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Finnish Nationalism Justifying Independence

John Saari

Finnish nationalism may be said to have developed from cultural and linguistic origins to a will to full political self-determination.

The stubbornness with which the Finns have defended their country during the past four years is rooted in Finnish historical developments, the beginnings of which can be traced especially to the latter part of the eighteenth century. It was then that the idea of Finnish national separateness began to gain ground, and historical and other studies of the Finnish people began to contribute to the rise of modern nationalism in Finland.

The growth of Finnish nationalism went through phases that are familiar to students of modern nationalism in other western countries. It particularly emphasized more thorough education for the masses of the people, and the elevation of the Finnish language to a position of official language of the country along with Swedish. This awakening to a consciousness of cultural unity was completed in the course of the nineteenth century, and was crowned by the attainment of political independence in 1917-18.

Country and People

Finland borders on three countries - Sweden, Norway, and the Soviet Union - the Gulf of Bothnia, the Gulf of Finland, and the Arctic Ocean. The country was populated in the Stone Age by the Lapps, who gradually receded farther north. The actual settlement of Finland, however, occurred in the Iron Age, when an influx of Finnish settlers came from south of the Gulf of Finland and west of the Gulf of Bothnia in the first centuries of the Christian Era, reaching the shores of Lake Ladoga somewhere about 700 A.D. The occupation of the territory by the Finns - containing about the same area as Finland had in 1939 - is thus of very old standing. The eastern frontier running across the Karelian Isthmus dates partly from the year 1323 and partly from 1617.1

"In race, as in religion, the Finns are truly indigenous to western Europe."2

Physically, the Finns are as fully European as any other inhabitant of northern Europe; the Nordic probably fits more Finns than it does Germans. Their earliest home so far known was in the Middle Volga country of European Russia; there the Finns were farmers and stockbreeders long before the time of Herodotus.... Before the Turko-Mongol invasion some of the Finnish tribes moved westward to Estonia and Livonia, whence they crossed the Gulf of Finland to present Suomi....3


Up to the so-called Swedish conquest, about 1151 A.D., the country was independent. Relatively little is known of the political and legal institutions of the Finns in this early period. The people, however, had a democratic form of government. Their chosen representatives met in councils, selected leaders, formulated laws, and established defensive leagues. There were no written laws; custom or common law furnished the basis of national method of administration of justice, which continued in force until the common national laws of Sweden came into use, and even later.4 Slavery or serfdom never existed in Finland.

The Roman Catholic Church gradually made converts in Finland, and the Pope took the country under his direction, awarding the suzerainty of Finland to the King of Sweden in 1216. The introduction of Catholic Christianity into Finland, which followed a similar development in the western parts of Scandinavia, had a profound effect upon the later history of the Finns. Two of its consequences were especially important: the Finns came to be definitely included with the western culture area, and by their inclusion in the Swedish Kingdom, their political as well as economic and social growth henceforth proceeded along lines that corresponded to those of Sweden proper. It was under the auspices of the church - after the Reformation had begun - that the vernacular Finnish became a literary medium. This laid the basis for later, especially nineteenth-century, nationalist trends which exalted the use of the Finnish language. It likewise furnished much of the foundation upon which secular education in modern Finland ultimately was built.5

The conquest of Finland by Sweden did not denote any abrupt change in the Finnish social and political system. Sweden was at the time not yet a unified state. The kingdom consisted of several confederated provinces, governed by customs or enactments of laws passed by provincial assemblies. These assemblies selected the common king. Inclusion of Finland in the Swedish Kingdom led, quite early, to a political situation which meant that the people of the eastern or Finnish part of the kingdom were also "native Swedes" in all important matters. The Finns participated in, and contributed to, those developments which ultimately changed a more or less unrestricted monarchy into a limited monarchy in which even the common man evolved from a mere subject into a citizen. In a word, the complex substructure upon which modern political democracy in Finland rests, was constructed in the course of a long period of development, common to the Swedes and the Finns alike. This period covered some six hundred years before Russian conquest of Finland in 1808-9 brought it to an end.6

