The democracy that fought with the Nazis

We tend to think of the Second World War as a battle between good and evil. For Finland (and even for Finnish Jews) things weren’t that simple.

A meeting between Hitler and the Finnish PM Risto Ryti


I wrote a post a few weeks ago about Simo Häyhä AKA ‘the White Death’, a Finnish sniper who killed more than 500 Soviet soldiers during the Winter War. As this was a topic people seemed keen to read about I thought I would look a bit more at the history surrounding his career.

The Winter War

Häyhä’s war seems pretty straightforwardly just. The Nazi-Soviet pact placed Finland within the Soviet sphere, and in 1939 Stalin sent the Red Army to try and conquer the Nordic country. This lead to what was known as the Winter War. It was not the Red Army’s finest hour. Its officer class had been decimated by Stalin’s purges and the invasion force was mainly composed of troops from subtropical parts of the Ukraine. It was thus horridly unprepared for fighting in the Arctic winter. As a result tiny Finland held off the massive Soviet Union for months and inflicted huge losses on them. Häyhä was thus part of the army of a small democratic nation trying to avoid being swallowed by a totalitarian state that had killed more people than any other in history.

It was thus natural that democratic nations would look to come to Finland’s aid. Britain and France planned to send their own troops to help the Finns. However, Finland and Sweden did not want those soldiers passing through territory, lest this provoke Soviet or German retaliation. With no way to get the troops there the plan was shelved before finally abandoned when in March 1941 the Finns and Soviets made a peace treaty.

For all the Red Army’s travails in Finland, its formidable manpower allowed it to wear the Finns down and force them to relinquish territory to the USSR.

Nonetheless, before the Second World War was over the British military would see action in Finland. But it would not be there not to defend but to attack Finland.

The Continuation War

In 1941, the Finns got their revenge. Hitler had resolved to attack the USSR and the Germans wanted Finnish assistance. Still stung by their defeat and suspicious of the Soviet’s future intentions, the Finns agreed not only that their troops would participate in Operation Barbarossa but that German units could be based in the country.

These attacks, like the rest of German invasion, were initially highly successful. Finland recaptured its lost territory and indeed even went beyond its old borders. The Finnish Army formed part of the forces encircling Leningrad.

“Leningrad Siege May 1942 – January 1943″ by Memnon335bc – Own work by uploader, simplified work based on map 28 from the M. M. Minasjan/ M. L. Altgowsen (u.a.): Die Geschichte des Großen Vaterländischen Krieges der Sowjetunion, Bd.2, Deutscher Militärverlag, Berlin (Ost) 1965. (Kartenband). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –


This lead to Britain declaring war on Finland and launching airstrikes on the Finnish navy. Which is one of the clearest refutations there is of the notion that became inexplicably popular in the 1990s and 2000s that ‘no two democracies have ever gone to war’.

This would not, however, be the strangest alignment to emerge out of what became known as ‘the Continuation War’. There were about 300 Jewish soldiers in the Finnish armed forces. So with Finland’s entry into the war these men found themselves fighting alongside the soldiers of the most Anti-Semitic state ever to exist.

While this fact seems to have been pretty uncomfortable for all involved, Finnish help was sufficiently important to the Nazis that they were prepared to overlook this obvious contradiction. If a German soldier encountered a Finn of a higher rank then they were expected to salute them even if they were Jewish. Indeed, one of the 300 actually won an Iron Cross almost certainly the only Jew to receive that award during World War II.

However, the momentum on the eastern front eventually shifted against the Axis. As a result, Finland found itself on the defensive. By this stage the Finns desperately needed weapons to defend themselves against the Soviet advances into their territory. The Finnish president Risto Ryti offered Hitler a personal guarantee that if Germany resupplied his country, they would not seek peace with the Soviets. After the weapons were delivered, he resigned and his successor negotiated an armistice.


This wasn’t to be the end of Finland’s conflict. The terms of the peace with Soviet Union required the Finns to eject the remaining German forces from their country. This became known by probably the most charming name of any conflict ever: the Lapland War.

Even once they had been taken care of that, there was still to be unpleasantness. The Soviets demanded that Ryti and nine other senior members of the government and military be prosecuted for having caused the war. These prosecutions were of such dubious legality that a constitutional amendment was required to bring them. Nonetheless, the still popular Ryti spent a decade in prison and during this time his health failed.

The dubious legality of this aside the question remains of the moral culpability of Ryti, his government and indeed the Finnish nation.

Apparently Finns emphatically state that they were not allies with Germany but ‘co-belligerents’. The implication is that they fought not for Germany but against their mutual enemy the Soviets.

It is also true that when Himmler asked the Finnish PM about the country’s Jewish community, he was told “Finland has no Jewish problem”.

