Kalevi Mikkonen is something of a lone ranger. Over the last three years, he’s biked hundreds of kilometres and spent countless hours wandering the woods around Rovaniemi, the capital of Finland’s northernmost province.
In that time, he’s mapped out 600 German sites from the Second World War – foundations of old barracks, and trenches slowly disappearing into the undergrowth. He’s found some of these sites from old wartime maps. Others, he’s found by talking to locals who point him toward crumbling cement in the trees behind their homes. He gets a lot of tips from kids, he said. Kids always know.
Mostly, though, he finds these places just by wandering. In the woods, it’s hard to see anything until you’re right on top of it. So he walks back and forth through the trees, stopping whenever he finds something new, measuring distances, marking down new structures on his map.
This is partly a labour of love. For 20 years, Mikkonen taught Second World War history to high-school students. He’s always been fascinated by this chapter of Lapland’s past.
But it’s more than that. When it comes down to it, he’s doing this because no one else is. According to Mikkonen, the city’s been talking for years about how someone should map out these sites, but no one’s done anything. So he decided he would do it himself.
“No one else cares,” he said. “Only I care.”
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. And for 70 years, few people have cared to remember the time when German soldiers lived alongside the people of Rovaniemi – not as occupiers, but as brothers in arms. It’s an uncomfortable part of Finland’s history, a source of shame for many who called the Germans friends.
Now, that’s starting to change. Mikkonen’s map is being featured in a new museum exhibit called “Wir Waren Freunde” (“We Were Friends” in German) at the Arktikum Museum in Rovaniemi. The exhibit is the first to document the relationship between Germans and Finns between 1941 and 1944, when the two countries were allied against the Soviet Union. And this year, a group of Finnish archeologists has started a new research project to gather what information it can about the German presence in Lapland. Both projects have generated a lot of public interest. After 70 years, it seems, people are finally ready to look back.
Brothers in arms
In 1939, two months after Germany invaded Poland, a separate war broke out between Finland and the Soviet Union. It was a territorial dispute – the USSR wanted to annex another piece of Europe. The Winter War lasted until March 1940, when the two governments signed a peace treaty that transferred some pieces of Finnish territory to Soviet control.
No one else cares. Only I care.
But the treaty was fragile, and the Finns knew the peace wouldn’t last. When the Axis powers turned against the Soviet Union, Finland looked to Germany as a logical ally. German troops started to arrive in Finland in 1940. About 220,000 ended up in Lapland, with 6,000 in Rovaniemi.
Finnish soldiers fought alongside Germans against the Soviet Union until 1944. Finally, as it became clear the Red Army would not be stopped, the Finnish government signed an armistice with Moscow. The agreement transferred more of Finland’s territory to the Soviet Union, and demanded that Finland expel German troops from the country.
After the armistice, fighting broke out between Germans and Finns as the German army retreated from Lapland, moving north toward occupied Norway. As the Germans left, they burned everything in their path, including homes, barns, and bridges. Rovaniemi was burned to the ground, and thousands were left homeless. What had once been friendship quickly turned to hate.
At “Wir Waren Freunde,” however, the new exhibit in Rovaniemi, you’d be hard-pressed to find much of that military history. This is an exhibit about people, about the stuff of daily life when there were as many German soldiers as there were Finns living in the city.
What is most striking about “Wir Waren Freunde” is how amicable the relationship between Finns and Germans was, despite the fact that German soldiers occupied every bit of spare ground in Rovaniemi during those four years. The exhibit features old photographs of Finnish children hanging around groups of soldiers, waiting for candy or other gifts. There are love letters penned by young Finnish women to the handsome German soldiers they would never get to marry. There’s a photo of German and Finnish men gathered together at a joint football match.
“This exhibition is about normal people connecting with other normal people,” said Tuija Alariesto, one of the exhibit’s curators. “Those Germans, they were people, also. Even though they were German.”
A legacy of shame
The displays tell ordinary stories of daily life, but they’re uncomfortable stories, too. For instance, that photo of the football game isn’t just a photo of a football game. It’s a photo of a group of men on a football field giving a Nazi salute before large banners bearing swastikas. Alariesto said the image gives her goosebumps.
Though the exhibit focuses only on the friendship between Finns and Germans before 1944, it’s impossible not to see it in light of what was to come. After the war, the common sentiment among Finns was a mixture of hatred toward Germans for destroying Lapland and shame at having befriended the wrong side. Those women who followed their lovers to Germany were generally sent back to Finland, and were interrogated as spies upon their return. Those who bore the children of German soldiers were shunned, as were their children. It’s not hard to understand why many people who had grown close to the Germans chose never to speak about that relationship after the war.
“I think the embarrassment was so high that the people felt like they cannot talk about this,” said Alariesto. “And they cannot tell that they had German friends.”
That embarrassment lasted for decades. Alariesto believes the shroud obscuring Rovaniemi’s wartime history is only now starting to lift.
“I think that this exhibition, we couldn’t have done it maybe 10 years ago or 20 years ago,” she said. “But I think now, we can tell these stories.”
But even today, this isn’t an easy topic to address. Before Christmas, Arktikum made national headlines when it began distributing small matchboxes with “Wir Waren Freunde” printed on them to publicize the exhibit’s opening. The marketing tactic was a cheeky reference to a rather hostile prank from the 1950s and 60s, when Finns would give matchboxes to German tourists and ask them if they’d prefer to light up a Marlboro or Lapland.
