Near the village where Santa and his elves work tirelessly to deliver Christmas, there’s a mausoleum containing the remains of thousands of German soldiers who fought in WW2’s northernmost front
In summer 2021, I found myself wandering inside Finland’s arctic circle at the northern capital of Rovaniemi, a lively town of just over 60.000 people. Rovaniemi is widely known as the home of Santa Claus and its elves, who make sure you all get a present for Christmas (as long as you’ve been good). It is also where Monster Metal band Lordi come from. They were the winners of the 2006 Eurovision contest, and the town’s central square has been hilariously named Lordi’s Square ever since. Lordiaukio’s cafes, fast food restaurants and bars are a popular hangout spot for the town’s residents – especially the emo/skater youths, given the abundance of railings, benches and mobility ramps. It was sunny when I was there, and everyone seemed to be out and about : the local men’s team was preparing for the oncoming season in the city’s flashy, newly refurbished football stadium. The nearby shopping malls, well stocked by major and local brand outlets, were brimming with paper-bag-carrying shoppers (Finland is a country that has shunned everyday plastic, and recycles a lot). The town’s majestic Kemijoki riverside was busy with sunbathers, dog walkers and cyclists enjoying the gift of a warm summer day.
As I observed the present day tranquility of Rovaniemi and the good life lived by its inhabitants, I suddenly recalled – in one of my typically grim flashbacks – how the town of Rovaniemi burned to the ground in October 1944, on the back of the begrudging retreat of the 6th SS Mountain Division ‘Nord‘ from the Finnish Lapland. German wartime military presence in Finland began in 1941, with the onset of Operation Barbarossa. At the time, the two nations acted as co-belligerents against the USSR : the Germans wished to open a northern front against Leningrad, and push towards the Soviet arctic port of Archangelsk, while securing access to Finland’s valuable nickel mines in the north. The Finns wanted to quickly recapture and keep the territory they had conceded to the Soviets at the end of the conflict that ended just the year before. The Winter War between Finland and the USSR had been all but won by the tenacious Finns on the battlefield, but ultimately lost in the armistice negotiations. After several months of fighting, the strategic realities of wrestling alone with the Soviet bear finally caught up with Finland, despite the textbook performance of its brave, ultra-efficient defenders. So during the so called Continuation War of 1941, the Finns set forth to take back the forfeited lands of Karelia, reaching Lake Ladoga and the outskirts of Leningrad in support of the German offensive. Soon, the tide of war turned decisively against the Finns for the second time in the space of 3 years, as the entire Eastern Front collapsed. Finland now found itself negotiating for survival as a sovereign state, and was forced to accept a second, even harder-to-swallow armistice in 1944. The Soviets asked for the proverbial “earth and water”, and that included the expulsion – by any means – of all previously friendly German forces from Lapland.
After a protracted period of delay, negotiation, and fair warning, exchanged by Finnish and German forces (both already buckling under the ever-increasing Soviet military pressure), the former co-belligerents ran out of time and pleasantries, and in one of the most dramatic episodes of the Second World War, opened fire at each other in October 1944. The Lapland War was fought with the bitterness and desperation of former friends who were left with no other option but to turn against each other, as another arctic winter began. At the onset of hostilities, the Germans brought forward their operational timetable and began executing Operation Nordlicht – a delayed retreat of all their forces in Finnish soil towards northern Norway, aiming to fortify there. In the meantime, the Finns were handed a deadline to clear out all German troops from Lapland while demobilizing their armies – under threat of a renewed Soviet attack, if those demands weren’t satisfied. As this improbable situation developed, the fair town of Rovaniemi, with its key airfield, rail station and army base, became a major strategic objective. In mid-October 1944, the retreating Germans of the 6th SS Division ‘Nord‘, the key German formation in the area, began setting the town’s strategic buildings on fire, to ensure their facilities wouldn’t be used against them. But when Finnish commandos resolved to attack an ammunition train alighting at Rovaniemi’s rail station, the resulting explosion set the nearby houses on fire, and soon the entire town would be ablaze. The scale of the destruction was immense : as the flames and smoke subsided, only 1 in 10 buildings still stood in the aftermath of the Great Fire of Rovaniemi.
