The Finnish Front in Literature

Discussions on the Winter War and Continuation War, the wars between Finland and the USSR.
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Claes Johansen
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The Finnish Front in Literature

Postby Claes Johansen » 19 Apr 2017 17:52

Last year I published a book in Denmark called Krigens konsekvenser: Anden Verdenskrig i dansk og finsk historiekultur (The Consequences of War: The Second World War in Danish and Finnish History Culture). The second main part of the book primarily consists of an essay titled "The Finnish Front in Literature", which I now intend to translate into English and post on this forum, hoping it will be of interest to some of the members. I will do it bit by bit, and any comments, criticism, corrections etc. are of course welcome along the way.

Preface
The Second World War removed the Nordic countries from one another more than any other event in recent times. Iceland was occupied by British forces and meanwhile managed to unleash itself from its union with Denmark. Norway was invaded by German troops on 9 April 1940, put up staunch resistance, received military support from Britain and France, established a government-in-exile in London and later on became one of the German-occupied countries where the resistance movement first and most sturdily made its mark. Denmark was invaded as a kind of stepping stone for the Germans on their way to Norway, but soon capitulated and, until the autumn of 1943, followed a policy-of-cooperation with its occupiers. Sweden managed to achieve what all small European countries strived for at that time, namely to remain neutral throughout the war. And Finland …?

As so often before the Finns got the worst of it. At war with the Soviet Union in 1939-40, again in 1941-44 and then with Germany in 1944-45.
Compared to the rest of the Nordic countries Finland's fate was very violent. A drama of enormous proportions, marked by contradicting and traumatic feelings, which subsequently gave inspiration to great literature. It is part of that literature I have tried to investigate with this essay about three Finnish novels, which in each their own way use Finland's destiny during 1941-44 as their outer framework.

But my personal angle is not Finnish. It is Danish. It is the Danish translations of these novels I will discuss and quote from [in English], just like my historical views and conclusions are inevitably coloured by my upbringing in a society, whose feelings and traumas in relation to the Second World War are different from what you tend to find in the other Nordic countries. I ask my readers to bear that in mind as they go along.

Main works used for this essay:
Väinö Linna: Den ukendte soldat, translated from Finnish into Danish by Anja og Gunner Gersov, (Copenhagen, Grafisk Forlag 1955)
Veijo Meri: Lige for lige, translated from Finnish into Danish by Anja og Gunner Gersov (Copenhagen, Grafisk Forlag 1957)
Paavo Rintala: Partisanløjtnanten, translated from Finnish into Danish by Anja og Gunner Gersov (Copenhagen, Grafisk Forlag 1964)

Also:
Ernest Hemingway: Farvel til Vaabnene, translated from English into Danish by Ole Restrup (København, J.H. Schultz Forlag 1936)
Aleksis Kivi: Syv Brødre, translated from Finnish into Danish by af Folmer Starholm and illustrated by Poul Eje (Galleri Eje, 2010)
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Re: The Finnish Front in Literature

Postby Claes Johansen » 19 Apr 2017 18:01

I. Chosen Victims on the Altar of World History

In 1954 a remarkable war novel was published in Finland under the title of Tuntematon sotilas. A Danish translation came out the following year and was titled Den ukendte soldat [The Unknown Soldier]. It was almost ten years after the end of the Second World War, which had been a complicated and costly affair for Finland. The novel soon became extremely popular, not only in its homeland but also in neighbouring Scandinavia [Denmark-Norway-Sweden].

The author was a former draftee corporal in the Finnish so-called Karelian Army. Väinö Linna (1920-1992) had previously published two novels without causing much attention. He was living in Tampere and made his living from working as a fitter in a factory, and like so many other literary works The Unknown Soldier was conceived late at night.

The novel is a broadly based collective story, whose plot is centred on two machine gun squads and their experiences during the Finnish Army's campaign against the Soviet Union 1941-44. The historical circumstances play such a central role in Linna's work that a deeper understanding of it seems impossible without a certain amount of knowledge of the foundation of the Finnish state and its further destiny. A short presentation of these events is therefore necessary from the start and can appropriately be interspersed with quotations from The Unknown Soldier.
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Re: The Finnish Front in Literature

Postby Claes Johansen » 19 Apr 2017 22:43

The story of a people

With its position between Russia and Sweden, Finland has traditionally been an area of conflict. For several centuries the country simply constituted the western part of Sweden. During their great power era, the Swedes made sure to insert their own upper class as aristocracy in Finland, but during the Napoleonic wars the Swedish crown lost the area to the Russian tsar. Before that, young Finnish men had been conscripted to participate in several Swedish military campaigns, where they developed a reputation of being good at the rough part of the job. The Communist-orientated Corporal Lahtinen in Linna's novel puts it like this:

For six-seven hundred years this army has fought for others, halfway starved to death and with its bare arse sticking out of its rags. First we had to help the Swedes make history so they could brag about the results, and now our own masters demand the same thing from us. (P. 101)


In the mid-1800s an actual Finnish nationalism developed along with dreams of independence. For obvious reasons these tendencies had to be hostile towards Russia and so during the First World War groups of young Finnish men would travel to German to volunteer for German war service on the Eastern Front. That way a large group of Finnish NCOs notched up experience that would become useful to them later on under more homely conditions.

