Barbed wire — was nothing more than a tool.

– Olivier Razac

One day in February, few years ago, I was listening to the radio while working, as usual. Murmur on the background created a feeling of being awake, even if my thoughts were wondering elsewhere. When program changed, I became aware of the documentary1 that was telling about Jew refugees sent to forced labour in wartime Finland. Stories concerning Holocaust, labour camps and barbed wire were familiar from history, but I had never thought that these topics would have anything to do with Finland too. Researcher-journalist Elina Sana told the story about bleeding, bare hands:

Jew refugees were forced to twist the barbed wire — and they had invented some kind of tool to help with twisting without injuring their hands, but it was prohibited – -.

The sculptor in me awakened, since I was always interested in objects and instruments. The tool meant to twist metal spikes made me think about mythical items, that eventually – in one way or another – prove impossible to possess: in Oriental stories the plant that guarantees eternal life is either stolen or forbidden. Both Baltic-Finnic ’Sampo’ and Germanic ’Grotti quern’, that ground riches of life, got broken during forced struggle. 

One of my early sculptures is a knife carved from wood; more specifically it is a wooden replica of Swedish industrially produced Mora-knife. While I was carving the wooden blade, I was thinking how ancient blacksmith-gods had to, like their worldly colleagues, forge their own tools before hammering the sphere of sky. The tool and work were of same essence. In Genesis, similarity of the maker and the object of the deed became a story of human’s inability to be god-like. In the history of the Creation human’s suffering begun when he was bound to ground: ”Therefore the Lord God sent him from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken”2. Also the myth about fratricide tells about relationship between more God-pleasing nomadism and soil cultivation, cultura, that carries echoes from the curse.

Barbed wire is a tool that authority uses to mark power relations.

Agricultural society’s needs that were based on maximum exploitation and ownership of the land – combined with industrial era mass production possibilities – created barbed wire. According to Olivier Razac, barbed wire is a tool that authority uses to mark power relations. As an instrument of power, barbed wire has held on, not just because its technical qualities but also its economical ability to adjust; well, this “the best fence in the world” is – phrased by Texan barbed wire salesman in 1870s – light as air and cheaper than dust. 

Barbed wire, that was developed to fence prairies, drew a line between productive – and hence worth protecting – white people and counterproductive Indians. Barbed wire’s dual mission, on the one hand to protect and also to defend, crystallizes the dark side of the democratic and liberal societal ethos. Striving towards universality and total coverage is principle that has reversed side of strict boundaries: to be left outside doesn’t only mean poorer life, but to lose the chances to live at all. 

While board and concrete create relationship with space, barbed wire has active relationship with living beings and their sensitive bodies. Razac draws out the geometry of outside and places its different stages on a timeline: where United States frontiers appeared as West-heading frontline, dividing itself from hinterland of freedom and life (although constantly narrowing and finally disappearing), in First World War this outside formed as narrow space between two battlefield fronts, no-mans-land. In concentration camps’ architecture of the ultimate violence, the outside was closed inside and this reality – delimited by barbed wire – was the utmost version of the outside: anti-place governed by death and arbitrariness, where final abandonment reached extremes.

In 2016, an artwork titled ”Impenetrable” (2009) by Palestinian visual artist Mona Hatoum was on display at Kiasma art museum, Helsinki. As the name implies, the work made up of barbed wire stringed between the floor and the ceiling, was eye-catching but body-impermeable. It is interesting to interpret Hatoum’s work through the characterization of the obstacle during the First World War by Razac:

The barbed-wire network eliminated the superfluous, doing away with high, thick defensive walls. In their place it left only a fine metallic skeleton.3

Barbed wire fencing was superior defence mechanism against the offensive techniques of the First World War, for it was difficult to detect and laborious to destroy. After the arrival of the tank force on the battlefield, the mass of fortifications began to be appreciated again, but in other contexts the intangibility of control has been taken further and further. Barbed wire is no longer a visible part of Western culture, although control and restrictions have only increased; means have merely became increasingly sophisticated and often invisible. However, barbed wire has not become redundant, but is still a useful tool for the same task to which it was a century and a half ago developed for: to prevent and control the movement of living beings, and to separate the outer from the inner. For example, the Palestinian territories have been separated from Israel by barbed wire. The essence of barbed wire would therefore be difficult to crystallize better than Hatoum did with her work; the weight of her iron- and air-made cube is unchallenged, whether the work is viewed as a social statement or from the view of traditional sculpture.

