March 26, 2009

The Extraordinary Fate of an Ordinary Diplomat

On Aleksander Warma’s life and the role of diplomats

On Aleksander Warma’s life and the role of diplomats


Matti Maasikas

The Extraordinary Fate of an Ordinary Diplomat

On Aleksander Warma’s life and the role of diplomats.

When the daily Postimees awarded Marina Kaljurand the title of Person of the Year 2007, my good colleague Sulev Kannike said immediately that it was great and justly deserved, yet he hoped that another diplomat would not become Person of the Year for the next 10 years; the reason being that a diplomat or his work is usually thrust into the public spotlight when something goes terribly wrong – like the relationship between Estonia and Russia in the spring of 2007.
Indeed, great fame befalls only those diplomats whose work is affected by special circumstances, who help to end wars, to establish states and so on – for example, Charles de Talleyrand, Martti Ahtisaari and Richard Holbrooke – or the diplomats who suffer great misfortunes or even die tragically – for example, Raoul Wallenberg and the first US Ambassador to Estonia, Robert Frasure. Similarly, only those Estonian diplomats made history who, in addition to their everyday work, had some other – usually political – functions to fulfil. The primary role of Otto Strandman, August Rei and Friedrich Akel, who had all worked as ambassadors, was not that of a diplomat but of a politician.
However, Aleksander Warma was, above all, a diplomat. There are two reasons why we still remember and speak of him today: the first reason is the time and place of his service – he was Estonian Ambassador to Finland during the tragic 1940s; and the second one is his participation in exile politics as the head of Estonia’s exile government in Sweden from 1963 to 1970. His detailed and well-documented memoirs, Diplomaadi kroonika. Ülestähendusi ja dokumente 1938-1944 [A Diplomat’s Chronicle. Notes and Documents 1938-1944] add an extra dimension to his role.
In my view, Warma was quite an ordinary diplomat. Yes, he had a good career. But when we look at his modus operandi, we see many features, characteristics and aspects that are surprisingly typical of the diplomatic profession. Let us take, for example, his comprehensive and detailed memoirs. It is obvious that Warma was very meticulous about his personal archive. Not only did he keep the letters he received, he also made copies of the letters he had written. In addition, he kept an accurate diary, in which the conversations he had had, for example with eminent Finnish statesmen during the Winter War, are quoted verbatim, providing valuable historical insight.
Diplomacy is, in a way, a very bureaucratic activity. Every comma can have a meaning; every diplomatic note sent out can be used against you years later. It seems that Warma knew this rule very well. He also knew that it was not always possible, or indeed necessary, to tell the whole truth. For example, he does not say anything about the letter he sent in July 1940 to Nigol Andresen, the Foreign Minister in Johannes Vares’s government, in which he enthusiastically praised the policies of the new government (I will analyse this issue below). So, his memoirs are well documented and highly commendable for the accuracy of details – we learn, for example, that it was Ms. Siimenson, an official on stand-by duty in the Ministry of Foreign Ministry in Tallinn, who answered Warma’s phone call on the first day of the Winter War, November 30, 1939 – but they are, nevertheless, incomplete.
Let me offer an altogether different example of the fond feelings diplomats have for papers. The only known participant who, despite having been ordered not to do so, kept his notes of the tragic Wannsee meeting (the so-called Wannsee conference was held near Berlin on January 20, 1942 – ed.), where the decision to exterminate all Jews was adopted, was the representative of the German Foreign Ministry. Could this be an occupational disease?
Warma’s career as a diplomat began when he was 35 years old, which is relatively late, but progressed rapidly. In 1926, he started as head of the legal office of the Foreign Ministry. A year later he became manager of the administrative department. In 1931, he went to Moscow on his first assignment abroad. After only two years, he was dispatched to Leningrad’s consulate general to lead Estonia’s foreign mission there – he became consul general. In 1938, he was appointed Estonian Ambassador to Lithuania. After a short period of service in the Foreign Ministry in Tallinn, he was sent to Finland as Estonian Ambassador in November 1939. From 1940 to 1944, he unofficially fulfilled the Estonian Ambassador’s duties in Finland. In September 1944, to meet the demands of the Finnish authorities, he left for Sweden where he participated in exile politics.
Warma’s memoirs do not cover his service in Leningrad, which is a pity. Back then, many Estonians were living in the city and oblast of Leningrad and the Estonian consul general must have seen how Stalin’s regime took ethnic minorities into a stranglehold, leading to mass repression in 1937. His descriptions of local events and years of service in Leningrad would definitely have given us a more comprehensive historical overview of the conditions in Russia. In addition, it would have been interesting to know more about the closing of the consulate general – the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union demanded that 16 countries should close their missions in Leningrad. Obviously, it was impossible not to fulfil this demand.
