September 11, 2015

On the Surrender of Finns through the Eyes of Swiss Journalists

According to the romanticised approach popular in Estonia, Finland fought their Eastern neighbour in 1939 and did not allow their state to be subjugated. This then decided the country’s destiny. Finlandisation followed later but this was a trifling matter compared to what happened in Estonia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Even so, some Finnish historians consider finlandisation to have been a surrender.1 We in Estonia never tire of analysing our surrender either, but while we focus on the actions of the state that surrendered, it may slip our minds that there was also a subjugator that started it all. As the subjugator disappeared from the scene of history, both subjugated states were freed; one of them may be compared to an inmate in a maximum security prison, the other to one in an open prison. The difference between the two was great, but neither of them was free. A quarter of a century later, the subjugator is back—the Finnish president deemed it necessary to mention in his new year speech that Finland is part of the West, while we in Estonia sometimes find it difficult to understand our Northern neighbour. This context ensures that this book by the Finnish historian Seikko Eskola is unexpectedly topical today, since the methods used to make Finland surrender 75 years ago have also made a comeback.

Eskola’s book discusses the 1940s—the decade that started for Finland with the Moscow peace treaty ending the Winter War. Under the treaty, 10% of the state’s territory was relinquished to the USSR, 420,000 internal refugees needed new homes and the state leased a military base to the Soviet Union some 50 km from the capital. Hitler was not wrong when he presumed that the Finns who had been forced to leave Karelia wanted their homes back; this is why German support provided to the Continuation War effort in 1941 worked even without official agreements. At least it did until the summer of 1944, when Moscow’s new attempt to break Finland in battle forced President Risto Ryti to sign an agreement with Joachim Ribbentrop. The attempt to subjugate Finland in battle failed again. Finland agreed on a ceasefire and then entered into a peace treaty with its Eastern neighbour, but this was not the full extent of the surrender, which continued in other ways. Eskola’s book explores all of this in detail. Eskola ends the book with the symbolic year of 1952, when Helsinki hosted the Olympics and Finland sent the last train with reparations to the Soviet Union.
This is not an ordinary history book, since the author does not present his own views of what happened, but references the opinions of people living at the time. He has simply commented on and supplemented these approaches as a historian. The contemporaries featured in the book are journalists of the Swiss broadsheet Neue Züricher Zeitung (NZZ), who mostly resided in Stockholm and Helsinki. They were not reporters who sent home short notices but correspondents who wrote long analytical overviews, who had doctoral degrees and had lived in Finland and Sweden for years. Proceeding from the title of the book, Eskola mainly focuses on how the Finnish democracy survived “in the shadow of dictators”. NZZ did not take a positive stance towards national socialism, which is why the newspaper was banned in Germany two years after Hitler came to power, so the correspondents of NZZ cannot be considered German supporters, but rather impartial observers. It is therefore noteworthy that the Swiss paper only mentions one occasion on which Germany interfered in the internal affairs of Finland in the summer of 1944. The Swiss correspondents criticised the censorship that was established in Finland during the war years but had to admit that Finnish parliamentary democracy worked despite the war-time restrictions. Notwithstanding the censorship, the Swiss journalists could quote Finnish papers that protested against the policies of the German occupying forces in Norway and Estonia in particular. NZZ called Estonia “the Norway of the Finns”, by which they probably meant that Finland felt the same affinity towards their occupied Southern neighbour that the Swedes felt towards their occupied Western neighbour. The Swiss were also surprised that journalists could freely discuss the attempt on Hitler’s life in Finnish papers. It can be concluded from this that the censorship, which disturbed the correspondents, applied mainly to questions of internal politics. On the other hand, the NZZ wrote that the people’s attitude towards the government did not change because of the censorship, which is why the censorship of the war years may be considered mainly a war-time necessity. It can be said that the Finnish democracy coped quite well under the threat from Hitler.
NZZ wrote that the polling for the first post-war elections in spring 1945 was conducted in a manner suitable for a democratic state, but “under the moral pressure of foreign political inevitability”. They were hinting at the fact that Prime Minister Juho Kusti Paasikivi and some other cabinet members encouraged the politicians who had been in power during the war to refrain from running for office. NZZ did not fail to mention that the Finnish right wing considered this interference to have influenced the election results considerably. At the same time, the paper emphasised that even those Finnish politicians who considered the government’s interference a “small blemish on the face of democracy” still agreed that this was the lesser evil, as it helped to prevent the threat of intervention. Two years later NZZ wrote that Finland was still “technically” a Western parliamentary democracy, although left-wing radicals had gained key positions in the government. In assessing Finnish democracy, NZZ underlined the point that Finland had never been exemplary in this field, as concessions that harmed democracy had also been made to the Lapua Movement in the 1930s, although not to such a large extent as to the Communists later on.