Finland as a Grand Duchy of Russia

For centuries the Finns and the Swedes had successfully resisted invasion and conquest of their country by the Russians. When, however, in 1809, Finland became affiliated with Russia, Finland was constituted as an autonomous state, a grand duchy of Russia. Finland retained its own constitution and laws and its religious and social forms, similar to those of Sweden. Finland had its own parliament and its own internal system of government; its own courts of justice; and ultimately obtained its own postal, monetary, and tariff systems, the last-named being applied to foreign countries, including Russia. Finland had its own army, and every power that belongs to an autonomous state except the head of the state. The Czar of Russia appointed the Governor General and had charge of the foreign affairs of Finland.

During the last generation or two of the so-called Swedish period in Finnish history, it was becoming gradually clear that a trend toward Finnish culture and linguistic separation was under way. By 1808-9 it had produced several significant results. Materials were being accumulated out of which a full-fledged Finnish nationalism was fashioned in the course of the nineteenth century.

In the first place, interest in local Finnish history grew markedly in the eighteenth century. Scores of local studies reflecting new and active interest in the fatherland - "fatherland" denoting not the kingdom as a whole but the Finnish part of it - were published. Towns, villages, and provinces became frequent subjects of investigation and study. The outstanding historian of the period, H. G. Porthan, investigated the character of Finnish folklore and poetry, and conducted research in the field of Finnish history. More a collector and compiler of sources than a writer of connected historical treatises, he looked into nearly every field of the past of Finland and its people. He also contributed to the efforts that began to appear, during the closing decades of the century, to promote the development of the Finnish language and the dissemination of general knowledge about the fatherland. His name is likewise connected with the first newspaper adventure in Finland (1771).

After the old bonds uniting the Finns and the Swedes were severed as a result of Russian conquest of Finland, the nationalist movement, in the modern sense of the term, emerged. It was stimulated by many men; journalists, students, professors, members of the civil service, and the like, fill the roster of the men who ultimately brought a nationalist - conscious Finnish people into being.

One of the earliest of these was A. I. Arwidsson. Arwidsson was a poet and journalist who protested against what he considered to be a dangerous indifference, among the leading elements in the country, to the safety and future well - being of the nation. The driving force in his endeavor appears to have been nationalist pride, coupled with the fear that union with Russia would ultimately mean linguistic and cultural Russification. This threat, he felt, could be met only by bringing the people as a whole to the realization that national unity was its only bulwark against the Russian colossus. He especially urged modernization and extension of the educational system, which was to be infused with a "national aim."

This national aim, Arwidsson held, could be achieved by eradicating the language line which separated the Finnish-speaking majority from the Swedish-speaking minority. "We are no longer Swedes, we cannot become Russians, let us therefore become Finns in thought, feeling and deed" may be said to have represented the core of the creed that Arwidsson considered indispensable if the Finnish nation was to survive the dangers that inhered in the union with Russia.

Arwidsson got into trouble with the authorities and was forced to emigrate to Sweden in 1823, but his work was carried on by others. Elias Lönnrot gave a most important stimulus to the nationalist cause by his publication of the Kalevala (1835, 1849), a rich storehouse of folk poetry. J. L. Runeberg aroused love of country and sharpened Finnish nationalist feeling by moving, patriotic poetry. J. W. Snellman produced, from the forties onward, a definite political and nationalist program designed to strengthen the autonomous Finnish state by preparing it for independent statehood. The linguistic Finnization of the Swedish-language upper classes was the core of his program. Meanwhile, reform and extension of the school system, the emergence of a modern press - after 1820 - and the writing and teaching of national history in school and university reflected the appearance of new instrumentalities that aided in the work of nationalist awakening.7

