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Kriegshistorische Stätten – Schauplätze der Geschichten – Was die Feldpost über den Krieg erzählt

Nikolaus von Falkenhorst

General and war criminal

On 17 January 1885, a son named Paul Nikolaus was born into the family of Louis and Elisabeth von Jastrzembski. The family lived in the Prussian town of Breslau. Nowadays, the city is known as Wroclaw and it belongs to Poland. In 1908, Nikolaus married Margarete Ulrich and they had two daughters, Harriet and Gisela. In 1911, to replace his noble name Jastrzembski, Paul Nikolaus was granted the surname von Falkenhorst (in English, Eagle’s  Nest), the name by which he is better known.

After training as a military officer in the Imperial German Army, von Falkenhorst served in staff roles in World War I, and after the war, in the Ministry of War. He participated in the German military campaign in the Finnish Civil War in 1918, and he had also visited Kuusamo with his group of officers in the early summer. Thanks to his knowledge of the region, he was regarded as an expert of northern war conditions. In the 1930s, von Falkenhorst worked as a military attaché in the eastern parts of central Europe, after which he received one promotion after another. He was in charge of the German military group Wehrmacht that invaded Poland in September 1939 and promoted as artillery general. Soon thereafter, Hitler placed him in charge of the Operation Weserübung, a secret plan to invade Denmark and Norway. After the successful invasion, Von Falkenhorst worked as commander of the German troops in Norway until July 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union and German forces were needed to participate in action further up north. Von Falkenhorst became commander of the German troops in Northern Finland. He was also placed in charge of the III Corps of the Finnish Army.

On the eve of the Continuation War, 24 June 1941, von Falkenhorst met Major General Hjalmar Siilasvuo in Maijanlampi, Taivalkoski (in the photograph: von Falkenhorst in the foregound with Siilasvuo next to him. Maijanlampi 24 June 1941. Image: SA-kuva). At this point, the III Corps, led by Siilasvuo, had already been placed under the leadership of the German general. Only a week after the visit, on 1 July 1941 at 2:30 in the morning, the corps launched an attack into the Soviet Union. The order to attach was signed by Nikolaus von Falkenhorst. The German general put pressure on Siilasvuo to advance all the way to the shores of the White Sea. Finnish forces suffered greater and greater losses and Siilasvuo grew increasingly disenchanted with the Germans.

Overall, Finnish people’s reactions towards the German troops varied quite a bit – some people cheered them on, some heckled. The attitude of Finnish leaders was, for the most part, appropriately realistic, but the rules of courtesy were followed. In September 1941, von Falkenhorst was awarded the Grand Cross with Swords of the Order of the White Rose of Finland. This matter was brought to light only 50 years later in a study conducted by professor Mauno Jokipii. According to Jokipii, the badge of honour was proposed by President Ryti, which was exceptional – usually, Commander-in-Chief Mannerheim made the proposals and Ryti awarded the decorations. It seems as though Mannerheim had his reasons for being reluctant, and he was not particularly eager to describe his meetings with the German general in his memoirs, either. Lieutenant General Wiljo Tuompo, who served as chief of the command staff at the Headquarters, spoke out in a more forthright manner: ”…Falkenhorst talks a lot and says what ever comes to his mind. The German is braggy and full of himself, and he presents himself in a somewhat brutal manner… Tuompo says that he lost all his respect for Falkenhorst during the presentation made by the commander-in-chief that evening. The marshal expresses his agreement.” (Jatkosota – Kronikka [Continuation War – a Chronicle], Gummerus 1997).

Wellamo Paananen, a Lotta who met the general during the Continuation War while he was in charge of the German forces in Northern Finland, paints a different picture of von Falkenhorst: “Today, the general paid me 60 Finnish marks for washing his shirt in Lake Joutsijärvi! I thought he had forgotten about the whole thing”. Before leaving the Headquarters in Lapland, Wellamo Paananen paid a farewell visit to von Falkenhorst and thanked him for his kindness on behalf of her whole family. At the end of her visit, the general said: ”Gott segne Sie und Ihre Familie! Bleiben Sie immer eine Finnin!” (God bless you and your family. May you always remain Finnish!) Paananen recollects.

In early 1942, von Falkenhorst’s position changed when the plan to cut the Murman railway had failed and he was replaced by another German general. He was transferred back to Norway, and he continued as commander of the German troops there until December 1944. He was dismissed from his position as commander of the Norwegian troops on 18 December 1944 after he had opposed the operations of the Reichskommissar for Norway, Josef Terboven. After the end of the war, he was interrogated in Oslo in September and October 1945. Von Falkenhorst was accused of crimes such as giving orders contrary to international law, which led to his subordinates shooting British commandos to death in 1942–1944. The British military tribunal located in Braunschweig, Germany, sentenced him to death by shooting on 4 November 1946. The sentence was, however, changed to 20 years’ imprisonment.

You can read the original summary of the interrogation of General von Falkenhorst (in English) here https://digital.library.cornell.edu/catalog/nur00869

Von Falkenhorst was released from prison for health-related reasons as early as in 1953, and he led a quiet life with his wife ever since. Nikolaus von Falkenhorst died on 18 June 1968 in Holzminden, West Germany.

 


 

The story is based on various sources, such as Bundesarchiv, ”Lottana lippusiimassa – Muistoja Wehrmachtin Lapin esikunnasta”[A Lotta’s Memories from the Wehrmacht Headquarters in Lapland], Wellamo Paananen (Gummerus, 1998), ”Jatkosota Kronikka” [Continuation War – a Chronicle], Matti Ahola & Ensio Siilasvuo (Gummerus, 1997), ”Parakkeja ja piikkilankaa – Saksan armeijan rakentamiseen liittyvä toiminta Rovaniemen seudulla 1940-1944” [Barracks and Barbed Wire – Construction Activities of the German Army in the Rovaniemi Region], Kalevi Mikkonen (Lapin Maakuntamuseon julkaisuja 18, 2017), “Saksan vankileirit Suomessa ja raja-alueilla 1941-1944” [German Prison Camps in Finland and in the Border Region], Lars Westerlund (Tammi, 2008), ”Sotakenraalit” [Generals of War], Robert Brantberg (Gummerus, 1998), ”Summary of Interrogation of General von Falkenhorst”, The Cornell University Law Library Donovan Nuremberg Trials Collection.