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.


The Finnish sniper with three times as many kills as Chris Kyle

How a Finnish farmer became the legendary ‘White Death’ who killed more than 500 Soviet soldiers.

Clint Eastwood’s new film American Sniper centres on a Navy SEAL named Chris Kyle who killed a 160 people during four tours in Iraq. That made him the most lethal sniper in the history of the US military. Since the film was released it has transpired that there is a Royal Marine sniper who has killed 173 people.

However, these men were far from being the most lethal snipers of all time. That grisly honour goes to Simo Häyhä, a Finish soldier who fought for his country against invading Soviet forces in 1939. Häyhä was a farmer and a huntsman notable only for the marksmanship trophies. He joined up at the start of the war and found himself as part of a unimaginably brutal war.

The Soviets had three times as many soldiers as the Finns, thirty times as many aircraft, and a hundred times as many tanks. Yet the Red Army was weakened by Stalin’s purges that had killed most of its officers. In addition, many of its soldiers came from warmer climates and were not used to the kind of brutally cold weather they would face in Finland. Nor did the Soviets have enough cold weather equipment. As a result despite their numerical advantage the Soviets made slow progress against the Finnish forces and wracked up casualties as they did it. By the wars conclusion the Red Army had lost 300,000 men more than 4 times the Finnish losses.

505 of those casulties were down to Häyhä including 25 in a single day. His method was to:

…don his warmest uniform and wrap it with a white snowsuit, mitts, and mask, wrap a few days’ worth of food in cloth, pocket fifty to seventy rounds of ammunition, and hike out into the bush with his rifle and a submachine gun. He would find himself a vantage point in some brush or in the boughs of a tree, and wait–sometimes for days–for a target of opportunity. The invading Soviets tended to adhere to established roads, and Häyhä would entrench himself in the terrain within view. Often he would choose to forfeit possible targets to engender a sense of security and lure more appealing prey like officers and supply trains into his sights.

The Soviets began to react to Häyhä’s success by ordering artillery strikes on suspected sniper nests, and employing counter-snipers. One Russian sniper killed several Finnish soldiers and three officers, and was on the hunt for a particularly troublesome Finn with a Mosin-Nagant M91. He made one kill early in the day, giving Häyhä a general location of his adversary. Häyhä slowly crept through the snow to gain position. When the sun began to set, the Soviet sniper decided that his chance was past and rose to his knees. The sun glinted on his 3x scope; Häyhä was still patiently waiting and caught sight of the movement. Häyhä put a single shot through the Soviet’s head from 450 meters.

What makes this spree particularly remarkable is that it lasted just a few months. In March 1940, only a few days before a peace agreement was reached, Häyhä’s face was struck by an explosive round resulting in an injury that would leave him disfigured for the rest of his life. Then even worse, he would see that peace agreement cede Finnish territory Russia which included his home. He did, however, have the consolation of seeing himself become national hero and being awarded five military medals.

Sources: Damn Interesting and Wikipedia 

99% of Danish Jews survived the Holocaust


King Christian X of Denmark. Who warned that if the Nazis made Danish Jews wear yellow stars, then he would wear one too

According to the historian Martin Gilbert almost 8 out of 10 Jews in Nazi occupied Europe perished during World War II. This makes the survival of the Jews of Denmark all the more remarkable.

This is not to say the Nazis didn’t try to kill them. In 1943, Eichmann ordered that the Jews of Copenhagen be deported to extermination camps. However, active and passive resistance from both the Danish government and population made this impossible to carry out:

When the Germans arrived to begin the deportations, Jews had already been warned—in their synagogues—and they simply vanished into the countryside, heading for the coast to seek a crossing to neutral Sweden. There was little or no Jewish communal organization and no Danish underground to help them. What ensued was a chaotic family-by-family flight, made possible simply because ordinary members of Danish society feigned ignorance when Germans questioned them, while sheltering families in seaside villages, hotels, and country cottages. Danish police on the coast warned hiding families when the Gestapo came to call, and signaled all-clear so that boats bearing Danish Jews could slip away to Sweden. The fishermen who took the Danish Jews across the Baltic demanded huge sums for the crossing, but managed to get their frightened fellow citizens to safety. When the Gestapo did seize Jewish families hiding in the church of the small fishing village of Gilleleje, the people were so outraged that they banded together to assist others to flee. One villager even confronted the local Gestapo officer, shining a flashlight in his face and exclaiming: “The poor Jews!” When the German replied, “It is written in the Bible that this shall be their fate,” the villager unforgettably replied: “But it is not written that it has to happen in Gilleleje.”

Not every Jew was able to flee – those in old people’s homes were captured. And the Gestapo found some runaways. However, these victims amounted to less than 1% of Danish Jews.

