At the time of the Second World War, three ‘parallel wars’, or conflicts under the umbrella of World War Two, took place in Finland. The first two pitted Finland against the Soviet Union, while the final saw Finnish forces facing Germany, its ally in the previous conflict.
One unique aspect about Finland’s second war with the Soviet Union is that it was the only instance in which a substantial number of Jewish soldiers fought on the same side as the Nazis. In total, it is estimated that 300 Jewish Finns took part in both the Winter War of 1939–40 and the Continuation War of 1941–44.
Although Finland did not sign the Tripartite Pact and become part of the Axis Powers or an affiliate state, the fact that it had a common enemy in the Soviet Union made it an ally or ‘co-belligerent’ of Nazi Germany.
This arrangement lasted from November of 1941, with Finland’s signing of the Anti-Comintern Pact, to August of 1944, when a new Finnish government negotiated a peace with the Soviets and by default switched allegiances to the Allied powers.
Finland’s wars with the Soviet Union
In early 1918 the Russian Revolution spilled over into Finland, as it had been an autonomous part of the Russian Empire prior to its collapse. The result was the Finnish Civil War, which saw social democratic Red Finland (allied with the Soviets) facing conservative White Finland, which was allied with the German Empire. The war ended with the defeat of the Red Guard.
The Winter War (1939–40)
Three months into World War Two, the Soviet Union invaded Finland after the Finns refused to cede territory to the Soviets. The conflict ended with the signing of the Moscow Peace Treaty. The Soviet Union had gained more Finnish territory and resources than it had demanded at the outset.
The Continuation War (1941–44)
15 months after the conclusion of the Winter War, another conflict began between the two states. For Finland, it was simply a continuation of the Winter War against Soviet belligerence, but the Soviet Union saw it as part of the war with Germany since the Finns were allied with the Third Reich. Germany also considered the conflict as part of its war on the Eastern Front.
It is the Continuation War that saw some 300 Jewish-Finnish soldiers fight alongside soldiers of Nazi Germany.
While Hitler considered the Finns valuable allies, Finnish leadership was generally uncomfortable with the relationship, which was borne out of necessity rather than a common worldview. Finland’s motivation for engaging with Russia was to regain the territory it had lost in the Winter War.
The treatment of Jews in World War Two-era Finland
Since late 1917 when Finnish independence was established from Russia, Jews in Finland had enjoyed equal legal rights as Finnish citizens.
Unlike other European Axis allies and signatories of the Tripartite Pact, Finland was not subject to Nazi control. Nor did it have a policy of relinquishing its Jewish population to the Nazis only to have them sent to death camps.
At the time of the war, Finland’s Jewish population was around 2,000; a low number, but still significant for such a small country. Although Heinrich Himmler demanded that Finland hand over its Jews, the Finnish government did not comply. For Germany, a strategic military alliance was more of a priority. One shameful exception was the handing over of 8 Jewish refugees to the Gestapo, who sent them all to Auschwitz.
Finland negotiated the transfer of 160 other refugees to neutral Sweden where they could find safety.
The Lapland War
In August 1944 Finland made peace with the Soviet Union. One condition was that all German forces be removed from the country. This resulted in the Lapland War, which lasted from September 1944 to April 1945. Though greatly outnumbered by the Germans, Finnish forces had the assistance of the Russian Air Force and some Swedish volunteers.
Germany’s casualties outnumbered Finland’s by almost 2 to 1 and the conflict ended with a German retreat into Norway.