Warma throws a little more light on his days in Kaunas (the then Lithuanian capital), describing them in six pages. He offers a brief overview of the situation in Lithuania (and in the Baltic region), but one cannot escape the feeling that he places more emphasis on his dissatisfaction with his early recall, which he voices delicately, but unambiguously. Jaan Lattik, a former minister and the father-in-law of one of the sons of President Konstantin Päts, wanted to be appointed Ambassador in Kaunas and when he had got what he wanted, Estonia requested Rome’s agrément to Warma’s appointment to Italy (to compensate for what had been done to him?). However, it was later decided not to change the Ambassador in Rome because of the outbreak of the world war and so, in November 1939, Warma became Estonian Ambassador in Helsinki.
When speaking about Finland and Warma, one connection that is quite unusual in diplomacy should be pointed out – Warma had strong family ties in Finland. In 1906, nine men from the Pärispea Peninsula and Mohni Island bought 300 hectares of land in Kabböle Village in Pernaya Parish in Southern Finland near the coast. They also bought fishing rights and moved there, their reasons being better fish stocks, lower rent on land, a long period of service in the Russian army, and so on. Aleksander Warma’s father Johannes was one of those nine men. At that time, Aleksander was 16 years old and it is not quite clear how many years he actually lived in Finland. In 1910, Aleksander went to Käsmu Maritime School. From then on, he must have only paid short visits to Finland where his parents lived. Matti Punttila wrote in a brochure published to mark the 100th anniversary of the Estonian migration to Kabböle: “Warma lived in Finland for a long time.” Sven Boman, who has studied the Estonians in Kabböle more thoroughly, even claims that Warma moved back to Estonia as late as in 1915. It is noteworthy that Warma as an ambassador knew his destination country – Finland – better and more intimately than diplomats usually do.
In his memoirs, however, he does not even mention his ties with Finland and his relatives there. We can only guess at the reasons for this. Punttila claims that the family of a relative of his – Olof Warma – had not acquired Finnish citizenship by 1944, meaning that they could have been extradited to the Soviet Union. (As is known, the Germans allowed 50,000 people of Finnish origin move from Ingria to Finland during the war in order to alleviate the chronic shortage of labour in the country at war. With the armistice agreement concluded in September 1944, the Russians demanded the return of those people as well as people from other areas – for example, from Estonia – who the Bolsheviks considered to be theirs. And Finland agreed to do so.) It took just one day for Ambassador Warma, Olof Warma’s uncle, to obtain Finnish citizenship for his nephew’s family. Did he feel that he was compromised by this relationship? In addition, there were several well-known moonshiners among the Estonians in Kabböle. Or was it just that he did not have time for family affairs during the hard years of war?
There is another relationship with Estonia that has its roots in Kabböle – since the end of the 1940s, the current Finnish Ambassador in Tallinn, Jaakko Kalela, has spent his summer holidays intermittently in Pernaya. He says that you could often hear Estonian spoken in the village in the post-war decades. Was this the reason for his broader interest in Estonia, making him better prepared for his work in Tallinn?
Warma thought that he would continue the work of his predecessor in Helsinki, Rudolf Möllerson. When Möllerson arrived in Helsinki in 1937, he had two tasks before him: to restore the respect of the Finns for Estonia – their attitude towards the Päts regime was not always that understanding and brotherly – and to change the ‘bourgeois milieu’ in the embassy. Möllerson managed to do both. He was quick to counter any false allegation about Estonia published by Finnish journalists and he led the reconstruction works in the embassy. Warma was ready to follow in his footsteps.
However, as it turned out, Warma arrived in Helsinki one day before the beginning of the Winter War, that is on November 29, 1939. We all have to keep up with the times, which is why all his plans fell to pieces and he could not focus on ordinary diplomatic work. Even so, on the day of his arrival, Warma had a go at fulfilling the usual tasks of an ambassador. Finnish journalists rushed to interview the new ambassador who told them that the situation in Estonia “is calm and people are busy working.” Referring to the Red Army bases established in Estonia, a journalist from Helsingin Sanomat asked whether Estonia still considered itself to be an independent state. The ambassador answered with his own apt but, historically speaking, slightly demagogical question: whether the interviewer thought that China was independent after it had leased Port Artur to Russia. This episode led Eero Medijainen, a historian, to conclude that Warma was a “humble civil servant who obeyed every order he received from Tallinn.” Medijainen added: “He retained this view (that Estonia is an independent state – M. M.) until the embassy was closed.”
