Finland, though allied with Germany during the war, never handed over its Jews. The government has been commendable in its reaction to reports that Finnish SS volunteers took part in Holocaust killings.
No Finnish Jews died in the Holocaust, though 61 did die in combat fighting in the Finnish
Army, often alongside German soldiers. Finnish authorities handed another 12 Central
European refugees to the Gestapo in Estonia and 49 Jewish Soviet Prisoners of War over to
the Nazis. The questions in Finnish memory of the Holocaust are not about the fate of Finnish Jews, but rather about Finland’s treatment of refugees and prisoners of war and the actions of Finnish Nazi sympathisers during the war.
Finland has been strong in recent years about confronting its marginal role in the Holocaust. Before, the national narrative centered on Finland’s defiance of the Soviet Union in the Winter and Continuation Wars (1939-1944), with its treatment of Jews mentioned only to emphasise the exceptional irony of some Finnish Jewish soldiers receiving Nazi war crosses.
Confronted with evidence of Finnish complicity in Nazi crimes, such as mistreatment of POWs, the transfer of Soviet Jews to German security forces, and the potential war crimes of Finnish members of the SS Viking division in the Ukraine, the Finnish government convened a commission of respected scholars to study the topic and produce a comprehensive report, which was then shared with the public.
The Holocaust in Finland
Jews first came to Finland as soldiers in the Russian empire. After a 25-year term of service, the Czar allowed them to settle anywhere in the Russian empire without restriction. These soldiers generally settled down in trades such as selling second-hand clothes, achieving a certain level of prosperity. They never reached the levels of prominence and prosperity that Jews did elsewhere in Europe. Anti-Semitism was relegated to the fringes.
World War II in Finland took place in three stages, each considered a war of its own. First, there was the Winter War (1939-40), where the Finns fought off a Soviet invasion. During the Continuation War (1941-44), Finland allied with Nazi Germany to fight the Soviets. In the Lapland War (1944-45), Finns fought the Germans.
The alliance with the Germans, combined with the fact that no Finnish Jews died during the Holocaust, has become another symbol of the resilience of the nation in the national myth, showcasing the willingness of Finland to defy a great power to protect its own people. In a famous, and oft-repeated, moment, a Jewish synagogue tent operated in close proximity to Nazi lines.
But even as Finland fought the Soviets, it wrestled with the problems presented by Jewish
refugees fleeing Nazi conquest. Jewish refugees in Finland faced either emigration to Sweden or an unregistered, unemployed existence in Finland. Close collaboration between the Finnish Security Police and the Gestapo, as well as the presence of German forces added to the tension.
Another chapter in Finland’s Holocaust involvement played out far away from home, in Belarus and Ukraine. Finnish SS volunteers in the SS Wiking division fought alongside known war criminals and may have committed war crimes themselves. This chapter is contentious and is being studied by an independent commission.
- 1945-46: War Responsibility Trials. These trials, mirroring the Nuremberg trials and the
many other trials which took place across Europe in the aftermath of the Second World
War, were slightly different in Finland, as they operated under Finnish law and were
widely seen as a travesty.
- 1968: Finnish historian Mauno Jokipii publishes his work on Finnish soldiers in the SS.
This work, 900 pages long, establishes the Wiking division as a ‘better’ SS unit, one that
contained war criminals but did not commit war crimes.
- 2002: Jan 27 becomes the official day of Holocaust Remembrance, or “Memorial Day for
Victims of Persecution”.
- 2003: Elina Sana publishes Luovutetut. This book, about the foreign Jews extradited by
Finland, immediately set off a storm of interest in Finland’s role in the Holocaust, as well
as a furor within political and academic circles.
- 2004: Research for “Finland, Prisoners of War and Extraditions in 1939-55” report
- 2008: “Finland, Prisoners of War and Extraditions in 1939-55” report released.
- 2010: Teaching the Holocaust in classrooms becomes mandatory.
- 2015: Work begins on “Cultures of Silence” report on the legacy of the SS Wiking
division, and especially on the question of whether or not they committed war crimes.