The Swiss journalists noticed how the Soviet Union was not criticised by Finnish people, not even in private conversations, since the Finns supposedly wanted to make a clean break with the past and conform to all the conditions of the peace treaty in an honest manner. Thus strong (self) censorship applied in foreign political questions in a different way to during the war years, but the Swiss correspondents repeatedly emphasised that there was no censorship concerning internal politics. This notwithstanding, Finnish democracy was under greater pressure from Stalin and had to make bigger concessions than it had under the influence of Hitler. The NZZ’s articles also list some of the causes for this. Hitler had no particular reason for pressurising Finland, since the Finnish people were “justifiably bitter” after the Winter War, and the Finnish government pursued policies that the majority of people considered the only way forward. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, would not have been able to convict Finland’s war-time state leaders as “war criminals” (NZZ always put the phrase in quotation marks) under the Finnish legal system had it not put pressure on the state.
The Swiss journalists called the ceasefire of autumn 1944 a surrender, capitulation or military defeat. In March 1946 NZZ wrote that “since the surrender”, the majority of the Finnish people were harassed daily by the question of whether the state’s political and economic dependence on the Soviet Union would lead to sovietisation sooner or later, or whether the country would succeed in preserving at least a part of its statehood and democratic society. NZZ thought that there were no grounds for fearing “bolshevisation” and acceding to the Soviet Union as long as those decisions were to be made by a parliament elected in accordance with the constitution. Yet should Moscow have thought that its Northern borders were not sufficiently secure as long as Finland was not within the Soviet Union, the USSR would undoubtedly have had the means to incorporate Finland, given its contemporary power position. A Swiss journalist wrote that in the public opinion of the world, the conditions dictated to Finland were not considered particularly strict (the Finns disagreed) but displays of “preferential treatment” in comparison to other Eastern European states could not hide the fact that Finland was “completely at the mercy of the Soviet Union”.
NZZ quoted something Vyacheslav Molotov had said at the Paris Peace Conference, that the Soviet Union had supposedly been “generous” with Finland (NZZ’s quotation marks). The Swiss paper seemed to have agreed with this at least partially since it considered that the Soviet Union had indeed respected the independence of Finland with the armistice, although it had also rendered it helpless in military terms, which was supposed to have meant that the “independence” (NZZ’s quotation marks) was to be quite relative. NZZ’s analyses reveal the opinion that Finland remained unoccupied mainly owing to the Soviet Union’s calculations, not to Finnish resistance. Eskola emphasises that the attention paid by NZZ’s correspondents to Finland’s success in repelling the Soviet Union in the summer of 1944 does not nearly compare to the importance it has acquired today.
NZZ’s analyses also outline the dilemma for the Soviet Union: on the one hand, it wanted to have full political control over Finland, on the other hand, it did not want to harm the USSR’s economic interests in the form of reparations from Finland. Finland inevitably needed a loan to cope with the reparations, and it was able to get the amount mainly from the US. However, the US’s loans depended upon the political developments within Finland—had Finland become a “people’s republic”, the loan sources would probably have dried up. NZZ claimed that the reparations inspired Moscow to force the local communists in Finland to adopt a moderate stance, which was an opinion the Finns shared as well. When the social democrats tried to take advantage of the communists’ moderate spirit in election campaigns by adopting the idea of nationalising large industries and banks, Moscow was irate. The Finnish government was notified that this step would not be in the interests of the USSR, as it would endanger the deliveries made to pay the reparations. NZZ also published more pessimist opinions that the reparations would lower the standard of living in Finland to such a level that they would put the nation’s moral resistance and desire for independence to the test. This was why some Finns thought that the USSR’s goal had always been to squeeze the Finnish economy dry first and then take away its independence.
In an analysis published in 1950 at the peak of the Korean War, the Swiss paper claims that a power struggle in Finland would change the strategic balance in Northern Europe to the disadvantage of the Soviet Union, since Sweden would probably join NATO. Another important factor was the Finns’ unchangeable desire to preserve their independence—according to NZZ, this was already evident in the 1939 negotiations, “not like with the Baltic States”. “After the defeat”, Finland had honoured all the conditions in a disciplined manner, but the USSR was said to have no illusion that Finland would want to preserve its independence only internally; it knew that if the USSR were to have tried to take the state’s freedom, it would have been faced with long and tough resistance. Finnish woods and lakes were said to be the “Eldorado of partisan warfare” and the appeals Otto Ville Kuusinen’s government directed to the Finnish communists during the Winter War fell on deaf ears. The potential “people’s republic” of Finland would also have been “titoist”, since the Finns as a nation are used to following their own lead, and so it would have been pointless for the Kremlin to snuggle up to such a prickly character.