I, too, wanted to come up with something meaningful. Excited about the story about twisting the barbed wire, I started planning an art project with an idea of getting a world out of it; The importance of the subject would undoubtedly make my work also important. I made a sketch of a sculptural installation based on a forced labour camp mentioned in a radio document and a concept of punitive barbed wire manufacturing. An opportunity to take the work plan forward came semi-accidently when I had to develop a project for the Artists’ Association of Lapland co-residency in Berlin. I dug a barbed wire concept from my desk drawer thinking that there might be something related to the subject in Germany. And indeed there was: the Berlin Sessions Residence host Andrzej Raszyk urged me to present my work plan to the EVZ Foundation ( The Foundation”Remembrance, Responsibility and Future”). I spread a mindmap I had made on the floor of a glass-walled meeting room. EVZ’s project manager Agnieszka Pustola laughed, that it was the first time in this room chatting while sitting on the floor.

After many twists and turns, the project ”Process / Der Prozess” started in May 2020, funded by EVZ Foundation and produced by the Artists’ Association of Lapland. On one hand, the project name refers to the process that led to the extradition of refugees to Nazi Germany. The name also refers to barbed wire manufacturing process. The third implication is the documentation of my own work and learning process, while trying to write and draw an outline to a story about twisting a barbed wire, and above all the question of the origin of violence. Actually, all of my artistic production has addressed the question of the nature of violence, at least indirectly. I have broken the question down into parts, into numerous new questions, just to find out how subtle indeed are the threads that eventually weave the strangling rope of violence, which we then look at and we wonder who really braided it without we knowing about it or wanting for it.

The story in the document about the forced labour camp and bloody hands was touching – but was that a true story?

It was luxurious to get started with finding background information – artists in general take care of the groundwork in their so-called free time. I soon noticed that the first question wasn’t how to make art from barbed wire, but what exactly happened at the Suursaari labour camp in the summer 1942. The story in the document ”Holokaustin varjo”(”The Shadow of the Holocaust”) about the forced labour camp and bloody hands was touching and appealed emotionally and to my sense of justice – but was that a true story? If that wasn’t true, then would this project of mine make any sense either? The project funding comes from EVZ’s “Forced Labour and Forgotten Victims” -funding program – but what if there were no forced labourers? I said to myself, that before I could continue, I needed to check the facts.

The review by the Finnish Defense Forces during the Continuation War sets the mood:

“There it is, before us, the beach of Suursaari island, a much-needed fairytale island for many unforgettable summer trips”.

Suursaari island in the Gulf of Finland was taken from the Soviet Union in the late winter of 1942. Four months later, to the ”healthy sea climate” of the island in the middle of a war zone, the Jewish refugees were also transported. Their trip to Suursaari island had been a long one.

Due to the rejective refugee policy, only relatively few Jews fleeing the persecution of Nazi Germany had entered Finland; only about two hundred people. I am referring here as Jews to those refugees, who sought asylum in Finland during World War II, who were treated as Jews because of their religion, origin or other circumstances. Identification as Jewish did not necessarily correspond to individuals’ own perception of themselves. In the words of Max Jacobson, “historical experience shows that (identity related) answer isn’t based on Jews’ own choices but their neighbours’ opinions.” In this case, the ’neighbours’ of the refugee Jews who arrived in Finland during the war were the Finnish State Police ’Valpo’ and other authorities. Finnish Jews were allowed to live relatively securely in wartime Finland, but the status of refugees was more threatened. There were no anti-Semitic laws in force in Finland, but the definition of being Jewish was an aggravating factor that exposed refugees to persecution. In the words of Elina Sana:

 Communist, refugee and Jew, in this order, was lethal combination in wartime Finland. Communist alone was enough to be added in Nazi death list, but being refugee and Jew confirmed that no human dignity was given. Continuation War time’s Finnish Valpo, Swedish Säpo and German Gestapo agreed on this.

