Story of a war photo


This photo has been shared with following captions:

  • Finnish soldiers displaying the cannibalized skins of Soviet soldiers near Maaselkä, 15th December 1942
  • Cannibalism on the Eastern Front during WW2
  • Cannibalism on the front: A Finnish soldier shows the remaining skin of a Soviet soldier

Finnish-soldiers-skin

Source: WikiMedia. The meme version can be found from Reddit.

I traced the photo to SA-Kuva, a Finnish wartime photograph archive. It is clearly a genuine Finnish wartime photograph taken in 1942.

According to various background stories, a Soviet patrol that was cut out of food supplies had butchered a few members of their own patrol group, and had eaten most of them. Finnish platoon had surprised the Soviet patrol “in the middle of cooking”.

Aamulehti published a related story in 2016. They interviewed Olli Kleemola who has published books about Finnish war photographs. In this interview Mr. Kleemola casts a shadow of doubt: the skin is probably from a moose.

I bought Kleemola’s book Tuntemattomien Sotilaiden Albumi (Album of Unknown Soldiers) and found a chapter about this photograph. Translation of pages 120-121 below:


The pictures in these pages depict the skin, head and internal organs of a Russian patrolman, shot by his own. Reporter Reino Ikävalo has interviewed a Finnish veteran about this series of images and the related events. A Finnish patrol had surprised the Soviets in the middle of cooking. The veteran interviewed by Ikävalko had interrogated one of the members of the patrol, Ensign Anttila – a Finnish communist, who had in 1932 defected from Finland into the Soviet Union. Anttila told that the objective of his patrol was to monitor the traffic on the roads of Paatane-Porajärvi and Karhumäki-Porajärvi. The Finns had quickly detected the remote patrol, and in the ensuing combat two of the originally six-person group fell. The group also lost their radio and had to hide in the Finn’s rear for two months. At this stage, the patrol consisted of two privates of Ukrainian origin as well as Ensign Anttila and a radio operator, Finnish-born private Savander, who moved with his family from Canada to the Soviet Union before the war.

After one of the Ukrainians had broken his leg, Anttila shot him and the remaining patrol ate him. After their food supplies once again ran out, the remaining patrol decided to attempt to reach their side on the other side of Lake Seesjärvi. However, Lake Seesjärvi was not frozen and the journey of the group ended on the beach, where Anttila then shot the other Ukrainian.

The Finns alarmed by the shot, surprised Savander and Anttila while they were cooking a flayed and mutilated body. In the interrogation Anttila praised the flavor of the meat as especially good. The picture of the body parts was taken by a corporal from Turku, a member of battalion II/Infantry Regiment 60, who had been commanded alongside with two privates to bury the remains of the body. Before the burial the flayed skin of the eaten soldier was spread open and the other remains were put on a field stretcher for photography.

The images had been taken without permission, as the photography permit granted to Finnish soldiers, alongside executions and dead bodies also prohibited the depiction of “unconventional subjects”. The corporal from Turku, after arriving on holiday, manufactured dozens of copies of the photographs, which he then traded with his comrades at least in Turku, Helsinki, Äänislinna and Karhumäki in exchange of liquor, tobacco and money.

The pictures taken by the corporal spread among Finnish war photography albums as well as outside the Finnish border. In the November of 1942 a so called “Special commission” was found in the Soviet Union, the mission of which was to collect material for the upcoming war crimes trial. Such material was, among other things, photographs collected from fallen and imprisoned opponents. Among the photographs were several pictures that were a part of the cannibalism series of images. Two of these pictures, which apparently ended up in Moscow via Stockholm and Geneva, were published in the soviet propaganda magazine called the “Sotilaan Ääni”. In the magazine’s text it was stated that this is the way how Finns treat Russian prisoners of war.


Conclusion

The story of Ensign Anttila doesn’t make much sense. The Finnish patrol were after them and they still decided to shoot, skin and cook one of their own.

I contacted Mr. Kleemola and bought his book Valokuva Sodassa (Photo in war). Some cases of wartime cannibalism have been recorded and photographed. However, this wide-spread photo in question most likely shows a skin of a moose. It is most likely an example of wartime propaganda.

Categories: PropagandaTags:

4 comments

  1. Hi. So are you saying the skin of the moose was brought to place by photographers themselves. or are you saying the Soviet patrolmen had time to hunt and skin a moose? (And also to shave it, since the skin does not seem to have any hair).

