Evil and Everyday Life: Interpreting Nazi Heritage

This post is republished from my August 22, 2015 blog Archaeology and Material Culture

The “We Were Friends” exhibit

The “We Were Friends” exhibit

In June, 1941 the German military arrived in northern Finland as part of the Operation Barbarossa offensive against the Soviet Union.  The Germans became co-belligerents with the Finns, jointly waging war on the Soviets between June, 1941 and September, 1944 in what is known in Finland as the Continuation War.  At its height, 220,000 Germans were based and living in Finnish communities.

IMG_8567The Arktikum Museum and Arctic Science Centre’s exhibit “We Were Friends”: Finnish-German Encounters in Lapland, 1940-1944 revolves around the premise that in many ways the Finns and Germans experienced all the human relationships common between people anywhere: in various contexts, Finns and Germans were friendly colleagues, indifferent peers, or romantically involved.  “We Were Friends” departs from conventional Nazi narratives dispensing familiar moral judgments and instead plumbs everyday life between Finns and Germans.  That focus delivers a novel if potentially unsettling humanization of Finnish and German people living alongside each other amidst war.  It is an enormously challenging ambition to render the Nazi soldiers in Finland as prosaic and even banal people since the Nazis’ broader legacy has dominated historical pictures of German foot soldiers.  Inevitably, the exhibit also uneasily illuminates the historical implications of the Finns’ reception of the Germans.

The Haus der Komradeschaft in Rovaniemi in 1943 (image SA-Kuva).

The Haus der Komradeschaft in Rovaniemi in 1943 (image SA-Kuva).

“We Were Friends” casts Finns and Germans as utterly recognizable people negotiating difference and their circumstances as nearly any of us would.  The exhibit aspires to humanize the relationships between Finns and Germans, not Nazis and the German military writ large, a mission that may be impossible, naïve, refreshing, overdue, or something anywhere on that continuum.  The exhibit perhaps on some level aspires to salvage German soldiers’ humanity from narratives fixed on the Nazi war machine or caricatures of the German foot soldier as an ideological automaton.  On a novel, fascinating, and potentially unsettling level “We Were Friends” avoids weaving any especially judgmental moral or ideological narrative of the war, Nazism, or wartime Finns, instead painting a picture of everyday life distinguished by its recognizable banality.

Perhaps the most interesting juxtaposition of the banal and unsettling in “We Were Friends” is this image of Finns and Germans at a football match (image Provincial Museum of Lapland)

The exhibit deploys utterly prosaic everyday experiences to depict Germans who found themselves waging war in Finnish Lapland.  For instance, Finnish elders’ oral histories remember mundane expressions of humanity, like German gifts of candy or holiday parties.  Everyday life in home front communities like Rovaniemi remained rather quotidian, with hockey and soccer played between Finnish hosts and German guests, and Germans visited Finnish homes for coffee and shared a sauna.  The community gathered for concerts and new German movies at the Haus der Kameradschaft (House of Comradeship).  Germans were an aesthetic and physical presence in towns like Rovaniemi (which had about 6000 German residents), with one exhibit placard concluding that “Officers on horseback in their uniforms were a handsome sight.”

An image of a marriage request between a German soldier and Finnish woman lies beneath letters between the couple.

An image of a marriage request between a German soldier and Finnish woman lies beneath letters between the couple.

Inevitably some Finns and Germans had sexual and romantic relationships, and those relationships have often been an unsettling wartime legacy held as family secrets.  “We Were Friends” paints romance circumspectly, with heartfelt passions and genuine attachments that mostly dissolved in unresolved uncertainties when the Germans left in September, 1944.  About 700 children of German soldiers were born to Finnish women (compare the 2015 Deutsche Welle story or a 2011 Swedish article).  Like much of “We Were Friends” the post-war uneasiness if not outright contempt for these relationships stands at odds with the picture of prosaic everyday life the exhibit paints for the co-belligerence period.  In this sense, much of the force of the exhibit is its unexpected banality, which is heightened by knowing the Finnish postwar history but may be confusing to visitors unschooled in the Finnish war experience.  “We Were Friends” avoids much resolution or any focus on historical consequences—Finnish-German couples are cast to the wind and the eventual fates of the people and places in the exhibit largely unaddressed.  It remains largely in the hands of visitors to make narrative sense of everyday life in the midst of the war.

Generaloberst Dietl, eversti ja ""Lapin keisari"" Villamo y.m.