Himmler’s doomed division
The 6th Mountain Division “Nord“, was the only SS formation that fought in Finland. Just the idea of men from an elite Nazi unit present in Lapland brought thoughts of black clad, politically indoctrinated fanatics who fought with brutality, and were capable of unspeakable atrocities. But contrary to the invincible, fanatic warrior image of most SS divisions, the story of Nord is somewhat depressing. The men of the newly-formed, lavishly equipped division were former guards, policemen and reservists without any combat experience whatsoever. They were sent to Finland in 1941 without proper training other than a series of short lectures on warfare. The pleads of their commander for taking 2-3 months of training were rejected by the SS High Command – some say by Heinrich Himmler himself – who believed that their superior morale and equipment would undoubtedly make up for their inexperience. As it turned out, many of the men hadn’t even fired their guns more than once, and so they were simply given some quick target practice en route to the front. As they prepared to attack, they were told to expect lax resistance from their “inferior” Communist adversaries, who waited entrenched across the border.
It wasn’t as easy as they were told it would be. The inexperienced SS division panicked and routed during their first engagement with the Soviets near Salla in July 1941. Their artillery barrage set the woods near the Soviet positions on fire, and as the forest burned uncontrollably, the green troops advanced through the dense smoke without a sense of direction or accurate fire support, walking blind into the well prepared enemy. Meeting with the determined resistance of the entrenched Soviets, the “elite” unit turned and fled. After taking two days to regroup, the division was routed again, after the Soviets probed after them with a few tanks. Rifles were dropped and other equipment was left behind in the stampede, as soldiers fled in terror at their first taste of actual combat. Some of the division’s vehicles smashed through the hastily assembled roadblocks put up by their commanders to indicate the division’s fall back mustering areas, racing back to Kemijärvi, a safer 50 miles to the west.
After that initial debacle, the Nord division was transferred under the command of Finnish General Siilasvuo, becoming the first, and only SS unit to operate under the command of a co-belligerent commander. They did fare much better in battle thereafter – with the help and guidance of the more battle hardened Finns – although they never reached their objective : the capture of the Murmansk railway, through which vital material brought in by the Allied arctic convoys reached the Soviet armies in the Eastern Front. By the end of Operation Nordlicht, Germany’s 20th Mountain Army – almost 200.000 men – managed to retire from the Finnish Lapland to Norway in an orderly manner, almost in its entirety, and began fortifying there. The 6th SS division ‘Nord‘ disengaged, and briefly refitted in Denmark prior to its transfer back to Germany in January 1945. It then joined Germany’s desperate homeland defense before disintegrating in Bavaria during the last days of the war.
What they left behind them in Lapland, however, was scorched earth : hundreds of kilometres of rail, phone and telegraph lines were wiped out, over 600 bridges destroyed, and nearly half of buildings in Lapland were destroyed to deny their use to the enemy. Above all, there was a air of bitterness as the former comradeship of the former co-belligerents turned into confrontation. The razing of Lapland was a hostile act necessitated by circumstances, a sad wartime episode of betrayal and retaliation that echoed the destruction of the French fleet at Mers-El-Kebir by the British in 1940.
As Germans retreated from Lapland, the Finnish government commissioned the famous architect and designer Alvar Aalto to rebuild Rovaniemi. Aalto, who had recently returned from a visiting professorship at the MIT to direct Finland’s wartime Reconstruction Office, visited the site in 1945. The scale of destruction was appalling, and yet Aalto, like any no-nonsense Modernist would, saw this as an opportunity for regeneration, a coveted blank canvas for a new, ambitious urban plan. He soon presented his heart-warming “Reindeer Antler” plan for Rovaniemi, drawing inspiration from Lapland’s ubiquitous ‘workhorse’. The plan materialized in subsequent years to regenerate the devastated town, and then expanded in scope, leading to the reconstruction of the entire Finnish Lapland throughout the 1950s, and beyond. So when I stood near Rovaniemi’s stadium earlier, I was at the reindeer’s eye, without knowing it.
