What Happened in Finland?

by LAURIN ZILLIACUS

1

BUT, Mr. Premier,” I protested, “you don’t really believe the Germans will win this war? The Allies may lose ground at first, but surely you believe they will come out on top in the end?”

The Premier was a small man with a white, expressionless face. He sat leaning forward, playing with a paperknife. Suddenly he lifted his drooping eyelids and gave me a swift glance. A smile appeared. It was like changing a mask.

“Let us hope so,” he said diplomatically.

The audience was at an end. The calendar on the Premier’s great mahogany desk bore the legend “April 6, 1940.” Less than a month had gone since our defeat. The whole democratic world had been for us, and Germany had sponsored the enemy. It was still inadvisable even for neutrals like the Swiss to speak German in the streets. And here was Risto Ryti, the man who had led our struggle in the name of democracy, arguing that the Germans would win. Or had I misunderstood him? The plaudits of the Western world were still ringing in his ears, and the evidence of its sympathy was all about him. He was Sir Risto Ryti, British Knight, Honorary President of the FinnishBritish Society, the symbol of a policy turned towards the democracies. Of course, I reassured myself, he must be one of us. Of course his closing words expressed his views, rather than his previous talk, where he had expounded German strength and our dependence on the Reich almost with enthusiasm.

A few days later I boarded a train deep in the interior of the country, and found myself in a coach reserved for Members of Parliament going home.

“Don’t go,” said one of them. “Slay and talk with us.”

The speaker was a clergyman and, like most of the group, a member of the powerful Agrarian Party. They were staunch upholders of the independent peasant tradition, guardians of the farmers’ rights — particularly the well-to-do farmers’ — and their slogan was “The Common Finnish Man.”

They wanted to talk politics. “The Germans may not be democratic,” the clergyman said, “ but they are the only power that will stand up to Russia. And they are going to win the war. We must turn to them.”

I demurred. What about democracy? And wasn’t it plain that the Hitler regime could not last — that it was so intolerable that outraged humanity would sooner or later crush it?

“We have based our policy too much on feelings,” the clergyman patiently explained. “Now we must be coldly realistic. The Germans are our natural allies.”

The others grunted their acquiescence. Certainly the impassive peasant faces betrayed no other emotion than stolid approval.

A year later it was no longer inadvisable to speak German in public places. Some of the picture houses showed only German films. The bookshops featured Third Reich literature. German lecturers dispensed their wisdom from Finnish rostrums, and German trade and cultural delegations were frequent visitors.

On May 1, 1941, the laborers of Helsinki formed up in the workers’ district for the usual march to Pine Hill, where they would listen to their leaders and seek comfort in awareness of each other. Pine Hill is only a stone’s throw from the great Exhibition Hall, and it so “happened” that Finnish business leaders were opening a German trade exhibit on that very morning. To celebrate the occasion, they had decorated the mile and a half of the capital’s main traffic artery, leading out past Exhibition Hall, with flagpoles thirty yards apart. There in the bright May sunshine Finnish and Nazi flags shared the honors equally: one Finnish, one Nazi, one Finnish, one Nazi. And there the workers were obliged to march, their flags ushered along by the Swastika.

I skirted the beflagged highway and mingled with the crowd at Pine Hill. What would the labor leaders say? Some of them were my friends and I knew what they thought.

They did not say it. The boldest showed their feelings only in a peculiar emphasis on the rights of free speech and free organization. At such moments there was an electrified expectancy in the crowd. But the real issues were not brought into the open, and the hearers grew restless and bored. I went home feeling that those who had planted the Swastika had won the day. The labor leaders had accepted their framework and would henceforth move within it.

2

THE war in which Finland had the undivided sympathy of the democratic world began on November 30, 1939. The Finns were united, probably as completely as any people has been on any great issue. The atmosphere was inspiring. The evidences of solidarity from all over the world were deeply moving. On March 18, 1940, the Russo-Finnish war ended in defeat, disillusionment, and a destructive sense of injustice.

An interval of precarious peace followed, while Hitler’s armies swept over Europe and his air forces rained death over Britain. From its first day the Finnish leaders pursued a double-faced policy. They let John Citizen think they were striving, earnestly but vainly, for correct relations with the U.S.S.R. and for neutrality in the world conflict. Behind the scene, they were doing their utmost to link the country with the victorious Third Reich. Within a year Finland was a favored ally of Hitler in fact if not in form. John Citizen had been given a picture of local and world events that assured the government of his support.