At this point, I must say that Medijainen loses his usual impartiality and does not do justice to Warma. What goals should a diplomat pursue other than the protection of the interests and good reputation of his country of origin, his homeland? The 17th-century definition – “an ambassador is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country” – no longer holds true. Nowadays, it is unacceptable to lie even to the diplomats of a country that is not exactly friendly towards one’s country of origin. After the re-establishment of Estonia’s independence, our diplomats as patriots of Estonia have enjoyed the rare privilege of representing our country by pursuing its policies which, in the absolute majority of cases, have coincided with their personal beliefs. At the end of 1939, however, Warma had no need, not to mention opportunity, to answer or to act in any way other than he did.
As an aside, it was not the first or the last time for the Finns to call Estonia’s independence into question. As late as the autumn of 1995, Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen mumbled in a radio interview: “What about Estonia? Estonia isn’t a state.” I leave it to our Ambassador Jaak Jõerüüt to explain how Estonia reacted to such a statement. Neighbours cannot always prevent these kinds of things from happening.
On his first full day at work, November 30, 1939, Warma was transformed from an ordinary diplomat into an ambassador to a country at war. This could be felt, above all, in the changing organisation of life and work. Warma tried to contact the evacuated Foreign Ministry of Finland through the dean of the diplomatic corps in Helsinki, the Danish Ambassador. The secretary of the latter informed the secretary of the Estonian embassy that the dean was sitting in the bomb shelter in the cellar and had no more information about the location of the ministry than any other embassy.
Intense diplomatic activities continued during the 105-day-long Winter War. In this respect, Warma’s detailed records of his conversations with Finnish leaders are an exciting read. While gaining a better insight into the general mood among the Finns, Warma also had to represent Estonia’s interests. The fact that aeroplanes flew from the bases on Estonian territory to bomb targets in Finland fuelled Finnish animosity towards Estonia. Juho Kusti Paasikivi, who later became president and who was an advocate of Realpolitik all his life, wrote in his diary: “This shows how strong their feelings of kinship really are!”
It was against this background that Ambassador Warma met with Foreign Minister Väinö Tanner. This is how Warma described the meeting.
I: “I’ve been listening to the Estonian news broadcast by Finnish radio stations for almost a week now. In addition to the news from the front, they include appeals to and recriminations against the Estonians, which have created, in my opinion, an atmosphere of embarrassment among those who are well-versed in politics. Taking into account the on-going fighting, I can understand that, among other weapons, Finland is forced to use propaganda, if this helps to strengthen national defence. But, these kinds of actions must have specific purposes. It seems to me that the appeals have been made either without any deliberate intention or without accepting the current realities. These kinds of radio programmes can only poison the minds of the Estonians and cause mutual distrust, which would be profitable only to those who are hostile towards the Finns.”
Tanner: “I heard about these appeals yesterday and I put a ban on them. Finland doesn’t want to give Estonia any reason to get involved in the Finnish-Russian conflict. Moreover, I must add that we’re not very pleased with the circumstance that Estonian citizens voluntarily join the Finnish army. I think that they’d be more useful in Estonia.”
I: “I’m very grateful to you, Mr. Minister, for making this statement.”
Warma has made notes of some other fascinating meetings he had with Finnish officials during the Winter War, which make for a very interesting read indeed.
When the Winter War ended, Endel Kingo, the then 16-year-old messenger working at the Estonian embassy, was a witness to one of the most startling episodes in the history of Estonian diplomacy:
“The last day of the Winter War, March 13, is burned deep in my memory. After having heard Minister Tanner’s address to the Finnish nation over Kotsar’s (Estonian consul – M. M.) radio, Ambassador Warma came to the chancellery to comment on the speech. He pointed to Paldiski on the huge map of Estonia on the wall and said in a relieved voice that Estonia had been, after all, more skilful than Finland in its foreign policy. Estonia had been forced to grant the right to use only a small portion of its territory to the Soviet Union, but Finland had lost a substantial portion and had sacrificed many men while doing so.”
In his speech at the University of Helsinki, President Toomas Hendrik Ilves characterised Warma’s attitude in the following way: “A view that proved as short-lived as it was short-sighted!” Undoubtedly, this is true. But maybe there is something in Kingo’s words as well: “I have often wondered since whether Warma stated the so-called official truth or he just said what he personally thought at that moment.”