I think that this exhibition, we couldn’t have done it maybe 10 years ago or 20 years ago.
Not everyone found the campaign funny. Some people thought the matchboxes were in poor taste and complained to the city. Ultimately, the municipal government ordered the museum to stop distributing them, leaving Alariesto with about 2,000 spare matchboxes in her office.
Eero Pajula, who manages a German military graveyard outside Rovaniemi, called the publicity stunt a “bad joke,” and worried that it could create more bad blood between the two countries.
“The problem is that to understand this joke and the reason why it’s used, you have to know a lot,” he said. “And the normal tourist doesn’t get it.”
Bad joke or not, the strategy worked. About 220 people showed up to the exhibit’s opening, up from an average of about 50. Alariesto said “Wir Waren Freunde” is on track to be Arktikum’s most popular exhibit ever.
A new hunger for history
There are other signs that people now want to know about this part of Lapland’s history that many Finns tried for so long to forget.
Oula Seitsonen, a PhD student in archeology at the University of Helsinki, discovered his first German war camp while surveying Stone Age sites near the northern town of Inari in 2007. A couple of years later, he and his colleagues returned to excavate the site, mostly just out of curiosity. To his surprise, several TV stations and newspaper reporters showed up to document the work.
“We hadn’t been preparing for that at all because we hadn’t realized that it interests so many people,” he said. “Of course it does, because it’s basically the Second World War history related to their parents or grandparents. And it hasn’t been really touched upon.”
This year, Seitsonen and his research group have launched a new project called Lapland’s Dark Heritage, which will focus on excavating German sites and speaking with people who have memories or artefacts from the war. It’s the first project of its kind in Finland. He said it wasn’t easy to find funding.
Though projects like “Wir Waren Freunde” and Lapland’s Dark Heritage are starting to appear, they’ve come together in a very piecemeal way. Metsähallitus, a Finnish state-owned enterprise that manages the country’s protected areas, has started mapping Second World War sites on the land it oversees. But otherwise, there is no concerted effort from the government to gather information about the war in Finland’s north.
There are several reasons for this lack of political will. There is the shame and the trauma, certainly, but there are other factors, too.
While the Soviet Union existed, the Finnish government was under intense pressure to avoid appearing anti-Soviet. During that time, shining a spotlight on Finland’s alliance with Germany during the war would not have been wise. In schools, therefore, teachers spent little time delving into the relationship between Germany and Finland, or how that relationship ended.
Finland generally wants to represent itself as a victim.
Beyond that, according to Seitsonen, Finland simply hasn’t wanted to see itself as having been allied with either the Soviet Union or Germany.
“Finland generally wants to represent itself as a victim of both,” he said. “A victim of Soviet expansion and also a victim of Germany.”
He said when he was in school, history teachers described Finland in the Second World War as a log floating down a river that happened to find itself drifting alongside Germany. To change that lens – to see the country as an agent that made its own choices – takes time.
“Ten years too late”
Today, things are changing. There is an appetite for stories about Lapland’s role in the war that hasn’t existed until recently. But even as that appetite grows, pieces of history are quickly disappearing.
“We are now about 10 years too late,” said Pajula. In recent years, he has interviewed a number of people in Rovaniemi who remember the war. All of them were children in the 1940s. He doesn’t know a single living person who was an adult at that time.
And it’s not only memories that are being lost. German sites are disappearing all the time. The Santa Claus Village, for instance, Rovaniemi’s premier tourist attraction, was built directly on top of old German barracks and defense lines. As it expands, it engulfs more and more of those sites. Today, blue stakes trace a line through the woods behind the Village, marking the next phase of development. Some of them are planted right beside the crumbling foundations of old buildings.
Right now, these sites have no protection. They’re not considered culturally important. At some point, that may change – Seitsonen said the National Board of Antiquities is considering giving these places some kind of official status. But, like everything else, that will take time.
Now you see it, now you don’t
One day, I walked with Mikkonen to one of his familiar haunts in the woods outside Rovaniemi. There was a particular site he wanted me to see, where a number of items had been preserved. He wanted to show me an old tube of Nivea toothpaste from the 1940s that he’d found there.
When we arrived, I was amazed at all the artefacts just lying on the ground. There were old tin cans and scrap metal, pieces of porcelain plates, and old wine bottles. There was even a rusty stove nearby.
But the tube of toothpaste was gone. Mikkonen looked around for a while, but he realized pretty quickly what had happened. Someone else had found it and taken it, he said. They’d probably sell it for 10 or 20 euros.
Out there in the woods, another little piece of the story is gone for good.
Kalevi Mikkonen's map of German war sites is featured at the "Wir Waren Freunde" exhibit in Rovaniemi.
Finnish ornaments were engraved with Nazi insignia during the war.
In this photo, Finnish children can be seen playing with German soldiers.
Provincial Museum of Lapland
Nazi propaganda newspapers, published in Finnish, restricted access to information about what was happening in the rest of Europe.
Many Finnish women became involved with German soldiers, though those relationships often ended in heartbreak.
Provincial Museum of Lapland
These matchboxes stirred up controversy when the museum started distributing them to advertise the exhibit.
Around Rovaniemi, some German structures, like this bunker, have remained almost completely intact.
Elsewhere, only the foundations of German buildings remain.
An exploded bomb shell sits by the side of a road. After the war, unexploded shells and mines were found all around Rovaniemi.