An Oxford Historian
Nickname of the Week - Simo 'White Death' Häyhä
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
In a new weekly series Nickname of the Week, focusing on historic nicknames and their origins, we take a look at the Second World War and the Finnish Sniper Simo 'White Death' Häyhä.
Simo 'White Death' Häyhä is not a particularly well-known historical figure, partly as a result of his nationality - Finnish history is sadly rarely studied by most of the rest of Europe. Where it does re-emerge particularly, however, is the Winter War, a sub-section of WW2. From 1939 until 1940, the Finnish fought against a Soviet invasion, in what is now considered as an incredible victory by the Finnish in the face of overwhelming odds.
Simo Häyhä was a Finnish soldier, specifically a sniper. His fame comes from the (rather grisly) fact he was extremely good at his job - shooting people from a very long way away, very well, very often. He is often quoted with 500 kills, supposedly the highest in any major conflict - it's anybody's guess as to whether that's accurate or not.It is for this ability that he was given the name 'White Death', emerging from the Finnish snow to wreak havoc.
Simo's nickname might be classed as a military epithet - a recognition of military prestige (and, by extension, ideas of masculinity) common among many cultures. It is initially interesting, however, that the name 'White Death' is reported to have been given by the Russian Red Army, against whom the Finnish were fighting. Rather than an expression of either ego or a deliberate attempt to build support for the war effort, is this a genuine expression of fear and respect?
Well, probably not.
It appears that the nickname stems ultimately from Finnish news sources, reported as a name in frequent use by the Soviets. As such, it seems like part of a deliberate attempt at creating a hero figure by the state, and to stress the enemies fear towards the Finnish soldiers. In fact, Finnish sources appear frequently to depict the image of Finnish soldiers appearing out of the snow, and the 'White Death' nickname therefore seems to play into this stock trope of images, well understood by the public. The process of being given nicknames by the opposition is relatively frequent, especially in war - WW2 Nazi General Erwin 'the Desert Fox' Rommel is another example, given this time by the British press.
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Check out my previous articles on Anglo-Saxon (here), Viking (here) and obscene (here) nicknames. A new Deep-Dive article on Interpreting the Emporia can be found here.
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