Monday, June 18, 2018

Finnish Waffen-SS Battalion Investigation – Why it needs to happen and how Historical Revision isn’t always a bad thing

Thursday 31st May saw the Finnish Prime Minister’s Officer announced the opening of an independent probe into those Finnish citizens who served in the Waffen-SS during the Second World War.  The investigation will look to see if any Finns participated in “in the homicide of Jews and civilians during 1941-1943.”

Why it is happening?

Back in January, Efraim Zuroff, an American-born Israeli historian and director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center office in Jerusalem, made a request to President Sauli Niinistö to open an official investigation into the roughly 1,400 Finns who voluntarily served in Waffen-SS to see if they were involved in any war crimes.

However this request didn’t just appear unprovoked but due to the release of information by Historian André Swanström. In 2017, Swanström, went on record declaring the vast majority of the Finnish SS men were fascists and that some had taken part in war crimes during their service in Ukraine from 1941 to 1943. His words caused a ripple of controversy in historical circles that were heard outside of Finland as well. It was from this that Efraim Zuroff was made aware of the discussion and formally requested an official investigation.

A little background

After the conclusion of the Russo-Finnish Winter War in March 1940, Finland found itself in a precarious position. The Western powers had shown themselves unable to provide Finland with any legitimate support, Sweden had to look after its own (more so after the German invasion of Norway), and the Soviets (as victors) decided to put more pressure upon Finland. Also during this time Germany and the Soviet Union were joined together through the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, which had seen Poland divided between the two powers and the Baltic States fold to Soviet pressure and so Finland felt itself more isolated and against the wall.

It was in this uncertainty that Finland found some support. Germany started making offers of military, economic and political support in confidence. One of these offers was for a group of Finnish men, similar to the 1917 Jaeger movement, to come to Finland and train in military matters. These men would fall under the administration of the Waffen-SS (the armed wing of the Nazi Party's SS organisation), serve a two-year contract, and would form their own Battalion within the 5th SS Division “Wiking”. Recruitment saw the German want a high percentage of far right members (over 60%) and to be racially pure (according to their own Aryan doctrine) but this wasn’t accomplished.

The Battalion on Parade. Source: LiveLeak

The 1408 men, coming from all over Finland, arrived in 5 separate batches from May to June 1941. Those men who had sufficient military training or were veterans of the Winter War were attached to combat ready units of the Division until the rest of the Battalion were ready. The Battalion was founded officially on 15th June 1941 in Vienna and was called SS Freiwilligen-Bataillon Nordost. In December 1941 the Battalion was ready for deployment and sent to the Ukrainian front to become the third Battalion in the Nordland Regiment. From this moment on, it fought with distinction, especially during the 1942 Summer offensive. It was here that the received their new title, Finnisches Freiwilligen-Bataillon der Waffen-SS, and were seen as brave and stubborn fighters, so much so that Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, stated "In the place where the Finnish SS man stood, the enemy was always beaten.”
The Waffen-SS wanted to retain such valuable soldiers when their contract expired by Marshal Mannerheim forbid their reenlistment and the Battalion arrived home  2nd April ,1943 in Hanko. The Battalion was officially disbanded 11th July, 1943 and the men were then sent to various units within the Finnish Army.

Finnish SS volunteers in Gross Born Truppenlager, 1941. Source: Wikimedia

Did they commit War Crimes?

Originally, the statement from historians and layman alike have been that the Finnish Battalion did not commit anything that would be construed as War Crimes. This statement is supported and traced back to the phenomenal work by Professor Mauno Jokipi. Jokipi is seen as one of the foremost Finnish historians on the Second World War and in 1968 he published the book, Panttipataljoona: suomalaisen SS-pataljoonan historia (I unfortunately have yet to read it as it is way passed my current abilities in Finnish). This 936 page epic is seen as the go to book for anything related to the Finnish SS men, Jokipi used records available from the Finnish National Archives, as well as material made available to him from the Veljesapu-Perinneyhdistys ry (the organisation set up to support veterans of the unit and their families, as well as provide information about the Battalion). Jokipi put out the statement that the Finnish SS soldiers did not take part in any executions of civilians but that some were eyewitnesses to these horrible acts. However this has been challenged by some, with Swanström being at the forefront.

The Battalions Chaplain, Major Kalervo Kurkiala, at Hietaniemi Cemetary, 1943. Source: Wikimedia

Swanström wrote in 2017 that Jokipi’s work is flawed and that he made a deliberate choice to select certain source materials over others. During his research, Swanström, came across a letter written by one member of the unit, Olavi Karpalo, who stated that ‘the executionof Jews is for those with poorer shooting skills that ours’. He postulates that Karpalo would not have written those words if he had not committed such acts. Karpalo, who had fought during the Spanish Civil War on Franco’s side, was frustrated that he had been assigned to a rear area vehicle maintenance unit, alongside 5 other Finns, while the rest were off getting glory. Swanström accuses Jokipi of having access to the letter but ignoring its contents during his research and that he has deliberately ‘hidden’ evidence in order to push a narrative.

In light of the evidence that Swanström has brought forward, as well as those thoughts by other historians like Oula Silvennoinen and Marko Tikka, it is very possible that some Finns serving within the Waffen-SS committed war crimes.

