Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Thoughts on Mannerheim on Independence Day

Inspired by the Mannerheim conversation in the blog of the incredible Jukka Kemppinen I have now read the two Mannerheim books by Sakari Virkkunen:

Mannerheim. Marsalkka ja presidentti [Mannerheim. Marshal and President], 1989.
Mannerheimin kääntöpuoli [The Other Side of Mannerheim], 1992.

If there would be a movie on Mannerheim, my idea of it would be a blend of Stroheim and Visconti. For the role of the young brave Mannerheim: John Gilbert (The Merry Widow), and for the old tiger Mannerheim: Burt Lancaster (Il gattopardo).

Carl Gustaf Mannerheim (1867-1951) was a nobleman who served 30 years (1887-1917) in the Imperial Russian Army and belonged to the close circle of the Emperor as a member of the Chevalier Guard in St. Petersburg. In the context of the Great Game about the control of Inner Asia Mannerheim served as an intelligence officer while making an exploration from Turkestan to Beijing; the exploration was not a mere cover but had scientific value in its own right. After the Bolshevik revolution Mannerheim returned to his native Finland. His native language was Swedish, besides which he was fluent in French, German, and Russian, learned Finnish first later, and knew also Latin, English, Polish, Portuguese and Chinese.

Mannerheim became the commander-of chief in all the wars fought by independent Finland: the Civil War, the Winter War, the Finnish stretch of the Operation Barbarossa, and the Lapland War, each of them fundamentally different. Mannerheim was created Marshal of Finland, and his horseman statue commands the center of Helsinki.

I would start my movie with the Bronze Horseman of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg and end it with the Mannerheim Statue in Helsinki.

Mannerheim's mission after the end of the Russian Empire was to destroy Bolshevism, and he saw himself as the leader of that battle on Russia's northwestern frontier.

The great paradox in Mannerheim's life is how he twice was about to seal the fate of St. Petersburg / Leningrad.

In 1918, he was prepared to lead an attack against St. Petersburg to crush Bolshevism, but he got no support from Finland.

In 1941, he refused to attack Leningrad, although both Hitler and the strong extreme right wing (including the Brotherhood of Hate) among his officers put pressure on him to do so.

With his firm refusal he may have saved Leningrad, and Stalin knew it. That may have saved Finland in 1944, when Finnish statesmen had to face Stalin's monsters such as Molotov and Zhdanov. They may have wanted much more horrible retributions, but Stalin said no.

In Operation Barbarossa Finland was Hitler's ally but not his underling. This is proven by three hard facts: Mannerheim's refusal to attack Leningrad, his refusal to destroy the Murmansk railway (the life-line of the Allies to Russia), and the fact that no Finnish Jew was harassed during the Holocaust (we had our share of Fascists, but they were kept at bay). At first Mannerheim admired Hitler because of their shared mission to destroy Communists but came to realize Hitler was mad. The two military newsreels on Hitler visiting Mannerheim and Mannerheim visiting Hitler are revealing. Mannerheim was not pleased of their existence and restricted their availability. From Sakari Virkkunen's book I learn that Hitler wanted Mannerheim to command also the German army on the Finnish front, but Mannerheim refused to even discuss the option. Because that would have meant that Hitler would have become his boss.

Mannerheim was a man of the world with a disdain for chauvinism and provincialism. His closest affinities after the end of the Russian Empire lay with England and France. Between the wars he travelled widely in Asia and participated in tiger hunt with the King of Nepal. He took regular health treatments at Karlsbad (Karlovy Vary) and Baden Baden. The tiger hunts, African safaris, and health spa visits were also important for confidential networking. His ties with the Nordic monarchies of Sweden and Denmark were warm, and he was disgusted with our anti-Swedish "language fight" of the 1930s. He was well-connected, well-informed, and able to forecast the future: in 1944, and probably even before, he predicted the Cold War.

An old school nobleman to the end, a bon vivant, yet a hard-working man who needed only six hours of sleep. His style had a Spartan military simplicity, yet he was a smart dresser in the best sense: he dressed well because he was a symbol and a representative for his soldiers and his people. He paid attention to the common soldier, to the war invalid and those blinded by war, he respected women and was chivalrous with them, he took care of children (via the remarkably progressive Mannerheim League for Child Welfare). Visits were not formalities for him. During the war he lived a large part of his time in his own special train, and was constantly on the move. At 75, he rode an hour on horseback every morning and took a ten minute swim in the lake or the sea.

His authority was based on respect. When I cleared up the house of my dear deceased aunt in 2003, together with my brother Asko we also cleared up the cellar bunker war room of her husband (a WWII veteran, including Stella Polaris) who had died a little earlier. Self-evidently a portrait of Mannerheim was on the wall.

I'm writing this at Töölö Hospital in Helsinki, where I have landed after a traffic accident. There are six gravely ill people in the room (I am the most harmless case, with speedy and full recovery). This is the most memorable Independence Day of my life. I am not watching television but I cannot help overhearing it. First, there were the official church services (a Swedish-speaking female minister: Tarja Halonen's choice on her last Independence Day as President was delightful). Then, The Unknown Soldier (1955), which I have seen many times, but when my eyes dart to the monitor, I often see scenes I had forgotten. I seldom cry, but the pre-credit sequence had me in tears already. The all-time best war film in the long version, needing excellent translation for the foreigner. It may prove impossible to translate with its multitude of language worlds; a Finn can immediately identify the province and the social background of the soldier by the way he speaks. For Peter von Bagh Paisà is the best war film, and I agree it's the contender.

The Töölö Hospital was founded by Mannerheim in 1932 as the Finnish Red Cross Hospital. It was also his own regular hospital when he needed care.

Mannerheim was a reactionary and a visionary. Un gattopardo.

No comments: