HELSINKI — An Israeli Holocaust historian praised authorities in Finland on Sunday 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 Center 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 Friday. It said 1,408 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, 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, Nazi 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 Nazi 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 1941, the Finns advanced in the Karelia region outside Leningrad.
The Finnish soldiers were not under Nazi command, and the country’s leadership was mainly motivated by the desire to take back the territories lost to Moscow.
“At the beginning of the attack (on the Soviet Union), Finns were unaware of the Germans’ goal of eradicating the Jews,” Nuorteva said. “Finns were, above all, interested in fighting against the Soviet Union” due to their brutal experiences in the Winter War and the perceived threat from Moscow.
In this way, “the starting point for Finns’ involvement was different compared to most other countries joining SS foreign volunteers,” he said.
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. Many of them then served in the Finnish military until the end of World War II.
A copy of Friday’s report was given to Paula Lehtomaki, a state secretary with the Finnish government, who said it was a valuable contribution to existing research “on difficult and significant historical events” during Finland’s complex World War II history.
“We share the responsibility for ensuring that such atrocities will never be repeated,” said Lehtomaki.
The historical probe was launched following Zuroff’s request in January 2018 to Finnish President Sauli Niinisto.
Finland’s move contrasts with the attitude of some eastern European nations that have sought to diminish their culpability in the Holocaust.
In Poland, the current right-wing government has worked to highlight cases of Poles who acted heroically and saved Jews, as well as the large numbers of Poles who died and suffered during German occupation.
A previous version of this story was corrected to show that it was Finnish SS volunteers, not Finnish army troops, who military historians think witnessed atrocities against Jews and other civilians during World War II.
Aron Heller in Jerusalem and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland contributed to this report.