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How one novel resolved a national trauma

 By Henrik Stenius

pohjan.jpg (12627 bytes) Last winter I had a fascinating discussion with some British friends about Neil Jordan’s film Michael Collins. I was astonished to meet people who had an optimistic and positive view about the possibilities of achieving a peaceful solution to the crisis in Northern Ireland, and who at the same time expressed their scepticism, even rage, about this film. They explained to me that the film is dangerous, that it strengthens old, disastrous images of the bad English and the good Irish national characters. They also argued that the film was anachronistic in a way which served to legitimise the use of violence in contemporary Northern Ireland.

The arguments are at least partly familiar to a person like myself, who has experienced the heated debates concerning the legacy of the Finnish civil war of 1918. The same kind of arguments were used: Don’t delve into the past. Traumas, which are (almost) forgotten should not be revived. Let the wounds heal themselves in peace and quiet.

The civil war in Finland in 1918 was a cruel war, comparable to the cruelty of the war in former Yugoslavia. It divided the nation into two camps and created an atmosphere of unforgiving attitudes, an incapacity for empathetic understanding. I will not dwell upon the war itself, including the complicated question as to why the war was so cruel. Let me just mention that the White, bourgeois, side defeated the Red, revolutionary side.

I will, instead, choose as a starting point the fact that the trauma which the war caused, as well as the healing of the trauma, constitutes an essential part of the mental map of the Finns. Several generations of Finns incorporated these experiences into their life stories, explicitly or implicitly.

There is total unanimity among the experts that the political culture in Finland is homogenous. This homogeneity can be seen as the reason why it has been difficult to accept the legitimacy of different interpretations of the war. Up until the 1950s, there had been few, usually not very successful efforts in this direction. In the twenties, some authors, emerging from the victorious White side, made efforts to understand the Reds. Understanding in these cases meant that the revolutionaries were seen as essentially good-hearted, but misled and to some extent stupid. Frans Emil Sillanpää's Nobel Prize in literature owed a lot to this kind of interpretation.

The academic world up to the 1950s took for granted that the two interpretations were incompatible. The aim of historical research was to prove that only one of the two interpretations was true.

The situation changed in 1956 when Väinö Linna published the second part of his trilogy Täällä Pohjantähden alla (Here, under the North Star), looking at the civil war from a Red family’s point of view. This, in Finnish terms extremely important book, has strangely enough not been published in English, although it has been translated into many other languages such as Chinese.

Linna’s novel changed the agenda and started a therapeutic process which lasted some decades and was initially stimulated by a debate in the newspapers. Some ten years later researchers within fields of history, literature and sociology joined the re-evaluation of the civil war and, indeed, the class structure in contemporary society. It became difficult to deny that the feelings also on the Red side were patriotic. On a political level, President Kekkonen symbolised the new situation. In 1966, the communists gained a seat in the Cabinet for the first time.

The novel not only triggered a debate, it soon also became an important symbol for the nation, offering an impressive array of national, beloved heroes.

There is proof of the fact that the healing process has been successful. According to preliminary results of an ongoing survey by Sirkka Ahonen, about 70% of school pupils aged 16-18 today do not know which side their own grandparents were on during the civil war. For people of my generation this is astonishing. We were, of course, very aware of this important piece of family history. Intuitively we also were aware of the backgrounds of the acquaintances we made.

Why did Linna’s novel succeed in having this enormous therapeutic effect? Like Jordan’s film on Michael Collins it is a good piece of fiction with a captivating aesthetic. As in Jordan’s film, the fascination was rooted in a curiosity about "wie es eigentlig gewesen". It raised the simple question: was it really like this? And finally, like Jordan’s film, it had a clear and outspoken purpose to try and legitimise an alternative interpretation which hitherto had not been accepted by the hegemonic political culture.

On the other hand, there are obvious differences. Jordan’s interpretation can be accused of contradicting critical historical research and for making anachronistic use of the past in order to legitimise contemporary political agendas. I think we would find it difficult to level similar accusations at Linna.

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