It also managed to preserve its independence (though not its territorial integrity) and in so doing was able to avoid succumbing to communist rule like its Baltic neighbours did. That allowed it to become the prosperous, peaceful social democracy we know today.

That, however, came at a price. Finland’s actions probably allowed German forces to reach further into the USSR than they would otherwise have been and then to hold out against defeat for longer. As the Eastern Front saw the most brutal fighting and was home to the gas chambers this is likely to have resulted in a substantial body count.

We are used to thinking of the morality of WWII as fairly black and white. Finland’s experience shows that it was not. Finland had nothing but wretched choices open to it. This is worth bearing in mind when one hears commentators prognosticating about the complexity of the current global system or the loss of the simple binaries of past ages. The world has always been complicated and in every age people are confronted with lousy choices. It is only obvious in hindsight that Britain should carry have carried on fighting after the fall of France. And even with hindsight it is difficult to judge Finland’s choices.


Agent Carter (review)

One of the many nice touches put to Marvel’s latest extension of its on screen universe was a show within a show. At various points we’d see and hear the recording of radio serial called Captain America Adventure Program. It is kind the affair where the sound of a fight is evoked by somebody punching a leg of lamb.

Agent Carter clearly owes a lot to that kind of show. It has a lot of the tropes of an early cold war spy adventure: mysterious weapons with names like ‘implosion device’, car chases and Eastern European villains. And almost Mad Men like effort seems to have gone into replicating the style of the time: the cars, the suits and above all the lipstick! If you’re thinking this sounds like a lot of fun, then you’d be right!

However, it’s not trapped by the genre it’s pastiching. The most obvious example is that its hero and the most menacing villain are both women.

The titular Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) was the love interest in the first Captain America film. However, as she proved to be far the best thing about that otherwise so-so movie, she got her own show. It follows Peggy as she navigates life in Truman era New York. She’s still a special agent but now one hamstrung by the prejudices of her co-workers. She still gets to find stolen doomsday weapons, beat up goons and outsmart Russian spies. But she can now only do so behind the backs of her less capable co-workers.  While on the clock they treat her more like a secretary than a spy.

Another departure from its vintage inspirations is showing in war as something other than an opportunity for dare doing. Virtually, everything that happens in the series is in some way a repercussion of the war and pretty much every recurring character has been damaged by it in some way or another.

Depicting such a broad array of characters dealing with a difficult and potentially sensitive topic demands some solid acting. Fortunately, while it is undoubtedly Atwell’s show, the supporting cast is more than a match for the challenge. They are consistently excellent. Dollhouse fans will be pleased to see the woefully underused Enver Gjokaj given a high profile role.

Much as the series manages to utilise and transcend the conventions of 40s spy thrillers, it does the same with the Marvel Cinematic Universe it inhabits. It successfully fleshes out parts of that world. There are plenty of call backs and forwards to the films. This includes a rather chilling insight into the background of one of the Avengers.

If you’d not watched Captain America: the First Avenger then the plot would probably be hard to follow. Otherwise, one could enjoy it free from any thoughts of the broader Marvel world. Knowing, for example, that Tony Stark’s AI Jarvis is based on his real boyhood butler who becomes Peggy’s sidekick is satisfying for Marvel fans like me. However, a much bigger group can enjoy the great: story, lead performance, ensemble cast, period style and action scenes.

VERDICT: 9/10 – There’s still uncertainty over whether there will be a second series. As you can probably guess I not only want another series, I demand it NOW!!!

The Mind and Spirit of Cyberspace Security

These are dark times for internet freedom in China. A government that has always been hostile to open debate and free flow of information has of late intensified its efforts. Indeed, one can debate whether residents of China are still accessing the internet or a massive intranet that covers their whole nation.

This tragedy now has some farce to accompany it. Here is “The Mind and Spirit of Cyberspace Security” by the choir of the Chinese Internet Censorship agency:

HT: The Atlantic

The most controversial Wikipedia articles worldwide

UPDATE: having now had a brief chat with a couple of people who know considerably more about Wikipedia than me, I’m now pretty dubious about this chart.

Firstly, it’s now pretty out of date.

Secondly, reverts do not necessarily equate to controversy. They might, for example, represent an editor removing a piece of graffiti.

So proceed with caution before drawing any inferences from this.



The best things I’ve read lately (25/2/2015)

Belfast grapples with peace, coming in from the political wilderness and Birdman is dissected not least by Sesame Street.

If you’ve been reading my posts this week then you probably know that my reading has been dominated by the Oscars. The article that stood out was Tom Carson in the Atlantic making the case that Boyhood and not Birdman should have won best picture. I disagree with his conclusion but loved his argument:

Birdman vs. Boyhood is one of the rare Oscar tussles to define a tension that has been basic to movies ever since Georges Méliès and nickelodeon newsreels got busy doing their respective things. On one side, you’ve got your consciously extravagant showmen/impresarios/magicians, a camp whose ultimate hero (and martyr) will always be Orson Welles. On the other are the patient recorders of life who eschew virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake even when they’d be perfectly capable of itpatron saint, the Vittorio de Sica of Bicycle Thieves and Shoeshine, with Belgium’s Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne as the tradition’s latest avatars.

