Törni’s military career began with the Winter War in 1939, but he only became widely known after the fall of the Soviet Union. After the Second World War, he ended up in the United States, where he enlisted again under the name Larry Thorne. He fought in Vietnam, dying in action in 1965.
Docent Juha Pohjonen and researcher Oula Silvennoinen’s new book ”The Unknown Lauri Törni” presents a side of Törni’s life the authors claim has been neglected.
In particular, they say that Törni’s treason conviction for his spell fighting with Germany's Waffen SS—against Finland—during the 1944-45 Lapland War is too easily interpreted as a politicised verdict, influenced by the victorious USSR in the post-war era.
"Just as normal people have confusing, contradictory or negative aspects, these things have been swept under the carpet in Törni’s case," claims Silvennoinen.
Törni was a skilled soldier who enjoyed the heat of battle and received the Mannerheim Cross, Finland’s highest military award. His problems started with the end of the war.
From hero to traitor
According to the researchers, Törni’s activities after the end of the Continuation war (in which Finland fought the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1944) have not been scrutinised sufficiently. During the Lapland War, he fought as a volunteer with the Nazi SS, against Finland, which brought him a conviction for treason after the war ended.
That conviction has been seen as political and even an injustice, as it occurred when the Soviet-dominated Allied Control Commission was in Helsinki. Silvennoinen claims, however, that Törni’s guilt is undeniable and cannot be glamorised as he claims some Törni admirers have tried to do.
War crimes trials were political, as they were conducted under the watchful eye of the commission. However Törni’s and his German comrades’ convictions were based on Finnish and military law, not on pressure from the commission to find evidence of treason.
In Germany Törni received training in communications and sabotage with the ultimate goal of staging a National Socialist coup d’état in Finland.
"During the final stages of the war, Germany tried to start resistance movements in all the territories they had lost," says Silvennoinen. "Finland was part of that group, and Törni joined efforts to create a resistance movement in Finland, which would have operated to support Germany and orchestrate a coup in support of Germany."
The new book claims that although their plans were to use Finnish volunteers to force the revolution, national socialist ideas were at the forefront of their plans and Soviet opposition was simply a useful tool.
Törni himself said in court that his German years were about adventure, and he did not know what he was going to do once he got there.
"He went with full knowledge of these operations," says Silvennoinen. "It is difficult to imagine that he would not have been aware of it."
The plans were eventually foiled as radical volunteers could not be found in sufficient numbers, and Germany lost the war.
Hungarian national socialists did succeed in a similar bid for power in the autumn of 1944. Their short-lived putsch resulted in a wave of terror during which many Hungarian Jews were deported to liquidation camps.
Silvennoinen claims Törni has two sides to his character.
"He was without doubt a gifted warrior who was liked by many of those he knew," said Silvennoinen. "Almost all contemporary witnesses thought he was meek and shy when sober. Alcohol brought out a different side, where he was impulsive, violent and dangerous to his surroundings."
Törni himself never claimed to be motivated by patriotism or idealism. He was driven by war and action, and he was utterly unable to return to civilian life. By the mid-50s he was in the US military and in the 1960s he saw active service in Vietnam. He died in Laos in 1965 when a surveillance helicopter he was travelling in crashed.
"Like many other Finnish veterans, war left its indelible mark on him, and he could not escape," said Silvennoinen.