Finland declared itself independent in 1917, approximately at the same time as the Baltic states. In January the following year a civil war of Russian pattern, with confrontations between 'Reds' and 'Whites', broke out. It developed into a particularly bloody and revengeful affair with intervention from both German and Russia. The 'Red' side lost the war, and after a brief period as a kingdom under a German prince the Finnish Republic became a solidified fact.

Two of the characters in The Unknown Soldier seem to have a close and personal relationship with the Civil War. Gloriously drunk, the platoon comedian Vanhalla starts belching out old Socialist songs. His group leader, Rokka, says with contempt: "Those are Red Guard songs, you bastard" (p. 257). But their platoon leader, Koskela, encourages Vanhala to continue.

Koskela had known the song as a boy; before the landless peasants had become independent farmers, the Koskela family had been decidedly red. The priest's son, who belonged to the Finnish jaeger battalion in the German Army, had personally shot two of his uncles in the hills behind the hospital, and it was only due his strong health that his father had just about managed to survive the hardships in the prison camp. (P. 257)


Due to the right wing nationalist victory in the civil war, Finland remained to a large degree a class society. The country had for more than a hundred years been attached to Russia, which meant that its political development had stood still compared to the rest of the Nordic countries. Large parts of the population in the countryside still lived under conditions reminiscent of the situation in Denmark prior to the Abolition of Adscription in 1788. Though a softening in these matters occurred in the years following the civil war, the 'White' victory meant a continuation of a strongly layered society, whose upper class consisted partly of Swedish-speaking aristocracy, partly a Finnish-national civil servant class and a landowner class. In addition to this there was the officer class, who behind the curtains had substantial influence on the political development of the country and though the school system and the conscription system etc. sought to establish a society built on belligerent and nationalistic ambitions. Another of the writers we shall be looking at in this essay, Veijo Meri, has described his upbringing as follows:

Life seemed simple. Be brave and daring so you can achieve a beautiful death or eternal heroic glory, or both. Life is a short, simple, dramatic affair, and it is demanded from each single individual: Live and die fearlessly for the motherland on the ground, at sea and in the air. (Manillarebet, p. 103)


Where the official Finnish state did not conduct itself sternly enough, parts of the officer corps knew how to take their own initiatives. From the end of the civil war into the early 1920s, groups of Finnish officers conducted more-or-less private raids into Karelea, the landscape through which runs the border between Finland and Russia. In Linna's novel we are told about Captain Karna, a company commander who is killed during the first skirmish of the war, that "he had been forced to resign as lieutenant after the campaign into East Karelia" (p. 21).

The strongest Fascist movement in Finland was the Lapua-movement, which enjoyed substantial support from the Civil Guard. The organisation conducted terrorist activities such as kidnappings of leading Communists and Social Democrats, who were transported across the border into Russian territory and left there. After an unsuccessful riot attempt in 1932, the Lapua movement was dissolved and prohibited by law, but in its place new political pressure groups were formed, who would mark Finland's political life in a right-wing, anti-democratic direction.
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Re: The Finnish Front in Literature

Postby Lotvonen » 20 Apr 2017 06:59

The books of Väinö Linna, Veijp Meri, Paavo Rintala that you listed indeed are some of the essential Finnish war novels .

It seems the below mentioned significant book is not translated in Danish? In Swedish it is available.
Vinterkriget (Talvisota) (översättning Bengt Pohjanen, Norstedt, 1989)

Unfortunately it appears to be outside your frame of reference. Surely a Danish speaker would be able to understand Swedish? A person who has studied Swedish a number of years (= me) is able to read and understand Danish.

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Re: The Finnish Front in Literature

Postby Claes Johansen » 20 Apr 2017 10:11

Kiitos, Lotvonen.

Antti Tuuri's amazing novel Talvisota was indeed translated into Danish by Nøste Kendzior and Carsten Ohlmann and published in 1984 by Hekla in Copenhagen. The title in Danish is, unsurprisingly, Vinterkrigen. Also translated into Danish is the novel with which Tuuri won Nordic Council's Literature Prize, Pohjanmaa (Arven in Danish). I also love the film versions of both these novels.