Most of the refugees from Central Europe had initially settled in the largest cities in the country, mainly Helsinki. After the outbreak of the Continuation War, refugees were transferred to Häme, in rural parishes. The transfer was justified by the aim to protect the Jews from German contacts. Half a year later the male refugees were ordered to enlist as the labour force, which was at least formally part of a more general work order. Men were transported from the Finnish White Guard house by ’farm wagons’ far to the north, to Salla in eastern Lapland, where their work site was located in the vicinity of the German front. There were also Finnish conscripts in the area, but the refugees were kept separately. They were housed in tents that were humid and cold – the temperature could get minus 40° Celsius degrees outside. Lajos Székely, a Hungarian P.h.D. in Psychology who was at the camp, told: 

We were not told during the journey where we were taken. In Kuusivaara, our camp was circled with barbed wire. We weren’t allowed to go outside that line even on our free time.

From Salla, the refugees were transferred to the Kemijärvi railway construction site. The conditions in the camp were miserable and refugees lacked basic needs. Getting sick didn’t mean getting out of camp, but a loss of wages even though the sick had to also pay for their food. There were no change of clothes, and when the clothes got ripped, the workers looked like a group of beggars to whom the locals laughed at. The refugees only stayed in Kemijärvi for a month, then there was a departure again, this time to the south at the Suursaari island. The reason for the transfers was apparently again the same: the Jewish refugees were transported away from our German brothers-in-arms.

The War Diary of the Suursaari Fortress of the Navy Headquarters worksite states that on July 27 in 1942, 33 ”Israeli children” arrived as labourers and were placed on the roadwork. According to the management in the Suursaari worksite, the refugees were not able to do heavy road work, so they were given the task of manufacturing barbed wire cylinders for fortifications, which was supposed to be the easiest job in the camp. Elina Sana tells a different narrative: According to Sana, refugees were humiliated and tortured in Suursaari in many ways. A refugee explains about their working conditions in the campsite:

We were twisting barbed wire. It was ordered to be done with bare hands and it tore our hands. We came up with some kind of key to twist those wires but it was prohibited. They wanted our hands to bleed. Food was bad, millet porridge every day. We had bad food, but they didn’t, they ate well. But there were smart lads among us, who skinned squirrels and cooked them. We also ate berries and roots.

PhD of Political Science Hannu Rautkallio, in his book about Finland’s conscience, has a sceptical attitude towards the bitter descriptions of Jewish refugees about the conditions in the Suursaari camp. Rautkallio interprets the experiences of injustice as lack of work motivation, stating that the conditions of the refugees were the same that those of Finnish employees. However, Rautkallio fails to mention that Jewish refugees were treated as a separate group and were isolated from other workers. Neither the salary paid to refugees was the same as that paid to Finns, which

Rautkallio himself states when quoting the review of the control by the Finnish Department of the Ministry of Defence from September 1942:

Since Jews’ work efficiency has been evaluated to be fifth of Finnish workers’ one, their wage has also been lowered. Dissatisfaction and laziness has been evident after that – -.

Rautkallio quotes Eelis Ahtiainen, the foreman at the Suursaari camp, who evaluates the making of barbed wire cylinders quite differently from the refugee statements whose recollections Rautkallio hints of being shaped by ”background, status, attitude, and ethical emphasis.” Ahtiainen does not rely on personal experiences of unreliable probative value, but on orders and instructions: the work had to be done with bare hands and no one had to tear their fingers to blood, as ”it was not commanded”.

Were the experiences of injustice borne from the fact that the refugees were not up to date, or did the work tasks required of them differ unreasonably from those of Finnish employees? Finnish Field Regulations II from 1931 provide guidance: the barbed wire cylinder is a tubular net made of barbed wire which, when pulled open, forms an obstacle of about 10 meters. Typically, these cylinders are used as temporary barriers, but in winter there is also use for them in more permanent fortresses. The cylinder is made with wooden barrel on which barbed wire is wound.

