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Too awful an image of war

Sixty years on, there are no grounds to withhold images kept in a Finnish Defence Forces' safe

Too awful an image of war
Too awful an image of war
Too awful an image of war
Too awful an image of war
Too awful an image of war
Too awful an image of war
Too awful an image of war
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By Anna-Stina Nykänen
      The first envelope contains pictures of a village in Finnish Lapland that was destroyed by Soviet partisans who crossed the border.
      The half-naked bodies of Finnish women and children lie strewn on the ground, their corpses partly decomposed. The body of a fair-haired boy of around five years of age is lifted onto the flat bed of a truck. A Finnish soldier holds the burnt and blackened corpse of an infant in his arms.
      Another envelope reveals images of cannibalism. Russian troops, surrounded by Finns and with no hope of relief, have started to eat their dead. A third envelope contains graphic images of executions. A Russian infiltrator, caught behind the Finnish lines, laughs and smiles at the camera as a Finnish officer raises a pistol to despatch him.
The dull-looking cardboard box that contains these envelopes is full of horrific images from the Winter War (1939-40) and the Continuation War (1941-44). The box has been stored along with numerous plastic folders in a tall safe at the Finnish Defence Forces picture archives, in the Santahamina garrison in Helsinki.
      Not all the photographs are particularly grisly, but they have been withheld from public view for political reasons. Others have been consigned to the "classified" box and the safe out of respect for the feelings of the relatives of those shown, who have requested the pictures be kept out of the public eye.
      There are around 300 images in the box. With them is the document detailing the FDF decision to withhold the images. That decision, dating most recently from 1981, expires today, Sunday November 19th.
Until now, the withholding of the war images has been justified in the Defence Forces' documents with the simple observation that the pictures are not suitable for use.
      "Suitable is the word that has been used in the decisions - whatever it is supposed to mean", says Ossi Kervinen, Director of Communications at the FDF General Staff.
Thus far, only historians and researchers have been granted limited access to the pictures. They have not been made available to private individuals or for publication, save in certain carefully considered exceptional cases. When the 25-year validity of the banning order from November 1981 has now run its course, it has been deemed that there is no longer any justification for keeping the pictures a secret.
      "Under the terms of the 1999 Act on the Openness of Government Activities [Julkisuuslaki in Finnish], they can in any event no longer be kept classified, and there are no longer any grounds for it", says Kervinen.
      No decision has been reached as yet on moving the images, but a move is being considered at some stage to the Military Archives. The present location of Santahamina is a military area, and is off-limits to anyone without a special permit.
The accompanying FDF documents do not throw up any more extensive justification for the decision to keep the pictures from the public gaze.
      Something can nevertheless be gleaned from the fact that in a decision made in 1962 during the Cold War, the first photographs put on the classified-items list were of Russian prisoners of war. It was not thought overly smart to annoy the Soviet Union. The same running order is found in the 1981 decision.
      Within the Finnish Defence Forces, some have speculated that the publication of images of POWs and captured spies may also have been frowned on because of the potential propaganda weapon it would have offered to pro-Soviet elements within Finnish society.
      When Helsingin Sanomat wrote about the locked-up pictures in 1998, the then Head of the FDF Picture Archives Lt. Col. Juha Myyryläinen described the 1981 decision as political. He said candidly that the statute reflected the Finnlandisierung era. Even so, that decision has remained in force until today.
In practice, however, use of the photographs became slightly easier after the collapse of the USSR in the 1990s.
      "The decision began to unravel when the world around us changed and Finland's foreign policy changed with it", says Myyryläinen, now retired from active service. He headed the Picture Archives at Santahamina until 1999.
      During the Finlandisation period, pictures of Soviet prisoners of war were not published if the individuals shown were recognisable, says Myyryläinen. "There were no other grounds for this than the political reason."
      Myyryläinen goes on to say that all parties were more cautious than they probably would have had any need to be. "The journalists, too, they played it safe."
      In the 1990s, the pictures of POWs were moved - without any great fanfare - from the safe to the public side of the military picture archives.
While Juha Myyryläinen was still in charge, some pictures of the actions of Russian partisans were also released into the public domain.
