By Enrique Tessieri
Glancing through a pile of documents and certificates my late grandfather (1892-1979) had is like entering a time machine. Two certificates catch my attention: a Finnish-language test in 1925 and another one when he changed his surname from Hantwargh to Harvo. Both documents offer us a glimpse of how a social construct like Finnish national identity was forged in the last century.
Taking into account how some Finns define it today an ever- globalized world, it’s easy to see that their definition of a Finn has its roots in those two documents.
Being a Finn had little to do with your place of birth but is due to jus sanguinis, right of blood. Your citizenship is not determined by place of birth but by having one or both parents as citizens of that country.
The first document proving that my grandfather spoke perfect Finnish is understandable in the jus sanguinis context. The second one, which was from 1931, states at the following:
In light of the petition made by military instructor Harald Vilhelm Handtwargh, the governor of the province of Mikkeli grants his family permission to change their surname to Harvo; this is backed by statements from the vicar [of the Lutheran church], Suomen Sukutukimusseura [Finnish Genealogical Society] and the Suomalaisuuden Liitto [Association of Finnish Culture and Identity]…
Taking on a new national identity was relatively easy in the last century as long as you were white, nationalistic and didn’t make too public your foreign roots. In the case of my grandfather it was his Jewish background.
Today there are totally new demands placed on our society with respect to inclusion and “us.” How we included and excluded people and groups in the last century is, I believe, what is causing us to fall flat on our faces and hindering us from seeing the bigger picture of what Finnish identity is in the new century.
Since we are a young nation with a young identity there is time to make it more inclusive. But for that change to happen it requires us to see the world in a radically different way than today. A good example is some of our feelings towards the Russians and that fear of being a small nation constantly under threat.
It’s clear that in order to build a more inclusive and culturally dynamic society, we have to break away from our past hatreds, prejudices and myths.
But let’s not fool ourselves, breaking free from them will be a long process that will take a concerted effort and generations.
This document gave my grandfather the right to change his surname from Handtwargh to Harvo in 1931.
One good way to become a more inclusive society today would be to change Section 5 of the Constitution from jus sanguinis to jus solis, right of the soil, nationality or citizenship granted to a person born in country.
The whole idea of jus sanguinis is deeply rooted in how ethnicity and nationality were defined in the nineteenth and greater part of the twentieth century.
While I am happy that Finland is an independent country today, we cannot escape the fact that it was built on nationalism and racism that was ever-present in Europe before and even today. Thus our independence was in many respects an ethnic thing. We didn’t like the Russians never mind Russification.
The racism and nationalism that existed in Europe in the nineteenth century had a clear role: It justified the colonization and exploitation of other people in Africa and Asia. It was very ethnocentric as well. We thought that we were the epitome of civilization and therefore it was our right to exploit others because they were less “advanced.”
As we know, World War I exposed the barbarism of our “civilized ways” and was pretty good reality check.
Hopefully our culturally diverse identity will not resemble an excerpt from Heikki Waris’ “An introduction to Finnish history” on page two:
“A fourth aspect is the high degree of homogeneity of Finnish society. Racial homogeneity particularly characterizes the Finnish people who have practically no racial minorities, the less than three thousand Lapps in the northernmost arctic communities making up the largest racial minority group. Consequently, racial prejudice and discrimination are nonexistent.”
Apart from avoiding mention of the Roma of Finland and Finnish expats and those with international backgrounds, Waris’ affirmation are quite humorous from today’s perspective.