The latest Finnish novel taking place during WWII (at least partly), which I know has been translated into Danish, was Jenni Linturi's Isänmaan tähden, in Danish titled For fædrelandet. It was published in 2013 by Turbine forlaget in Aarhus, the publisher I work for most myself these days and who also published my own book Krigens konsekvenser, which I am translating from here.

The three novels I am looking at in this essay seem to me to belong together ... somehow. Tuuri is kind of in a category to himself. I wish much more of his books were translated into Scandinavian languages (one or the other). At the moment, I believe the most popular Finnish writer in Denmark is Kjell Westø, sorry Westö!
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Re: The Finnish Front in Literature

Postby Claes Johansen » 20 Apr 2017 11:42

Now on to the next sub-chapter of my essay on three great Finnish novels dealing with the Continuation War. We were summing up the historical background for Linna's novel and had arrived at ...

The Winter War

At its root, the Winter War was determined by the relationship between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The leaders in Moscow assumed that a German grand offensive into Soviet territory would come sooner or later and that it would use Finland as its northern flank, with or without acceptance from the Finns. In relation to such an event the Finnish-Soviet border on the Karelian Isthmus, i.e. the strip of land between the Finnish Gulf and Lake Ladoga, was worryingly close to Leningrad. Hence, Moscow initiated secret negotiations with the government in Helsinki during 1938 and suggested the launch of a defence and support pact between the two countries. The Finns rejected the idea.

In 1939 the Soviet negotiators returned, this time with a proposal for some territorial exchanges, which would enhance the Red Army's defence ability against an attack from the west, but simultaneously lessen Finland's capability to defend itself against attacks from the east and furthermore deprive it of its second largest town, Viipuri, as well as some of its most fertile landscapes. After three rounds of negotiations in Moscow the dialogue collapsed. Two weeks later the Red Army attack Finland and the Winter War had started.

On one side of the front line was a country of average Nordic size, which in those days comprised roughly 3.5 million people, with an army that was better equipped than the Danish and Norwegian ones, but hardly stronger than the Swedish Army (which subsequently during the Second World War grew considerably in size but in 1939 was still rather weak). On the other side was the mighty Soviet Union with a population of 180 million and a well-equipped, highly modern superpower military. The outcome seemed to be decided in advance.

The Winter War, however, was a serious mistake by the Soviet Union. The leaders in the Kremlin had overestimated a) the influence which right-wing nationalist had on Finnish politics (and thus the danger that Finland would become a future military partner of Germany), and b) the sympathy towards Soviet Communism held by the broad Finnish population. The left-wing uprising, which the Russians had expected would occur internally in Finland at the outbreak of the Winter War, complete failed to appear.

Thirdly, the Soviet leaders had complete miscalculated the defence capability of the Finnish Army. They had expected the Winter War to be an easy little campaign. Instead, the conflict developed into a disaster for the Red Army, who apart from huge losses in human lives was also deprived of decisive moral and physical strength at a time where the Soviet leaders knew that a war against Nazi Germany was forthcoming. Furthermore, during it all Russia created an obvious ally for the Germans in relation to such an up-and-coming war.

The Red Army initially attacked at a number of point all the way along the common border, strongest in the middle sector and on the Karelian Isthmus. The aim of the former attack was to push through all the way to the Gulf of Bothnia and thus cut Finland in two. Meanwhile, the Finnish lines on the Karelian Isthmus were to be penetrated, giving the Red Army access to Southern Finland with it relatively densely populated areas and important communication lines. In the far north, i.e. in Lapland, there were likewise Russian attacks.

At all these points of attack the Red Army was severely superior, both materially and in manpower. The Finn's only hope was to appeal for foreign help, while everything was done to hold back the Soviet tidal wave – an objective that was achieved with surprising efficiency. At a time when dictatorial superpowers were annexing and flattening little countries pretty much as they pleased, the war correspondents in Finland could report home that entire divisions of the Red Army had been annihilated under extreme sub-temperature conditions by small groups of Finnish ski troops dressed in while camouflage.

The fighting continued into the following year, and only in mid-March did the Finnish government succumb to a peace agreement. At that time parts of Karelia had been lost, among them most of the Isthmus. The civilian populations in Helsinki and other towns had been bombed. But the army had held its positions until the end.

The Finnish effort in the Winter War has been described as a major military achievement of world historic proportions, from the General Staff down to the private conscripted soldier at the front line. Yet it was at least as much a cry for help from a people who least of all wished to become a satellite state to the Soviet Union, and who until the very end fought in the hope that other states – particularly Britain, France and the Scandinavian countries, presumably also Germany – would come to their aid.

