A recurring theme in the history of great nation-states is how frequently their reins can be in the hands of outsiders. The classic example is that of the first French empire (1804-15), created as it was by Napoleon Bonaparte – a Corsican. Similarly, the Second Russian Empire (OK, I know the official name was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), at its zenith, was led by a Georgian (Stalin) and later a Ukrainian (Khrushchev). Even the British Empire wasn’t immune to this curious phenomenon: at its zenith, just at the end of the First World War, Britain had a Prime Minister whose first language wasn’t English (David Lloyd George), and of course the officially multi-national republic of Greater Serbia (for which read Yugoslavia), as set up after the Second World War, was chiefly the creation of Marshal Tito, whose father was Croatian and his mother Slovenian.
Finland is no exception to the rule: not when you consider how its independence from the Russian Empire (the first one, I mean) in 1918 was driven to a large extent by the leadership of a Finnish nationalist whose first language happened to be…Swedish. The relationship between the two nations has been complicated somewhat over the years. In the Middle Ages Finland was an integral part of the Swedish empire (as was Estonia), until the Napoleonic Wars, during which the Russians took advantage of the general chaos to take the land over from the Swedes. Nonetheless, a significantly well-connected Swedish-speaking community took hold on Finland’s south coast (especially the capital Helsinki), and to this day Swedish remains one of Finland’s official languages. Members of this community included the renowned composer (and Finnish patriot) Jean Sibelius, and the army officer and diplomat Carl Gustaf Mannerheim.
In March 1918 Russia’s new Bolshevik government bowed to the inevitable, and signed a harsh peace treaty in Germany, forced as they were to hand over Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic provinces, and Finland to the Central Powers. When civil war broke out in Russia between the Bolsheviks and their numerous disunited foes, Mannerheim was one of many Finnish public figures who recommended taking advantage of the disorder to declare independence, and seek recognition of this from the Western powers. This secured, he left the Finnish army and got involved in humanitarian work, at one point heading the Finnish Red Cross. Equally impressively, he was approached by rightist elements (on the basis of his tacit support for the White forces in the Russian Civil War, in which Finns had been intermittently involved) in Finnish society who urged him to launch a military coup, but he refused. Shortly before the Second World War broke out, however, he became commander-in-chief of the country’s army.
Under Mannerheim’s leadership, the Finnish army performed surprisingly brilliantly against the Soviet forces that invaded the country in late 1939 (the “Winter War”): though they suffered around 70,000 casualties, Stalin’s divisions had borne around a third of a million losses. Though the Finns ultimately came off worse in the Moscow Peace Treaty signed in March 1940 – in which they handed over to the USSR most of their south-eastern province of Karelia, and their second-biggest city, Viipuri (now the Russian city of Vyborg) – the humiliating spectacle of the Soviets failing to overwhelm a country a fraction of their size was not lost on many observers, particularly in Germany…
Inevitably, the Finns were going to want to take their lands back – and just such an opportunity presented itself in June 1941, when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. Following Mannerheim’s orders, the Finns re-occupied those Karelian territories that had been lost in March 1940 (the “Continuation War”) – but went no farther. If they had gone farther, towards Leningrad, the city, already under siege from the Germans, would in all probability have surrendered. While the dictum ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend‘ might well be true in most wars, as far as Mannerheim was concerned it was more a case of ‘My enemy’s enemy is my useful ally but nothing more‘. For most of the Second World War Mannerheim held the title of Marshal of Finland – the only time in the country’s history in which this title has ever been held by anyone there – to all intents and purposes the country’s head honcho, effectively outranking even the president. His policy was to reverse the losses incurred in the Winter War, while at the same time holding Hitler – a man he greatly disliked – at arm’s length.
By 1944, the tide had turned against the Germans, and it was inevitable, once the Soviets had begun to retrieve lands ravaged by the Nazis, that Stalin would turn his attention to the Finns. Complicating things for them even further, there were around 200,000 German troops stationed in Finland as part of the military compact between the two countries, and they were ready for whatever operations would be wired to them from Berlin. Caught between the rock of the Nazis and the hard place of a vengeful Stalin, Mannerheim’s government (he became Finland’s president in August of that year) realised that they would have to make a separate peace with the Soviets if they didn’t want their country to be overrun. The problem lay in Stalin’s stiff terms: sever all diplomatic links with Germany, then disarm all German soldiers on Finnish territory (no easy task, that), and then the peace talks would begin. There thus began the third (and in many respects most terrifying) phase of Finland’s World War 2 experience: the Lapland War, in which the Finns had to take on, alone, the hundreds of thousands of Nazi troops in their country. It proved to be a horrific campaign, in which the Germans blew up farms and nickel mines, and razed the northern city of Rovaniemi.
Mannerheim resigned the presidency in 1946, having overseen the acceptance of the Soviet Union’s peace terms and Finland’s honouring its post-war obligations. Suffering from ill-health for the remaining few years of his life, he died in January 1951, at the age of 83. Without doubt his country had had a terrible war, squeezed as it was between the ambitions of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, but things could have been much worse, and Finland – unlike most nations in Central Europe – managed to escape most of the effects of a war of annihilation. Mannerheim not only helped to win his country its independence in 1918: his genius also lay in keeping his beleaguered country united in the face of all threats and the various disadvantages that it faced. Not for nothing was he voted his country’s greatest-ever Finn in a national televised poll in 2004, and in a 1960 series of American stamps he was named as a liberator of his country – on a par with such figures as Simon Bolivar and Mahatma Gandhi.