HELSINKI — An Israeli Holocaust historian praised authorities in Finland on Sunday for publishing a report that concluded Finnish volunteers serving with Nazi Germany’s Waffen-SS “very likely” took part in World War II atrocities, including the mass murder of Jews.
Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center lauded the release of the findings by the National Archives of Finland, even if doing so was “painful and uncomfortable” for Finland. Mr. Zuroff called the decision an “example of unique and exemplary civic courage.”
Finland’s government commissioned the independent investigative report, which was made public Friday. It said 1,408 Finnish volunteers served with the SS Panzer Division Wiking during 1941-43, most of them between the ages of 17 and 20.
“It is very likely that they participated in the killing 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.
A significant part of the study was based on diaries kept by 76 of the Finnish SS volunteers. Eight of the Finnish SS volunteers are still alive, Mr. Nuorteva said.
Finland was invaded by Moscow in November 1939. The fighting in what became known as the Finnish-Soviet Winter War lasted until March 1940, when Finland agreed to a peace treaty. The small Nordic country lost several territories but maintained its independence.
Isolated from the rest of Europe and afraid of another Soviet attack, Finland entered into an alliance with Germany, receiving weapons and other material help from Berlin.
As part of the pact, the Nazi SS chief Heinrich Himmler insisted that Finland dispatch soldiers to the SS Wiking division, similar to the volunteers it demanded from Nazi-occupied Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and elsewhere.
The research detailed atrocities that Finland’s volunteers took part in during World War II, including participating in the mass murder of Jews.CreditHeikki Saukkomaa/Lehtikuva, via Associated Press
Reluctantly, Finland complied and covertly recruited the first group of 400 SS volunteers to be sent for training in the spring of 1941. The vast majority of them had no ideological sympathies with the Nazi regime, the report said.
When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 under Operation Barbarossa, Finnish regular army troops fought independently alongside Wehrmacht soldiers on the northeastern front.
The Finnish soldiers were not under Nazi command, and the country’s leadership was mainly motivated by the desire to take back the territories lost to Moscow.
“At the beginning of the attack, Finns were unaware of the Germans’ goal of eradicating the Jews,” Mr. Nuorteva said. “Finns were, above all, interested in fighting against the Soviet Union” because of their brutal experiences in the Winter War and the perceived threat from Moscow.
Finnish volunteers with the SS Wiking division operated on the eastern front until 1943, entering deep into Ukraine.
The leading Finnish military historians who undertook the study of the country’s wartime role wrote that the volunteers most likely took part in killing Jews and other civilians, as well as witnessed atrocities committed by the Germans.
The volunteers returned to Finland after the Finnish government sensed the tide of the war had turned against the Germans. Many of them then served in the Finnish military until the end of World War II.
A copy of Friday’s report was given to Paula Lehtomaki, a state secretary with the Finnish government, who said it was a valuable contribution to existing research “on difficult and significant historical events” during Finland’s complex World War II history.
“We share the responsibility for ensuring that such atrocities will never be repeated,” Ms. Lehtomaki said.