Member of the Board Olli Rehn
Bank of Finland
Mannerheim Lecture, Mikkeli Headquarters Symposium
Mikkeli, 1 July 2017
(English translation from the original Finnish text)
On whose Mannerheim Line?
Ladies and Gentlemen, Fellow Citizens of Mikkeli,
Let me first warmly thank you for inviting me to deliver this year’s Mannerheim Lecture. It is indeed a great pleasure and honour for me, particularly in this ‘super year’ of Finland’s history. In addition to the centenary of our country’s independence, we also celebrate the 150th anniversary of Mannerheim’s birth and the commemoration of 500 years of the Protestant Reformation within the Christian Church. All of the subjects of these anniversaries have had a major impact on the fate of the Finnish people and on Finnish national identity and self-knowledge.
At the same time, I wish to thank the organisers, sponsors and founders of the symposium: Tapio Honkamaa, Markku Kakriainen and Matti Viialainen. The idea mulled over at Honkamaa’s kitchen table in Kattilansilta during a break in a cycling tour in summer 2007 has borne fruit exceedingly well, now for the tenth time.
In my lecture today, I will ask on whose Mannerheim Line we are actually standing, when we say that we are on that Line. The answer can be approached from many different angles – at least from a military strategy standpoint or from a foreign and security policy perspective.
The Mannerheim Line makes many of us first think about the principal line of defence on the Karelian Isthmus, where in Summa the main Finnish military forces halted the heavy, overwhelming attacks of the Red Army, from the first weeks of the Winter War until February 1940.
On the other hand, the Mannerheim Line may be used to refer to the security policy thinking represented by Gustaf Mannerheim, particularly since the 1930s. In my lecture, I will focus on reflections on this Line. I will simultaneously broaden the focus from Finnish to international, to the differences in the way in which Mannerheim is viewed among his own people and among our neighbours, especially in Sweden and Russia.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I will begin, however, with a recollection of my own. My first contact with the historical significance of Mannerheim stems from – hardly any surprise to you – these landscapes here in Mikkeli. It is not an uncontroversial image, which I actually realised only later.
I can remember clearly when the statue of Mannerheim was unveiled on the 100th anniversary of his birth in June 1967, on the Suur-Savo square, just a stone’s throw from here. It had already been planned and decided to erect the statue on the market square, but political power shifts in the 1964 municipal elections resulted in the statue being given a more remote location, on the outskirts of the town – ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Behind this decision was certain town councillors’ personal experience of injustice in relation to prison camps after the 1918 war, which Governor Erkki Liikanen analytically discussed in his Mannerheim Lecture of 2012.
Five years old, I was with my father, Tanu, among the public for the 1967 event. He lifted me on his shoulders so that I could better follow the proceedings among the throng of people. I remember – at least in the eyes of a small boy – the large, densely packed crowd of people who, spreading into the streets of the nearest quarters and the then Highway 5, Otavankatu, had come to show respect for the Marshal, appreciated by the residents of Mikkeli. In the atmosphere of the 1960s’ social turmoil, this was a tribute by the silent majority of the Finns to the leader of their defence during the war years – even a kind of demonstration.
In the headquarters town of Mikkeli, Finland’s survival story in the Winter War in 1939-40 and Continuation War in 1941-44 also seemed to be tangibly present in other ways. I began school in autumn 1969, in the Mikkeli Central Elementary School, which has later been renamed Headquarters School. For two years, I had my desk in a classroom that had been the office of General Aksel Airo, Chief of the Operational Department and the leading military brain of the war effort.
In summer 1970, our school served as a scene for the film Headquarters by Matti Kassila, in which, through his great performance in the role, the actor Jussi Jurkka gave a face and soul to Airo. In the film, Mannerheim and Airo did not, however, speak French with each other, which apparently was their common language for quick communication in tight situations – French was the main language of the St. Petersburg imperial court, where Mannerheim had served for years, while Airo was a graduate of the French Military Academy. As a committed Finn in the era of nation-building and language strides, Airo refused to speak Swedish, and the Marshal’s Finnish was not very good as a working language.
After school, I often walked for ‘day care’ to the Granite House, which was one of the few houses in the town that during the war had provided some protection against the Soviet bomb raids and in which the premises of my father’s business Mikkelin Autotarvike were located in the 1960s and 1970s. The office of this car supplies and spare parts shop had served as Mannerheim’s kitchen during the war. There I learnt the Russian alphabet, taught by the office manager, Aleksi Maksimenko. He was an immigrant, a descendant of Russian émigrés, and fully integrated to the Finnish society.
