communism, was raging in Europe already before anyone took up arms.
“For a large part of Europe’s bourgeoisie, communism was long a much greater abomination than national socialism. The fight against communism justified almost any means possible. This anti-communism included significant potential for violence, even in democratic cultures.”
The recently-independent Finland, nestled next to the Soviet Union, was desperately seeking security from the West, from the Nordic Countries, and as other options evaporated after the Winter War, from Nazi Germany. According to Wegner, this could not have taken place without consequences.
“A small democracy cannot work together with an administration that is criminal to its core without losing its ‘innocence’”, Wegner says.
However, he adds: “War crimes are not the exclusive right of totalitarian dictatorships. Even in a democracy, cultures are not safe, if the foundation of the rule of law is shaken. This is demonstrated by Finland’s example then, and the example of the United States now.”
Silvennoinen also raises individual and ideological factors in connection with the Nazi contacts of the State Police. Many right-wingers sought jobs with VALPO. The wartime head of VALPO, Arno Anthoni was notorious for his anti-Semitic views.
Almost horrifying was Anthoni’s’ account of a meeting in Helsinki in late June 1941. He was having lunch at the Kämppi Hotel together with VALPO second-in-command Bruno Aaltonen and the German Gustav vom Felde, who was responsible for the Einsatzkommando Finnland.
“At this time A[altonen] stepped out to speak with Social Affairs Minister Fagerholm who was sitting in the restaurant at the same time. Upon returning from talking with Minister Fagerholm, A[altonen] told vom Felde that the person with whom he had just spoken, was our Minister of Social Affairs, who was a Social Democrat, whose right place would be a concentration camp.”
The name of Silvennoinen’s thesis, which was reviewed on Saturday at the University of Helsinki is Salaiset aseveljet (“Secret Brothers in Arms”). The name alludes to the fact that the circle of people who had certain knowledge of the details of police cooperation was quite small.
On the other hand, Finland did not try very hard to hide its cooperation with the Gestapo in all possible ways. The VALPO people worked in close physical proximity to with the other local officials of the state.
Significant in the cooperation was its special semi-official character, where permits were not requested, and therefore were not granted. VALPO and its representatives in the north operated under exceptional authority, under German rules, and Helping the Germans.
Therefore, the book raises the question: who knew what? How far did responsibility for obvious war crimes extend?
According to Silvennoinen, there is reason to believe that VALPO would not have taken action without some kind of approval from the Ministry of the Interior. In the critical years, the post of Minister of the Interior was held by two people: Ernst von Born of the Swedish People’s Party, and by Toivo Horelli of the National Coalition Party.
There is no reliable estimate of the number of prisoners executed by Einsatzkommando Finnland.
“It is not even known how many prisoners of war were taken by the Germans in the north. A rough estimate is between 8,000 and 9,000, but a different matter is how many of them were classified as communists or Jews”, Silvennoinen says.
It is known that a handful of VALPO men working with the Einsatzkommando Finnland took part in executions of prisoners, at least in connection with escape attempts. it is equally clear that most of the dirty work was done by the German military police of the Einsatzkommando, who wore green uniforms.
Still, murders numbering in at least the thousands have been left on the conscience of the Finns.
As Silvennoinen’s study concentrates on cooperation among security police, it barely touches upon the fact that the control section of Military Headquarters - that is, Finland’s military leadership, for all practical purposes, allowed 520 Soviet prisoners suspected of being communists, to be handed over to the Einsatzkommando Finnland in the north.
It is unlikely that any of them survived, because the communist label, which was sufficient grounds for liquidation, had been placed on them by the Finns.
Silvennoinen points out that Military Headquarters had a more direct link with Finland’s political decision makers than the State Police had. The military leadership of Headquarters was represented in the national government.
The contacts between Military Headquarters and Einsatzkommando Finnland would be a worthy subject of a separate study.
“The investigation can be difficult, as the material of the control section was destroyed completely, for all practical purposes, at the end of the war. But as we have seen many times, when you start digging, you never know what you might find.”
Silvnnoinen’s work has a happy ending of sorts.
Police cooperation between Finland and Germany began to wither away when the German offensive in the north slowed down. No prisoners were taken to select and process. At the beginning of 1942 only one VALPO man was working for the Einsatzkommando, and by the end of the year the whole unit was closed down.
The reversal of German military fortunes in Stalingrad in the early winter of 1943 showed that democratic control over VALPO had not completely been lost.
When it was understood in Finland that Germany would not win the war, a new government was put in place. Soon after that, the pro-German leaders of VALPO were replaced.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 28.9.2008
Oula Silvennoinen’s thesis is part of a research project started by the Prime Minister’s office on the extent that prisoners held by Finland were handed over to Germany. The study was sparked by a study by Elina Sana dating back to 2003, on the expulsion of Jewish prisoners to Germany.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Wartime refugees made pawns in cruel diplomatic game (11.11.2003)
Book on Finland´s wartime deportations generates considerable interest abroad (11.11.2003)
More than just eight deportations to Nazi Germany (4.11.2003)
ILKKA AHTIAINEN / Helsingin Sanomat