Welles himself pegged the difference. “In handling a camera, I feel I have no peer,” he said in 1960. “But what de Sica can do, that I can’t do. I ran his Shoeshine again recently, and the camera disappeared, the screen disappeared; it was just life…” Sue me for thinkingJust Life as an alternate title sums up Boyhood’s pretensions, as I Have No Peer would for Birdman’s.

Also in the Atlantic, Torie Rose Deghett visits Belfast and reports on how it is (or in many cases isn’t adjusting) to peace:

The much-visited walls remain because the city’s peace is still a process, and some residentscontinue to fear they would be attacked if the barriers came down. The largest of these, a structure of concrete topped with mesh and metal sheeting that rises 30 feet above Cupar Way, was erected to separate the Catholic-inhabited Clonard from Protestant-dominated Shankill following fiery clashes between those communities in August 1969. The wall was supposed to be temporary. Instead, it has simply grown in size, and dozens more have been constructed, some even since the end of the Troubles. According to the Belfast Interface Project, which researches the city’s divided communities, seven new barriers have been built since 2000—a testament to the enduring specter of sectarianism.

Katie Zavadski of New York magazine provides something I’ve been looking for for a while now: a collection of Andrew Sullivan’s best writings. She combines this with a potted history of blogging career, noting for example:

The interests of his blog were both general and personal, an eclectic mix that included Catholicism, pot, beards, beagles, and especially gay marriage, the case for which he started making years before anyone believed it remotely possible.

In amongst the posts she chooses is Sullivan’s thoughts on the morning the Supreme Court struck down the Orwellianly named Defense of Marriage Act:

“It is the most liberating feeling to hear your once near-solitary voice blend finally into a communal roar until it isn’t your voice at all any more. It’s the voice of justice.”

And returning to the Oscar theme my favourite video this week is Sesame Street paying tribute to Birdman:

The creator of the lobotomy was awarded a Nobel prize

The lobotomisation of Howard Dully by Dr Walter Freeman. The fact that Dully was only 12 at the time and the lack of any medical need has made this perhaps the most notorious example of the procedure.

Warning: this post contains potentially disturbing material.

In 1949, the Nobel Prize for medicine to two neurologists: Walter Rudolf Hess and Antonio Caetano de Abreu Freire Egas Moniz. Hess had discovered that different parts of the brain controlled different functions. Moniz was to find a deeply unfortunate application for this discovery. The official presentation speech included the following:

It occurred to Moniz that psychic morbid states accompanied by affective tension might be relieved by destroying the frontal lobes or their connections to other parts of the brain. On the basis of this idea Moniz gradually worked out an operative method whose purpose was to interrupt the lines of communication of the frontal lobes to the rest of the brain. Since these lines of communication run through the white matter, this operation was called frontal or prefrontal leucotomy. It was soon found that morbid conditions in which emotional tension was a dominating part of the pathological picture reacted very favorably to such operations. To this group of diseases belong, primarily, states of depression accompanied by fear and anxiety, obsessive neuroses, certain forms of persecution mania, and a considerable part of the most important and common of all mental diseases, schizophrenia: those cases, namely, in which the schizophrenic pattern of behaviour and the emotional condition is affectively charged to a high degree, as for instance in states of anguish or anxiety, refusal to take food, aggressiveness, and the like. Great subjective suffering and invalidism are characteristic of this group of diseases. Many of the diseased, especially within the schizophrenic group, are very difficult patients and are often dangerous to the people around them. When it is remembered that other methods of treatment have failed or have been followed by recurrence of the disease, it is easy to understand the immense importance of Moniz’ discovery for the problems of psychiatric treatment. As was expected, the results are best for the non-schizophrenic groups, that is to say, among those suffering from depression, obsessive neurosis, and the like, where the great majority of patients operated upon have recovered and become capable of working. Within the schizophrenic group, where the disintegration of the personality has often advanced very far, the prospects are less favourable, but even in this group quite a few cases can be released from the mental hospitals, some of them after having fully regained the capacity for work. In other less favourable cases, the nursing problem will be much simplified by the fact that the patient, after operation, can be kept in a «quiet» ward.

