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The deliberately ignorant patriot

By Henrik Meinander

As in Britain and other countries that took part in the Second World War, war memories still play a crucial part in Finnish public culture. Finland fought and lost two wars against the Soviet Union during this second Armageddon, but luckily on both occasions escaped a Soviet occupation. This put Finland in a very different position from the rest of Eastern Europe. Of course, the loss of life and territories, together with the obligation to pay considerable compensation for war damage, made life hard for the Finns. But the prize was not too high to pay. Independence was maintained and from the 1950s onwards the economy developed fast, paving the way for a Nordic welfare system.upton.jpg (13364 bytes)

Yet memories of the war would not leave the Finns alone. The Finnish government had collaborated closely with Germany during the so-called Continuation War (1941 - 44) against the Soviets. Consequently, in 1945 the politicians responsible had been put on trial, found guilty and sent to prison. The trial was a political drama directed behind the curtain by the winner, the Soviet Union. This resulted in neither the defence nor the prosecution being interested in speaking the whole truth. The defence made every effort to cover up Finnish participation in Hitler's Operation Barbarossa, whereas the prosecution was ordered to censor statements that pointed out that the Soviet Union had been the original aggressor in 1939.

The trial cast a long shadow over the Finnish search for identity, not least since its outcome became an important lever in the domestic power struggle. The "new faces" were accused of having used the trial to gain power, but the debate was never fully open, as it was understood that the Soviet Union could make use of any revelations to strengthen its grip over Finland. In this situation, leading Finnish historians clearly took the side of the defence and avoided as far as possible a critical analysis of the subject. They were to maintain up until the late 1960s that the German connection had been later and looser than the prosecution and a growing number of foreign historians had claimed.

Typically, it would be the American scholar C. L. Lundin who in 1957 published the first critical study of Finnish-German collaboration. His analysis was sharply condemned by leading Finnish historians, but within a decade two other and better-documented books on the same topic had been published. In 1964, the British historian A. J. Upton released a study, Finland in Crisis 1940-41: A Study in Small-Power Politics, in which some more Finnish-German links were uncovered; in 1967, his American colleague Hans Peter Krosby put forward decisive evidence on the matter. Finnish scholars were now forced to retreat, although many did so rather reluctantly and with a number of reservations.

One of the former "new faces", Urho Kekkonen, had been elected President in 1956 and remained in power for an amazing 25 years. As Kekkonen’s rise to power had started when he served as Minister of Justice during the war responsibility trials, the wartime links to Germany would remain an important issue in the public arena. But as before, historians and politicians were unwilling to recognise that the public importance of the question was to a high degree related to how new interpretations and discoveries would put politicians such as Kekkonen in a better or worse light. It was not a coincidence that evidence of close Finnish-German links was accepted by the Finnish public in the late 1960s. This was also the time when Kekkonen reached an unchallenged position in foreign policy and dealt his enemies in domestic politics a final blow.

Although repeatedly denied, this self-censorship survived among Finnish historians until the 1990s. Finnish historians did not differ markedly in this respect from our politicians and journalists, who often avoided utterances on topics that were sensitive to the Soviet Union. The contrast with the German discourse about the Second World War was significant. In Germany the war guilt question has always been used openly in the domestic political struggle. Thus it has also been analysed by German historians as a dual phenomenon: that is, both as a contemporary symptom of political trends and as a strictly historical issue. In Finland, historians have seldom taken such liberties. If the dual nature of war history research ever disturbed their minds, they probably preferred to be deliberately ignorant patriots.

 Dr Henrik Meinander works at the Department of History, University of Helsinki.

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