Santa Claus International
Escaping the hustle and bustle of Rovaniemi via the motorway bridge over Kemijoki river, I drove towards Rovaniemi airport. Today, it’s Santa’s Official Airport, where hundreds of winter charter flights touch down, ferrying day-trippers in for their much anticipated festive meetup with Santa and his elves – and an unavoidable acquaintance with the string of malls, gift shops and steakhouses Santa keeps at his village. Back in the day, however, this was a key Luftwaffe base, where Stuka dive bombers from Luftlotte 5 took off to strike the Murmansk Railway 300km away on a daily basis. The old base and its ancillary buildings expanded all the way to where Santa’s Holiday Village is today, although tourists know little about the provenance of the foundations that can still be seen in and around the festive hot spot : the remains of hangars, outhouses, concrete bunkers and flak emplacements, implements of war that now have become part of the edgelands between the woods and the festive commercial infrastructure.
I was now driving past the airport. The facility is still in use by the Finnish Air Force, who maintain a sizeable air base there. I was on the 9523 road, which had suddenly become a generous four lane motorway for the short few kilometers near the runway. It’s a good call for an extra ‘hidden’ runway – you could literally land a Space Shuttle, or a B-52 there, if need be. Presently, I found myself evading several groups of reindeer gingerly criss-crossing the motorway, as other cars slowed down to give them the widest possible berth. Admiring the majestic animals, I pressed on toward my final destination ahead : the shore of lake Norvajärvi, and Lapland’s German War Cemetery.
Der Deutsche Soldatenfriedhof – Norvajärvi
German war cemeteries are difficult monuments, the final resting place of men who are seldom remembered simply as soldiers who died in the line of duty. There’s no evidence that the men of Nord committed flagrant war crimes in their long tenure in the arctic front, while the blame for the fire that razed Rovaniemi has been since apportioned by historians to both German and Finnish forces in the area. The remains of the 2.530 soldiers at Kemijarvi cemetery belong to men of the Nord division as well as the other German formations who fought in the arctic front. Some 15.000 soldiers were lost in the fight, or as prisoners of war – many of them on the Soviet side of the border. Yet only 1 in 6 are interred here, their graves transferred from scattered field graves along the front spanning the vast regions of Murmansk in the Barents Sea, to Karelia and the Baltic Sea. The rest of the fallen are still undiscovered, somewhere in the endless woods of the region. Some of them still turn up from time to time.
Leaving my car at the ample car park, I take the gravel path snaking through the trees towards the lake shore. The only sound I can hear is my own footsteps crunching away, the soft wind in the trees, the waves crashing in the near distance. I hardly meet anything but squirrels on the way. It’s a nice place for resting in eternity indeed. The cemetery is being looked after by the Volksbund, the German War Graves Commission, with the help of the – wait for it – Santa Claus Rotary Club of Rovaniemi. The Volksbund’s mission is to “to guard the memory of the victims of war and violence, to work for peace among all nations and to guarantee dignity of men”. Guided by those principles, and in collaboration with the war graves authorities of other countries, the Volksbund looks after war graves belonging to all those who lost their lives within their remit – whether victims, perpetrators, or anything in between. In their own words, these may be “..fallen soldiers, killed civilians, victims of the Holocaust, resistance fighters, but also war criminals. Dealing with these various groups of victims and perpetrators requires an exact contextualisation of the historical background, and a differentiated remembrance of an ambivalent history. This means that remembrance monuments are presented alongside various biographies and their historical contexts to share illustrative stories of war violence and persecution, as well as moral courage and humanity.” I couldn’t agree more. Putting such things to rest, while remembering the context in detail, is a humane way to achieve peace through critical understanding.
I carry on deeper into the woods for about 500 meters. I can hear the lake, but can’t see it yet. The distance walked is secluded and tranquil, and neither too short nor too long. Lapland’s generous space, raw materials and overwhelming nature provide an ideal canvas for the function of memory and emotion. The majority of war monuments I have visited in the country, whether Finnish, German or Russian, have struck me with their stark simplicity, a far cry from the heroic Socialist Realism of Eastern European monuments, or the ostentatious Federal Classicism of those in the West. Quite often, war monuments in Finland are no more than a boulder with a plaque, or a square block of granite. A funerary symbolism, perhaps, for the eventual return to the constituent materials of this land. The German War Cemetery at Norvajärvi appears grander in comparison owing to its relative scale, and yet it retains the restrained character of other war monuments in Finland.