While the national cultural, political, and economic life of Finland flourished in many fields, the Pan-Slavic movement in Russia and the Russification of Finland took definite form. The autonomy of Finland was attacked, and in the nineties systematic oppression of Finland began. The Czar decreed laws contrary to the Finnish constitution; the Finnish army was disbanded; and when the Finnish officials refused to enforce the illegal decrees, the officials were incarcerated in Russian prisons or sent to Siberia. In 1904 events took a different turn. The hated Governor General, Bobrikov, was assassinated; the general strike in 1905 gave Finland a temporary respite, and the Czar was compelled to restore Finland's constitutional rights. Russian oppression, however, was renewed in 1908 and reached its height during World War I, which also brought about the independence of Finland.8

Independent Finland

When in 1917 Finland declared its separation from Russia and proclaimed itself an independent state, it did not launch on anything new which by experience was not known to its people. It had at the time a fully developed system of government, including a parliament elected by universal suffrage. All Finland had to do was to amend its constitution to provide for the election of a president and appointment of a minister of foreign affairs. In fact, Finland was the first country in the world to give the women the right to vote and participate in the making of laws and other functions of government; and this was done long before Finland had declared its independence from Russia.9

After the establishment of Finland's independence and the appearance of the Republic in 1919, nationalist creeds in Finland meant primarily the love of country, the maintenance of freedom and independence, and the building of a body politic and a social system that would meet the needs of free men in a democratically governed country. Finland has free speech, free press, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly. The people may live where they please, and have the right to travel at home and abroad without restriction. Finland has a system of free enterprise. Most of the people are property owners; they own farms, homes, businesses, shares in co-operatives, and private corporations. They have adopted a well-rounded social welfare system, including protection for the aged, the children, and others in need. The eight-hour work-day prevails in all industries. The public school system of Finland is noted for its efficiency. Every person capable of learning must receive at least a primary school education. Secondary and higher education is accessible to all. There are also more books, magazines, and newspapers published per person in Finland than probably in any other country. It is natural that the people of Finland, who have enjoyed these rights, who may devote their talents to whatever they desire, will not willingly submit to an alien dictatorship.

Russia's War Against Finland

During the weeks of September and October 1939 when Poland was despoiled and the three Baltic States were brought to heel by the Soviet Union, the Finns watched uneasily the developments south of the Gulf of Finland. When they, in turn, were called on to yield territory and other concessions to the U.S.S.R., they refused. The Russians thereupon invaded the country. For over a hundred days - November 30, 1939 to March 12, 1940 - the Finns fought against the invader that had been branded as an aggressor by the League of Nations and the enlightened opinion of the world at large. The fight, which electrified foreign observers and proved costly to Russia, ended in a peace treaty that despoiled the Finns of from 10 to 12 per cent of their population, territory, and industrial and agricultural resources, and saddled the nation with extraordinarily difficult reconstruction problems.

Not the least important consequence of the war, however, was the elimination of all party and other differences within the nation. The nation faced the war, and the period after March 1940, more strongly united than ever before. In this internal unity, the Finns were importantly sustained by such sentiments in the outside world as President Roosevelt expressed in the following words: "The Finns have won the moral right to live in everlasting peace and independence in the land they have so bravely defended."

Finland's Right to Independence

The concept of Finnish nationalism - irrespective of how that concept is defined - cannot alone be used, in any meaningful way, to justify independence and freedom from Russian control. It is not a mere concept of nationalism that is important. What is important is a series of considerations concerning what is morally right, just, and defensible.

The historical evolution of the Finnish people for generations has been such as to make the nation keenly conscious of the value of freedom. Liberty under law has been theirs except when Russian control and oppression robbed them of it. The concept of liberty and the freedom and rights of man was broadened in Finland, as it was in other democratic countries, especially during the latter half of the last century, until it became translated from an ideal into an accomplished fact. This process was carried forward especially after 1919, when the Finnish Republic was established. By 1939 the Finns could justly claim that their political, economic, social, and educational institutions served well the needs of a citizenry schooled by fruitful experience in self-government. Any test that would have had any meaning at all as an indicator of the success of democracy in the other Scandinavian countries - or, for that matter in any other democratic part of the world - would have shown, if applied to Finland, the correctness of this conclusion.