The parallel barbed wires are tied together with a smooth iron wire. One cylinder requires 140 pieces of 10 cm long binding yarns. The work tools are an axe and barbed wire scissors. The fortification of the island and equipping for winter would probably explain the manufacture of barbed wire cylinders in the Soviet Union conquered Suursaari in the summer of 1942. There seems to be no reason for banning the use of refugee-made tools in the manufacturing process, but on the other hand in the Finnish Field Regulations of that time there is also no mention that in addition to barbed scissors and an axe, other tools would be necessary either. Making barbed wire cylinders was undoubtedly consuming, but at least the work was the same for everyone, and not Jewish refugees were thus in a particularly unfair position in making these cylinders.

As I search for the truth behind the story, I find orders that say one thing and I hear whispers that say something else.

The situation becomes completely different if the work was actually making of barbed wire itself. Where the twisting ten centimeter tie wires around barbed wire cylinders was probably reasonably successful even with bare hands, the spikes of the barbed wire are so short that it is difficult to avoid sharp metal wire ends sinking into the skin (I know this because I tried).

Those in the camp said that they themselves twisted the spikes of the barbed wire, but did refugees remember the details of the work they did incorrectly? Or maybe the documenter misinterpreted what they were told and did not perceive the difference between twisting twine wires and twisting spikes.

There is no mention in the Finnish wartime field regulations of barbed wire manufacturing being a part of Pioneer’s job description, even in exceptional cases. The story of handmade barbed wire indeed sounds unbelievable, but not necessarily impossible. I contacted a military professor Janne Mäkitalo, who has studied the history of Finnish pioneering tactics. In his article on pioneer experiments in the 1920s, he recounted coming across a document which indicated that the pioneering work of conscripts at that time included also the manufacturing of barbed wire, or ”thorn wire”, at least momentarily and experimentally. Mäkitalo states however, that this appeared to be an isolated case.

As I pondered the problem of handmade barbed wire, I read Mauno Jokipii’s book about the beginning of Continuation War. When describing the Finnish Material Supply Agreement with Germany Jokipii states that Finland lacked barbed wire. So that was the case, at least in 1940. Jokipii does not comment on how the purchases of barbed wire went on later, but let us remember that a considerable part of the materials Finland received from Germany were remnants of war, as the German factories were not able to produce all the necessary material for their own needs, let alone to be delivered for their brother-in-arms. Perhaps Finland therefore lacked barbed wire also later.

This is merely a conjecture, but what if we did return to the handmade barbed wire experimenting when the situation was favorable: an isolated group of stateless refugees arrived as labour, whose interests were promoted by hardly anyone in this foreign country, at least not on the remote island of Suursaari. Could it therefore be possible that the refugees were commissioned work which violated the official guidelines? Is it possible that the refugees still remembered what they experienced correctly, and that their supervisor and the guards really wanted ”hands to break and fingers to bleed”. But what can you prove? As I search for the truth behind the story, I find orders that say one thing and I hear whispers that say something else.

This is as far as I can get. I still have a story about twisting barbed wire, but it’s still just a story. Hannu Rautkallio called for Finland’s conscience, i.e. how the narrative of the Finnish society is told. In this case difficulty of verifying the report is a key issue, what comes to the debate on the fate of Jewish refugees. If human experience is brought to the fore, emphasis is also placed on the rattling interview tape of a voice that recalls the time of refugees in wartime Finland. The soft voice of an old man is at times almost inaudible, and the soreness of the memories makes you want to plea the interviewer: ”stop, can’t take this, too difficult a subject”.

The figure of Suursaari island at year 1942 (by Finnish Wartime Photograph Archive)

This publication is translated version of the article ”Käskyjä ja kuiskauksia”, originally published in the Kaltio magazine 1-2/21

1 Holokaustin varjo – kolme osaa kadotuksen läheisyydestä. Part 3: Salaiset aseveljet. Yle Radio 1, February 2017 

21. Mos. 3:23

3Razac, page 41