The rejection earlier this week by French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen of France’s responsibility for its police having delivered thousands of its Jewish citizens to the Nazis for deportation to the death camps in 1942 elicited justifiable outrage at home and abroad. The behavior of European countries during the Holocaust remains a hotly debated topic. How strange and unfortunate then is the refusal of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to commemorate a positive action unparalleled in World War II: Finland’s saving 100% of its Jewish population, despite the presence of hundreds of thousands of German troops and the Gestapo on its territory and Nazi demands for the Finnish Jews’ deportation.
The complex history of Finland from 1939 to 1945 provides necessary context for the government’s stance on Finnish Jewry. After the Finns gave the invading U.S.S.R. a bloody nose at the outset of the 1939-40 Winter War, the massive Soviet numerical superiority in troops and materiel ultimately compelled Helsinki to sue for peace. Finland was forced to cede one-tenth of its territory, including the country’s second city Viipuri (Vyborg), to the aggressor.
Unable during the next year to conclude defensive military partnerships with the U.K. or Sweden, Finland turned to Nazi Germany, allowing German troops to transit its territory preparatory to invading the U.S.S.R. When war broke out in June 1941 and the Red Air Force bombed Finland, the government in Helsinki declared itself a co-belligerent, not an ally, of Germany to show that the relationship was a marriage of convenience. Finland needed German military might to survive, but it did not want to be associated with Hitler’s ideology. Partially as a result of this distinction, the U.S., unlike the U.K., never declared war on Finland.
Able-bodied men from the small Jewish community, like all other Finns, flocked to the colors, and several distinguished themselves. In what has to be one of the great ironies of
modern history, three Jewish Finnish soldiers were awarded the Iron Cross by Nazi Germany. All three refused to accept the decoration, one of them expressing himself in the grossest possible language. The Finnish government in a remarkable “in your face” demonstration of its beliefs erected a field synagogue for Jewish troops at the front lines close to where the German and Finnish military sectors met and where German officers frequently were present.
So perhaps what unfolded in August 1942 could have been anticipated. Hitler dispatched Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler to Helsinki with a ship intended to transport Finland’s Jewish population to the death camps. But in a private meeting Prime Minister Johan (Jukka) Rangell quickly silenced Himmler, curtly telling him: “Wir haben keine Judenfrage” (“We do not have a Jewish Question”). The leader of the Finnish armed forces, Marshal Gustav Mannerheim, also made clear that with Jewish Finns fighting and dying in his army, the government in Helsinki would not cooperate in the deportation of their community.
No country’s history, however, is spotless, and wartime Finland had to make painful compromises. Finland turned over to Berlin 28 civilian refugee foreigners, including eight Jews from Central Europe, seven of whom died in extermination camps. It is worth noting that when the Finnish media reported on the deportations, a scandal erupted, and ministers resigned in protest. Two years later Mannerheim ordered 160 Jewish refugees without Finnish citizenship sent to neutral Sweden to save their lives. The eight non-Finnish Jews who were deported in 1942 are now honored in downtown Helsinki in a monument dedicated by the Prime Minister of Finland in 2000.
During the course of the war four additional foreign Jewish civilians were deported. In addition, in an exchange for German-held Finnic prisoners, around 2,500 Soviet prisoners of war, several dozen of whom had Jewish family names, were handed over to Berlin. Several members of Finland’s State Police were anti-Semitic, including its chief who after the war was tried and convicted as a war criminal.
The central issue, however, is that in order to save every single one of its Jewish citizens, Finland was willing to risk suffering the same fate as its Baltic neighbors Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which two years earlier had lost their independence through forcible annexation by the U.S.S.R.
A few weeks ago I had a telephone conversation with a historian from the U.S. Holocaust Museum about why the story of Finland is not exhibited there. She asserted that Finland was not unique in saving its Jews, citing the cases of Denmark and Bulgaria. I’m not sure why uniqueness should be the criterion for exhibitions, but in any case I reminded her that before Denmark carried out its famous fishermen’s boat rescue to Sweden, several hundred Danish Jews had already been sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. I added that although Bulgaria deserves great credit for also having saved its own Jewish citizens, it was complicit in the Nazi annihilation of the Jewish community in Macedonia, an area claimed by and under the control of Bulgaria. Only Finland was able to save all its citizens on its territory.
Equally important, the downside risk to Finland was substantially higher than to other countries. I agreed with her that the importance of the Finnish army to the anti-Soviet war effort did make abandonment of Finland by Germany to the U.S.S.R. unlikely. But such speculation is far easier to make from the comfort of 21st century America than it was on the ground in the war-torn Europe of 1942. Finland had no guarantee that Hitler would agree to leave Finnish Jewry untouched and simultaneously continue militarily to support Finnish independence. If one is to indulge in counter-factual history, just imagine if every other European country with German troops on its soil in World War II had acted the way Finland did.
Given the enormous stakes for the country, Finland’s behavior stands as an unparalleled act of principle. The U.S. Holocaust Museum would do well to memorialize the Finnish story, both to illustrate that in the real world moral choices are usually complicated, and to provide the public with an inspiring example of courage on a national scale.
Michael Haltzel, former foreign policy advisor to Vice President (then-Senator) Joseph R. Biden, Jr., is Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.