By Andrew Curry
Want a present that will raise some eyebrows -- or maybe hackles -- this Christmas? A Finnish charity is selling rings engraved with a swastika to raise money for the country's 80,000 World War II veterans.
The 60 ($86) silver bands feature a swastika flanked by stylized wings. A small rosette sits in the center. The rings are on sale until Dec. 31 at R-Kioski supermarkets in Finland and online. Sixteen thousand have been sold so far. "We thought they would make great Christmas presents for men, or for young people if their grandparents fought in the war," says Finnish Veterans' Association (Sotiemme Veteraanit) head Pia Mikkonen.
The rings are replicas of the 1940 "Air Defence" ring, which was part of a wartime effort to raise money for the Finnish air force. The campaign encouraged Finns to donate their gold wedding bands and other valuables to support the war effort. In exchange they received a ring made of iron. The swastika is a traditional symbol in Finnish culture, and a blue swastika was used as the symbol of the Finnish Air Force between 1918 and 1945.
At the time, Finns were the underdogs in a bitter war against the Soviet Union, which invaded the northern nation in November 1939 -- three months after Germany and the USSR moved into Poland. Stalin's generals expected to finish the Finns off within two weeks. Instead Finnish ski troops, outnumbered more than four to one and fighting guerrilla-style in temperatures that dropped to -40 degrees Celsius (-40 degrees Fahrenheit), held the Russians off for four months.
When Hitler launched his attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, Finland jumped on board and counter-attacked the Soviets from the north -- with lots of German help. Over 200,000 German troops were stationed in Finland between 1941 and 1944, mostly in the country's far north.
'We Fought Just about Everybody'
Today, Finns remember the alliance as one of necessity. "Finland and Germany were brothers in arms against the Soviets. We couldn't maintain our independence without German support," says Marjaliisa Hentilš, the head of the Berlin-based Finnish Institute in Germany. "We protected our independence and democracy and didn't experience the fate of Czechoslovakia or Estonia." According to Hentilš, the alliance never extended to Germany's race politics: Jews were given asylum in Finland, and served in the Finnish army.
As Germany's fortunes soured, Finland switched sides. In 1944 Finns secretly negotiated a peace treaty with the Soviets which required it to turn on Germany. In what became known as the Lapland War -- Finland's third in five years -- German troops were violently expelled from the country. "By the end, we fought just about everybody," Hentilš says.
Money from the sale of the rings goes to organizations that serve Finnish veterans. Though several Finnish actors and comedians -- along with Olympic skeet-shooting silver medalist Marko Kemppainen -- have recorded TV spots to promote the swastika rings, Mikkonen says sales haven't been as high as she hoped: "At the moment we've sold 16,000, and I would have hoped to sell 20,000," she says.
Is Mikkonen worried people will take the ring the wrong way? Not really: Archaeologists have found evidence the hooked cross was used in Finland as a sign of peace and happiness thousands of years before Hitler took a liking to it. Swastikas have been used as religious symbols in cultures all over the world. "The emblems used in the air defence rings bear no relation to swastikas used in other countries," a Veterans' Association press release reads.
Besides, few Finns feel conflicted about the country's war history, or the swastika's place in it. "We were hoping we could save our country and our independence, and eventually we did," says Mikkonen. "There hasn't been confusion here in Finland. For us Finns, it's not a negative symbol."
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