Everything that puts Europe in harm’s way today is in some cases more challenging to Finland: geopolitical uncertainty in Russia ranks high on the list as does populism, anti-immigration sentiment, near-flat economic growth, high unemployment, rising poverty and nationalism.
It’s clear that when you have enough of the latter, people are going to get pretty edgy and angry. But since I’m an optimist that believes in Finland and the Finns, I’m hopeful that things won’t get too much out of hand politically and force us to commit the same mistakes of the past.
Time is still on our side.
Russia and Europe then
Before travelling to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin in June, Finland’s President Sauli Niinstö was asked by a reporter why he was chosen by the EU to hold talks with Russia to find ways to defuse the crisis in the Ukraine and improve relations with Brussels.
President Niinistö’s answer shouldn’t surprise us: “Is it because we have [as an EU] country the longest border [1,340km] with Russia?”
Even if that border that separates us had at times been a source of anxiety for us, especially during the Winter War (1939-40) and Continuation War (1941-44), matters have fortunately changed for the better.
Both of my Finnish grandparents, Harald and Aino, were model products of their historical times. Harald was an officer of the Finnish army and Aino was a member of the Lotta Svärd, an organization that had about 240,000 women members.
The aim of the Lotta Svärd was to assist soldiers and help bolster Finland’s defenses against the former Soviet Union. In a very patriarchal and conservative country torn by war, the only social morphine you had back were heavy doses of religion, nationalism and frugality.
Even if Harald and Aino never spoke to me about those difficult years of the 1930s and 1940s, their silence told you of terrible tales muted by pain and war.
Harald was a member of the White Guard, or Suojeluskunta, which was a voluntary militia that fought against the Red Guard in the Civil War of 1918 (January 27-May 15). The supreme commander of the White Guard was then General Marshal Carl Gustaf Mannerheim (1867-1951).
As many of us know, the Civil War tore a deep gash in Finland. Red Army losses rose to an estimated 33,000 compared with 5,600 Whites that died in the three-and-a-half-month-long conflict.
The small glimpses of Aino’s life as a young woman are still present in a Lotta Svärd songbook for White Guards published in 1932. Glancing through the pages of the pocket-sized book, there are two themes that almost jump at you from the pages: religion and nationalism with songs like Fatherland Hymn, Soldier Boy, Jaeger March and, surprisingly, one called the Titanic Hymn of the legendary ship that sunk on its maiden voyage in 1912.
My mother Leena, who was eleven at the time when she was studying geography from a textbook that was published in 1941, or shortly after the outbreak of the Continuation War and invasion of Russia by Nazi Germany in June of that year, had the following introduction:
“The tenth edition of ‘geography for schools’ was printed after the previous edition was sold out…The task [of editing the latest edition] has been especially trying due the dizzying pace of developments affecting Europe where old countries are replaced by new ones.”
Even if glimpses of my grandparents’ and mother’s lives in then poor and vulnerable Finland feel like you’re boarding a time machine, I have no wish to visit those former times marred by so much incomprehension, suspicion, destruction and death.
Russia and Europe now
Certainly we should be concerned about what is happening today in Russia and Europe. Moreover we should make an effort to blow the dust off our history books and reread with special attention to the lessons of the past so we don’t forget the terrible wars that once overtook this part of the world.
Fortunately times have changed from those terrible times. Most of Europe belongs to the EU and our relationship in this important union encourages cooperation instead of rivalries and war.
If there is something we can learn from the past it’s that we should pay closer attention to stop scapegoating and ultranationalism.
Nazi Germany was a tragic example of what can happen to a nation and a people when you allow scapegoating and ultranationalism to run amuck. I’m certain that the Nazis learned pretty rapidly in the 1920s that scapegoating groups like Jews brought them great attention, power and short-lived glory.
Is the same thing happening in Europe today with far right parties that scapegoat Muslims, migrants and the Romany minority? Anti-Semitism is still a problem in many part of Europe as well.
Even if Finland’s Muslim population totals only 60,000 people, Islamophobia has raised its head in our country. What will happen in the future if our Muslim population doubles or trebles?
Even if there are many threats that our country faces, should we be worried about what is happening in the Ukraine and the rest of Europe? Could events in the Ukraine escalate into open warfare and turn our common border with Russia into a source of anxiety as in the past?
I believe that Russia is not the biggest threat to Finland and Europe but distrust and suspicion on both sides are. Stoking the fires of fear and hatred will only worsen matters and bring rude surprises on those slippery slopes.
A good start to building peace in Europe is to confront our own prejudices and fears but a lot more effort is needed by governments and the EU as well.
The challenges we face are great but so are our recourses to deal with them, which give us hope of better days for this part of the world.
*The column was published in Finland Bridge (4/2015).