    The other photo in the series according to caption shows the victim’s head, ankles, pelvis and hands separated from the body (Same tree in the picture).
    The rest of the body is missing somewhere, and to me it seems likely the skin is in fact, human skin hanging on the tree and the second tree has the victim’s guts hanging.
    Now consider these points.
    1. It’s not too difficult to think if someone was to skin a human being for food, he would use the same technique as with a moose or other prey and not think too much of the skin’s nutritional value, as they would have all the meat to eat.
    2. Skinning would also make the meat look more animal-like and therefore mentally easier to eat.
    3. Any moose skin found by googling does not resemble the skin hung on the picture either.
    If the skin in the tree was furry on the other side, I would think it would not be that flexible, and the fur would show in the held up arm and end of right leg.
    4. In this picture, to me it looks like the skin is hanging from it’s right side, and the place for the head is hanging down left. It does not seem to have a very long neck like a moose has? Also no tail is visible. (I am not an expert comparing moose vs human skin, i doubt many are..)
    5. The hands and legs sizes on the skin would match human better too.
    6.Only point Mr. Kleemola says in the Aamulehti interview, is that the Soviet troops would have been in too much of hurry to skin a man. Who knows the priorities of starving soldiers or if they knew they were being chased actively? In a war, with all the killing happening, killing someone for food when starving is not necessarily a far fetched idea. According to hunting forums, people are able to skin a deer in 20 minutes and deboning takes more time if you want to save the most meat, which I guess wasn’t the case here.
    8.The photographer apparently did make many copies for selling them for tobacco and liquor, but the rest of the human remains in the picture speak against a staged scene. The rest of the body is somewhere. I don’t see it very likely that alleged forger would go through the trouble of cutting bodies to pieces and hanging fake human skin and some guts on the trees.

    Of course Mr Kleemola as war historian is way more certified in these cases, but I would like to hear his opinion about the made points as he is claiming the skin to be of a moose.
    I am of course willing to change my opinion if further evidence emerges about this case.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi and many thanks for your comment. I’ve also asked Mr. Kleemola to read the post and your comment.
      The photo showing the head and other body parts is “staged”: meaning the other remains were put on a field stretcher for photography. This was mentioned in the original articles.

      I had doubts about the “skin photo” before I read Mr. Kleemola’s interview. It is likely we will never find out the actual facts so only thing left is to use logic and common sense. I’m not saying you didn’t: on the contrary, you raised some good points. My original doubts were based on the following 1) I couldn’t find any photos showing (flayed) human skin. Is it plausible that the only photo of such event exists in Finnish archives? 2) The two related pictures in SA-kuva are mislabeled (different locations) 3) I could find photos of animal hides e.g. https://www.wildernessawareness.org/articles/brain-tanning-deer-hide or http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=hunting.tanhide – they look similar.

      After reading your comment I started to think about alternatives. What if the “skin” is actually a tarp, piece of clothing, tent etc.? This is of course speculation. But the story of Ensign Anttila still doesn’t make much sense to me.

      I have seen other cannibalism related war photos e.g. in Kleemola’s books. They are horrible, but none of them includes skinned persons. I have also tried to find references of other cases where the skin of the person have been removed in connection with cannibalism. No results. Serial killer Ed Gein did remove skin of some of their victims, but not the whole skin.

      Also: about 10-15% of Finnish war photos were staged. Same likely applies to all war photos, not just Finnish. Nearly all battle photos were staged. Reference: https://yle.fi/uutiset/3-9927243

      Like

  2. Dear Hannu and Janne,
    The photo has, and still does, raise many questions which most likely can never be answered. As you may notice in my book, there is not a definite answer either. This is because there are numerous legends about this photo, many of them controversial. I have just tried to collect them and to present them in the hope that someone could solve the open questions. However, I guess there are a couple off facts we can be sure to be true:
    1) The act of cannibalism itself indeed DID happen. 2)As Hannu notes above, this leads to the fact that the skin must be somewhere.

    If we consider these facts to be true, then why should the photograph show anything else but a human skin? Again, as Hannu notes above, the skin size and form suits well to be a human skin. It is, therefore, possible, that it actually is one and the stories about a moose skin, tent etc, are nothing but legends. Maybe these legends have been created by the war veterans themselves, to protect their minds. This could be because the act of spreading a human skin to be photographed is something even a soldier does not have to do every day. It is just discussing! As Mr. Ville Kivimäki has proven in his research, the soldiers developed a sort of a code language when speaking about killing. This was, again, to protect their minds. The stories about a moose skin may have served the same purpose.
    I hope my considerations are of some help for you, gentlemen? I would be interested in hearing your thoughts about this.
    Best regards
    Olli Kleemola

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Olli,

      Many thanks for your response. I agree with that this photo raises questions which most likely can never be answered.

      I don’t agree with the “skin must be somewhere”-theory fully. The skin should be in the stomach of the person who ate it. Or on the ground (if the person didn’t want to eat it). Skinning the person still doesn’t make sense to me. Why would they skin someone they wanted to eat? I have seen – also in Olli’s books – horrible photo evidence of cannibalism. No photo shows or discusses removal of skin.

      I still have not found any photos showing removed/flayed human skin. Visual reference or comparison would be useful.

      Like mentioned earlier, the story of Ensign Anttila remains questionable.

      Flaying (see https://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-flaying.htm) involves removal of skin. Flaying wasn’t very common but we do know it was difficult. Quote: “Sometimes victims were left in the sun or boiled in hot water first in order to make the skin removal easier.” – Of course I don’t know if there is any difference when the subject is dead. Or if the temperature affects the operation.

      >1) The act of cannibalism itself indeed DID happen.
      Has this been verified? Meaning the act of cannibalism in question happened around the time when this photo was taken at the same location?

      Like

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