How western is Finland

100 years of Finland : Education makes the difference

How should we write and understand national history in the 21st century? This question is being debated across Europe, while trust in the common project of the nation-state and its stability is being called into question from all directions. Since the end of World War II, many historians have tried more and more to deconstruct the patriotic narratives of the nation-state and to emphasize the transnational and global drivers behind the development of a particular country or region. But such narratives are difficult to understand for the ordinary reader, used to building their historical awareness around family and national stories.

A solution that is often used to solve this didactic problem is to choose the traditional national perspective as the starting point of the narrative and then systematically show how much the development has been influenced by major chain reactions in human history.

Finland is indeed an interesting example of how a peripheral part of our continent has developed into its own country and state through a number of structural circumstances and fortunate chain reactions. And even more, how his parliamentary democracy was able to survive both the Second World War and in the immediate vicinity of the “great and powerful Soviet Union”.

As a result, Finland had developed culturally and socially in the same direction during its Russian era as it did during its Swedish era. This had a decisive impact on the way in which his civil society was formed in the second half of the 19th century. It paved the way for Finnish nationalism, growing demands from the political right within the Grand Duchy and the introduction of universal suffrage in the Finnish parliamentary elections in 1906 - which, by the way, was the first time women in Europe were allowed to vote. In this regard Finland followed the Scandinavian pattern of relatively early democratization, which led to increased tension with the Russian government, which saw Finland as a sort of buffer zone in the north-western corner of their empire.

When the Russian Revolution broke out in the spring of 1917, Finland was politically and ideologically ripe for national sovereignty. Still, the Declaration of Independence passed by the Finnish Parliament in December 1917 was primarily a response to the Bolshevik coup. Two months later, the revolution spread to Finland and its citizens took up arms in a brief war that ended with the victory of the bourgeois side, decisively supported by a German division. The alliance with Germany remained close until Germany's surrender in November 1918. The German defeat resulted in a period of uncertainty, but the chaos in Russia gave the newborn Republic of Finland time to recover and establish its democratic constitution.

One sign of this rapid social recovery was that less than a year after their revolt in the spring of 1919, the Social Democrats won 80 out of 200 seats in the Finnish parliament and even achieved an absolute majority in some local elections. Even so, it was inevitable that the tragic beginning of independence would leave a deep scar on Finnish identity, which, among other things, led to a long-running dispute on what was to be called the 1918 war. The bourgeois side spoke of a war of independence until the 1960s, while the socialists preferred to speak of a revolt or class struggle, when in reality it was a chain reaction and part of the First World War and the Russian Revolution.

As is well known, Finland was only one of many nations in the eastern part of Europe that gained independence during and in the aftermath of the World War. From a geopolitical standpoint, this belt of new states represented a gray area between Russia and Germany, both of which, after recovering, tried to regain in the 1930s. The result of this tough geopolitical game was World War II and the expansion of the Soviet buffer zone into Central Europe.

Nonetheless, Finland's fate in this brutal tug-of-war between the two dictatorships was definitely happier than any of the other small Eastern European states dragged into war. One reason for this was that Finland, despite its proximity to Leningrad, was on the northern periphery and behind the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea.

Together with Poland and the Baltic States, Finland was declared a Soviet buffer zone with the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in August 1939. But after the Red Army failed to conquer Finland in the short winter war of 1939-1940, the geopolitical balance shifted in favor of the Finns. Hitler saw stubborn Finland as a useful ally in his crusade against the Soviet Union and provided Finland with substantial military and material support during that alliance from 1941–1944.

Thanks to this support, Finland was able to avert a second Soviet invasion and cut ties with Germany in September 1944 when it signed the armistice agreement with the Allies. Many Western observers assumed that despite this artful U-turn, Finland would be forced to join the Moscow-controlled military bloc. In the spring of 1948, the countries signed a treaty under which the Finnish state undertook to repel any attack on Finland or the Soviet Union through Finnish territory. This, of course, prevented Finland from joining NATO and the EEC, required careful self-censorship in public debates about the Soviet Union, and gave Western journalists reason to claim that the country was increasingly coming under Moscow's control.

Some of these so-called “Finlandization accusations” in West German newspapers were without a doubt true. Yet they often ignored the substantial harvest Finland had reaped in stabilizing relations with its eastern neighbor. The Soviet leadership accepted Finland's democratic constitution and market economy as long as the country kept a clear distance from NATO and avoided criticism of the socialist bloc. In return, Finland was able to conclude long and profitable trade agreements with the Soviet Union that stabilized the economy and thus stimulated Finnish economic growth and the rapid establishment of the Nordic welfare model.

The moral dilemma of this pragmatic Ostpolitik, which the Finnish government vigorously promoted as a policy of neutrality, actually resembled the military alliance with Germany from 1941-1944. In both cases, the Finnish leadership opted for policies that were beneficial to Finland's national existence and welfare, but problematic from an ethical standpoint. The aha moment on this question was the winter war of 1939–1940, in which Finland, because of its naive reliance on Western support, was left on its own to fight for its existence. Since then, not a single Finnish government has taken the risk of believing that any foreign government would provide military assistance to the country if the question were only about Finland's independence. In 1941, German support went hand in hand with participation in the "Operation Barbarossa" against the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, the necessary security was achieved through the contemptuously criticized Finlandization strategy. And since Finland joined the European Union in 1995, Finland has again followed Sweden's security policy closely. That means quietly building up close military cooperation with the United States, but at the same time cautiously avoiding official membership in NATO, as this would lead to responsibility for the security of the Baltic NATO states.

Much of this stability is certainly due to the fortunate fact that Northern Europe is on the periphery of the geopolitically highly contested regions in Central and Eastern Europe. Just as important, however, has proven to be, to put it this way, the excellent economic growth of the Nordic countries, which is largely the result of their success in the global market since 1890. Some of these achievements can be explained by good trade relationships and natural resources. But an all the more substantial reason for the change from poor agricultural countries to competitive post-industrial societies were early and efficient investments in national education and training and in a national welfare system, which made it easier to embed new technologies and lifestyles.

Finland has faced a number of structural challenges since the last global financial crisis erupted in 2008, which, along with deficits within the EU, has driven up its national debt and forced the Finnish government to make substantial cuts in national education and research. These cuts cannot continue without seriously damaging Finnish competitiveness and its democratic institutions. The Finnish Republic is therefore celebrating its 100th birthday, fully aware that strong and courageous decisions are necessary again today in order to achieve a new level of stability and growth. But as in so many European countries, it is not easy to convert this knowledge into concrete action ...

The author is a professor of history at the University of Helsinki. Translated from the English by Annika Brockschmidt

He has published the book "Finland's History. Lines, Structures, Turning Points" (translated from Finnish by Roman Schatz, Scoventa Verlag, Bad Vilbel 2017, 300 pages, 24.90 euros).

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