That this was so can be readily proved: universal suffrage, in operation since 1906; a unicameral legislature; responsible, cabinet form of government; an extensive body of social legislation, dating from the years before the First World War, and including the eight-hour day established in 1917; a free press; a nonpolitical judiciary, strikingly similar in its functioning to the judiciary in Sweden; a co-operative movement, dating from the years before the First World War, which accounted for one-third of the whole retail trade in the country and played a basic part in other aspects of economic life; an educational system, free and open to all, which had eliminated illiteracy by the turn of the last century and provided adequate educational opportunity for high and low alike; an economic system capable of practically eliminating land tenancy, and raising, by 1939, the general standard of living of the whole people to a conspicuously higher level than had existed in 1918; a general cultural advance that reflected wise and just utilization of national resources that were, at best, meager; the rise of the common man to political leadership, as shown most clearly by the position occupied by the Social Democrats; and finally, a foreign policy that pursued peaceful aims and, together with Sweden and the rest of the Scandinavian neighbors, attempted only to maintain peace and to keep outside the domain of power politics.

It is this record that constitutes the real justification of the independence of the people of Finland.

Since November 1939, the political affiliations and preferences of the majority of the Finnish people have undergone no important change. The so-called military affiliation with Nazi Germany has not, as far as available facts show (a distinction must here be drawn between facts on the one hand and claims and unsupported interpretations on the other), changed the picture. The composition of the legislature is still what it became after the 1939 election: Socialists hold 42.5 per cent of the seats, small farmers 28 per cent, and so forth. These two groups still dominate the Cabinet. It seems safe to say that were it not for the fact that Germany as well as Finland today wars against Russia, Finland's conflict with the Soviets would be looked upon by the democratic world in the same way as it was in 1939-40, and the democratic aspects of the Finnish Government would be as clearly perceived now as they were then.

The question of Karelia is secondary to the other issues of Finland's present position. While some ultranationalist Finns no doubt would favor a policy which would lead to the incorporation of Russian Karelia in Finland, it is doubtful if anything like a majority of the Finns consider Russian Karelia of any importance whatever, except as a bargaining point in negotiations with Russia. As regards Finnish Karelia, the situation is different. Having been robbed of it in 1940 and having then lost some 10 to 12 per cent of the total industrial, agricultural, and other resources of the nation, the Finns probably consider the recapture of at least a major part of Finnish Karelia as essential to the future welfare and existence of the people. Only force, and force that is overwhelming, is likely to bring the Finns once again to yield this territory which is historically and in other ways an integral part of Finland and to which Russia can present no valid claim whatever - except the right of the stronger nation that can take what it wants.

John Saari, LL.B., is in the insurance business in New York City. He was formerly in the mercantile business, in banking, and in the wholesale lumber business; has published a Finnish daily newspaper, has practiced law, and has served in the Minnesota State Legislature.

1 Finnish Year Book, 1939-40, by OY Suomen Kirja (Helsinki: OY F. Tilgmann, Ltd.), pp. 11, 26, 37, 38.

2 W. Z. Ripley, The Races of Europe, quoted by John H. Wuorinen, Nationalism in Modern Finland (New York: Columbia University Press), p. 100.

3 Carlton S. Coon, assistant professor of anthropology, Harvard University, in letter to the writer, July 28, 1938.

4 Finnish Year Book, 1939-40, op. cit., pp. 40, 41.

5 John H. Wuorinen, Nationalism in Modern Finland (New York: Columbia University Press), pp. 42, 62-66.

6 Finnish Year Book, 1939-40, op. cit., pp. 40, 42; Wuorinen, op. cit., pp. 4-8.

7 Wuorinen, op. cit., pp. 47-57, 22-26, 71-76; Finnish Year Book, 1939-40, op. cit., pp. 52, 53.

8 Finnish Year Book, 1939-40, op. cit., pp. 55-56.

9 Ibid., pp. 57-64; Wuorinen, op. cit., pp. 220-21.

Reprinted from The Annals of The American Academy of Political and Social Science, Philadelphia, March, 1944.

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