Jörn Donner’s speech: Mannerheim and Finnish independence

Mannerheim and Finnish independence. London, 28 September 2017.

J.K. Paasikivi, a contemporary of Mannerheim, used to cite a refrain from an old operetta in his political journals: Jag fattar icke just så snart / Men det är så underbart. Hur efteråt blir allting mig så klart.”

(I may not catch on right away / But, how wonderful it is to say / That everything dawns on me eventually, clear as the light of day.)

Neither Paasikivi and Mannerheim might be guilty of having hindsight, but both men, over time, developed a realistic understanding of what it meant to be part of Russia and neighbour, subsequently, the Soviet Union. They would most likely feel the same way about Russia today, which is every bit as unpredictable as it was under Stalin’s time. (Both Mannerheim and Paasikivi were children of the 19th century.)

Finnish Parliament’s decision to declare its independence on 6 December 1917 was not a foregone conclusion. Circumstances played a role. This also applies to General Gustaf Mannerheim, who found himself on a train, travelling from Odessa to Petrograd at the moment the decision was made. The declaration of independence, a brief announcement made in Helsinki, a small notice in the papers, was one detail in a multitude of major events during these years: two revolutions in Russia, Germany’s defeat in the First World War, the United States’ involvement in Allied victory, to name a few. Among the peoples of the world, there are some, such as the Kurds, who have little chance of achieving any sort of independence. Geopolitics sees to that. Geopolitics gave Finland its opportunity, squeezed between Sweden and Russia.

Is Mannerheim, who died on 27 January 1951 in Lausanne, someone who is remembered outside Finland?

The role that he played during many of the last hundred years of Finnish history is internationally well known by those familiar with it. Outside of a tight circle of historians, Mannerheim is hardly a well-known figure. In Finland it is different.

There are numerous streets and avenues named after him throughout Finland, not to mention a wide variety of monuments commemorating the man. Perhaps the most famous of these is the statue of him, sitting astride a horse, in the Helsinki city centre. The masses that pass by the statue each day probably have other things on their minds. Likewise, the myriad of monuments found in London scarcely inspires passers-by to reflect daily on the glory and exploits of the British Empire.

The fact that Mannerheim is mounted on a horse is something I will return to.
A plaque commemorating Mannerheim was hung on the wall of a building in St. Petersburg. After protests by those who felt such a memorial was inappropriate in Petersburg, the plaque was moved to a museum. During Hitler’s 900-day siege of Leningrad in the Second World War, Finnish forces maintained positions to the north of Leningrad, without mounting any sort of offensive. Upon hearing that Hitler had declared he would destroy the city, Mannerheim commented that the Russians would simply rebuild it. In Montreux a seven-metre tall obelisk commemorating Mannerheim stands on the shore of Lake Geneva. General Henri Guisan, commander of the Swiss army during the Second World War and a friend of Mannerheim, delivered the address at the dedication of the monument. The small Parc Mannerheim is located in close proximity to the Valmont Clinic, where Mannerheim spent a few of his last years, supervising his memoirs, which were published after his death. I once took a taxi from the railway station nearby, but the driver did not know any Parc Mannerheim.

A few filmmakers have expressed interest in making a film about the events of 4 June 1942, when Mannerheim turned 75. On that day, Mannerheim received a surprise visit from Adolf Hitler, who did not travel abroad during the Second World War. That is, of course, except when he had occupied foreign countries, such as his march up Champs-Elysées, celebrating the German occupation of Paris. The problem with making a film about Hitler’s brief visit, which lasted just over four hours, is that the figure of Mannerheim is much less known throughout the rest of Europe. Also, in 1942 it was not generally considered a given that Hitler’s reign would crumble less than three years later.

