Nazis, vigilantes and swastikas reveal the dark side of Independence Day

While it's not illegal to carry a swastika, police arrested four people who tried to resist when officers decided to confiscate them.

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Neo-Nazi marchers with swastikas in Helsinki, 6th December 2018 / Credit: News Now Finland

As Finland’s elite prepared to celebrate Independence Day at the Presidential Palace, a neo-Nazi colour guard was leading hundreds of far right supporters on a march through the streets of the capital city.

Police estimate up to three hundred people took part in the afternoon event, which brought together neo-Nazis with swastikas; the anti-immigrant vigilante group Soldiers of Odin, and other far right protesters, chanting that President Sauli Niinistö, Prime Minister Juha Sipilä, Finance Minister Petteri Orpo and Finns Party leader Jussi Halla-aho were “traitors of the people”.

Soldiers of Odin marching in Helsinki, 6th December 2018 / Credit: News Now Finland

There was a strong police presence around the event, including some in riot gear, but apparently of uncertainty from officers about how to deal with the swastikas.

“It’s a little bit of a problem. Here in Finland it’s not like Germany. Of course this is against our morals, but it’s not directly in our law that it’s not allowed to carry [a swastika]” says Chief Inspector Juha Hakola from the Helsinki Police.

“We had to find out the legality before we could take them. The police decided it’s provocative and against the assembly law, which says police decides how, what, and where you can do your marches. Police said put those flags away, and they said no, and we decided to take them” he tells News Now Finland.

Four people were arrested after a minor scuffle broke out as officers confiscated the swastikas.

Neo-Nazis with swastikas in Helsinki, 6th December 2018 / Credit: News Now Finland

The Nazi flags had been hoisted in plain site of police for at least 15 minutes as the march prepared to get underway, and were leading the protest for 10 minutes before officers took action to remove them.

Prime Minister Sipilä wrote on Twitter that “Nazi flags are not part of Finland. They do not represent the values of Finnish society in any way”.

Marchers carrying flaming torches at 612 parade in Helsinki, 6th December 2018 / Credit: News Now Finland

612 Independence Day march

A few hours later, an estimated 1800 people rallied in Helsinki’s Töölö neighbourhood under the ‘612’ banner, showing patriotic support for Finnish independence.

Although in theory no political displays were permitted, individuals who had earlier marched with neo-Nazis and Soldiers of Odin groups were also visible at the 612 event, but without their distinctive clothing.

“This is a very open, wide selection of locals here, and this is a universal Independence Day celebration” says organiser Teemu Lahtinen, who is also a Finns Party councilor in Espoo, and active in the Suomen Sisu organisation.

Suomen Sisu opposes immigration and multiculturalism, and several high profile Finns Party figures are said to be members of the ‘ethno nationalist’ movement, including party chairman Halla-aho.

“This is totally open. I have met Social Democrat city councilman. I am pretty sure, but I haven’t seen yet, there are Nazis here […] but we have trouble with Nazi symbols. They have used their jackets and scarves in former years and it’s trouble for us, but we don’t have the legal rights to remove them from the rally” says Lahtinen, who tells News Now Finland that he considers himself “a nationalist and a patriot”.

Police at 612 parade in Helsinki, 6th December 2018 / Credit: News Now Finland

There was a strong police presence at the rally, including officers on horseback, and some in riot gear, as marchers carrying flaming torches walked towards Hietalahti cemetery.

Extra police officers were drafted in from every region except Lapland and Åland to help provide security at the event. Teemu Lahtinen says his organisers have an open channel of communication with police.

Some 1800 anti-Nazi protesters also gathered separately for their own march, which took them along some of the same roads as the 612 parade, denouncing the appearance of far right groups in Helsinki.

President Sauli Niinistö (L) and First Lady Jenni Haukio (R) pose for an official photo at the 2018 Independence Day celebration / Credit: Office of the President of the Republic

Official celebrations at Presidential Palace

Against a backdrop of far right nationalism and counter-protests, the great and good of Finnish society were invited to a glittering reception at the President’s Palace to celebrate the country’s 101st anniversary of independence.

Some 1700 politicians, diplomats, actors, captains of industry, celebrities, activists, war veterans and even some ordinary members of the public were invited to dress up to the nines and shake hands with President Sauli Niinistö and his wife Jenni Haukio.

The theme of this year’s event was sustainability and the environment, with the food and drinks made predominantly from local, organic Finnish produce.

The red carpet arrivals is a television highlight, and the most-watched show of the year, with an estimated 50% of the population tuning in to see who was invited, and what they were wearing.