An Israeli Holocaust historian has praised authorities in Finland for publishing a report that concluded Finnish volunteers serving with nazi Germany’s Waffen-SS “very likely” took part in World War II atrocities, including the mass murder of Jews.
Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre lauded the determination of the National Archives of Finland to release the findings even if doing so was “painful and uncomfortable” for Finland.
Zuroff called the decision an “example of unique and exemplary civic courage.”
Finland’s government commissioned the independent 248-page investigative report, which was made public on Friday. It said 1408 Finnish volunteers served with the SS Panzer Division Wiking during 1941-43, most of them 17 to 20-years-old.
“It is very likely that they (Finnish volunteers) participated in the killing of Jews, other civilians and prisoners of war as part of the German SS troops,” said Jussi Nuorteva, director general of the National Archives.
A significant part of the study was based on diaries kept by 76 of the Finnish SS volunteers. Eight of the Finnish SS volunteers are still alive, Mr Nuorteva said.
Finland was invaded by Moscow in November 1939. The fighting in what became known as the Finnish-Soviet Winter War lasted until March 1940, when an overwhelmed and outnumbered Finland agreed to a bitter peace treaty. The small Nordic country lost several territories but maintained its independence.
Isolated from the rest of Europe and afraid of another Soviet attack, Finland entered into an alliance with Germany, receiving weapons and other material help from Berlin.
As part of the pact, SS chief Heinrich Himmler insisted that Finland dispatch soldiers to the SS Wiking division, similar to the volunteers it demanded from nazi-occupied Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and elsewhere.
Reluctantly, Finland complied and covertly recruited the first group of 400 SS volunteers to be sent for training in the spring of 1941. The vast majority of them had no ideological sympathies with the nazi regime, the report said.
When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 under Operation Barbarossa, Finnish regular army troops fought independently alongside Wehrmacht soldiers on the northeastern front in what they called the Continuation War. Among the Finnish soldiers were a small number of Jewish Finns.
The Finnish soldiers were not under German command, and the country’s leadership was mainly motivated by the desire to take back the territories lost to Moscow. In September 1944 as the tide of war turned against Germany, Finland signed an armistice with Russia
Finnish SS volunteers with the SS Wiking division operated on the eastern front until 1943, entering deep into Ukraine.
The leading Finnish military historians who undertook the study of the country’s wartime role wrote that the Finnish SS volunteers likely took part in killing Jews and other civilians, as well as witnessed atrocities committed by the Germans.
The volunteers returned to Finland after the Finnish government sensed the tide of the war had turned against the Germans.
Finland’s move contrasts with the attitude of some eastern European nations that have sought to diminish their culpability in the Holocaust.