Hitler’s Arctic War

It’s not that Oula Seitsonen is opposed to what he calls “book history”. It’s just that as he poked around Lapland cataloguing Stone Age archaeological sites for his day-job, he became increasingly aware that a more modern historical presence, that of German soldiers in the 1940s, was slowly fading away. There were, true enough, written records of the Nazi troops who arrived in Finland to hold almost a thousand kilometres of borderlands against the Soviets, but these were subject to recurring reversals and re-interpretations.

Drawing on what would eventually turn into his doctorate, Seitsonen’s Archaeologies of Hitler’s Arctic War chronicles the tangible and intangible heritage of the German presence in Lapland, where, at its peak, German soldiers outnumbered the locals, and its ebb, every single German was hounded from the country when the Finns turned upon them in the Lapland War of 1944-5. On their way out, a scorched-earth policy famously ensured that almost no building was left standing north of Rovaniemi, which is why the locals still sometimes shake matchboxes pointedly at German tourists. Seitsonen specialises in ruins and fragments, and tirelessly hunts down ditches that were once trenches, hillocks that were once middens, and ramshackle sheds that were once machine-gun posts. In this, he is hampered by the fact that one man’s research material is another man’s “war junk”, often at odds with the earnest wishes of the Keep Lapland Tidy movement to “clear up” detritus that has been clogging up forest paths for decades.

Seitsonen begins with an account of the Waffenbrüderschaft against the Soviets, that uneasy cooperation between the Finns and Germans that the Finns insisted was not an alliance, but merely a “co-belligerency pact.” In doing so, he wades through some of the obfuscations and hand-waving that characterise Finnish feelings on the subject, for which, in an understandable fudge common to all nations, nobody really wants to be told a negative story about their own relatives. If one does meet a Finn whose granddad was in the SS, one is liable to be told he was in that special division that got cats out of trees or helped old ladies across the road. He notes that most of the concentration camps established in Finland are now conveniently outside the modern borders, left behind in Karelia when it was lost to the Soviets – the National Archives did not open their photograph collection to researchers until 2013, and even then, many materials lack temporal or geographic metadata. Seitsonen does, however, visit Miehikkilä, still on the Finnish side of the border, and observes that someone is still leaving flowers and tending the mass graves of Soviet civilians there.

The German presence, he writes, has been “largely ignored in national-level narratives,” although I would like to point out that this is not merely a feature of WW2. The German presence in Finland’s own revolution and civil war, for example, was carefully edged out of the national narrative as early as the victory parade in 1918 for the newly independent Finns. An exhibition that ran in 2015 at the Museum of Lapland was movingly titled Wir Waren Freunde: We Were Friends, neatly encapsulating another fact that often eludes modern historians, that the Germans in 1941 were welcomed with open arms as the one power prepared to really help Finland in its time of need, and not for the first time. Imagine, if you will, 67,000 German soldiers suddenly showing up in Ukraine tomorrow, and saying they were there to help, and the kind of impact that would have on the hard-pressed locals.

There are a bunch of military memoirs written by both Finnish and German soldiers, which offer some useful context. But Seitsonen frets about the lack of “experiential perspectives” that would offer a broader sense of what like was like for common soldiers, local people, labourers, lovers and prisoners. Then again, he uncovers Wolfgang von Hessen’s Aufzeichnungen (Records), privately published in 1986, a candid memoir by the major who oversaw transportation on the Arctic Ocean Road. It might sound like no great shakes, except von Hessen was the son of Prince Frederick Charles of Hesse, who had been mooted but then booted as the prospective King of Finland in 1918. For a few months in 1918, Wolfgang had been briefly hailed as the heir to the “throne” of Finland… he returned twenty years later to the country that was almost his, where Gustaf Mannerheim would pin a Freedom Cross on him in 1943. Why has this not already been a movie!?

The honeymoon did not last long. The “Hermans”, as the Finns called them, featuring a strong contingent of Austrian mountain jägers, were ridiculously over-confident about the difference they could make in the north, proclaiming “Arktis is nicht” (The Arctic is nothing). Nein, Herman. The Arctic is definitely something, and while German commanders proclaimed that the area was “completely unsuitable for military operations,” the Finns became increasingly disenchanted with the dug-in, advance-averse nature of their co-belligerents. The Germans ridiculed the Finns as a bunch of messy-haired yokels who held up their trousers with string, but it was the Finns, intimately familiar with the landscape and its conditions, who were the most successful against the Soviets. Echoing the sort of “colonialist Othering” that Seitsonen derides in his introduction, the Germans proclaimed that the Finns’ orienteering skills were nothing short of “supernatural”, and before long, they were adopting the locals’ low-tech clothing to keep out the cold, and building fake tanks out of snow to distract Soviets from the fact that whole ten-mile stretches of borders were guarded by little more than a dozen nutters on skis.

“Small girls,” wrote one Captain Ilander, about the full-service teenage ‘cleaning ladies’ draw from the local population, “but hard-bitten, drink alcohol and smoke like real men.” That’s Finnish women for you, who were soon fraternising with the Hermans at many an occasion – the mind boggles at the thought of Albert Speer, the noted Nazi architect, living for a while in a Finnish shed, and coming out to make merry with a bunch of Finns at a Rovaniemi Christmas party. Amid such frivolity, Lapland was in thrall to a series of terror attacks, as roaming platoons of Soviet partisans sought to tie up the troops in the most heartlessly economical way possible, by targeting random civilian settlements. Seitsonen’s archival research includes a picture of a mutilated girl, no older than seven, being carried from a log cabin by a glum soldier. Here, too, there is an issue with “book history”, as most of these partisan atrocities went carefully unreported in the Finnish media – to have given them publicity would have given the Russians what they wanted.