It is worth spending a moment on this process, since propaganda is a phenomenon of world-wide import. The techniques are everywhere similar. The first step in Finland was to fill important offices with suitable persons. Ryti, who was then Premier, made a Cabinet reshuffle that moved the center of gravity to the right, and brought in as Foreign Minister the redoubtable Witting, who closeted himself daily with the German minister and then passed on his “advice” as directives to the Foreign Office staff and the censorship, ihe Government Information Bureau, in charge of both propaganda and censorship, was brought directly under the Premier, with an unscrupulous and ambitious young man called Puntila installed as its chief officer. When Ryti a little later became President of the Republic, he chose as Premier a nonentity who had been his assistant in earlier days in the Bank of Finland, and who plainly regarded himself as assistant in his new post as well. Further changes in personnel followed all down the line.

The climate rapidly changed. In the war of 1939-1940 it had been democratic. Democratic forces pushed to the fore, took over the reins, did the talking and writing, and gave us a picture of Finland as a nation of convinced and informed democrats. The new climate encouraged other forces, and the country soon presented a different picture.

The Information Bureau worked energetically. Its censors suppressed all news favorable to the Allied nations, whether war news and facts about American production, or information on political and moral developments such as Nazi activities in occupied countries. Its propagandists used all the modern techniques, open and secret, to spread stories of German prowess in arms, German generosity to Finland, German might and wisdom and good nature, and dark hints of Soviet designs and machinations. When Finnish boats were sunk by the Germans, the survivors were forbidden to talk, and the sinking was ascribed to the British. Criticism of Germany or the Nazis was forbidden; criticism of the Allies was encouraged. The Americans and British were ridiculed and maligned.

After a certain point, the victim of propaganda continues the process himself. This point comes when he begins to interpret events in the light of a particular legend.

Within a year the very word democracy had been excluded from public speech in Finland (by order of the censors), and John Citizen hardly noticed it. He was too thoroughly imbued with the legend of an unshakable Soviet design to attack Finland and a fortunately growing impulse on the part of a generous and invincible Hitler to take Finland under his protection.

The invincible Hitler did. When he proclaimed the crusade against the U.S.S.R. on June 21, 1941, he listed Finland among the countries fighting with him. The Finns were surprised, because their government had not prepared them for quite that, and they took it as a bit of Hitlerian bombast. (I happened to be in the salon of a boat when the raucous proclamation assailed our cars over the radio, and the reaction was a general laugh.) The common view was that all Finland had to do was to sit back and watch Hitler crush the Soviet; and the Finns had a fresh surprise — this time without laughter—when Soviet planes began to bomb our towns. From the Soviet point of view this was natural enough: the Russians knew of the Finnish government’s arrangement with the Germans, and Finland was undeniably a German base. The Finnish government, however, scored a point. They were able to announce to Parliament that Finland was once more being attacked and had no choice but to fight.

3

BUT were the Finnish leaders really committed to war? I am afraid there is little doubt on that point. There were staff conversations with the Germans as early as October, 1940, when the German “transit” of troops (which was not a transit) started, A Finnish military delegation visited Germany early in 1941 and was informed of the coming war. German air bases were established in Finland before hostilities commenced, as well as the big German base in North Finland. By June, 1941, there really was no choice, as the President made plain at a secret meeting of party leaders. (“We shall be at war within five days of the German attack,” he told them.)

Once the war had started, the cry “Our country is fighting for its life” drowned all but a few brave dissenting voices.

The state police under the Gestapo collaborator Anthoni took care of the dissenters. A few people were shot, some hundreds jailed, and others put under surveillance. When the Finnish Army reached the old boundary and was ordered to advance into Soviet territory, there was a wave of desertions and mutinies. They were met with executions and prison sentences and the military plea that, once a war has started, an army halts at points determined, not by politics but by strategy. The plea was unanswerable, at least by soldiers under military discipline; and very difficult to answer by their families at home under pressure to “support the boys at the front.”

The American and British governments made several offers to mediate. In one of them the Americans even stated that the Soviet was prepared to discuss peace “on the basis of territorial compensation for Finland.” But the government was heady with Finnish and German victories; it not only refused the offers but broke relations with the British and treated the Americans in such a manner that the continued presence of an American legation in Helsinki must constitute an all-time record of patience shown by the government of a great power to a small one.