There’s no grand arch, no gatehouse with heavenly gates at the entrance. The narrow passage is little wider than my shoulders. It is like walking into a tomb ourselves, experiencing this final passage of the dead as they return to the Earth’s motherly womb for their final journey. I have crossed such a narrow gate before at Le Cambe, the German War Cemetery in Normandy : it is a thought provoking funerary design, and a far cry from the grand, classicist gates usually seen in major Allied cemeteries.
The red granite mausoleum was designed by German architect Otto Kindt in 1963. Kindt (who was enlisted, and fought during the war) became known for his post-war sacral architecture, including several churches in Hamburg as well as other German war cemeteries, in Helsinki and Bastia. A beautiful colonnade leads to the entrance to the charnel house. Its slender entrance is an elegant repeat of the narrow passage motif from earlier.
The towering entrance hall is illuminated by translucent vertical windows, allowing the dim afternoon light into the space. At one end, there’s the statue of Mother and Son by German sculptor Ursula Querner. Her father, Rudolph Querner was a senior SS Police official, who was responsible for evacuations and death marches from concentration camps in Austria and Germany. He took his own life in captivity shortly after the end of the war. The statue is a cast-iron pietà, depicting Virgin Mary cradling the body of Jesus deposed from the cross. The rough surface of this sculpture accentuates the stern countenance of the skeletal subjects, who seem frozen in agony. It is the precise moment when the fading torment of the dead intersects with the enduring torment of the living. It is a crucifix of pain and sorrow, whose potent religious iconography was first captured by Michelangelo during the Renaissance.
I entered the dark mausoleum, and sat on one of the low stone benches to reflect. The darkness is softened by a series of rectangular stained glass windows that allow ambient light to glow onto several long limestone plaques. The name, rank, and dates of birth and death of each soldier is displayed sequentially on each, with additional names found on two wall mounted plaques. The remains of each soldier are arranged in containers underneath each one’s name. There are a number of items left behind by visitors : plastic wreaths, a gilded crucifix, and a flower arrangement – still looking fresh in the cold atmosphere of the tomb. Silence.
Inevitably, the extraordinary symbolism and powerful heraldry of the Reich is absent here, or at least inferred. The stained glass windows are grey-green, displaying abstract triangular and diamond shapes. For those who know, these are perhaps echoing the shade of Feldgrau uniforms, and the shapes of insignia, patches and pins of the enlisted men buried here. A third of the men who served in the Wehrmacht were recipients of a cross pattée (wider at the edges) shaped medal for bravery known as the Iron Cross. This would have been a regular sighting on German field graves, with entire crosses supplied by chaplains sometimes shaped this way. The cross pattée is a medieval Germanic symbol, associated with the Teutonic Order. It has been used to decorate Prussian soldiers since Napoleonic times, and is still used in military and state heraldry throughout Europe and the US. As such, it has escaped the “forbidden symbols” legislation. In Le Cambe, Maleme and other German war cemeteries, it is seen in distinctive stone cross groupings or in shaped tomb plaques, with its curves squared off, or a bit shallower. Surprisingly, there are no Germanic crosses anywhere at Norvajärvi, and yet there is a tall cross set beside the lake, made of two iron beams arc-welded together. It is literally, and perhaps surrealistically, a veritable Iron Cross, dedicated to the short and eventful lives lived by those interred here.
Here you can watch a short video I made during my visit :
- Consuming dark histories in Santa Claus village, by Paul Mullins, Archaeology and Material Culture, 22 Sep 2014
- The Finnish Defence Forces Photo Archive, SA Kuva
- Gebirgstruppe Blog for rare photos of the 6th SS Division ‘Nord’
- The dark history of Santa’s city : how Rovaniemi rose from the ashes, by Peter Watts, The Guardian, 19 Dec 2018
- The Jewish Virtual Library for an OOB & timeline of 6th SS Division ‘Nord’
- The Never Such Innocence organisation for the insight into Volksbund’s mission
- Defeat in Salla, by Nino Oktorino, Stosstruppen 39-45 blog for the detailed analysis of the event
- War Relics Forum for photos of battlefield finds in Karelia
- Wikipedia for quick reference of event dates, oob’s, runes, bios etc
- Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge, the German War Graves Commission
Unless specified otherwise, all photos are © explorabilia
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