Let me return to the Mannerheim statue. Its story did by no means end on the Suur-Savo square. Eventually, in 2002, the town council made a broadly unanimous decision, and the statue was transported in grand style along the streets of Otavankatu and Maaherrankatu to its proper location. The chair of the town council at that time was my mother Vuokko Rehn, of which I am a bit proud, with your permission. Mannerheim is today seen walking among the townspeople at the market square, as he should be.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
In Sweden, too, attitudes towards Mannerheim depended for a long time on political views. But, at the same time, it is justified to say that currently he is regarded as a champion of the liberty of the North as a whole and also of Sweden among those who know Finland and European history in general.
Sweden’s former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Carl Bildt has written a great deal, and even admiringly, of Mannerheim’s significance for Sweden, the North and Europe. For Bildt, Mannerheim was the greatest Nordic statesman of his generation. Bildt emphasises the role of Mannerheim as a defender of Western values and an international adversary of Bolshevism. A citation in Mannerheim’s mother tongue: ‘Att han var antibolsjevik i varje cell och gen är sannerligen ingenting att förvånas över.’ (‘That he was an anti-Bolshevik in every cell and gene is certainly no surprise at all.’)
Bildt stresses the crucial importance of Finland’s defensive victories for the freedom of the North. He reminds us of the fact that post-war developments in Sweden, too, would have taken quite a different turn if the Red Army had been holding positions on the eastern bank of the River Tornionjoki: it would have meant hard times in the Folkhemmet, the ‘people’s home’ of Sweden. Bildt therefore considers the battles of Tienhaara and Tali-Ihantala, where the Red Army’s assault was halted in June-July 1944, as having the greatest significance not only for Finland but also for the North as a whole.
But Bildt also recognises Mannerheim’s ties with Imperial Russia. After his 1918 victory in the Finnish Civil War, Mannerheim saw his calling as being even greater. Again, I quote Bildt: ‘Mannerheim’s objective in Russia was never German, perhaps not even Finnish; his objective regarding Russia was, above all, Russian – in its imperial sense.’
In the study of history, it has become fashionable to present counterfactual reflections like ‘but what if we had done otherwise?’ In this spirit, Bildt ventures to say that the conquest of St. Petersburg (actually Petrograd in 1914-24 and Leningrad 1924-91) by White forces in 1919 together with general Yudenich would have been for Mannerheim a deed of global historic importance, which could have nipped the advance of Bolshevism in the bud and saved all mankind from huge suffering. For a while indeed, Mannerheim aspired to support the Russian White forces with Finnish troops and help liberate St. Petersburg from the Bolsheviks.
Bildt’s assessment culminates with the view: Had this happened, Mannerheim ‘would be a great hero not only in the history of the Nordic countries, but also of the world as a whole’. He crystallises his reflections in a manner that sounds somewhat strange to Finnish ears: ‘Although his agenda was Russian, it was self-evident that had to do with Finland as well.’ – In other words, also Finland; not primarily Finland.
Mannerheim certainly cannot be accused of a lack of effort in pursuing the objective implied by Bildt. During the year 1919, he tried to assemble forces and acquire weapons from Finland and Western Europe and to obtain the support of the Finnish government for an endeavour to take over St. Petersburg. What, then, put a stop to his project?
To put it simply: the Republic of Finland.
President-elect K.J. Ståhlberg was uncooperative. The liberal Ståhlberg was elected President in July 1919 to unify the nation and considered, together with his Foreign Minister Rudolf Holsti and the other republican leaders, such as Santeri Alkio of the Peasant Union, that it was not in the national interest of Finland to commit the country’s military forces and the entire young republic to such an uncertain venture. The President was supported by the Social Democratic Party, which had just returned, after its civil war collapse and tragedies, to Parliament in the 1919 parliamentary elections with 80 representatives (out of total 200), under the reformist leadership of Väinö Tanner.
Bildt can afford to paint with a broad brush, whereas Ståhlberg and the leaders of the young Republic of Finland, rather than thinking about the intrinsically uncertain implementation of global historical ideals, were concerned with the interests and security of the Finnish people – which was, to my mind, fully justified.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
That was an example of a Western assessment. What about our Eastern neighbour Russia, Mannerheim’s home country for 30 years? Attitudes towards him there are considerably more contentious.