Reactions and the Need for the Investigation

When news was released about the request for the investigation were published, and the follow up confirmation that the probe will go ahead, there was the expected reaction from the internet. Unfortunately there were far too many comments of an antisemitic nature which are not worth repeating or given more than just a mention here. There were, however, several comments proclaiming a historical revisionism in progress in order to push some political correctness agenda. Within recent years whenever a new book/article/lecture or academic publication makes a statement that challenges the status quo it is accused of Revisionism, and well they are right...to a degree.

The Battalion arriving at Hanko, 1943. Source: Wikimedia

What is Historical Revisionism?

Historical Revisionism is the act of challenging the status quo in light of new evidence. It is a process that has always taken place, indeed, the American Historical Society’s President James McPherson stated in 2003,

“The fourteen-thousand members of this association, however, know that revision is the lifeblood of historical scholarship. History is a continuing dialogue, between the present and the past. Interpretations of the past are subject to change in response to new evidence, new questions asked of the evidence, new perspectives gained by the passage of time. There is no single, eternal, and immutable “truth” about past events and their meaning.”

History is constantly in flux, we are uncovering new things about the past. When new things are discovered, the historical process takes over, where we see historians debate and challenge each consecutive  hypothesis.

This doesn’t mean that negative historical revisionism doesn’t take place, however in the academic world this type of revisionism is called Historical negationism or denialism and is done for mainly  ideological  reasons. It strives to muddy the waters of historical discourse for the masses and pass of their poorly supported evidence as honest revisionism.

A few other comments I saw made attempts to deflect the discussion into points about Soviet war crimes and how those should be investigated (some stated before the investigation into Finns). However these comments are only attempting to put wrongness on a scale and fit it into a narrative.

The following video by the brilliant TIKhistory channel explains why Historical Revision is not negative much better than I can.



The Battalion on board ship leaving Tallinn to Hanko, 1943. Source: http://maximietteita.blogspot.com 

The need for an official investigate is paramount to Finnish history. In 2003, President Halonen, after an official request by Simon Wiesenthal Center, launched a probe into the deportations of around 3,000 Soviet POWs to Germany. The project was undertaken by the National Archives and after several years a 568 multilingual report was published that showed how Finland’s treatment of Soviet Prisoners of War and Civilian Internees were not as up to par with International Law as first thought. All this stemmed from the research of Elina Sana. The report allowed for a more open and honest discussion on Finland’s role during the Second World War.

Following the same light, an official investigation, using all the resources available (this includes archives outside of Finland, like Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Germany).

In Tampere, 1943. Source: SA-Kuva


What will happen?

According to a statement on the National Archives website, there will be a steering group appointed by the Prime Minister’s Office with members of the National Archives, the President’s and Prime Minister’s Offices. This group will oversee a project team from the National Archives  and also use external experts as required. The project team will use any and all resources available to them in order to assess and evaluate evidence in order to present a complete study. The team will also work with Docent Lars Westerlund, who led the National Archives project in the 2003 study mentioned above, as well as the Prime Minister’s Office funded 2002 War Victims of Finland 1914-1922 Project database. His expertise will be much required during this delicate study.

The Project Team consists of:-
Chair: Director-General Jussi Nuorteva
Vice-Chairman: Research Director Päivi Happonen
Dean of the Faculty of Law of the University of Helsinki, Professor Pia Letto-Vanamo
Professor of Political History at the University of Helsinki, Kimmo Rentola
Professor Vesa Tynkkynen of the National Defense College
Antero Holmila, Associate Professor at the University of Jyväskylä
Docent of Åbo Akademi André Swanström
President of the Holocaust Victim Records Association, Docent Oula Silvennoinen.
Researcher Docent Lars Westerlund
Assistant Researcher Ville-Pekka Kääriäinen

The investigation is reported to be finished by November of this year and will cost no more than 69,000 euros.

Once the report is completed, the next stage will be to see if there is a need for any legal proceedings. As Jussi Nuorteva of the National Archives said to YLE, "About 1,400 volunteers from Finland took part [in the battalion] and only about a dozen of them are still alive. The youngest of them were 17 when they enlisted and are now 95 years-old or older,”. This mean that the handful of SS men left alive will be of similar health to those of German and other SS soldiers who have recently been on trial in Europe.

The Battalion's disbandment ceremony, 1943. Source: veljesapu.fi

Sources

YLE news
National Archives
National Archives
Will Holocaust crimes of Finnish volunteers in Ukraine go unpunished
YLE News
Prime Minister's Office
Revisionist Historians
Finnish SS Men and War Crimes

3 comments:

  1. Good article. This case has bothered me a bit too as a Finn. What I have got from it, these Finns acted like common front troops, like "Waffen-SS" usually did. Of course it is possible that some atrocities happened. The war between Germans and Soviets was especially cruel war of worldview. I guess we need more research about this. The surname of the late history professor is Jokipii, notice double i.

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    1. Thanks for the spelling correction.
      However, Waffen-SS troops by and large were not always the common front troops as argued by their organisations. Germanic SS troops were often rotated from the front to other positions or came from other positions. It also wasn't common, because of their more strict ideology, that they would be called upon to do the more sensitive dirty work that other less politically reliable troops were thought incapable of doing. This doesn't mean that all committed atrocities though but that the Waffen-SS certainly were involved in them. Look at the 6th Division for example, the overwhelming majority of the original unit were former concentration camp guards. So while the Division itself may not have committed crimes, individuals within almost certainly did.
      Their does need to be a new investigation into the Finnish SS, solely due to recent evidence but also because no official investigation has ever taken place and without an official line, making statements don't hold much water.

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