Add comment September 2nd, 2014 06:01am Headsman
Days before tapping out of the “Continuation War”, a bid to retake lost territory from the Soviets that put Finland in the discomfiting World War II position of Third Reich ally, its military conducted the last executions in that country’s history.
Finland had fought the bitter Winter War against the USSR in 1939-1940, a war that stalemated in the field but saw the Soviets push back the Finnish border — most particularly out of Finnish Karelia, which for Russia had always been worryingly close to Leningrad.
The cost of the USSR’s cozier security perimeter was, for Finland, 26,000 dead,* 420,000 refugees, about one-eleventh of the Finnish land mass, and one hell of a grudge. The period following the Winter War is known as the “Interim Peace,” and the interim lasted until Nazi Germany attacked the USSR on June 22, 1941. As German tanks raced across the frontier further south, the Finns — who had been armed by the Germans during the temporary peace — surged back into the Karelian isthmus. The reader will notice, as many did at the time, that despite the “continuation” branding, this installment of the conflict was an offensive war of Finland’s choosing, which put it in a different light from the foregoing heroic defense of the homeland.
In the three years that followed, while all of Europe fell into a bloodbath, Finland fought the Soviet Union almost privately, a side event in which the respective countries’ allied coalitions only barely intervened. Finland had been banking on the German attack delivering a quick knockout that would leave the Russian-controlled territories of a prospective greater Finland there for the gathering. When that proved not to be the case, the two old adversaries were back into the same brutal slog they’d had in the Winter War, heavy with irregular warfare. (Future Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov fought as a partisan in this conflict.)
In terms of the military-political outcome, Finland managed to extricate itself from the war much more gracefully than most of the Axis-allied countries who tangled with the Red Army. It struck a September 19, 1944 armistice that restored most of Karelia to the USSR (along with some new territory) and cut ties with Berlin, while avoiding postwar Soviet occupation. As a western democracy, Finland was still quite friendly with the many western Allies with which it was formally at war, and everyone — except the Russians, of course — preferred to keep the country out of Stalin’s orbit for the years to come.
But almost up the eve of that armistice, Finnish forces conducted hundreds of executions — the true number is uncertain — both of their own deserters and draft-resisters, and of captured Soviet irregulars.** These were often summary or nearly so, just as they had been when the Russian Revolution spilled over into a Finnish civil war with Communist “Red Guards”.
September 2, 1944: Olavi Laihu, the last Finn executed in Finland
As rude as these drumhead executions were, they turned out to be the very last executions in Finnish history: that country’s postwar turn towards social democracy where capital punishment is practically unthinkable is well-known. Finland abolished the death penalty for all peacetime crimes in 1949, for all crimes full stop in 1972, and wrote the abolition into its constitution in 2000.
* The Soviets lost far more — something like 5 times the number dead — to the rugged Finnish defenders. Had Finland’s defenses broken, it’s possible Moscow could have overrun and annexed the whole country.
** Finland captured over 60,000 Soviet soldiers. Some 30% of them died in Finnish POW camps, and some were executed by the Soviets upon repatriation.