A military feat of historical proportions, indeed. But lost territories, new borders, more than 25.000 soldiers killed in action – that was the dire truth behind Finland's military glory. On top of that, practically the entire population in the ceased territories fled westward so the rest of Finland was suddenly faced with a refugee problem of enormous proportions. More than 400.000 compatriots needed places to live and food to eat. The following period was not made any easier when the harvest of 1940 went wrong. It was difficult to import grain and other foodstuffs from Denmark, which in the meantime had been occupied by Nazi Germany. Other transport routes were blocked by the Soviet Union. In all respects, Finland found itself in serious trouble, and the population started "dreaming of revenge with its fist clenched in its trouser pocket", as Linna so poignantly describes it (p. 72).
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Re: The Finnish Front in Literature

Postby Claes Johansen » 20 Apr 2017 13:02

Next sub-chapter here. A few touchy subjects this time, I know, but please understand that I am basically presenting Linna's view of Finnish history in order to clarify where he is coming from and where he wants to go with this novel.


Nationalist opportunism

The Finland, which the Red Army attacked in 30 November 1939, had undoubtedly a stronger Fascist element than the rest of the Nordic countries around the same time. However, that does not mean the country was a Nordic Nazi Germany in miniature – far from it. There were in the broad population a strong support for democracy and furthermore an old bitterness against the upper class, the victors of the civil war. Genuine Nazi groups were few and far between; but there were influential, strongly right wing groups who, for instance, dreamed of a Greater Finland, a Finland reaching all the way to the Urals.

The background of such opinions was a partly misconceived historic view regarding the Russian part of Karelia. Most of the population there spoke dialects of Finnish, and parts of the Finnish traditional poetry stem from this area. This, along with other similar factors, gave Finnish right wing nationalist circles the unrealistic perception that the people of East Karelia saw themselves as Finns, that they found themselves under a kind of Russian occupation from which they must be liberated.

Actually the Karelians were, in regard to mentality, fundamentally different from what is normally associated with Finnish national character; particularly they had a reputation of being extroverted and sanguine. Also, some Karelians had in days gone by fled their houses and land to avoid Finnish compulsory reformation into the Protestant Church.

They would not get away with it so easily next time, if it were up to Finnish right wing extremists. A new military campaign into East Karelia had to be followed up by an efficient conversion of the population into Protestant beliefs. A modern crusade was to be conducted.

The broad Finnish population did not subscribe to this kind of expansive enthusiasm. But the outbreak of the Winter War aroused an anti-Russian atmosphere in general, which people with Greater Finland ambitions made sure to exploit.

No one rejoiced more loudly at the achievements of the Finnish Army during the Winter War than the Finnish right wing nationalists. The situation reached a point where you could easily forget who had actually won the Winter War, not to mention Finland's own losses in human lives. On the very first page of Linna's novel he refers to the Winter War with heavy irony and calls it "the best of all wars, since both parties were victorious. The Finns, however, to a lesser degree, considering that they had to hand over territories and retreat behind new borders" (p. 5).

During the autumn of 1940 the first German 'transports of soldiers on leave' were sent through Finland, and starting from January 1941 top secret negotiations between the Finnish High Command and the German General Staff in Berlin were initiated. Meanwhile, the soldiers from the Winter War were sent home and new classes called up instead.

There they were, a rather laboriously formed rank, these Mother Finland's chosen victims on the altar of world history. Peasant boys in their coarse clothing, day labourers in shirtsleeves with a crumpled up tie under the collar, and here and there a townsman with a real overcoat … What did Mäkinen think of World History and the hullabaloo that had reached his ears? Well, Adolf was looking for trouble. (P. 6)
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Re: The Finnish Front in Literature

Postby John Hilly » 20 Apr 2017 16:03

Excellent stuff!

With best, J-P :milwink:
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Re: The Finnish Front in Literature

Postby Claes Johansen » 20 Apr 2017 17:47

Kiitos, Juha-Pekka! And on we go with the next bit ...

Revenge War or Predatory Raid?

On 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany started its grand attack on the Soviet Union. Three days later the Finnish army crossed the border. There was no written alliance between Berlin and Helsinki. Officially, the Finns fought a separate war against the Russian and even had their own name for it: The Continuation War. In practice, however, there was a high degree of coordination. The Finnish Army's contingent in Lapland was under German command, and further south a German division was subordinated to the Finnish Karelian Army. At one point it was considered to make the Finnish commander-in-chief, Marshal Mannerheim, commander of all forces in the sector (however, he refused the offer). