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 – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Leningrad_Siege_May_1942_-_January_1943.png#mediaviewer/File:Leningrad_Siege_May_1942_-_January_1943.png

 

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.

Aftermath

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.

Sources:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05077kv

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/museums/10682975/The-Jews-who-fought-for-Hitler-We-did-not-help-the-Germans.-We-had-a-common-enemy.html

http://www.holocaustchronicle.org/staticpages/281.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Risto_Ryti#War-guilt_trials

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Jews_in_Finland#Antisemitism

The revolution will not be peaceful

Having been challenged by Robert Webb to “read some fucking Orwell,” Russell Brand responds by showing that he’s either not read or not understood Orwell.

Robert Webb and Russell Brand

I’m not sure quite how we have got to the stage where the politics of Russell Brand apparently merit not only an interview by Jeremy Paxman but also a follow up with Medhi Hassan. However it happened, I really wish it hadn’t. His responses to Robert Webb’s thoughtful and intelligent critique of revolutions illustrates the shallowness and recklessness of his political thinking.

His Weak Arguments

Brand continues to deploy the George W. Bush technique of trying to make his ignorance into an asset. He explains that he doesn’t “claim to be a politician, like all things I’m sure there are people in the room who know more about this than I do, I didn’t have an education like Robert Webb had.” People who try to legitimate their views by saying in effect ‘you should take me seriously because I’m as stupid as a regular person’ are not only insulting regular people but also showing why their views don’t merit attention. Political debate should be about the mutual enlightenment of all those involved not about the dissemination of ignorant opinions by those who main qualification is being as stupid as some purported everyman.

Brand also tries the inverse of this reasoning by trying to brand Webb an elitist. He says: “Maybe it’s okay for Robert Webb…If you went to Oxbridge, if you went to a private school, no one is coming for your kids.” This is a weak argument because:

His scary argument

However, this is far from the worst part of the interview.

“I’m not saying lets go smash people up and certainly not kill people. Just for the record, I’m not in on the old death camps… I’m double, double against genocide. I am talking about a revolution of consciousness.”

Brand added: “Definitely no killing. I’m against that; I’m a vegetarian, I think we’re all equal. I’m not saying smash people’s stuff up, and definitely no killing.”

Assessing previous Marxist revolutions, the 38-year-old said that in its “traditional form” revolution was ok but it “went a bit genocidal, it was just a bit of sharing, then it got spoilt.” Brand insisted that he wanted a peaceful revolution. “Once you are violent you’d get nicked. If you’re disobeying without being violent they can’t nick you, it’s a paradigm breaker.”

What Orwell could teach Brand

If Brand took Orwell seriously, he’d understand precisely why these (bizarre) clarifications are so pointless. The whole point of Animal Farm is that even revolutions that seem benign at the start, can mutate into something ugly. The pigs do not start out announcing that they plan to have dogs kill other animals, send Boxer to the glue factory and begin walking on two legs. But that’s what happens as power corrupts them and their revolution.

This not only happened in the Soviet revolution that inspired Animal Farm. It took only a few years of the French Revolution to turn Robespierre from an opponent of the death penalty into the instigator of the terror.

Why we need Democracy for peace

Let’s be clear, the kind of revolution brand imagines – anti-democratic and radical – would almost inevitably be violent.

Democracy is not only (or even primarily) a means for representing the views of the people, it’s also a means of avoiding political violence. It provides a set of rules on transferring power that are generally perceived as broadly fair and therefore accepted – it’s a safe bet that after the last general election, Gordon Brown did not contemplate using the army or police to hold onto power.  Take away democracy and you take away the rules of politics, and anything (including violence) goes. Without democracy it is hard to see how the Brandian revolutionary vanguard would legitimate their rule and without legitimacy it is hard to see how they could maintain their rule except through coercion, and indeed how they could dissuade people from using violence to oppose them.

And revolutions are worse than even Orwell suggested

Brand says a “total revolution of consciousness and our entire social, political and economic system is what interests me.” These kind of genuinely revolutionary revolutions with their utopian pretensions are the most dangerous. Better even than Orwell for understanding why revolutions go bad is Theda Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions. In the dry prose of a sociologist she explains why she found conventional Marxist analysis inadequate for understanding ‘social revolutions‘ like those in France, Russia and China. Marx would lead you to believe that revolutions transfer power between classes. Instead Skocpol found that the largest shift in power was not towards any particular class but to the state itself. This comes about because the revolutionary regimes needed a state mighty enough to push through their plans for dramatic changes. So they give bureaucrats, the armed forces and other organs of the state a degree of power they’ve never had before.

Orwell was actually understating the horror of the revolution when at the finale of Animal Farm, the ordinary animals see that the pigs have become indistinguishable from their old human masters. Stalin wasn’t indistinguishable from the Czar; he was far worse. The Czars ability to oppress his people was constrained by his ramshackle state. By contrast, the Soviet state was powerful enough to send thousands to the Gulags, spy on the entire nation and starve millions to death in the name of collectivizing agriculture.

Time for the political prima dona to exit the stage

Just about the only thing Brand gets right in this whole sorry interview is that there are indeed plenty of people who know more than he does. It’s time he let them take the floor. Nothing he has to say about revolutions portrays insight or deep thought. His political thinking is underdeveloped and ill-informed.

He should be more careful. Revolutionary socialism is an unpleasant and violent doctrine. While there is little or no chance of a socialist revolution in Britain today, there is a risk in even some individuals taking it seriously. There was a time not to long ago when the terrorist threat to Europe came not from angry young Muslims but angry young leftists. Given high youth unemployment and our general disengagement from party politics, the conditions for it to re-emerge are there. Webb rightly observes in his letter to Brand that:

In putting the words “aesthetically” and “disruption” in the same sentence, you come perilously close to saying that violence can be beautiful. Do keep an eye on that. Ambiguity around ambiguity is forgivable in an unpublished poet and expected of an arts student on the pull: for a professional comedian demoting himself to the role of “thinker”, with stadiums full of young people hanging on his every word, it won’t really do.

Pravda is still published

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Pravda, the paper that in the days of the USSR was the voice of the Soviet Government is still being published. And after several years as a commercial operation it is once again owned by the Communist Party and is pumping out propaganda such Obama to step on Hitler’s path?, Putin overshadows blood-hungry, ‘exceptional’ Obama and Russian children get gay love books from the West.