The interesting thing about the visit – and the film that never was – is that Hitler made no mention of the siege of Leningrad. He also avoided any discussion of the policy to exterminate European Jews, which was to be implemented as soon as possible in accordance with the “final solution” agreed upon at the Wannsee Conference in the winter of 1942. Being only a corporal himself, Hitler was exceptionally courteous to the towering Field Marshal and nobleman, Mannerheim. Later that year, Himmler came to Finland to initiate the extermination of Jews. He failed to do so. The men of the tiny Jewish population in Finland fought against the Russians in the Finnish Army. In formal terms, they were on the same side as Hitler. This is one of the many unusual aspects of Finnish history that is difficult to explain to foreigners.

On the other hand, I have noticed that Finns – and perhaps also Brits, for that matter – are not particularly knowledgeable of, for example, Albanian or Bulgarian history. Europe’s smaller nations had bit parts in the grand drama that played out in the 20th century, from Sarajevo in 1914 to the fall of the Berlin Wall. All of these nations, with the exception foremost of Sweden and Switzerland, were summarily drawn into the Second World War.

My anecdote on Hitler in Finland provides a window into the past, focusing on the period discussed here, Finnish independence and Mannerheim.

To make it very short – although the point is surely not to sum things up in just one minute – one might contend that Mannerheim had nothing whatsoever to do with Finnish independence. This is not altogether true. Part of this history deals with horses. Mannerheim’s military career in Russia, which lasted 30 years, took place during a time when the cavalry, where he served until his resignation in 1917, was gradually losing its military importance. When Mannerheim volunteered to serve during the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, he brought his horse along on the long train ride east. Once there, the horse was killed underneath him. He mourned the loss of his trusty steed. A short time later, while serving as an intelligence officer (or, more aptly put, a spy) at the behest of the Czar, he rode from the west to the east, all the way to China.

He was also used by the Imperial Russian armed forces as a horse buyer in various European countries. On 16 May 1918, when he inspected the army that had emerged victorious in Finland’s civil war, he was sitting horseback.

At his funeral in February 1951, his last horse Kathy was brought to the beginning of the ceremony, but did not make the long procession from the church to the gravesite. Mannerheim rode for as long as he was able.

But his cavalry days were over.

Now I will return to the Great War, which came to be known as the First World War. In the summer of 1914, Mannerheim and his cavalry were stationed in Warsaw when he received word that war had broken out. He had been spending time with Polish aristocracy, forging a tight bond with Princess Marie Lubomirska, with whom he maintained a relationship even after the war. Although there were many women in his life, none of them played a crucial role. It is difficult to imagine Mannerheim pushing a pram. His troops were ordered to head south to a section of the front, where he was eventually given command of an army of 80,000 men. He remained in command until his resignation. Horses and their riders still played a certain role. Without the revolutions in Russia – one in February and the other in November 1917 – Finnish Parliament would never have been able to move on declaring Finland’s independence.

Mannerheim’s stay in Odessa in the late summer and autumn of 1917 is of interest because it almost coincides with the October Revolution and the declaration of independence. This is an excerpt taken from a letter to his sister, Sophie, 3 September 1917. Quote: “Last night I arrived in Odessa, where I took leave to treat a very slight dislocation I suffered when I fell from my horse. I would not have bothered heeding the doctor’s advice if I wasn’t so tempted to take a break from all the fighting and obligations, which are becoming ever more difficult to bear with each passing day.” Unquote.

He stayed in the exclusive London Hotel, or Londonskaya, where a plaque commemorating his visits is hung outside the room where he usually stayed. A bit later, he wrote again: “Here in solitude and, hopefully, peace, I want to reflect on things, wait things out and then decide whether to rejoin my troops or once and for all retire.” A bit later he wrote, “I had the great fortune of being part of a list of the generals who had been put on reserve due to the fact that they were considered unadaptable to the present conditions. I am in full agreement with this judgment as regards my own, personal situation, and would only like to add that I have been unable to adapt to the present conditions for the past six months – in other words, from the day that the first steps were taken toward what is affectionately referred to as the ‘democratisation’ of the army, but what should rather be called for what it is – its destruction.”