Let us think about, for example, the incident one year ago in St. Petersburg, Mannerheim’s spiritual home “town” – besides Mikkeli, of course. A year ago in June, I happened to be participating in the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, when at the same elsewhere in the city the Russian Military-Historical Society unveiled a memorial plaque for Lieutenant General Gustaf Mannerheim in honour of his services in the Russian army from 1887 to 1918. Those present included a group of influential Russian politicians, such as the head of President Putin’s administration, Sergei Ivanov, a veteran of the Soviet Embassy in Helsinki, who delivered the key-note speech, and Vladimir Medinsky, the Minister of Culture.
The memorial plaque, however, became the subject of severe criticism by communists and hard-core nationalists and was defaced with red paint immediately after its unveiling. Efforts to unveil the plaque had already been made one year earlier, but the project was abandoned at that time. The presidential administration pushed for and defended the putting up of the memorial plaque. But as the plaque was continually defaced after cleaning, it was finally removed. It is currently held in the Tsarskoye Selo war museum.
It is interesting that President Putin’s administration invested a great deal of capital in justifying the unveiling of Mannerheim’s memorial plaque. But this does not just concern Finland and Mannerheim, and it is therefore justified or even necessary to broaden the perspective.
Mannerheim’s memorial plaque appears to be part of the Russian Military-Historical Society’s aspiration to heal the division that emerged in the 1917 Revolution and to build a historical reconciliation between Russian Whites and Reds. In that spirit, monuments have been erected in Russia for First World War heroes who were on different sides in the country’s civil war, as Professor Karen Petrone has maintained in her fascinating volume The Great War in Russian Memory. Measures have been taken to restore the honour of several White generals, Mannerheim being one of them. It is thus a case of Russian domestic policy, specifically domestic history policy, or a kind of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, as the famous concise German word goes.
Medinsky, the Minister of Culture, who enjoys a partly divisive reputation both in the West and in Russia, published an article last autumn in Rossiyskaya Gazeta (26 October 2016). He cites as justifications for the memorial plaque Mannerheim’s accomplishments in the Russian army and a certain degree of moderation in the wars between Finland and the Soviet Union, as well as emphasising his ‘Russianism’ through his loyalty to the Tsar – Mannerheim did always have on his desk a signed photograph of Nicholas II. And that was not all: Medinsky compares Mannerheim with the great generals of foreign background in the Russian army, for example Pyotr Bagration, the winner at Borodino and Pori, who were – I quote the neighbour’s Minister of Culture – ‘foreign in blood, but Russian in soul’.
At the end of Medinsky’s article, there is, in fact, also a reference to Mannerheim’s ‘other life’ in Finland, while facts are presented aiming at showing that he always took Russia into consideration, as well. For example, the fact that Mannerheim urged Finnish government leaders to consent to limited cessions of territory just before the Winter War. Our defensive victory in the Winter War is put aside in the article with a fairly laconic remark that ‘under Mannerheim’s command, the Finns fought bravely in the Winter War, but lost’.
As regards the period of the Continuation War, Medinsky highlights even greater merits, such as Mannerheim not being whole-heartedly involved in the military alliance with Germany and his antipathy towards the Nazis. According to Medinsky, Mannerheim managed ‘through cunning and dawdling’ to avoid complying with orders from Berlin, although he was constantly concerned about Finland being forced to pay for this. Mannerheim refused to participate in the battle for Leningrad, and Finnish troops advanced on the Karelian Isthmus only up to the old border.
This was not the original assumption of the Soviet military high command. It is telling what the greatest military leader of the Soviet Union, Marshal Georgy Zhukov, writes in his memoirs: ‘On the Karelian Isthmus, Finnish troops were in position along the old state frontier in readiness to seize a favourable opportunity to attack Leningrad from the north.’
The memorial plaque also raised the question as to when Mannerheim last visited St. Petersburg and when his services in the Russian army ended. According to the memorial plaque, the correct year is 1918.
Until last summer, I was under the impression that Mannerheim visited St. Petersburg for the last time in December 1917, and never returned to his own metropolis thereafter. Further clarification of this matter has subsequently been received, and it appeared that I was probably mistaken. In his memoirs, Mannerheim is very vague, even obscure about this – why, I cannot judge.
