The signal achievement of Finland has been its survival against great odds--against a harsh climate, physical and cultural isolation, and international dangers. Finland lies at higher latitudes than any other country in the world, and the punishing northern climate has complicated life there considerably. Geographically, Finland is on the remote northern periphery, far from the mass of Europe, yet near two larger states, Sweden and Russia -- later the Soviet Union, which have drawn it into innumerable wars and have dominated its development.
From the 19th century onwards, nationalist-inspired efforts were made to write an impressive history of Finland in order to create a national and ethnic identity. The Finns had to have at least as magnificent a past as their neighbors in Sweden and Norway, who had developed self-images of their own on the strength of the Viking tradition. Thus the Finns also set out to look for traces of their ancestors in the sagas. The first people to write about ”the ancient kings of Finland” were Johannes Messenius (1579-1636) and the unknown author of the Chronicon Finlandiae, a work that has been dated to the second half of the 17th century.
The concept of Finland having a mystical history with a succession of ancient kings lives on even today as wishful thinking for the past in the works of pamphleteers and amateur historians. The idea is based partly on the ancient tradition of recording history in the form of chronicles and seen in the light of the author’s philosophical background rather than being interpreted in the manner of a professional historian. Such an approach was apt to confer upon Finland an imaginary past that in reality never existed.
The north was above all a place of frosts and a home for the god of war and all manner of spirits and goblins. The old documents that have survived represent the Finns as a rugged nation occupying a rugged terrain. Legend had it that their country was so cold because it lay beneath cold constellations, the Great Bear and the Plough and close to the vast icy ocean. From early times they would fish through the ice during the winter and burn strips of resinous pine wood in their cottages for heat and light. They worshipped their own heathen gods, the sun and moon, givers of the light that they so ardently craved for, and various animals, and would be constantly muttering incantations under their breath, going into a trance or practising witchcraft. And most of all, these stubborn, wild people so loved the old customs that had been handed down to them by their ancestors that it was extremely difficult to convert them to Christianity. They were really too wild to be good soldiers.
At the beginning of its recorded history, in the eleventh century AD, Finland was conquered by its powerful neighbor, Sweden. Finland's nearly 700-year association with the Kingdom of Sweden began in 1154 with the introduction of Christianity by Sweden's King Eric. Christianization and more than 600 years of Swedish rule (c. 1150-1809) made the Finns an essentially West European people, integrated into the religion, culture, economics, and politics of European civilization. During the ensuing centuries, Finland played an important role in the political life of the Swedish-Finnish realm, and Finnish soldiers often predominated in Swedish armies. Finns also formed a significant proportion of the first "Swedish" settlers in 17th-century America. The Finns have, however, maintained their own language, which is complex and is not related to most other European languages. The centuries of Swedish rule witnessed Finland's increasing involvement in European politics, particularly when the country served as a battleground between Sweden on the west and Russia on the east.
Over the centuries, Russia has exerted an especially persistent and powerful pressure on Finland. Many wars were fought between Swedes and Finns on the one side and Russians on the other. In 1809, Finland was conquered by the armies of Czar Alexander I and thereafter remained an autonomous grand duchy connected with the Russian Empire until the end of 1917.
Following Finland's incorporation into Sweden in the 12th century, Swedish became the dominant language, although Finnish recovered its predominance after a 19th-century resurgence of Finnish nationalism. Until the nineteenth century, the Finns were, like many other peoples of Europe, a subject nation seemingly without a culture or a history of their own. Publication in 1835 of the Finnish national epic, The Kalevala -- a collection of traditional myths and legends -- first stirred the nationalism that later led to Finland's independence from Russia. The national awakening of the nineteenth century brought recognition of the uniqueness of the Finnish people and their culture, and led to Finland's independence in 1917.
On December 6, 1917, shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, Finland declared its independence. In 1918, the country experienced a brief but bitter civil war that colored domestic politics for many years. Complicating the emergence of the Finnish people into national consciousness, however, was the split between the majority of Finnish speakers and a powerful and influential minority of Swedish speakers. Only during the twentieth century was this conflict gradually resolved.
Independence was threatened at the start in a bloody civil war in 1918 between Finnish leftists (Reds) and rightists (Whites); a victory by the Reds might have resulted in Finland's eventual absorption by the Soviet Union. One legacy of the war was a long-lasting political division between working class Reds and middle-class Whites during the first two decades of independence. As a result, political extremism, as represented by communism and by fascism was stronger in Finland than it was in many other Western democracies; it was eventually neutralized, however, and with time Finnish democracy became strongly rooted.
The most serious challenges to Finland's independence came during World War II, when the Finns twice faced attack by overwhelming Soviet forces - in the Winter War of 1939-40 and again in the Continuation War of 1941-44. They fought heroically, but were defeated both times, and the Soviets were narrowly prevented from occupying and absorbing Finland. This was followed by the Lapland War of 1944-45, when Finland fought against the Germans as they withdrew their forces from northern Finland.
During the Continuation War (1941-1944) Finland was a co-belligerent with Germany. However, Finnish Jews were not persecuted. Of the approximately 500 Jewish refugees who arrived in Finland, eight were handed over to the Germans, for which Finland submitted an official apology in 2000. Also during the war, approximately 2,600 Soviet prisoners of war were exchanged for 2,100 Finnish prisoners of war from Germany. In 2003, the Simon Wiesenthal Center submitted an official request for a full-scale investigation by the Finnish authorities of the prisoner exchange. It was established there were about 70 Jews among the extradited prisoners. However, none was extradited as a result of ethnic background or religious belief.
Since World War II, the Soviet Union's status as a superpower meant that it could at any time end Finland's existence as a separate state. Recognizing this, the Finns sought and achieved reconciliation with the Soviets, and they tenaciously pursued a policy of neutrality, avoiding entanglement in superpower conflicts. Treaties signed in 1947 and 1948 with the Soviet Union included obligations and restraints on Finland vis-a-vis the U.S.S.R. as well as territorial concessions by Finland; both have been abrogated by Finland since the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The long era of peace after World War II made possible the blossoming of Finland as a modern, industrialized, social-welfare democracy. By the 1980s, the intense social conflicts of previous decades were largely reconciled, and the country's relationships with other nations were apparently stable.
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