The results would be horrifying. The procedure was essentially jamming an ice pick through someone’s eye socket and into their brain. Unsurprisingly that produced disturbing results:

The lobotomy in many cases either turned them into a vegetable or simply made them more docile, passive, and easy to control—often much less intelligent as well. Many of the doctors took this as being “good progress” because they didn’t know how else to treat severely mentally ill patients. During the days of the lobotomy, unless it killed someone they considered all of the permanent brain damage be a negative side effect of the treatment. Many of the people who have asked for the Nobel Prize awarded to Moniz to be rescinded have complained that they or their family members not only weren’t cured but suffered permanent damage that changed who they were and, in some cases, made it impossible for the individual to live a normal life. In one case, a pregnant woman was given the procedure simply for headaches, and afterward she was never the same again. It was more than just being like a child; she could not feed or take care of herself at all—it took her years just to relearn basic tasks. In another case, a boy named Howard Dully was lobotomized by a stepmother who didn’t like him, simply for being a difficult child. Freeman seriously recommended it as a way to change the child’s personality, and Dully spent most of his life feeling like a part of himself was missing.

There’s a whole article on Dully’s case from the Guardian. The extra details are as horrifying as you would expect. Worst of all is the scale of all this. Tens of thousands of these procedures were performed. On one occasion Freeman performed 25 lobotomies in a single day. This becomes all the more disturbing when you realise that 14% of those he lobotomised died as a direct result of the operation.

That along with his reckless evangelism must make Freeman the principal villain of this story. Nonetheless, Moniz is not necessarily innocent here. He has been criticised for not properly following up the patients he operated on. There’ve also been calls for his Nobel prize to be rescinded.

Hat tip:

Boyhood took Two Days, One Night’s nomination

Dear readers may I crave . Up till now I’ve not written about Boyhood for the simple reason that I only got round to watching it last night. Now I have, I’m thinking not only that Birdman was a more worthy winner but that its nomination should have gone to another film.

Now obviously saying, as the awards process requires, that one film is better than another is kind of stupid. Not only is such a judgement subjective, it also generally involves comparing things that are not really comparable. For example, imagine deciding, as Academy voters just did, whether Boyhood or Birdman is better? You might make judgements like Birdman is funnier or Boyhood is more realistic. But noticing this kind of thing is largely beside the point: Boyhood is not trying to be comic nor is Birdman trying to be naturalistic. The banal conclusion one generally ought to reach is that they are different.

However, there are occasions when one can compare like with like. For example, there were two films last year that told the story of explorers alone and adrift in a hostile environment: Gravity and All is Lost. The broad similarities in their plot and structure make it easier to pick out contrasts between the two films. Gravity was corny and predictable, whilst All is Lost generated far more pathos and tension. So I felt comfortable saying the Academy blew it by giving multiple nominations to Gravity but only a Sound Editing nomination for All is Lost.

This year, the part of Gravity was played by Boyhood. It received great plaudits for its central gimmick: shooting a single film over 12 years. And to be fair to Linklater, he pulls it off. Having placed himself under this constraint, he delivers a perfectly reasonable film.

That does not, however, mean that it:

…is not just good but revolutionary—a film that reconsiders, in surprising and rewarding ways, the medium’s relationship with time, with storytelling, and with its audience.

Boyhood does unfortunately illustrate why generally speaking one does not make a film in scattered bursts across a decade. The film’s energy is rather dissipated, it lacks energy is rather dissipated, it lacks direction or a plot and at times feels loose assemblage of short films rather than a feature film in its own right.

Even its great strength has been done better by another film this year: Two Days, One Night. Both films depict the very ordinary in a way that is nonetheless seems cinematic. Belgian directorial pairing the Dardenne brothers share with Linklater a talent for making their camera disappear and thereby convincing you that you are watching say a meal in a stranger’s house.

However, in Two Days the Dardenne’s take pretty much the opposite approach to Linklater in dealing with time. The film takes place not over a dozen years but (as the name implies) a single weekend. During that time we follow the efforts of Sandra (played by the Oscar nominated Marion Cotillard) to persuade her co-workers to forgo their annual bonuses so she can keep her job. This framing gives it precisely the kind of form and purpose Boyhood lacks.

While I think the above point is the most important point in Two Days favour, it also benefits enormously from its central performance. While the acting in Boyhood has rightly been praised none of it matches Cotillard’s achievement. Her face is on screen in close up for the majority of the film’s running time. Yet Sandra’s personality and depression as filtered through the Dardenne’s ultra-realistic style demand that she is generally rather subdued. So Cotillard has to carry the audience through more or less the whole film while conveying a massive inner struggle in only the subtlest of ways.

It is also worth mentioning that Two Days offers a deep and affecting look at mental illness and deindustrialisation. By contrasts, Boyhoods’ attempts at tackling ‘issues’ wind up seeming more like hit and runs than a proper exploration of them.

Yet, like All is Lost the year before, Two Days only received a single nomination. It deserved better. Though I’m delighted that having been snubbed by every other major award Cotillard was nominated for an Oscar. If you’ve not seen Two Days then I’d really recommend seeking it out.