Lieutenant General Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, who had served in the Russian cavalry for 30 years, had come to the end of his military career. He had no post or assignment, no task to fulfil. He had, for all intents and purposes, divorced his wealthy Russian wife, who moved to France with their two daughters.

Prior to his planned return home, he frequented mud baths near Odessa and ordered shoes, clothes and ties from local cobblers and tailors. However, as is sometimes the case, perhaps even on Savile Row, the delivery of his new apparel was delayed. During his life, Mannerheim was always dressed correctly, whether as a soldier or a civilian, and did not want to travel in civilian clothes. It was his desire to travel as a general. Noblesse oblige.

It took eight days for him to reach Petrograd, which St. Petersburg had been re-named in 1914 in order to dissociate it from any German influence. Mannerheim was accompanied by a rather motley crew plus his personal valet. During the trip home, revolutionaries attempted in vain to force their way into his car. He encountered the chaos caused by the revolution in Russia’s capital city and the calm before the coming storm upon his arrival in Helsinki. He took another short trip to Petrograd, apparently to meet with officers he knew there and discuss the possibility of using military force to crush the Bolshevik uprising.

From this point in time until the day he died, Mannerheim never gave up on his dream to remove the Bolsheviks from power. This dream came true 40 years after his death. Two lost wars taught him how to be a realist. During the period 1917–1920, Russia’s fate hung in the balance. Winston Churchill referred to the Bolsheviks as “troops of wild baboons”.

I would like to briefly discuss the attitude that Lenin and Stalin had toward Finnish independence. Officially, both leaders expounded on the right of oppressed people to self-determination and freedom, which, in principle, included all nations trapped in the Czarist Völkergefängnis, to use the German expression. It was therefore entirely logical that revolutionary Russia would recognise Finland’s independence, which was formally accepted by Lenin on New Year’s Eve 1917. In practice, however, the situation would look entirely different. First of all, world revolution would abolish all national borders.
Later on the expansion of the Soviet Union was a reason for the signing of the so called non-aggression agreement, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, in August 1939. Secret protocols stated that Finland would be annexed into Russia’s orbit, which, in turn, led to the Soviet attack on Finland on 30 November 1939. This marked the beginning of the Winter War. Mannerheim now played a key role as commander of the Finnish Army.

Let us now take a look at the events in Mannerheim’s life in January 1918, shortly after the declaration of independence. He had indeed been put in reserve, but his resignation had not yet been finalised. It would not enter into effect until February 1918, at which time Mannerheim would be granted a small pension.

This pension was evidently never paid. Although he had no post or appointment in the new Finland, he did have many friends. Class struggles in Finland had intensified during the past six months. It was the ‘Reds’ against the ‘Whites’. The Reds were socialist leftists, some of whom called for revolution. The Whites were an administration that wanted to assemble a military force to fight the Red threat, which soon became a reality. The Finnish Civil War was at hand.

Mannerheim, who had turned 50 the summer before, complained of the passivity of people in the military who discussed various courses of action without understanding the need to act quickly. He was soon appointed commander of the White Guards and went to Ostrobothnia to assemble an army.
There were large Russian garrisons stationed in Finland. The goal was to get them out of the country.

The civil war broke out when Red Finland seized control of the state in Helsinki. A number of social democrats considered this to be a disastrous decision, which it was.

It is not my intention here to provide a description of the Finnish Civil War, which was a victory for the Whites and Mannerheim. The thing that affected Finland long into the future was what happened to the vanquished Reds. At one point, there were some 80,000 Reds imprisoned in concentration camps. Although a majority of these were quickly released, a full quarter of the prisoners died from epidemics, hunger and executions. These events created an embittered segment of the population that would affect Finland for decades to come, until this day.

