Article Note: Jouni Tilli, “’Deus Vult!’ The Idea of Crusading in Finnish Clerical War Rhetoric, 1941-1944”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 25, Number 3 (September 2019)

Article Note: Jouni Tilli, “’Deus Vult!’ The Idea of Crusading in Finnish Clerical War Rhetoric, 1941-1944,” War in History 24, no 3 (2017): 363-385.

By Doris L. Bergen, University of Toronto

Jouni Tilli’s illuminating article invites readers to take a closer look at what seems an obscure topic: Finnish military chaplains in World War II, and more specifically, their rhetoric. Historians of the war and the Holocaust, if they mention Finland at all, invariably present it as exceptional. Though the Finns fought alongside Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union from 1941 to 1944, famously only eight Jews were deported from Finland to be killed, and Jewish men served in the Finnish army, some in its officer corps. This positive story, captured in the title of Hannu Rautkallio’s 1987 book, Finland and the Holocaust: The Rescue of Finland’s Jews – often described as the only English-language study of the topic – complements the so-called “separate war thesis.” That interpretation, prevalent in Finnish public discourse since the 1940s, presents Finland’s participation in the war against the Soviet Union as a Finnish-Soviet matter, occurring parallel to but not as part of the German-Soviet War. Tilli’s article counters this familiar version of events and contributes to a critical body of writing that extends back to Elina (Suominen) Sana’s 1979 book, “The Ship of Death” (in Finnish), and forward to works by Antero Holmila, Oula Silvennoinen, Tiina Kinnunen and others. Finland, it turns out, may not have been so exceptional.

Tilli’s analysis draws primarily on the sermons and writings of Finland’s Lutheran clergy during the so-called Continuation War. They uniformly preached a crusade against the Soviet Union and Communism and portrayed Germany as God’s gift to the Finnish nation, he shows. In the process, they lent religious legitimacy to violence. Their influence was considerable: 96 percent of Finns were Lutheran, and almost half of the country’s 1000 Lutheran pastors served as military chaplains, 280 of those at the front. Senior chaplain Rolf Tiivola, in a sermon to soldiers in July 1941, evoked the crusaders of the eleventh century in words that provided the title for Tilli’s article: “’God wills! God wills to make Finland great …’” Readers may be shocked, disappointed, and embarrassed by this rhetoric, reminiscent as it is of the Christian jingoism so prevalent during World War I. Similar language also occurred among the Wehrmacht chaplains, as Martin Röw has shown, although paradoxically, restrictions on “political” involvement muffled the full-throated endorsements of the Nazi German war effort that many would gladly have offered.

Finnish chaplains spoke in one voice, Tilli demonstrates, but that voice was not robotic. Indeed, their rhetoric proved to be quite supple and adaptable, and it changed with the course of events. In 1941, as the Finnish army advanced rapidly, crusading rhetoric invoked a holy war against Bolshevism, its knights clad in the armor of Christ. By late 1942, as military success gave way to setbacks and ultimately defeat, the crusade turned inward, to sermons lamenting “national sins.”

Tilli’s article was published before release in early 2019 of a report prepared by the National Archives of Finland, on “The Finnish SS-Volunteers and Atrocities 1941–1943.” Finns, it found, very likely participated in mass murder of Jews, other civilians, and prisoners of war in Ukraine and the Caucasus region. Unlike Tilli, who focused on soldiers fighting on the Finnish front, the report dealt with the 1,408 Finns in the SS Panzer Division Wiking. But those men, too, were served by chaplains: Ensio Pihkala, until his death in August 1941, then Kalervo Kurkiala. According to church historian André Swanström, Pihkala expressed horror at massacres of Jews, whereas Kurkiala had nothing but praise for the SS. One wonders whether they and the other pastors discussed by Tilli included genocide under the crusading slogan, “God wills it!”