Finland's European Vocation

By Rinehart, Robert | Scandinavian Studies, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Finland's European Vocation


Rinehart, Robert, Scandinavian Studies


IN 1843, ZACHARIUS TOPELIUS, then a twenty-five year old student of natural philosophy, gave a public lecture entitled "Do the Finnish People Possess a History?" at the Imperial Alexander University, which in time became the University of Helsinki. He answered in the negative. Because Finland had no political existence, he argued, it was not a legitimate topic of historical investigation. The Finns had not been sovereign agents. They had never acted politically on their own behalf but always as part of another political entity.

Topelius was the youngest of a small group of writers and intellectuals who set about to create a Finnish national identity where none had existed before. In many countries, that would have been an organic development or the task of kings, soldiers, and statesmen, but, in Finland, it was a conscious act and the work of a philosopher (and economist), Johan Vilhelm Snellman, a linguist (and physician) Elias Lonnrot, a poet (and teacher) Johan Ludvig Runeberg, and Topelius, a playwright and popular historian, who taught young Finns what it meant to be Finnish. Runeberg gave Finland a modern heroic historical poem, "Tales of Enisgn Stal." Lonnrot complied a folk epic, Kalevala, from an oral tradition of considerable antiquity. Writing in Swedish for the most part, they gave Finland a past and a myth distinct from that of other countries.

And Snellman provided a Hegelian ideological framework for nation building. In his essay "On the Theory of the State" (1861), he invoked Adolf Ivar Arwidsson's familiar syllogism: "Swedes we are no more, Russians we can never be, so let us be Finns." But the synthesis was ambiguous. It could be taken as a moral imperative: "we must be Finns" or as a logical inference: since we are not Swedes or Russians, we have to be Finns. Or, as Arwidsson and Snellman most likely intended, it can be read as indicating an on-going process of becoming Finnish that can be helped along by practical actions.

The Grand Duchy of Finland was a state, created in 1809 when the Diet swore fealty to the czar-grand duke at Porvoo. Of that, Snelllman and the others were certain. But Finland and the Finns were not yet a nation.

That required cultural consciousness and a distinct identity. Swedes in Finland, like Snellman, who were the politically effective portion of the population, identified themselves as Finnish, but their culture like their mother tongue was Swedish. The Finnish heroes of Topelius's stories were, in fact, super-Swedes. Snellman argued that there was a fundamental link between culture, language, and the national identity, without which the nation-state could not exist, and, to fix the link, he proposed to "educate the nation and nationalize the educated." To achieve that end, he advocated accepting Finnish as the national language for use in administration and as a medium for cultural expression. When, however, in 1863, Finnish was officially recognized as having equal status with Swedish, most of Snellman's contemporaries in the Swedish-speaking elite opposed the move on the grounds that adopting Finnish, an obscure "Asiatic" language, at the expense of Swedish would isolate Finland, alienate it from the other Nordic countries, and cut it off from access to the European mainstream.

In the 1890s, the Finns--Finnish- and Swedish-speaking together--successfully blocked the Russification of their country. Reforms in 1906 introduced a deliberative national legislature, universal suffrage, and the first fully democratic electorate in Europe. At the end of 1917, Finland declared itself an independent country and, after a cruel civil war, adopted a liberal, democratic, republican constitution, consistent with the Wilsonian ideal. Despite deep political cleavages among its people left in the aftermath of the civil war, Finland was both a nation and a state.

HOW FINLAND SURVIVED

In succeeding decades, Finland took risks to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity and, arguably, its existence as a nation-state. …

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