Such resistance to the Holocaust was almost unprecedented in Europe and requires an explanation:

Why did the Danes behave so differently from most other societies and populations in occupied Europe? For a start, they were the only nation where escape to a safe neutral country lay across a narrow strait of water. Moreover, they were not subject to exterminatory pressure themselves. They were not directly occupied, and their leadership structures from the monarch down to the local mayors were not ripped apart. The newspapers in Copenhagen were free enough to report the deportations and thus to assist any Jews still not in the know to flee. The relatively free circulation of information also made it impossible for non-Jewish Danes to claim, as so many Germans did, that “of this we had no knowledge.” Most of all, Denmark was a small, homogeneous society, with a stable democracy, a monarchy that commanded respect, and a shared national hostility to the Germans. Denmark offers some confirmation of Rousseau’s observation that virtue is most easily fostered in small republics.

One could draw a simple moral from this story. By resisting the Nazis, the Danes saved thousands of Jewish lives and had other Europeans done the same many more could have been saved. But actually it contains a tragic dilemma.Denmark was able to resist the Holocaust because it co-operated with the Reich in pursuit of it’s strategic interests. That headed off a German occupation and allowed the Danes to keep a democratic government that was prepared to protect its Jewish population. It raises the disturbing question of whether dealing with a a regime as abhorrent as Nazi Germany might actually sometimes be justified.

Source: One Country Saved Its Jews. Were They Just Better People? The surprising truth about Denmark in the Holocaust by Michael Ignatieff 

Talkin Bout Their Generation: the Insufferable Sixties

Baby Boomers should stop subjecting the rest of us to their solipsism


Two American anniversaries: the one you’ve heard about and the one that matters

As you have likely noticed yesterday was the 50th assassination of John F. Kennedy. He is still a subject of massive fascination and a sizable industry. The most obvious aspect of this is the continuing obsession with the imagined conspiracy that killed him but it’s far from being the only one. For example, an article in the New Republic accused the up market Vanity Fair of having “an absurd preoccupation with the Kennedys” and noted that:

Since Michelle Obama became first lady, Jackie has merited more attention—20 mentions to Michelle’s 19. Since August 2008, when John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate, searching for “Kennedy” in VF in Nexis yields twice as many results as searching for “Palin.” The “politics” section of has a header for “The Kennedys”—an entire digital section devoted to political figures who are, save a few, no longer alive. Surely readers looking for political coverage would rather find, oh, say, a tab marked, “Presidential election 2012”?

When the American public are polled about who they think the greatest president is JFK is invariably near the top and a recent poll named him as the most popular president of the past sixty years. This stands in contrast to surveys of scholars who tend to give JFK a rather more middling rating.

The focus on the 50th anniversary of the JFK anniversary is all the more striking given that Tuesday was the 150th anniversary of a milestone in the presidency of the man who usually tops those scholar lists. On the 19th November 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. This was probably the most important speech ever in American history and followed the decisive battle of the Civil War. Yet somehow this was overshadowed by the death of a mediocre president who happened to be rather handsome. I would suggest that this disparity can be explained by the fact that JFK was a figure from the Sixties, a period with an outsize role in our collective imagination.

Sixties Mania

Our obsession with the Sixties manifests itself in many ways. There is, for example, the adulation that attaches itself to Mad Men or the latest 1000 pages of Robert Caro’s oil tanker length biography of LBJ. We could also observe that while Vietnam remains a cultural touchstone, the war in Korea is largely forgotten. Or we could point to the massive followings still enjoyed by the Rolling Stones, the Who or Bob Dylan.

It seems to me that what has happened is that now Baby Boomers – now firmly ensconced at the top of the media and cultural institutions – have been treating the events that were especially interesting and formative for them as being so for the world in general. And in the process they have managed to convince many of the rest of us that the Sixties were particularly significant.

Was the Sixties all that?

Stepping back and looking at the 20th century as a whole, the Sixties don’t seem that seminal.

If we look at the arena of politics and international relations, then important things did happen in the boomers formative years: the revolution in Cuba, the 1968 uprisings and Vietnam. However, these seem less significant than say the Depression, World War II, the beginning of the Cold War, the consolidation of postwar European democracy, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of China.

In terms of economics, the Sixties looks like a time of stasis between the emergence of Keynesian social democracy and it’s displacement by deregulation and deindustrialisation that began with the OPEC crisis in 1973.

And while it might have been a time of cultural tumult, it was intellectually arid. As Tony Judt observes in his masterful history of Postwar Europe, the Sixties was almost wholly devoid of great thinkers or movements. It produced no Durkheim, no Einstein nor a Wittgenstein.

Even in the changes in sexual politics were not as dramatic as often imagined. Phillip Larkin said that “Sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-three …..between the end of the “Chatterley” ban and the Beatles’ first LP.” However, an alternative narrative would be that the boomers rebelled against the sexual mores of their parents by embracing those of their grandparents.

What WAS unique about the Sixties was the boomers sense of their own importance. To again quote Judt:

Moments of great cultural significance are often appreciated only in retrospect. The Sixties were different: the transcendent importance contemporaries attached to their own own times – was one of the special features of the age. A significant part of the Sixties was spent in the words of The Who: ‘talking about My Generation’

I can’t be alone in thinking that it’s time for the generations that came before and after the boomers to tell them to see beyond their own formative years: if they can’t see that Gettysburg 1863 was more significant than Dallas 1963, they really need to learn to get some perspective.