With the Finnish victories a new factor emerged: the Greater Finland movement. In November, 1941, the Premier told Parliament that Finland could not accept American and British demands to make peace, without adequate guarantees. What constitutes adequate guarantees? he asked. Not promises by the Western powers. Certainly not promises by Russia, not even if accompanied by a demilitarized belt on the Russian side of the border. “The only adequate guarantees are territorial guarantees.” He was much applauded, the Agrarians and Right parties stating openly that the conquered Soviet territories should be added to Finland.

A flood of Greater Finland propaganda was now let loose. I remember, on one of my leaves, going to a cinema. Finnish troops had just taken Povenets on the White Sea (Stalin) Canal. “The mouth of the Stalin Canal,” the text blared at us, “is now in wiser hands. Povenets is ours — and it will remain ours.” In December, 1942, I was ordered to attend a Christmas festival for the fleet and coastal defense. The main speech was delivered by the officer in charge of propaganda (“enlightenment” was the official term) for this whole branch of the armed forces. Wo must not be satisfied with makeshift solutions, he told us. We must see far into the future and face the fundamental question. “The whole of the Gulf of Finland must be made purely Finnish.” It isn’t our fault that Peter the Great chose to build Leningrad there, was his view.

I could not resist scribbling on the back of my program: “The fundamental question is: Has a small people with a big appetite really got a future?” My neighbor read the message and grinned. So did some others; but there were also scowls, and I retrieved the paper before it reached anyone of higher rank.

“Calmly and realistically,” said Hakkila, the speaker of the House, “we set about forming a national territory larger than before.” Hakkila was a Social Democrat (he still is, and has gone scot-free), and to the disgrace of his party was not disavowed. Tanner, the strong man of the Laborites, had warned against this expansionist dream at the beginning of the war but soon he became a staunch supporter of the war. Presently the climate had affected him, too: he declared that if new territories were to be incorporated, they should be exploited for the benefit of the whole Finnish people and not a small section.

Greater Finland never interested the mass of citizens. But it was plainly a goal of the ruling regime.

4

As I look back at those critical years the following incidents seem to me to point to factors of central importance.

We had reached the spring of 1943. There had been a reshuffle in the Cabinet, caused by German defeats and the activities of the peace movement; not a great improvement, but still a small step forward. The new Foreign Minister was an old acquaintance of mine, and he called on me to interpret certain documents. “I know how you feel,” he said, “and I want you to know how I look at things. For my part, I would just as soon sit down at the green table with Germans as with Americans or Englishmen — or indeed at a luncheon or dinner table. It makes no difference to me so long as it serves the interests of Finland. That is my only criterion.”

Right there, I reflected, you have declared yourself incompetent. There is a difference, and it spells the downfall of Hitler, and of us under your guidance.

Not long after this we had a stormy session of the central committee of the underground peace movement. One of our leading members was speaking, pale with emotion.

“X has proposed,” he said, “that we now make direct contact with the Russians. I am utterly opposed to that. The other Allies, yes; but the Russians, no. They are treacherous, ruthless, unreliable. They will have us in their power from the moment we have made the treasonable contact, and they will use that power to blackmail us into playing their game. The Russians are a thing apart.”

But, some of us retorted, it is, after all, the Russians we are fighting. It is with them we must make peace and find a modus vivendi in the future. They may be better than you say. In any case, we must take the risk if we mean business.

The dilemma of the peace movement was this: oppose the government and thus risk throwing the front open to the Red Army, or acquiesce and thus support our militarists and the Nazis? The Germans were not occupying Finland, they were merely holding the northern sector of our front. John Citizen did not fear the Germans — he didn’t see them, except for a handful of liaison officers and their men. Fear and mistrust of the U.S.S.R., on the other hand, extended into the ranks of the peace movement itself and dominated the people at large. The cry “The Fatherland is in danger” seemed all too natural in the Finnish forests: deep, mysterious, shading off without a break into the traditional bogyman’s land of Russia.

The Finnish peasants heard the call. They came as free men; they fought, starved, froze, took their terrible punishment quietly, bravely, with good comradeship and incredible endurance, with heads erect as behooves free men. This tribute they deserve, and an echo of it justly went round the world. But these fine men and their equally fine women had a weakness: they were ignorant of the world outside their boundaries and indifferent to its fate. They had the good luck to be aligned with democracy in the first war, and did not have this luck in the second. Both wars were for them just national.