In their recent books, both Professor Henrik Meinander and journalist Matts Dumell have come to the conclusion that Mannerheim visited St. Petersburg as late as early January 1918. The events can be summarised to have progressed as follows: A delegation led by the Finnish Prime Minister Svinhufvud (formally, ‘President of the Senate’, i.e. of the Government or State Council) obtained recognition for Finland’s independence from Lenin and the Council of People’s Commissars on 31 December 1917. Given that Mannerheim’s native country, Finland, had thus obtained the recognition of independence from the official Russian government, his loyalty towards the Tsar and Russia was no longer valid. On the following day, on 1 January 1918, Mannerheim wrote in Helsinki a letter of resignation from the Russian army and left in the evening or in the morning of the following day by train towards St. Petersburg.
The letter of resignation is stamped as arrived at St. Peterburg’s general staff headquarters on 2 January 1918 and is deposited in the Russian military archives. It is difficult to believe that any postal services in the chaotic circumstances of the revolution could have delivered the letter so soon to its destination, which speaks in favour of the assumption that Mannerheim may have delivered the letter himself. During the same trip, Mannerheim also met a French military attaché and other parties, from whom he sought to acquire weapons and support for Finland’s independence. Mannerheim apparently returned to Helsinki on 6 or 7 January 1918; the first reliable document of his stay in Helsinki is dated 8 January 1918. Soon thereafter, he was chosen to lead the Military Committee of the country, moved from Helsinki to establish his base at Vaasa, in the province of Ostrobothnia – and the rest is Finnish history.
But the common story of Mannerheim and the Russian army does not yet end here. After his letter of resignation, the retired general, who had served for 30 years in the army, was treated well: by its decision dated 25 February 1918, the incumbent Russian government – in other words, the Red Soviet-Russian Council of People’s Commissars – granted Mannerheim a Russian state pension of 3,761 roubles.
An influential Russian person commented this at a dinner table last summer: ‘Quite a lot of trouble that Red Army pensioner managed to cause the Red Army later in the Winter War!’
The “trouble” that Mannerheim and the Finnish army caused to Stalin and the Red Army is described authentically in Professor Ohto Manninen’s The Red Army in Stalin’s Examination (1997), which reports on the 4-day-long secret session of Stalin and his generals to analyse the Winter War experience in the Kremlin in April 1940; in contemporary terms it could be called a ‘strategy seminar’ or ‘collective developmental discussion’, although of a very particular “asymmetric” kind. The secret sessions started the reforms of the Red Army, which gradually made it a world-class war machine and created conditions for the Stalingrad victory in 1942-43 and the massive offensives against Nazi Germany in 1943-45.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
This leads us to the fundamental question as to what Mannerheim’s most serious, most significant decision was for Finland, from the Finnish perspective. From the standpoint of obtaining and maintaining Finland’s independence, Mannerheim took a number of decisions that have proved to be of crucial and lasting importance.
In January 1918, he had the courage to go his own way against the flow and put a difficult subject on the table, demanding the Military Committee to move immediately to Vaasa to build a stronghold – at the eleventh hour, just before the Finnish Red Guards’ takeover of Helsinki. The disarming of Russian troops in Ostrobothnia in January 1918 laid the basis for the creation of a government army and the victory of the Western democratic way of life and social model in Finland.
The St. Petersburg military project in 1919 has already been discussed – in that connection, the Republic (i.e. Finland’s democratically elected political leaders)protected the general from undertaking a gamble which would quite likely have ended badly both for him and the country.
In the late 1930s, under the gathering storm of probable war, Mannerheim’s recommendation for limited cessions of territory did not materialise. In the winter of 1938-39, he had been in favour of fortification of the Åland Islands together with Sweden, and aimed at a defensive alliance between Finland and Sweden. That project, however, miscarried by early 1939 after the Swedish government withdrew from it. In the final analysis, refraining from cessions of territory and, instead, readiness to fight were for Finland presumably a better alternative and helped our country to avoid the fate of the Baltic states, which led to a heavy burden of their occupation of 50 years.
The ability to lead Finland, over five years, in the Winter and Continuation Wars in 1939-44 to two defensive victories was an enormous strategic performance for a soldier already advanced in years. Whether the balance of forces between the main front of Karelian Isthmus and the further front of Eastern Karelia was the right one in June 1944 has been thoroughly discussed elsewhere, and I leave that question to professional military historians.
