Finland’s Nazi Past—and Present

Finland’s Nazi Past—and Present

          Last week Finland’s new right-wing government fell into controversy when social media reports revealed that Minister of Economic Affairs Vilhelm Junnila of the far-right Finns Party has trafficked in Nazi symbolism and has given speeches to neo-Nazi groups in Finland. Opposition parties initiated a vote of non-confidence against the minister. He survived the vote of non-confidence even though several members of Parliament in the governing coalition either voted for the measure or abstained. The Finnish Parliament is now on record as accepting a minister with ties to national socialism.

          Despite the vote of confidence, Junnila resigned a few days later in the face of rising disapproval among the general public and political insiders. His support inside the government was further weakened by the discovery of a statement that he made as a member of parliament in 2019 in which he suggested abortion as a way to reduce climate problems in Africa. This statement was condemned by the anti-abortion Christian Democrats, the smallest of the parties in the current government coalition. Why did this scandal occur in Finland, a supposedly enlightened country?

          Since World War II most European countries have confronted, however imperfectly, their Nazi, antisemitic, and or authoritarian pasts and have resolved to avoid giving political power to anyone with ties to modern-day versions of these ideologies. This resolve has come under extreme pressure in recent years with the growth of the far right in Europe. Finland has never confronted in a comprehensively critical manner its own past with Nazi Germany and antisemitism. Even to this day understandings of Finland’s war as an ally of Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union 1941-1944 are often muddled in layers of obfuscation laid by generations of politicians and historians. Finland’s war 1941-1944 is called the “Continuation War.” Implicit in this name is the idea that Finland, unlike Nazi Germany, was not involved in a war of conquest (it eventually was) and was only fighting to regain the territories lost to the Soviet Union in the Winter War (1939-40). In the years 1941-1944, Finland had nearly a quarter of a million German soldiers on its soil and benefitted from massive infusions of German arms. Still, the prevailing truth in Finland has been for decades that the country fought a separate war from Germany. Finns point to Finland’s refusal of German requests to cut off the Murmansk railroad, the Soviet Union’s lifeline to the West, and to participate in the siege of Leningrad. Finland also refused German requests to hand over its Jewish citizens for the final solution. At the same time, Finland deported to Germany several Jewish refugees and tens of Soviet army officers of Jewish ancestry. These examples of Finnish independence from Nazi Germany are exceptions to otherwise close military cooperation between Finland and Germany. Finland bears the dubious distinction as the only democracy to fight on the side of Nazi Germany.

          After the war politicians and historians justified the alliance with Germany by stating that the Finland was but a “floating log” in the rapids of great-power politics. Finland could not help itself in floating to the side of Germany and thus bore no moral responsibility for its decisions. This “floating-log theory” was first challenged in the 1960s by the American historian Charles Leonard Lundin and his British counterpart Anthony Upton. They argued that Finland possessed agency and made specific choices to ally with Germany. Finnish historians have since distanced themselves from the floating-log theory, but the theory still misinforms large segments of popular memory.

          Only in the last decade or so have scholars begun to uncover the extent of antisemitism in Finland preceding and during the war years. Only recently have researchers admitted that the Finnish SS-battalion that served in Germany’s war against Russia likely witnessed or even possibly participated in atrocities. These important interventions by serious scholars still run into walls of collective denial, amnesia, and indifference. A very visible current example of denial and indifference is the continued use of the swastika by the Finnish Air Force in its insignia. The air force excuses its use by explaining that its use of the swastika preceded the Third Reich and the flag does not promote Nazism. For most of the countries in NATO, an alliance that Finland just joined, the swastika symbolizes a regime that they fought to defeat. In the case of Germany, the swastika symbolizes a past it works every day to master. There is actually a very strong precedent in Finland’s history for eliminating use of the swastika by the air force. Until the end of World War II, the official necklace worn by the president of the republic consisted of swastikas. A new necklace was made after the war.

          Until Finland seriously deals with its history with Nazi Germany and antisemitism, more cases like that of Vilhelm Junnila will occur. The current environment for such a reckoning is not favorable. The discourse of the far-right has been mainstreamed in many respects over the last decade. Then there is the normal reluctance of any nation to revisit its difficult moments. Historians need to continue their recent valuable work in challenging myths concerning Finland’s past with Nazi Germany, antisemitism, and its own antidemocratic movements. Those involved in current struggles against the far right need to know that their current struggle is not against a new and ephemeral movement but rather against a movement that thrives on excuses for past behavior going back decades.