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In the wake of Finland's civil war: Severed heads and piles of children's bodies

Researcher Marjo Liukkonen says that the history of the post-1918 civil war Hennala prison camp in Lahti is one not only of retribution, but also of misogyny and eugenics.

Kansalaissota. Suomen sisällissota. Vankileirit. Mahdollisesti Hennalan punavankileiri (Hennalan vankileiri) Fellmanin pellolla Vesijärven rannalla Lahdessa. Punakaartilaisia vankeja. Etualalla naisvankeja (naisia, vankeja).
Red Guards and supporters who surrendered to White forces in Lahti in spring 1918. Image: Yle Arkisto

Established in Lahti in May 1918 following Finland's Civil War, the Hennala prison camp was set up to hold members of the defeated Red Guard, but also saw the interment of women and young children until it was closed in mid-September of the same year.

Marjo Liukkonen has published a book on the execution of women in the Hennala camp and is preparing a dissertation on the subject at the University of Lapland. During her research, she has examined original arrest documents, camp archives and contemporary accounts.

In her book, Liukkonen refers to the Hennala facility as a concentration camp.

"What came as a surprise was that the arrest documents did not contain only soldiers, but also many civilians. So, Hennala was not just a prisoner-of-war camp. There were women there with small children, even families with as many as seven children. The youngest child brought into the camp, according to arrest documents, was three weeks old. Children were also born at Hennala. Around 300 children were interred,” explains Liukkonen.

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Tutkija Marjo Liukkonen
The wall behind Marjo Liukkonen is probably the one where prisoners in the Hennala camp were lined up for execution. Image: Pekka Kuuslahti

It is difficult to find a single truth about the camp. Depending on the source material, 500 to 2000 prisoners were executed there. Some publications state that there were no children in the camp.

"I was astonished because I had read earlier research saying that there were no mothers or children in Hennala. I read this same statement many times and then I realized that there were so many in the camp. Why was this not told?" Liukkonen asks.

Disease and hunger

According to Liukkonen, civilians did not face execution, but many died in the inhumane conditions of the camp from disease, hunger and random violence.

She points out that these civilians had not been charged with any crimes. Even so, an intentional effort was made to wear them down through thirst and starvation.

"For example, during the camp's first week, the water supply was shut off and prisoners were charged 10 marks for the right to fetch water from the Porvoo River. The numbers of children who died was horrifying. Their deaths were not recorded, but people who were in the camp have said that the bodies of dead children were piled up against a wall," says Liukkonen.

Misogyny and eugenics

Liukkonen's research is focused on the women who were killed in the camp. Guards made a special effort to find female soldiers who had been members of the Red Guard hiding among the women internees.

Many of the women who had served in the Red Guard sensed they faced execution and disguised themselves as refugees.

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Punakaartissa palvelleita naisia vangittuna
Women who had served with the Red Guard, photographed at the Hennala prison camp in 1918. Image: Yle Arkisto

"Camp documents note that 275 women soldiers were discovered among the prisoners. In fact there were more. I myself have identified more than 300. Some tried to hide who they were and changed out of uniform into civilian clothing. I'd argue that the intention was to execute each and every female soldier," states Liukkonen.

Liukkonen has come to the conclusion that the misogyny displayed by camp guards was spurred by eugenics.

Just before the end of the Civil War, Martti Pihkala, a close friend of the commander of the guard company in charge of Hennala, Hans Kalm, had written that the conflict provided an opportunity for the Finns to improve their "own race".

"He said that short-haired women who imagine that they can do whatever men can are undesirables. Rather, the role of women should be to give birth to Finns. The 'bad women' living in factory districts should definitely be shut away somewhere and never be let out. This is exactly what was done at the Hennala camp," Liukkonen states.


The camp doctor believed that the severed heads of prisoners who were executed would be useful in studying "criminal nature".

"Prisoners said that when the camp doctor, Matti Wallenius, was present at executions, prisoners were not to be shot in the head because the doctor would cut them off and use them in his research. There was an Italian doctor who had studied the skulls of dead criminals and, to his own satisfaction, had shown that what kind of crime someone had committed could be determined from the shape of the skull. Apparently, Wallenius wanted to do the same kind of research," Liukkonen explains.

Camp profiteers

The possessions of prisoners interred in the camp were confiscated with the promise that they would be returned upon release. Few of the survivors got anything back.

Liukkonen believes that it was generally known that valuables went into the pockets of camp personnel. For example, the commander of one firing squad wrote in his memoirs that he allowed his riflemen to claim the possessions of the prisoners they executed.

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Hennalan punavankileiri Fellmanin pellolla Vesijärven rannalla Lahdessa.
Image: Yle

Local merchants who did business with the prisoners also got a share of the confiscated possessions and cash that they had hidden. Some did so well that they were able to expand their businesses. Liukkonen has found that a number of the officers and guards at the camp bought real estate and opened their own businesses soon after the camp was closed.

"Juho Mononen was a clerk in the camp who went on to set up a successful leather business. I don't know where the money came from, but at least it's said that he sold tobacco in the camp at ten times the shop price," she says.

A personal connection

While researching the Hennala prison camp, Liukkonen discovered a personal connection to events of a century ago.

"I was going through prisoner registration cards when I was surprised to come across the name of my grandfather's older brother. There was a story in my family that he had been imprisoned for a while in the Hämeenlinna POW camp for stealing bread. When I examined his card and trial records, I discovered he had been a Red Guard and a class-one state criminal, but that he survived. It was a strange feeling, as I'd met him many times when I was a child," she recalls. "That was a time when these things weren't spoken of, especially to children."

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