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  • Hilde Huus

Mannerheim at 150 and the Centennial of Finland

Dr. Lennard Sillanpää’s Sept. 27 talk on Baron Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim and his contribution to his country, the Republic of Finland, was attended by many people of Finnish extraction who appreciated Dr. Sillanpää’s in-depth knowledge of the subject. It was also very enlightening to those of us who have not had the opportunity to study Finnish history (such as myself) and may have been a bit vague as to what exactly did happen in Finland during World War II and the years leading up to it. Lennard’s talk, which launched the CNS’s celebration of Finland’s 100th anniversary, was a most appropriate way to learn some of the history behind what exactly we are celebrating.

In 1808, Finland was ceded to Russia by Sweden and became the “Grand Duchy of Finland.” It had its own senate and legislative assembly but all major decisions still had to be approved by the Tsar. Mannerheim was born under this regime in 1867 and had a 30-year career in the Russian military, achieving the rank of Lieutenant General in 1917. The 1917 Russian Revolution led to his falling out of favour with those in power and he returned to Finland. When Finland declared itself independent on Dec. 6, 1917, Mannerheim was elected its temporary regent. He set about to establish Finland’s role within Europe, gaining British and American recognition of it as an independent state, and in 1919 confirming a new republican constitution. But he lost the presidential election and left public life for several years, during which he travelled extensively through Europe, Asia and India.

He returned to public life in 1931 when he was appointed chairman of Finland’s Defence Council and then in 1933, Field Marshal of Finland. He worked towards preparing Finland’s defences in case of Soviet attack and tried to create a Nordic neutral zone with Sweden but in this was not successful.

On Nov. 30, 1939, three months after the outbreak of WWII, the Soviet Union did invade Finland and, at age 72, Mannerheim became Commander-in-Chief of the Finnish Armed Forces. The Finns were able to repel the Soviet attacks for several months, even though the Soviets had more than three times as many soldiers as the Finns. This was the only war being fought in Europe at that time and the eyes of the world were on Finland. Lennard told us that the Finns gave an incredible account of themselves, and gained almost legendary status as they fought on when other countries around them had quickly been occupied. Mannerheim’s role was key in this period which became known as the Winter War.

Hostilities ceased with the signing of the Moscow Peace Treaty in March of 1940, under which some Finnish territory was ceded to the Soviet Union. But Finland had managed to retain its sovereignty and greatly enhance its international reputation. (One CNS member confided to me that as a young boy in Britain, he and his schoolmates were avid fans of Mannerheim and were heartbroken when he “lost” the Winter War.) Mannerheim retained his role as Commander-in-Chief and worked for a time with his Soviet counterparts. But at the same time, he was establishing ties with Germany in hopes of regaining the ceded territory, and he committed to participating with Germany in an invasion of the Soviet Union. The apparent weakness of the Soviet forces during the Winter War had led the German High Command to believe that such an invasion could be successful.

On June 22, 1941, the Axis powers (primarily Germany) invaded the Soviet Union. Finland participated as a “co-belligerent”, never having signed the treaty to make it a legal member of the Axis. Finnish soldiers were responsible only to their own Commander-in-Chief and did not work with any other nation’s soldiers. Finland continued to maintain diplomatic relations with the United States until December of 1941, when the Allies declared war on Finland.

Finland was able to regain the territory it had ceded to the Soviet Union and hold its own for the next three years while the German forces were catastrophically depleted at the Battle of Stalingrad and gradually defeated by the Allied Forces.

On June 10, 1944, the Soviet Union attacked Finland once again. The President of Finland, Risto Ryti, signed a pact with Germany, hoping for support to forestall the Soviet offensive. In August, Mannerheim replaced Ryti as President of Finland through an election by a special Act of Parliament. In September, Finland signed an armistice with the Soviet Union that required some land to be given up to the Soviet Union. Finland had the monumental task of moving the occupants out of the forfeited territories and resettling them in a very short period of time. The armistice pact also required that Finland demand the removal of the remaining German armed forces by September 14. The German armed forces resisted and retreated to northern Finland, fighting to retain control of Finnish nickel mines and shipping. But the German forces did co–operate in the peaceful evacuation of about 180,000 residents of Lapland to Sweden and southern Finland. When the Finnish forces then began attacking, the German forces systematically destroyed bridges and roads behind them as they retreated. By January of 1945, they had retreated out of Finland into northern Norway.

By the time the War ended, Mannerheim was 78 years old and in failing health. But he had the support of his armed forces and most of the Finnish population as he dealt with its difficult aftermath, including dealing with the refugees from Lapland and the ceded territories. He arranged a parliamentary election in 1945. Despite weak community leadership and a strong bastion of support for communism, the Finnish constitution established under Mannerheim in 1917 held, and a new government was sworn in. Finnish democracy and independence had prevailed.

Lennard explained that it was Mannerheim who throughout the war years stood at the pinnacle of Finland’s decision-making. He noted that Finland could so easily have been occupied and destroyed, but this was avoided. Finland was not dissolved and did not become part of the Soviet Union as did many of its neighbouring territories. If it had not been for Mannerheim, Finland might have been a very different country today. During its greatest crisis, no-one did more than he to ensure Finland’s survival as a nation. Mannerheim is generally regarded as Finnland’s greatest statesman, and in a 2004 poll, he was voted the greatest Finn of all time.

An interesting period of questions and discussion followed Lennard’s talk. One of our members, Marje-Liisa Linnapuomi Hansen, was able to tell us that she lived not far from Mannerheim as a girl and remembered her family greeting him when they were out walking and being offered a salute in return.

The evening ended with a draw for a most appropriate door prize of Finnish “Martial Coffee” (named in honour of Mannerheim), donated by Tuula Bigras and greatly appreciated by the winner of the draw.

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