By Isaac Binkovitz
A recent article in the Telegraph tells the story of Finland’s Jewish population during World War II. It is an unusual, and little-told story. It isn’t the typical story of the tragedy that met Jews nearly everywhere else on the Continent during the German-led Holocaust. Nor is it the much-mythologized, and often-exaggerated story of Denmark’s seemingly unique willingness to protect its Jewish citizens from the Germans’ so-called “final solution.”
Like the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the story of Finnish Jews is a story in which the Jew is the protagonist that takes part in the struggle for freedom. In fact, Finnish Jews fought in open battle against the military advances of a foreign totalitarian power seeking to extend its control over an entire continent. Their fight was not in desperation. And their fight wasn’t to save only themselves. The Jews of Finland fought also to save their gentile friends and neighbors. Even more miraculously, the Jews won (technically, they won the first, defensive phase, known as the Winter War, and lost the second, offensive phase, the Continuation War).
But I should mention something: they weren’t fighting the Germans.
But don’t worry; their adversary in battle had pretty solid bad-guy bona fides: they fought the Soviet Union.
In case you forgot that before the Cold War made the Soviet Union the bad guys, they were a major, and for much of the war, the major, Allied power. They rolled back German forces in about half of Europe in a long, drawn-out blood-fest on the Eastern front. You could say that they, as much if not more than the Anglos, won the War to save the West from the Nazis.
The uncomfortable truth is that Finland’s war with the Soviets aided the German war effort. More than that, Finland was allied with Germany during the War. Finnish history then requires a fair amount of nuance. A Western liberal has much reason to cheer for Finland’s successes in preserving its freedom in the face of the Soviet steamroller. And despite Finland’s horrendous allies, Finland had a pretty good record on protecting its Jewish population, unlike nearly everywhere else on the Continent. Finland refused to deport Jews. It was glad for the aid of Jewish soldiers in its armed forces, and reasoned that as long as its Jews were good loyal citizens helping to defend Finland, which they were, Finland would not turn them over to the German death machine.
But they were fighting on the same side as Nazis. You can’t really explain that away entirely. But you can say that Finland did not conquer territory to turn over to German control, and that it did not deport its Jewish citizens. As a small nation it managed to preserve its autonomy during the War, and in the War’s aftermath. All this despite bordering the Soviet Union.
Given circumstances, Finland did pretty well. Perhaps it could have remained neutral longer, and avoided war with the USSR, and still avoided German occupation. But it could have ended up occupied anyway, and had its Jews deported. Tasked with defending its citizens, Finland did. I am sure there were and are weird right-wing Finnish organizations, and that there were Finns who propagated anti-Semitic views and fully sympathized with the Nazis. This kind of collaboration should not be whitewashed. But if every country had been able to succeed the way Finland did in remaining independent, and retaining a civilized (and non-genocidal) order throughout the War, the Holocaust would not be the Holocaust as we know it today.
Some may seek to translate this remarkable story of Finnish valor to other contexts. Take, for example, Finland’s Baltic neighbors to the south: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. Many there claim a similar justification for their collaboration with Nazis: that it was necessary to fight the USSR.
Not so fast. In the three Baltic states the alliance with Nazi Germany was not some odd happenstance as we may view Finland’s alliance. The local population (whom I will here refer somewhat awkwardly to as the Baltic peoples in recognition of the fact there is no singular “Baltic people,” and that Estonians do not identify as “Balts,” a term that describes Lithuanians and Latvians) and militias were active and zealous participants in the murder of the region’s Jewish population. Locals joined the SS, and exterminated Jews even more efficiently and thoroughly than the Nazis were able to. By some estimates 99% of Lithuania’s Jews were murdered during the War. To this day, locals in the Baltic states commemorate and celebrate their alliance with Nazi Germany. They attempt to justify it with the same kind of anti-Soviet rationale that applies in Finland.
But they, unlike Finland, attempt to do it to justify genocide. They often even refuse to commemorate the Holocaust unless it is done in a way that it is presented as an equal half of a so-called “Double Genocide.” Under the “Double Genocide” fallacy, the Baltic states claim that the German murder of Jews (they may not even admit that it was a targeted murder of Jews despite the fact that the Nazis murdered 1/3rd of the world’s far-flung Jewish population in less than a decade) must be viewed alongside the supposedly equivalent sufferings of the (gentile) Baltic peoples at the hands of the Soviets. Even more offensively, this is often accompanied by the suggestion that the Baltic peoples’ participation in killing Jews was justified because the Jews were stereotyped as pro-Soviet (and in fact, the Russian Revolution and the USSR it birthed was the result of a “Jewish conspiracy”). This is a theory of “pre-emptive genocide.” It of course ignores that the USSR was not so friendly to the Jews. It ignores that even after Baltic gentiles wiped out the Baltic Jews, the Soviets still dominated the Baltic states (their genocide didn’t really pre-empt anything because the Jews were not the puppet masters controlling the Soviets the Baltic gentiles thought they were). Further, it fails to see that had the Soviets actually sought to wipe out the Baltic peoples, they could easily have done so in less than a decade.
For more information on the problematic failure to recognize the Holocaust in the Baltic states, I would recommend the blog, Defending History.
It wasn’t a given that Finland would follow the course that it did. Finland’s Jews were largely descended from Russian soldiers sent there when Finland was part of the Russian Empire. Finns had all the same reasons to fear and distrust the Jews that the Baltic population had. Finns faced the same geopolitical reality that they bordered an aggressively expansionist Soviet Union, and that the Germans were the ones fighting the Soviet Union. But they did not turn against Finnish Jews. Only 22 (or 23) Finnish Jews died in the War. They were all soldiers who fell fighting the Soviet Union. Perhaps, in part, it was because Finland did not busy itself with killing its own citizens, and instead deployed them as a united group, that it repelled the Soviet invasions and the Baltic peoples did not. I think we can celebrate Finland’s successes. There likely is a fuller story with more nefarious collaboration than I discuss here (Finland did turn over between 5 and 8 foreign Jewish refugees to the Nazis, and transferred POW’s to germany, including 40-70 or Jews). But in large part, Finland deserves a sympathetic account of its actions during a difficult period.
In short, Finland’s story fits a remarkable Nordic pattern of dealing with the War pretty well from occupied Denmark to neutral Sweden, and… even (hesitantly) Nazi-allied Finland.
When I saw the Telegraph article circulating the web recently, my first concern was that people would read it, learn the logic that fighting the Soviets might justify an alliance with Nazi Germany, and then become predisposed to accept the same argument elsewhere, namely, the Baltic states. I hope to have adequately explained why these cases are incredibly different.
You can read more about Finland’s Jewish soldiers who fought in World War II in Israel’s Ha’aretz.