      Two historians were granted permission to use a few photographs in works dealing with villages that had been laid waste by cross-border partisan raids and with the Finnish civilian casualties that resulted from such raids - a good many civilians were massacred during these attacks.
      "After that, the pictures were more or less up for grabs", says Myyryläinen. They spread from the pages of the books to journalists. But they were not given directly to the media.
      Myyryläinen notes that at the time the publication of the partisan photos was politically quite a hot topic. He says that the decision was criticised within the FDF. During the war, the authorities had even gone so far as to order those who knew of the destruction of the Finnish villages to keep silent on the matter.
The envelopes in the safe contain dozens of these images, for example from the razed villages of Lokka and Seitajärvi in Finnish Lapland.
      In recent years access has been granted where requested to the relatives of some of the Finnish civilian victims. In many of the pictures the victims are identifiable, and on the backs of some of the photographs the names and ages of the dead have been pencilled in.
The relatives have had a personal need to see the gruesome images. But they are also important to others.
      The pictures are a part of the secret history of Finland and the Finns.
      They contain the seeds of a special kind of trauma associated with their enforced secrecy. Speaking of the mass killings of Finnish civilians by enemy forces has been forbidden, and the subject is not easy to grasp or to deal with - neither the facts of what happened nor the cover-up that followed.
Images of murdered civilians laid out on the grass and of bodies heaped on the back of trucks bring to mind the pictures seen in the media of mass killings of civilians in trouble-spots around the world.
      From these partisan pictures it is possible to see that Finland has not been immune: these things really happened here sixty years ago.
      During the Vietnam War, one image in particular became famous around the globe - a screaming 9-year-old girl running burned and naked down a highway, fleeing her napalmed village.
      It would feel bad to publish a similar picture of a Finnish child from which he or she could be recognised.
Pictures of courts-martial in the field and of executions also exist. Images of judgements carried out on Finnish soldiers have been transferred into the closed files in order not to cause further distress to relatives.
      The sequences of pictures of the executions of Russian infiltrators, dropped into Finland to spy and cause sabotage, tell us something of the insanity of war.
      One set, marked as "Hanko Sector 1941" sees a group of Finnish soldiers having a cigarette with a captured Russian spy.
      The mood looks relaxed, even cordial: the men appear to be sharing a joke. On the back of the photo is the hand-written text: Finnish officers chatting with a Russian infiltrator. He is laughing at the ‘condemned man's last request'.
      In the next image the man is standing at the side of a mown hayfield, facing a firing squad of half a dozen men with rifles, and in a third - marked Infiltrator's death-sentence - his body is shown slumped on the ground.
The safe in Santahamina also contains images of courts-martial at the front in which the condemned individuals are not shown.
      The relatives of some of the officers involved in the trials have requested that the pictures not be made public. Disclosure would show that a member of the family had been deciding on executions during the war. The Finnish Defence Forces have acceded to these requests, even though the court hearings are legally in the public domain and the names of those sitting in judgement can be found from public documents and archives.
      Approaches from relatives have arrived over the years, right up to the present-day. Among the images there is a decision dating from 2005 by which the pictures of one member of a field court-martial tribunal were transferred here at the request of his family. Those images, too, will now become public.
Applying the perspective of the present, it is perhaps easiest to comprehend that the most brutal and hideous war pictures were not considered a suitable case for public perusal. Among the pictures stored away there are graphic shots of exploded bellies, piles of corpses, and skulls.
      Images in which the features of men who have met a terrible end are recognisable have been placed out of sight.
      From a purely human viewpoint, the most ghastly evidence of the reality of war comes in the images that allegedly demonstrate cannibalism among the Russian soldiers. On the back of one photograph is a description of events that took place in January 1942, near Krivi, on the Maaselkä Isthmus in Russian Karelia*:
      During the battles that have gone on there was evidence that the Russian soldiers had cut up the flesh of their fallen comrades and had carried it with them in their packs as they retreated, before the Finnish troops wiped out their unit on 13.1.1942. Human flesh was found from the packs of three fallen Russian soldiers.
Numerous similar cases are to be found from just this one box of photographs.