Indeed, this is one of the key issues in diplomacy: an official line vs. personal views. When, where and how much do they differ from each other? Is it right that they differ? I have already pointed to the fact that Estonian diplomats have usually enjoyed the privilege of speaking words they have personally believed. But what about the times when Estonia drifted towards authoritarianism under Päts’s rule? Heinrich Laretei, the then Ambassador to Sweden, has written: “It was commonplace for Estonians to criticise Estonian state officials among themselves; the more so as it was not against the law.” Was this the weak point of Estonian diplomacy of those days? Can diplomacy be bigger or better than the prevailing realities at home? Is it possible to differentiate between a diplomat’s loyalty as an official and as a citizen?
But surely, the situation was not – could not have been – that bad under Päts’s rule to elicit sincere declarations of support from Estonian ambassadors for the Vares’s government and its political line. Estonian embassies received Foreign Minister Nigol Andresen’s circular no. 370 on July 1, 1940. By that time, 90,000 Red Army soldiers had crossed Estonia’s eastern border (which had happened on June 17), the government had been changed by force and the first arrests had already been made. The circular stated that the events in Estonia had been nothing more than a reaction to the six-year-long silent era and that the Red Army had not played an active role in them. “Having undergone a major shift in its history, Estonia will nevertheless continue to be a sovereign state, the independence of which is guaranteed by the Soviet Union itself.” Ambassadors were ordered to deny categorically any rumours of Estonia’s accession to the Soviet Union.
What did Estonian ambassadors do next? Quite a few of them wrote to Tallinn (although the circular contained no order to reply to it) to express their support for the new government’s policies. According to Medijainen, it was Warma who was, by far, the most eager to show his loyalty. This is what Warma wrote in reply to the circular (the full text of his letter): “I am pleased to confirm receipt of the confidential circular no. 370 and the political overview and guidelines of July 1. Despite the fact that the circular did not contain a direct order to reply to it, I do not think it is uncalled for to point out that even though I am not a Communist by conviction, I am certain that the action plan of the current Government of the Republic, which was included in the Government’s declaration and which was clarified by the comments made by certain members of the Government, serves the interests of the Estonian nation and state. I will do everything in my power to contribute loyally to its implementation. Let me wish you, Mr. Minister, and all members of the Government of the Republic good luck with your hard and demanding work and persistence in your efforts.”
As was said, Warma was not the only one. Heinrich Laretei in Stockholm and Johannes Markus in Budapest also sent their replies; Hans Rebane in Riga extended his congratulations to Tallinn. A number of ambassadors, for example, August Torma (Schmidt) in London, sent reports and analyses to Tallinn as late as the middle of July. As a rule, Estonian ambassadors began to act with the aim of “explaining the realities of Estonia” (a quote from an obituary of Johannes Markus who died in 1969) in their host countries only when they had received orders either to close embassies or to hand them over to the representatives of the Soviet Union and to return to Tallinn.
Medijainen asks why that was so. What prevented Estonian foreign representatives from reacting to the events of 1940 at the right time? Did they hope that the precedent created in Slovakia would be repeated in Estonia (the historian points out that in 1940 nobody in Estonia was actually familiar with the subsequently much talked about Mongolian option)?
In a letter to his sister, former Head of State Otto Strandman, the Ambassador in Paris, wrote already on October 13, 1939: “Of course, my spirits are very low and naturally not because of the fact that I’m being relieved of my duties, but because of having worked in vain all my life and not being able to do anything about it before my death.”
Medijainen answers his own question: first, it was money – Tallinn paid them for their work. The second reason was that they were worried about the fate of their relatives in Estonia. Nevertheless, Medijainen reaches the following conclusion (this is an exact quote): “Still, it seems that the main reason why Estonian diplomats did not immediately turn their backs on the new regime lay in the nature of the diplomatic profession. During the early days of the Foreign Ministry, some ambassadors could still afford to intervene in Estonian politics. By the end of the 1930s, they had been completely weaned from the habit to do so. They probably grew accustomed to Päts’s authoritarian regime. The majority of Estonian diplomats belonged to the class of professional officials whose career depended on their professional skills. … It seems that Estonian official representatives found it slightly hard to take principled political decisions.” He reckons: “Anyway, it is too much to ask of diplomats to make these kinds of decisions.”
In defence of my one-time colleagues, it should be pointed out that the necessary political decisions were actually adopted, but a month or two after the coup d’état in June. They wasted invaluable time. The passive, occasionally even supportive reactions by Estonian diplomats to the June coup d’état helped to lay the foundation for the belief that some states still hold today, 70 years later, claiming that Estonia voluntarily joined the Soviet Union in 1940 and that Estonia as a state was created anew in 1991.
