A new collection of essays on Finland in World War II.
Finland fought three conflicts between 1939 and 1945. The first was the notorious Winter War (1939-40), in which the country stood alone against Soviet invasion. “Only Finland,” thundered Winston Churchill, “superb, nay, sublime in the jaws of peril – Finland shows what free men can do.” What Finland, under its famous leader Mannerheim, managed to do was put aside the festering civil strife of Red versus White, left over from the civil war of 1918, and unite against a common enemy, fighting the Russians to a standstill while the world looked the other way. In the process, the map of Finland, sometimes described as the “Maid” for its resemblance to a girl in a dress, lost an arm of territory to the Russian bear.
The second was even more divisive. The Continuation War (1941-44) saw Finland joining forces with Nazi Germany in a renewed attack on Russia. As noted in Tiina Kinnunen and Ville Kivimäki’s insightful collection of academic essays Finland in World War II: History Memory, Interpretations, it was the Germans who swiftly announced this to be Waffenbrüderschaft – a “brotherhood in arms.” It was the Finns who pushily translated this into English as a “co-belligerency pact”, refusing to call themselves allies of Hitler, even as they overshot their original targets, clawing back the land lost to the Soviets and rolling onwards to the East, seizing the lands of Karelia, which had arguably never been Finnish before, creating an entire new industry in manufactured traditions and rescue ethnology, well covered in Kinnunen and Kivimäki’s book.
One might suggest that the third was even more controversial. Whereas the Continuation War was a shocking deal with the devil (a devil that, as noted here, more crucially sent the food supplies that saved the Finns from starvation), the Lapland War (1944-45) was its shocking turnabout, as the Finns turned on the Nazi troops on their territory, chasing them out of the country in a conflagration that saw almost all human habitation destroyed north of the Arctic Circle.
It never ceases to amaze me how historians can find new angles on the war, and Finland in World War II does not disappoint, with space devoted not only to geopolitics and treaties, army operations and tactics, but also to such oddities as the psychological effect of burying the fallen in their home towns (Finland today boasts 600 “heroes’ cemeteries”), the countrywide ban on dancing (an activity regarded by grim Lutherans of a betrayal of comrades’ sacrifices on the front line), and the DIY magicians’ kits sent to entertain troops in their trenches. Modern trends to conflate history with memory also lead to some interesting areas, such as accounts of the historiography of the war as told in movies and novels, as well as changing public perceptions of Finland’s attitude towards the Holocaust. The editors aim to both summarise and outline the most recent researches on the subject, with chapters firmly grounded in Finnish-language academia, and a bibliography of many obscure English-language academic papers on Finnish subjects.
Later essays include several welcome treatments of the role of Karelia in the conflict, not only as a land to be defended, but also as the new frontier of a Nazi-inspired expansion into conquered lebensraum, and a lost land ceded to Russia – source of thousands of refugees in the 1950s. One remarkable section even delves into Sain Karjalan takaisin (“I Got Karelia Back”), a 2003 account of a woman’s trips to the place of her birth, now a Russian republic where her childhood home is occupied by strangers, and where she is inspired by the landscape to stay and build a house.
Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland, available now in print and on the Kindle (UK/US).