My father, Kai was one of the people behind an initiative, whose aim was to secretly provide young men to serve in the very German army that was Mannerheim’s enemy in the First World War. Fleeing Russian gendarmes, my father came to Sweden in 1916, but later during the civil war he was called to join Mannerheim’s staff in Finland, where he would be appointed commandant of the border area between Finland and revolutionary Russia. Later he published one of the first biographies on Mannerheim. I have never counted all the books that have been written about Mannerheim. It is certainly well over 200. No other figure in Finnish history has received as much attention. Despite this, there are still many questions concerning Mannerheim’s life that have never been answered.

My uncle, Ossian, was a successful industrialist. He was eventually appointed to serve as Finland’s first diplomatic representative in London, which was a post he held until his dismissal of the administration at that time. When Mannerheim came to London in the late autumn of 1918 to participate in efforts to recognise Finland’s independence, he was assisted by Ossian, who had excellent contacts in the Foreign Office. (His son Patrick, who was my cousin, eventually became a British citizen and was elected to Parliament in 1935, where he served for twenty years. Strangely enough, he was not the only person of Finnish extraction in the House of Commons. Finnish-born Konni Zilliacus sat on the left with Labour. As far as I know, these two Swedish speakers never once exchanged a word with each other during their time in Parliament.)

Without Mannerheim knowing, the White government in Finland had been in contact with Germany in 1917 to request military assistance. Germany’s influence over events in Finland until the fall of the German monarchy on 9 November 1918 had an impact on Mannerheim’s fate as well as the direction which the Finnish state would take. On 25 February, a majority of the Finnish soldiers who had received training in Germany arrived in Finland to take part in the civil war, which had been raging since the end of January. Mannerheim claimed, and would always claim, that his army could handle the civil war without German assistance. It did not happen. German troops landed in southern Finland that April and occupied Helsinki. The Germans held a parade, which was countered by Mannerheim’s own parade on 16 May. Because the Germans remained in Finland and the government practically relinquished the handling of all military affairs to them, with their commanding officer, General Rüdiger von der Goltz acting as a head of state, Mannerheim found himself totally outplayed.

He left the country almost immediately after holding his victory parade. The Finnish government did not agree to his terms. Leftist members of Parliament had been completely barred from participation in any parliamentary procedures.

A majority of those who remained felt that Finland’s status could be strengthened with the installation of a king – a German king. While this was going on, Mannerheim was in Sweden and Norway, and then in England later that autumn. The selection of a German king meant that Great Britain did not want to recognise Finland’s independence. In practical terms, Finland was a protectorate of Germany shortly before Wilhelm II abdicated.

Following this, it took some time before the king-elect wisely renounced the throne. Mannerheim was needed once again. At this point in history, the discussion could touch on Mannerheim’s attitude toward Germany and Germanness in a broader sense and with a somewhat longer view.Up until the end of the Second World War, German was the first and foremost foreign language in Finnish schools. This arrangement changed in 1945, with English replacing German as a primary foreign language. I personally studied Latin and Greek, but very few chose these languages at that time (and even fewer do so today).

Mannerheim’s own language studies, through school, the cadet academy and in St. Petersburg, included Russian (which he evidently spoke with a heavy accent) and, naturally, French, as this was the court language in Russia. He also spoke English and German to a certain extent. He was never able to master Finland’s primary language, Finnish, very well.

In letters and journals, he expressed his disgust at the brutality exhibited by the German troops on the section of the front where he had served. He was already a proponent of the Triple Entente while he fought his Russian war. The Triple Entente was the Western coalition that formed an alliance with the Czarist regime and was later supported by the United States.

I have already touched on Mannerheim’s critical attitude toward the Germanness that prevailed in Finland from the spring of 1918 until the autumn of that same year. It is an almost perverse paradox that Mannerheim, who later privately expressed his disgust at Nazism, worked to establish a military alliance with the Hitler regime, according to the mantra that suggested Finland “had no other choice” between the end of the Winter War in 1940 and the summer of 1941.