I do not believe that the motives for the behaviour of Warma and others can be ascribed to their diplomatic profession. It is hard for me to treat foreign policy as a field of activity that makes people overly submissive and acquiescent. I think that the reasons lay rather in the nature of Päts’s undemocratic regime, in the unfavourable conditions that prevented Estonian diplomats, other public servants and Estonian citizens from fully identifying with their state. These conditions did not allow them to feel that their personal views coincided with Estonia’s official policies, unlike the Estonian diplomats of the new era who have enjoyed this blessed feeling for most of the time. It is scarcely possible to keep the represented and the representative mentally apart for too long.
Warma’s ordinary diplomatic activities were terminated at the end of July 1940 by an order from Tallinn to close the embassy and to hand the embassy building over to a representative of the Soviet Union in Helsinki. On August 7, Warma presented his famous diplomatic note to Finnish Deputy Foreign Minister Aaro Pakaslahti. He announced in the note that he had decided to suspend (not to finish!) the operations of the Estonian embassy and its subordinate consulates in Finland. In addition, Warma stated that Estonia’s accession to the Soviet Union had been carried out in contravention of the Constitution of Estonia and of the treaties concluded between Estonia and the Soviet Union as well as against the will of the Estonian nation. Moreover, Warma declared that he did not consider himself to be either in the service of the Soviet Union or its citizen (in this very order!).
52 years later, President Mauno Koivisto presented a copy of this note to Ambassador Lennart Meri. It is customary that a new ambassador hands over two letters from his head of state at a formal ceremony: one about his appointment and the other about the recall of his predecessor. And although Meri did not have the latter letter, a bridge from one era to another was built in an elegant and legally correct manner.
The foreign delegation of the Republic of Estonia that was put together in Stockholm on September 24, 1940, by Warma, Heinrich Laretei, Ambassador in Stockholm, and August Rei, former Ambassador in Moscow, formed a part of this bridge. The tasks of the delegation were the following: “With the aim of restoring the independence of Estonia … to gather information and to carry out preparatory work for possible diplomatic actions; to collect and to spread foreign propaganda material; to obtain credit for fulfilling the above tasks …” Warma’s participation in the activities of the delegation eventually brought him into exile politics and his political career culminated in his role as head of Estonia’s government-in-exile from 1963 to 1970.
I have to admit that the above claim that Warma’s activities as an ordinary diplomat ended in August 1940 was not entirely accurate. He also had to tackle the issues that an ordinary bilateral embassy would deal with under normal circumstances. He stayed in touch with diplomats in Helsinki and with Finnish government officials during the entire Continuation War from 1941 to 1944. He even organised an exhibition of Estonian art. He had conflicts with former employees of the embassy whose views were more radical than his. He had to ensure adequate living conditions for a growing number of Estonian refugees in Finland. While doing so, he was subject to friendly fire from a variety of directions – activists like Harald Wellner and Karl Talpak accused him of being too passive. Characteristically, Warma gave a detailed account of these disagreements to his colleagues, Laretei in Stockholm and Torma in London and also kept a copy for his archive: “Here in Helsinki, we had a sort of ‘family row’, which in itself is not a rare sight among refugees.”
On the one hand, it was vital to continue the operations of the Estonian representation in Helsinki. On the other, this served the aim of being ready for a smooth re-opening of the embassy after the end of the war and the restoration of Estonia’s independence, which everybody was hoping for. Already in 1941, Warma attempted to negotiate the return of the embassy building by presenting a respective note to the Finnish Foreign Minister on July 3. When he heard that the building had been handed over to the Swedes, who represented the interests of the Soviet Union in Finland, he decided that it was pointless to get into an argument with the Finns and Swedes over this issue; the more so as there seemed to be no chance of getting the building back. Despite that, Warma let the Finnish Foreign Ministry know that “the position of the Finnish government with respect to the building was not consistent with international law and practice.”
On September 19, 1944, Warma was notified that the Finnish government could not guarantee his safety any more. By that time, Finland had concluded an armistice agreement with the Soviet Union and the Russians had demanded the return of the people whom they considered to be Soviet citizens. Warma left Finland and travelled to Stockholm through Turku. On September 23, his diplomatic work in Finland, which had started one day before the beginning of the Winter War, came to an end. There had been little in the way of ordinary diplomacy in his work, yet he had been only an ordinary diplomat whom Fate itself had chosen for the task.
Jaak Maandi, who lived in Stockholm for a long while, often met Warma in the presidium of the Estonian National Council in the 1960s. “He taught me the verb ‘to antechamber’,” recalls Maandi. “Warma had a story about his visit to the Foreign Ministry in Paris on behalf of the Estonian exile government. He was happy that he had to wait only 15 minutes in the antechamber – he said this was a good sign.”
In the new era of independence, Estonian diplomats are not familiar with this word because it is one of the goals of our work to never again be overjoyed by the fact that we had to wait only for a short time.

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