The NZZ articles Eskola mediated to the reader perfectly explain the famous Paasikivi line—Finland basically surrendered in the foreign political sense, as it gave up pursuing an independent foreign policy and became a part of the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. In return, however, the Finns wished to remain free to act as they wanted in internal politics and to retain journalistic freedom to as great an extent as possible. This is why the Finnish surrender in 1940 was not entirely silent, at least not for the NZZ. Although no one protested against surrendering in Finland, NZZ knew about the pressure from Moscow and the decisions made under this impact. A colourful example is the decision to suppress the Finnish publication of the defence speech of President Ryti, who was accused of “war crimes”, while the NZZ wrote about both the speech and the pressure from the Soviet Union to ban it. The paper was amazed that the speech had been broadcast on Finnish radio right before it was banned and that the text of the speech had been sent to foreign correspondents.
After Urho Kaleva Kekkonen became president, NZZ started to write that the state was trying to keep decision-making behind closed doors, especially in matters concerning Moscow’s demands to extradite refugees, and that the government wanted to establish censorship. Thus the Paasikivi line was not exactly identical to the Kekkonen line. It is not the purpose of this review to discuss whether finlandisation was more extensive under Paasikivi or Kekkonen2, but it can be concluded from NZZ’s articles that during Paasikivi’s rule, Finland’s surrender was basically restricted to foreign policy, while in Kekkonen’s times, more and more internal political concessions were made.
Eskola himself remains rather on the sidelines in his book, only offering comments when NZZ’s understandings need to be supplemented or explained in view of what we know today. However, there is a section where Eskola expresses his opinion in strong terms. NZZ discussed the extradition of Estonians to the Soviet Union twice, in 1948 and 1950. In the first case, the context was that the Soviet Union was pressurising Finland into concluding an agreement establishing a military union, which was seen as similar to the 1939 agreements that had proved fatal to the Baltic States, and the Swiss considered the extraditions an understandable concession in a “tragic conflict of the conscience” for the Finns. In the second case, NZZ talked of the extradition of Estonian refugees in connection with failed trade negotiations and a cooling in the relationship between Finland and the USSR, which the new Prime Minister Kekkonen was trying to alleviate with conciliatory gestures. He was successful since Kekkonen was invited to Moscow, where he was greeted by Stalin himself. Eskola expressed the following views about the last episode: “In connection to this, it must be said that approximately the same number of Jews extradited in 1942 have been declared great martyrs, but people do not speak about those extradited to the East. In reality, the government protected Jewish refugees during the Continuation War in a far better manner than they protected our kindred nation, the Estonians in the following period, even those who had fought for Finland, weapon in hand.”3 I must agree with Eskola’s conclusion that NZZ was very well informed about how things actually were. This, in turn, supports a quote attributed to George F. Kennan, who said that 95% of information can be found from public sources. One just needs to read the papers.
This article was written because my good colleague Tõnu Lume recommended Seiko Eskola’s book to me and my lecturer Anti Selart gave me the good advice that I should write a review of it.
1 Hannu Rautkallio, Alistumisen vuodet 1954–1961. Suomettuminen vai lännettyminen, Kustannusosekkeyhtiö Paasilinna, Keuruu 2010.
2 Hannu Rautakallio writes, that when the term “finlandisation” came into use in 1960s, it was defined as “the subjugation of a non-communist semi-independent state in the USSR’s sphere of influence to the aspirations of a communist great power”, but he interprets it as “the extensive influence of the Soviet Union Communist Party on Finnish national and social life” (see Rautakallio pp 13–14); therefore Rautakallio finds that finlandisation occurred in Finland between 1954–1961, when power passed from Paaskivi to Kekkonen; however, looking at the 1960s definition, there is no doubt that Finland was already finlandised under Paaskivi.
3 Seikko Eskola, Demokratia diktaattorien varjossa. Suomen vaikea 1940-luku eurooppalaisin silmin, Atena Kustannus Oy, Keuruu, 2014, pg 238; the Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen apologised to the Jewish community in 2000 for extraditing eight Jewish refugees to Nazi Germany. In the spring of 1950, Finland extradited six refugees to the Soviet Union. One of them was Artus Lõoke, an Estonian, who was sentenced to death and executed the same year in Tallinn—see Jussi Pekkarinen and Juha Pohjonen, translator. Erkki Bahovski. Läbi Soome kadalipu. Inimeste väljaandmised Nõukogude Liidule 1944–1981, Tänapäev, 2008, pg 141, 174–176.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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