Generaloberst Eduard Dietl in 1942

Among the mostly anonymous Germans, none secures more attention than Generaloberst Eduard Dietl, the highest-ranking German in Finland for most of the Continuation War.  Ville Kivimäki’s 2012 study of Finnish wartime memory argues that Dietl looms somewhat awkwardly as a “good German” who respected his Finnish brothers-in-arms and hosts and sought amicable relations between Finns and Germans.  In contrast, Dietl’s successor Lothar Rendulic spearheaded the Germans’ scorched earth tactics during the 1944 German withdrawal from Lapland, and he is looked on with much less appreciation (Dietl died in a June, 1944 air crash).  Dietl is a difficult figure to humanize, though, given his devotion to the Nazi cause since the 1923 Munich beer hall putsch.  Casting Dietl as a dashing figure distributing bon-bons in Rovaniemi hazards ignoring the brutality inflicted on his watch (Hitler described Dietl as a “fanatical National Socialist”).  “We Were Friends” does complicate Dietl’s facile caricature, delivering that blow with Dietl’s own damning words on racial purity: Dietl instructed German officers assessing marriage applications between Finns and Germans that “with only a few exceptions, the submitted applications unfortunately concern quite inferior representatives of neighbouring peoples, who can barely be called close relatives.  The attached photographs show almost solely racial driftwood, from girls with clearly eastern features to an ugly and stunted `bride,’ who cannot be considered as suitable German mothers.”

IMG_8578The Dietl example shows how “We Were Friends” is perhaps surprisingly circumspect, somewhat clinically documenting everyday life while eschewing a linear narrative confirming the obvious.  Those visitors seeking historical background for co-belligerence or details on what happened in 1944 after the co-belligerent status ended are seeking a conventional, conclusively interpreted historical narrative that “We Were Friends” largely avoids.  The reluctance or disinterest in fabricating a clear narrative may reflect the distinctively Finnish memory of World War II.  The war may be the single most consequential event in Finnish national heritage, and it is enormously complicated by caricatures, romanticization, and evasion that persist despite an exceptionally rich public understanding of the war’s more-or-less objective facts.

The Haus der Kameradschaft ruins in 1944 (image SA-Kuva)

Many non-Finns in particular may find “We Were Friends”’ detailed exposition of everyday life unsettling and even dangerously apolitical in its unwillingness to simply cast the Finnish-German relationship as unadulterated darkness.  It may be that the popular memory of the Nazis’ war as pure evil strikes a satisfying moral tenor to frame wartime narratives, and at some point we must implicate Germans—including the foot soldiers in Rovaniemi—in that historical judgment.  “We Were Friends” risks disconnecting the German war in Finland from the well-documented barbarity wrought throughout Europe, and its treatment of Dietl and subjects like sexual violence by Germans might deserve a more heavy-handed political voice.  The curators’ motivations for mounting such a challenging and important exhibit pass unexamined in “We Were Friends” as it delivers a fine-grained exposition of everyday life that leaves interpretation of those lives and the war to us.

Nevertheless, “We Were Friends”’ tale of everyday life is a provocative, thoughtful, and compelling examination of easily caricatured German soldiers and Finnish hosts.  The exhibit appears to have been enormously popular even as some of us may feel some anxiety admitting our fascination with the Nazis’ experience in Finland.  The attraction of the exhibit perhaps reflects our fascination with evil and how it captures the imagination of everyday people: in this case, can we reconcile Nazi ideology and deeds with the banality of gifts of German candy or the unsettling image of Christmas parties hosted by Nazis?  Perhaps the challenge of comprehending evil is that it defies such simplistic narrative resolution, and while some audiences will chafe at its apparent failure to pass judgement on the Third Reich’s cause, “We Were Friends” avoids “making sense” of the war itself.  Instead, it ponders the human dimensions of Finnish-German relationships and leaves the unsettling dimensions of the Nazi agenda and Finnish bonds with Germans simultaneously at the heart of the story even as they remain unspoken.



Anu Heiskanen

2008 A Useless War Memory: Erotic Fraternization, German Soldiers and Gender in Finland.  In The Gender of Memory: Cultures of Remembrance in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Europe, edited by Sylvia Paletschek and Sylvia Schraut.  University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Eva Kingsepp

2006 “Nazi fans” but not Neo-Nazis: The Cultural Community of “WWII Fanatics.”  In Returning (to) Communities : Theory, Culture and Political Practice of the Communal, edited by Stefan Herbrechter and Michael Higgins, pp. 224-240. Rodopi, Amsterdam.

Ville Kivimäki

2012 Between Defeat and Victory: Finnish memory culture of the Second World War.  Scandinavian Journal of History 37(4):482-504.

Ville Kivimäki and Tuomas Tepora

2009 War of Hearts: Love and Collective Attachment as Integrating Factors in Finland During World War IIJournal of Social History 43(2):285-305.  (subscription access)

Sandra Wallenius-Korkalo

2010 Remembering and Forgetting the Second World War in Finland: The politics of Memory in Online Discussions.  In Progress or Perish: Northern Perspectives on Social Change, eds. Aini Linjakumpu and Sandra Wallenius-Korkalo, pp.65-82. Ashgate Publishing Group, Burlington, Vermont.

Lars Westerlund

2011 The Children of German Soldiers: Children of Foreign Soldiers in Finland 1940–1948, Volume I.  Nord Print, Helsinki.



Haus der Kameradschaft Rovaniemi 1943, Haus der Kameradschaft 1944, Eduard Dietl 1943 images from Finnish Wartime Photograph Archives SA-photo archive