The Russians are another undocumented presence in the history of Lapland. Nine thousand Soviet prisoners of war were drafted as slave labourers to make up for the lack in the region’s manpower, in order to help the Germans create the infrastructure that they required to fight in the manner to which they had become accustomed. Conditions in the nearly 200 camps scattered around Finland ranged from “tolerable” to “inhuman”, but Seitsonen argues that the shadow of this unmentioned labour can still be seen in modern times: “many of the modern roads in Lapland trail the… Second World War tracks, and the cadastral plans of several northern towns follow those of the German barrack villages.” There was, Seitsonen suggests, also a ‘punishment camp’ for Jewish prisoners of war somewhere in Finland, although his researches have yet to officially locate it. It was, presumably nowhere near Syjärvi, where in one of the most absurdly unlikely incidents of WW2, Finnish Jews serving in the army set up the only field synagogue on Nazi front-lines, and held services attended respectfully by their SS comrades. Even so, the Jews fighting alongside the Nazis did so amid recurring rumours that when the war was over, ‘the ship would be waiting’ to take them away to an unknown fate. One of them, the Jewish field doctor Leo Skurnik, was even awarded the Iron Cross after fearlessly carrying wounded SS men out of harm’s way during an attack. He then bluntly refused to accept it, with the words: “I wipe my arse with the Iron Cross.”

Offended by this for some reason, the Nazi authorities demanded that he be handed over, only for his commanding officer to refuse to give up his best doctor. Two other Finnish Jews also refused a German medal, although not quite so colourfully. Having encountered Jewish soldiers on a trip to inspect the Nazi lines, Heinrich Himmler buttonholed the Finnish prime minister, asking him what he was going to do about the Jewish question.

“We have no Jewish question,” was the fantastically Finnish response.

Seitsonen is just as informative concerning the “Ragnarok” that was the Lapland War, as the Germans fled towards the safety of the Norwegian border, leaving behind a hellscape of burning buildings, a rain of burning papers falling from the sky, and a land strewn with mines. For years to come afterwards, there was a risk of exploding reindeer – as is his wont, Seitsonen points out that the grim truth, that hundreds of local people also lost their lives to mines after the war, and some 2,000 were injured, was only really publicised in 2012. A year later, arguably explaining why it had been kept quiet for so long, a metal detectorist looking for Nazi memorabilia in Kemi was killed by a grenade he was cleaning.

The church bells went missing from the burned Kuusamo church in 1944, and were only recovered in 1959, when a German visitor revealed that they had been saved by an SS officer who had fallen in love with a local girl to the sound of those bells, and had consequently hidden them in the local graveyard.

Seitsonen’s excavations of fragments of stoves, cutlery and smashed Nazi crockery prove to be utterly fascinating. He demonstrates with cunning didactic power how easy it is even for modern archaeologists to read too much into simple materials – Were those binders burned to hide evidence? Was that smashed Pelikan ink bottle used to tattoo prisoners? Or was it just a bottle of ink. He draws a logistical map of Europe, to show where the artefacts in Finnish ditches were manufactured in the Nazi empire, and tabulates the diet of the soldiers based on whatever he can dig out of their middens – not merely a predictable 30% local reindeer component, but Danish cattle and Argentinian corned beef.

He points out the many subtle shifts and redactions of local history that shield and obscure the wartime era. Sometimes, they are in plain sight, like the Alppimaja (Alpine Lodge) district on Oulu’s Tirolintie (Tyrol Street), named for the Austrian jägers once quartered there. Others are less well-known. The patriotically named Kalevalankartano (Estate of the Kalevala), for example, was originally built as the Oulu SS Officers’ Club, and come to think of it, does look rather Teutonic. And there’s comedy gold as it turns out that the world-famous Santa Claus Village, in Rovaniemi, is built on the site of a former Luftwaffe airbase, and that the year-on-year expansion of the Village threatens to wipe out many archaeological materials from its previous existence.

Seitsonen finishes with an observation about the nature of history and memory, and how even memorials carved in stone can be fungible. In a school in Vuotso, outside Sodankylä, there is a standard 1939-1944 Isanmaa Puolesta (For the Fatherland) memorial, which features a death in 1959 – a local boy, killed by an unexploded bomb. Such tragedies are included by the Finns in official accounts of the “war dead”, for a war that is still not over until the last of its materials cease to kill.

Amidst all of this, the Sámi watch, unmoved. For them, the Germans were just one more colonialist power tearing up the countryside, and their voices in Seitsonen’s book can be entertainingly gruff. One comments that it’s all very well mourning accidental casualties as war-dead, but he has little sympathy for the trophy hunter who got blown up in 2013. “Stupidity has its price,” he scoffs. “They shouldn’t go around taking things from our land.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland. Oula Seitsonen’s Archaeologies of Hitler’s Arctic War: Heritage of the Second World War German Military Presence in Finnish Lapland is published by Routledge.

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