HELSINKI – An Israeli historian on Sunday hailed the Finnish authorities for publishing an article concluding that Finnish volunteers working for the Waffen-SS in Nazi Germany had "most likely" taken part in the atrocities of the Second World War, including the mass murder of Jews.
Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center welcomed the publication of the results by the National Archives of Finland, even though it was "painful and uncomfortable" for Finland. Mr. Zuroff described the decision as "an example of unique and exemplary civic courage".
The Finnish government commissioned the independent investigation report, released Friday. According to the report, 1,408 Finnish volunteers served with the SS Panzer Wiking Division between 1941 and 1943, most of them between 17 and 20 years old.
"It is very likely that they participated in the massacre of Jews, other civilians and prisoners of war as part of the German SS troops," said Jussi Nuorteva, director general of the National Archives, referring to the volunteers.
An important part of the study was based on the diaries of 76 Finnish SS volunteers. Eight Finnish SS volunteers are still alive, Nuorteva said.
Finland was invaded by Moscow in November 1939. The fighting in what we called the war between Finland and the Soviet Union lasted until March 1940, when Finland signed a treaty of peace. The small Nordic country lost several territories but maintained its independence.
Isolated from the rest of Europe and fearing another Soviet attack, Finland made an alliance with Germany, receiving weapons and other material aid from Berlin.
As part of this pact, Nazi SS leader Heinrich Himmler insisted that Finland send soldiers to SS Wiking Division, just like the volunteers she asked Belgium to Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and elsewhere occupied by the Nazis.
Reluctantly, Finland complied and secretly recruited the first group of 400 SS volunteers to undergo training in the spring of 1941. The vast majority of them had no ideological sympathies with the regime. Nazi, said the report.
When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 as part of the Barbarossa operation, Finnish regular army troops fought independently alongside Wehrmacht soldiers on the north-east front.
Finnish soldiers are not under Nazi command and the country's leaders are mainly motivated by the desire to take back the lost territories in Moscow.
"At the beginning of the attack, the Finns were unaware of the purpose of the Germans to eradicate the Jews," Nuorteva said. "The Finns were above all interested in the struggle against the Soviet Union" because of their brutal experiences during the winter war and the perceived threat of Moscow.
Finnish volunteers from the SS Wiking division operated on the eastern front until 1943, penetrating deep into Ukraine.
The main historians of the Finnish army who undertook the study of the role played by the country during the war wrote that the volunteers most likely participated in the assassination of Jews and other civilians, and witnessed the atrocities committed by the Germans.
The volunteers returned to Finland after the Finnish government felt that the current of war had turned against the Germans. Many of them then served in the Finnish army until the end of World War II.
A copy of Friday's report was given to Paula Lehtomaki, Secretary of State for the Finnish Government, who said it was a valuable contribution to existing research "on the difficult and significant historical events" of the end of the complex history of the Second World War in Finland.
"We share the responsibility to ensure that such atrocities do not happen again," said Ms Lehtomaki.