The Finnish government promotes reasoned engagement with all elements of Finland’s past. It has sponsored two commissions researching various aspects of Finland’s involvement in World War II, as well as fulfilling all the requirements for continued IHRA membership.
The government has slowly but substantially changed its stance on Holocaust remembrance over the years. In the immediate aftermath of the war, and indeed through most of the Cold War, the national narrative of Finnish exceptionalism persisted. The embrace of this narrative, and the consequent minimisation of Finland’s role in the Holocaust was shaped by the immediate political necessities of the post-war era, namely a desire to avoid giving the USSR any reason to intervene in Finnish affairs and promoting national pride in the face of the Soviet threat.
The two reports the government commissioned, the first on the Finnish treatment of prisoners of war and the second, still ongoing, on the Finnish “cultures of silence”, are moving the development of Finnish Holocaust remembrance forward. Though they have received the government’s unequivocal support, there have been a few missteps surrounding their implementation.
Most notably, the historical working group tasked with studying the behavior of the SS Viking division originally included one Olli Wikberg, an amateur historian and enthusiast who had previously published a photo history of the SS Viking division. While he is certainly an expert in the insignia and uniforms of that division, his closeness with many Viking division veterans raised questions. He was eventually dropped from the group after Dr. Andre Svanstrom and Professor Oula Silvennoinen threatened to resign in protest.
By and large, Finnish civil society is not particularly interested in the Holocaust. As mentioned above, organisations do exist, but the small presence of the Jewish community and the small scale of the Holocaust in Finland, as well as the highly academic nature of most inquiries into the established narrative, all combine to keep public interest rather low.
Holocaust education became compulsory in 2010. The public school history curriculum is split approximately half and half between general history, covering topics from Greco-Roman history to Vietnam, and Finnish history.
Jewish history is not prominently taught, and discussion of the WWII era tends to focus on the general outlines of the war.
Students also take part in assorted commemorations on UN Holocaust Memorial day on 27
January, which vary based on their municipality and teacher. Suggestions, provided by the
Finnish national board of education, include “drawing, writing poems and observing a moment of silence at school”.
The Finnish Peace Education Institute research project (University of Helsinki) recently
published new teaching material against antisemitism and racism, which are similar to materials that have been published in 15 European countries. This project is part of an international project led by led by Anne Frank House and Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (the ODIHR of the OSCE).
These materials target secondary and upper secondary schools, as well as vocational
institutions. They are designed to be usable in a variety of different academic contexts, such as history and psychology, among others. The first booklet, "Persecution of Centuries", discusses anti-semitism both in the past and today. The second booklet, “Prejudiced - me?” focuses on prejudices, stereotypes, and discrimination as phenomena, and especially on identifying them in daily life. Both of the booklets are designed to equip their readers to think critically about stereotypes and act against them.
The Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture finances their publication. Additional funding is presently being applied for by the Peace Education Institute to be used for the distribution of these materials and educational seminars.
The prime minister and president often participate in the annual official commemoration on 27 January, which is organised by the Finnish Society for Yad Vashem, with the financial support of the Ministry of Education. Since 2009, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has promoted the ceremony in coordination with Yad Vashem.
A monument commemorating the Finnish decision to hand over eight Jewish refugees to the Nazis was unveiled in 2000 in Helsinki. At the inauguration event, then Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen apologised for that action to the Jewish community.
The Helsinki Jewish Community arranges an annual commemoration ceremony at the
monument of the deported. On the 70 th anniversary in 2013, the University of Helsinki and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs organised a seminar at the Finnish National Museum.
The Finnish National Archives are open to all, though non-residents have to fill out a
questionnaire with personal data and their subject of study. Some documents are restricted due to rules contained within the Personal Data Act or within the Public Information Act. These reasons range from protecting state secrets (unreleased foreign ministry communications) to preventing financial market manipulation (discussions of regulations that are not public information). Closed documents remain closed for 25 years, or 50 if they are closed for privacy reasons. Online access and document requests are allowed.
Finland does not appear to have any restitution programs, appearing in neither the Jewish
Virtual Library Archive nor the World Jewish Restitution Organization index.
-Author: Justin Jin