      The former head of the picture archives Juha Myyryläinen says that the pictures of cannibalism have been kept secret for the simple reason that nobody wanted them to be an object of sensationalism.
      "Why should images showing Russian eating of human flesh be shown? No healthy person can get any benefit from such pictures. I have heard the personal accounts of front-line veterans on how it felt to come upon the body of a superior or a fellow soldier and to discover that the victim's corpse had been eaten in part by the enemy. The reactions were terrible. One can only imagine what they would be like if such pictures were brought to the breakfast table today", says Myyryläinen.
The media representatives will now have to decide for themselves what is suitable, ethically decent, and what crosses the threshold of publication.
      These days, brutal images of wars are shown in the press or on TV, and even worse material can be found by those who troll the Internet for such things. Where is the line drawn? How ugly are the images of Finnish experiences of war that may be shown?
      The bulk of the images in the safe in Santahamina are shots taken by the Defence Forces' own official battlefield photographers. The content of these was monitored carefully. These days that kind of censorship would never succeed.
      Then again, the official photographers took plenty of film of things less "official", out of sight and mind of the censors. Their own personal war picture portfolios have done the rounds of the provinces, and pictures have also wound up in the Military Museum after donations and legacies.
      Others, too, had a camera with them in the field, and the licence to take pictures of what they saw. Still others simply pressed the shutter without any permits at all.
      Without doubt there are shocking images of the war to be found in countless Finnish chests and dressers, that have been clandestinely peeked at until now. It may be that this latest move allows these other pictures to be handled more openly.
It is hardly likely that the pictures hidden away in the cardboard box will change our perceptions of the course of events sixty years ago: the things that took place in these images are well-known and documented by the experts.
      On the other hand, the photographs may alter the image the public has about warfare.
      "To the younger generation, this is new information. To those who perhaps only know of the great narrative of the war delivered by such as the late General Adolf Ehrnrooth. For them, it is important to see that there is more to war than heroism. To those who went through the fighting themselves, this is hardly news", says Seppo Hentilä, Professor of Social History at the University of Helsinki.
      In Hentilä's opinion, the picture material has been sensitive in the post-war period, and keeping it from the public gaze has been justified on foreign policy grounds. He is actually a little astonished to learn that the images and negatives have not been destroyed outright, but that someone has had the daring to preserve them for posterity. A great deal of wartime material was either disposed of or transferred elsewhere, for example to Sweden.
Seppo Hentilä does not believe that it would have been feasible to release the images back in 1981, the last time when they were sealed up. Or alternatively, if they had been made available twenty-five years ago, the self-censorship that prevailed then would have ensured that they were not used: there was still a strong sense of trepidation about Soviet sensibilities and reactions.
      Hentilä sees the publication of such pictures as one of the many taboos associated with the two wars, taboos that have only recently begun to be dismantled. He thinks at the same time that the veterans themselves may not necessarily be overjoyed at the raking up of old and unpleasant memories.
      "They often personally take the view that such things should be left to rest", says Hentilä.
      And yet the new information contained in these shocking, graphic pictures may prompt a new kind of empathy, to go alongside the gratitude of subsequent generations.
      These images may be able to help us understand why old men - who went through the war in their youth - wake up screaming at nights.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 19.11.2006
*Note: This is not the same isthmus as that between the south-eastern border of Finland and St. Petersburg, but a location several hundred kilometres further north and deep into Russia, beyond the pre-war borders of Finland. During the early part of the Continuation War, Finnish troops rapidly advanced eastward across a broad front, reaching the western shores of Lake Onega and taking the city of Petrozavodsk. East Karelia was then under Finnish rule. Maaselkä is located north of Lake Onega, roughly on the same latitude as Lieksa in modern Finland.  Rukajärvi, the location of the first photograph shown with this article, was still further north, roughly level with the Finnish town of Kuhmo.

More on this subject:
 The responsibility shifts to the media

  The Winter War (Wikipedia)
  The Continuation War (Wikipedia)

ANNA-STINA NYKÄNEN / Helsingin Sanomat

  21.11.2006 - THIS WEEK
 Too awful an image of war

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