Nor were those who led them, who made the fateful choice of riding the Nazi wave, all scoundrels. Some were ambitious; some made greedy calculations with forests and water power and the plowed fields of Olonets; many relished the effect on their own workers of the collapse of Soviet power; some dreamed of grandeur and saw themselves carving out a Greater Finland, the leading power of the North in Neuropa. But all were convinced that it was a question of Russia’s life or theirs. And all allowed their political and moral judgment to become fogged with nationalism.

Many factors combine to shape national policies, and the outcome depends on where their center of gravity lies. The center of gravity in the Finnish tragedy lay in a patriotism that cared nothing for what made — or ought to make — the Patria worthy of devotion; in short, in amoral patriotism. The President, the clergyman, the big peasants, the industrial, military, and intellectual leaders all shared this view and this sentiment: national interests are the only criterion.

The bankrupt regime has indeed left a harsh heritage for the common people and their new leaders. One quarter of the active army is dead. The crutch and the pinned-up sleeve are the common badge of those who remain. More than a tenth of the country has gone, including the second city, a great fishing center, and the chief inland water route. One seventh of the population is homeless and destitute. There is a crushing burden of reparations. The country lies defenseless, dependent on its erstwhile enemy and great neighbor for bread and for life itself.

5

WHAT of the future? What, indeed, of the present behind the iron curtain? Is there an iron curtain?

With the signing of the armistice came the Control Commission, several hundred strong — but no Red Army and no NKVD. There were no Russian arrests of Finnish citizens, no deportations, no executions. The Russians behaved with scrupulous correctness, even courtesy. (On one of the first days a Russian officer went into a restaurant in the capital and was given the last vacant table. A few minutes later two disabled Finnish soldiers hobbled in and took their places in the line waiting for a table. The Russian rose, bowed, beckoned them to his table, and went to the line to wait his turn for a new table.) People rubbed their eyes. Some used what they took to be a short period of grace to flee to Sweden, where some of them today peddle hair-raising stories of the terror in Finland.

The correct demeanor of the Control Commission did not prevent the Russians from interpreting the armistice clauses with severity. There was plenty of leeway in clauses obliging the Finns to restore Soviet goods and equipment removed or destroyed by the Finnish Army, and the Control Commission pressed their interpretation to the utmost. The reparations themselves are a staggering burden: 300 million American dollars’ worth of goods reckoned at practically pre-war prices, payable over eight years, from September 19, 1944. Finnish economists calculate the present-day value at about 450 millions. The national income before the war was under one billion dollars. More than half the payment is to be in metal products, chiefly iron. Finland has no iron mines and only a small metal industry. The reparations thus require the importation of huge quantities of raw material and the rapid building of a metal industry.

Pessimists say that the Finnish economy is to be strained beyond the breaking point, and the resulting chaos is to be the pretext for occupying the country. But pessimists are not always right, not even in our brave new world. There are indications that the Kremlin demands reparations because it wants reparations, and that it does not want to kill the goose that lays them. The Soviet leaders have extended the time limit; they have shown understanding in trade negotiations; they have at critical periods shipped food to Finland; they have discouraged the Finnish Left from making extreme wage demands, — indeed the Communists are sharing responsibility for maintaining production and a wage-price barrier to inflation, — and they are in general taking a strong national line.

A labor leader told me of his first encounter with the leader of the Control Commission. They got on quite well until my friend ventured to urge reduction of the reparations. Then the Russian became red with anger. (“He has a bad heart,” my friend said, “and I was afraid he would have a seizure, he was so wrought up.”) He banged on the table. “You Finns,” he said, “took part in the siege of Leningrad, where 300,000 people died of starvation alone. The damage and suffering you caused in this one city are incomparably greater than the discomforts you will endure through paying reparations.”

“I had to admit that he was right,” was my friend’s objective reflection.

The Finns face a staggering economic problem. Their climate is harsh. Their soil is poor, they lack clothes, houses, the simplest amenities, and they must now work primarily for their victors, not to improve their own lot. But they are tough, hardened by countless generations of struggle, and there are silver linings even to the reparations cloud: there will be no unemployment, and the forced investment in capital equipment may one day bear fruit for the Finns themselves. If Finland obtains the necessary temporary credits, she will pull through — that is the opinion in all camps.

But politically? Will there be a Finland presently? Is there a Finland now in anything but name? The answer to the last question is, Yes. There is no iron curtain. Foreign journalists come and go and write freely. Soviet behavior continues to be correct. Finnish citizens are unmolested by anyone but their own authorities under their own laws. The parliamentary elections in 1945 were strictly fair. There was a shift — but not a very big shift — to the left. The government is a coalition with ministers from all parties except the extreme Right wing, which holds one eighth of the seats in the house. The Premier is a Social Democrat. The President of the Republic is a wise old Conservative who likes Russians and shows it, and who doesn’t say what he thinks of Bolshevism.