Even so, perhaps the most important – or at least the most difficult of Mannerheim’s decisions – were two decisions of making peace.
One of Mannerheim’s most far-sighted decisions was not to attack Leningrad in 1941–43, when it would have been possible for Finland from a military point of view. Realistically thinking, this decision evidently spared the Finns a lot of blood, sweat and tears in that half-century long period 1943–90, when the Soviet Union was at the height of its powers.
Nevertheless, the most vital decision may perhaps have been the fact that Mannerheim managed to lead Finland to peace in summer 1944, even though the decision-making process was strained by periodic uncertainty, as historical research in recent years has shown. Like President Risto Ryti in June-July 1944, Mannerheim thereby also took a big personal risk of being drawn into the war guilt trial.
The Soviet Union, however, had already announced via Sweden during the Continuation War that it would not touch Mannerheim. This promise was repeated by the Chairman of the Allied Control Commission Savonenkov in January 1946, only a couple of months before Mannerheim resigned as President of the Republic. On 26 January 1946, the then Prime Minister Paasikivi recorded in his diary what Savonenkov had said to Mannerheim:
‘Savonenkov had been mandated from Moscow to inform Mannerheim that, considering Mannerheim’s accomplishments in achieving peace, they will in no way involve him in the war guilt trial, irrespective of whether he is President or whether he will resign.’
As one of my friends well versed in history noted, this is also a significant historical anomaly in the sense that Stalin did not always have the habit of adhering to all his promises.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Mannerheim’s decisions predominantly reflected strategic and historical thinking. It could be called geopolitics, too, which is good to remember now that geopolitics has returned to international relations.
As a product of the Russian Empire, Mannerheim could read the broad patterns of European history and the movements of the geopolitical continental plates better than other Finns of his time. During the Winter War peace negotiations, this helped him see the importance of aid promised by the West. In Moscow’s assessment, particularly the prospect of intervention by France in the conflict threatened to turn it into a wider confrontation with the Western powers. During the Continuation War, and after Stalingrad at the latest, this helped Mannerheim foresee Germany’s defeat and to get ready for withdrawal from the war, for which he began to prepare the Parliament from 1943 onwards.
Applying Mannerheim’s realism, the most important challenge for Finland’s security policy is its relations with Russia. We have with Russia the same railway gauge, but a different value base: I refer, in particular, to different conceptions of the rule of law and democracy.
Accordingly, the most recent official report on Finnish foreign and security policy takes into account Russia’s return to power politics. I participated in the preparation of the report as a member of the Ministerial Committee on Foreign and Security Policy, led by President Sauli Niinistö.
The report notes the priority given to foreign policy and our endeavour to maintain good relations with our neighbours. From the viewpoint of the credibility of our national defence, the emphasis is on improving our defence forces’ rapid response capabilities, as well as on preparation for hybrid threats. All down the line, use is made of international cooperation, and the option to seek NATO membership is maintained.
It is also part of this stability policy that Russia best ensures its security interests in Finland’s direction by acting moderately. Finland should not itself restrict its room for manoeuvre to the West, and thereby weaken such constraints.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let’s return to the question posed at the beginning: On whose Mannerheim Line, then?
Let my father-in-law Einari Hakkarainen answer. He died about ten years ago at home in Juankoski at the age of 87 and represented the generation who had to spend five hard years of their lives at the front in the Winter and Continuation Wars. He was literally born together with Finland in November 1917, a few days after the October revolution and just a few weeks before the Finnish declaration of independence.
In the last years of his life, until his death, Einari kept on the wall on each side of his bed a framed picture. On the left, there was an official photograph of Mannerheim, with marshal’s batons. On the right, there was a 20-year-old newspaper clipping, with an official picture of late President Urho Kekkonen who managed the tricky Finnish-Soviet relations for much of the post-war period. The veteran of the Ranger Battalion 4 and Kollaa was, until the end, one of the men of both the Mannerheim and the Kekkonen Line.
I agree with war veteran Einari. Peace must be strengthened proactively, through cooperation. If possible, matters are agreed with the neighbour. If this fails, then one must resist, even with arms, alone or together. One’s own country and its freedom are defended with the means that happen to be available.
As far as I can see, this is the core of the Mannerheim Line. It is also Finland’s long-standing line, on which our national security will be based also in the future.
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