C.G.E. Mannerheim in the history of Finland
The Internet-pages of Helsingin Suomalainen klubi (the Helsinki Finnish Club) are
designed both for Finnish and foreign readers, viewers and listeners, to give a versatile
and vivid image of a man who has, perhaps more than any other individual person, impressed
the history of Finland, which goes far back to the Middle Ages and is now reaching out
towards integrated Europe and the globalized world.
Three great eras of Finnish history meet in the person of Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim: 1)
the period of autonomy (1809-1917), in which the the political, economic and cultural
foundations of national independence were laid by bringing together the colourful, rich
and often dramatic heritages from both Swedish and Russian reign; 2) the struggle for
gaining and maintaining the independence (from 1918 on); 3) and the time of globalization
(after the Continuation War).
Finland and the Finns were close to Mannerheim's heart in all these phases. Being a
cosmopolitan, he had a rare ability to reconcile the national interests of a small,
northern country with those of the great powers. He was a Swedish-speaking nobleman in
origin, who had his military training and his earliest war experiences as an officer in
the Russian Imperial army. This background was reflected in his role as a military and
political leader of Finland, and seems to continue to affect the present and future of
Finland as well.
Mannerheim did not approve of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, but he understood
Russian mentality and appreciated Russia as one of the great powers. He was not
particularly enthusiastic about the German intervention in the War of Independence,
because he wanted to convince the Finns that the process of gaining independence lay
primarily in their own hands. The extreme tragedy of the Civil War that divided the nation
into "reds" and "whites" found expression in the strongly
controversial emotions about Mannerheim.
Confronting a threat from outside, when the Soviet Union was attacking Finland in late
autumn 1939, Mannerheim succeeded in uniting the nation in a courageous battle against the
enemy far superior in force. In the Continuation War he aimed at the restoration of the
territories Finland had been forced to cede to the Soviet Union, and the future security
of the country. He was sufficiently broad-minded in regard to the affairs of the great
powers, to refuse to actively participate in the siege of Leningrad and to cut trafic
connections to Murmansk, but, on the other hand, to accept the German military assistance.
After the large-scale Soviet offensive against Finland had begun in summer 1944, Finland
needed Mannerheim's statesmanship as the Commander-in-Chief of the army and as the newly
elected President to be able to defend herself and to withdraw from the war. The
conclusion of the Truce and the Armistice in September 1944 together with the expulsion of
the German troops from Finnish territory were both mentally and physically extremely
demanding tasks for the 77-year-old Marshal.
Mannerheim was a national leader above the conflicts of the political parties as well as
an internationally respected military leader. The proof of this was the fact that he was
not prosecuted in the so-called war crime trials demanded by the Soviet Union, but was
able to resign from presidency in 1946 on grounds of ill-health and high age.
When we evaluate Mannerheim's life and career in the light of the international and
political situation of today, there are three factors that stand out. Firstly, his
influence was of crucial importance when Finland was defending herself against the
aggressive attack, based on Stalin's and Hitler's clandestine agreement on the division of
the spheres of interest. It was Mannerheim that laid the foundations of Finnish
sovereignity on which the international relations could be built. Secondly, at a very
early stage, he was perspicacious enough to see the development of the Finnish-Soviet
relations in a very realistic light. Thirdly, his cultural background and the liberal
philosophy of his ideology eventually proved more viable than the totalitarian society
represented by Soviet communism. In that sense, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the
defeat of "real-socialism" in Russia was a victory for the Marshal of Finland.