All parties, of course, realize the dependence of the country on the U.S.S.R., and this knowledge damps down certain groups, encourages others. But there is no direct interference by the Russians. In foreign affairs, independence is of course more formal than real. There is no interference here either, but it can be assumed that the government tries to follow a line acceptable to the Kremlin.

These are facts it is well to bear in mind when speculating on the future. Another is that the internal situation in Finland is different from that in all the other Russian border states (except Czechoslovakia), from Poland right round to Outer Mongolia. The Finns have an established parliamentary tradition. When one party gains power, the other does not have to take to the hills. The choice is not between Left and Right dictatorships, but between shifts in coalition government. The press is relatively free. Finland has had censorship since 1939 and carries this incubus today. But it has grown less severe. The government is freely criticized. Direct attacks on the U.S.S.R. are notably absent, but not indirect attacks; for example, AP, UP, and Reuter telegrams, not Tass, have been Finnish newspaper readers’ chief source of information about the Paris and Lake Success wrangles.

The Kremlin is allowing the old social and political machinery to carry on. It looks indeed as if Finland were regarded as an experiment to answer the question: Will a small border state produce a regime — by parliamentary means and without interference—that is acceptable to the Left and can be relied on to be friendly to the U.S.S.R. under all international conditions? It is in any event unlikely that Stalin is so interested that he will risk much to keep the experiment going. We may rather infer that the alternative, which is absorption of Finland by force, is not very attractive or not attractive enough to be worth the fighting it would require and the bad relations it would engender with the Scandinavians and other peoples. So we come back to the internal cohesion of the Finns and the position they create for themselves in the world as important factors.

I believe they are important factors. Finnish foreign policy will have to be pro-Soviet, and home policy not much to the right of democratic socialism. The political parties must maintain sufficient unity about such policies to secure stable government and pull out of economic ruin. The now dominant Left must show restraint, particularly in regulating the rights of individuals, and the now discredited but by no means extinguished Right must show loyalty to majority decisions it finds unpalatable. So far the brave efforts of Finns of good will have succeeded in maintaining the balance. Certainly a liberal Greek or a right-wing Bulgur would think he had landed in paradise if he were suddenly whisked to Finland. But there are deep divisions and bitter factions in Finland, too, and a complex interplay of ambitious personalities. The extreme Right has an underground movement, a direct descendant of the dissolved Fascist Party, and it is knocking on the door of legations presumed to be so anti-Soviet that they are prepared to stomach fascism. All moderate Finns agree that any encouragement given this movement is a nail in the coffin of Finnish independence.

There has been little or no vendetta. As part of the armistice obligations, persons accused of war crimes have been brought to trial. They are principally men formerly in charge of prisoners of war or civilian prisoners. Finnish courts are trying them and have brought some shameful episodes to light. Former President Ryti and the leading members of the wartime cabinet (plus the minister to Berlin) were put on trial by an all-party court appointed by Parliament. They were accused of war responsibility, not crimes against persons. The trial was public and the accused were ably and vociferously defended by lawyers of their own choosing. Since the law under which they were tried was retroactive, there were divided opinions as to its justice. Ryti received a ten-year sentence, the others all considerably less. It is said that the Control Commission made it plain to the government that trial and punishment of the war leaders was an armistice obligation.

Marshal Mannerheim, who, to put it mildly, shares responsibility for the military agreement with the Nazis and the Greater Finland program, lives unmolested on his estate — in recognition, no doubt, of his decisive activity in terminating the war. Mannerheim has several other points in his favor: he never sanctioned ill-treatment of prisoners, he was anti-Soviet but not anti-Russian, he disliked the Nazis, and he had a genuine if patriarchal feeling for the workers. The fact that he remains untouched is a tribute not only to Soviet tolerance but to that of the Finnish Left as well.

There is one factor over which the Finns have no control, and which may nullify all their efforts: the relation between the U.S.S.R. and AmericaBritain. Finnish independence is a function of Soviet-Anglo-American peace. As far back as 1943 the clandestine paper issued by the peace movement printed the following warning to the Finnish Right: —

“ Do not gamble on worsened relations between the Allies. If a chasm opens between the U.S.S.R. and America-Britain, Finland will be the first to fall into it.” There is no reason to revise this conclusion today.