In hindsight, one might ask whether it would have been possible for Finland to follow Sweden’s policy of neutrality. I do not think so. But the desire among Finns to exact revenge for the Winter War was exceedingly strong. We do not know how Mannerheim felt about the success of Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa. Doubt began to creep in very soon afterwards, perhaps following German losses in 1942.

Mannerheim’s critical view of Nazism as a phenomenon did not prevent him from taking hunting trips to Germany in the 1930s, with Hermann Göring as his host. Mannerheim’s passion for hunting drove him to take two trips to India to hunt tiger. On the second trip, surrounded by hundreds of Indians and a large number of elephants, he managed the kill. He lost his good judgment when it came to killing animals or spending time with Hermann Göring.

In various contexts, I have (and I am not alone in this regard) attempted to emphasise that, because Finland’s independence was a process, it cannot therefore be linked to a specific event, which, by the consensus at that time, was bound specifically to 6 December 1917. Finland has put an enormous amount of work and money toward linking independence to that particular date.
So, if not 6 December 1917, then what should the date of independence be?

This question does not need to answered, because the events that took place during the period 1917–1920 had their own, inner logic. The Finnish government, which suffered a setback with the failed installation of a king and Wilhelm II’s abdication, felt compelled to turn to Mannerheim and entice him with the title of “regent”, as he would, through his good name, be able to ensure the goodwill of the Western powers, particularly that of Great Britain.

But, the Mannerheim who returned to Finland in December 1918 also had another agenda, which could have had unfortunate consequences. It was his wish to have Finland participate in a military operation to bring down the Bolsheviks in Russia.

A civil war was raging there and its outcome was anything but clear. Furthermore, there were some in Finland who dreamt of a Greater Finland, in which the areas of Karelia where a majority of the population spoke Finnish would be annexed. This dream of a Greater Finland was resurrected in 1941 and lost three years later.

However, Mannerheim was not needed for very long after 1918. Although his name carried prestige in Western Europe, the parliamentary election in 1919 (which included a substantial leftist contingent, nearly as large as before the civil war) and the presidential election held that summer dashed Mannerheim’s aspirations to hold the nation’s highest office. Once again, he faded into obscurity, becoming a private citizen for a long time. He would be called upon again to serve as commander in two wars. In a letter he addressed to Hitler in 1944, Mannerheim withdrew from their co-operative agreement.

In line with the theme of this evening I am trying to reflect on the moment that Finland’s independence was realised, or whether it actually exists at all in this world of global, European and regional interdependencies, not to mention the conflation of industry, trade and finance.
The free movement of people across national borders still remains, in some respects, a fiction, but there really was a period before the current wave of refugees and terrorism when one might believe that the free mobility promised by the Schengen Agreement was indeed a reality. As we know, it did not include Britain.

When Finland’s membership in the European Union had become a reality in 1995, Finland’s President Martti Ahtisaari declared that Finland had never before been as free or independent as it was at that moment. This is true, despite the fact that membership, then and now, requires us to participate in a transnational community, with all of its benefits and obligations.

Because I am personally one of those people (perhaps a shrinking minority) who believe that membership in the EU and the Monetary Union has contributed to a new sort of independence, which I helped to create during my time in the Finnish Parliament, I might suggest that, when President Ahtisaari made that declaration in 1995, it would have been an opportune moment for Finland to join NATO without drawing too much attention.

Now, it is too late, for a variety of reasons. Such membership, if it comes to pass, will be subject to a referendum. I have no problems with referenda, as such, but I do prefer that they be used on a smaller scale, such as in Swiss cantons, where a decision must be made as to whether a road will be kept open during the winter or not. However, one never knows what a referendum might bring, as we have all learned.

A majority of Finns are against NATO membership, but there is widespread support for building up our defence preparedness. This will to defend is based on a view – one that I myself share – that, although the future of a country stands or falls with the union it is part of, providing for an independent defence is a necessity.

Independence involves a sometimes beneficial dependence on others. But open societies should have open borders.

Seen from this perspective, it is well worth celebrating these past hundred years.

Jörn Donner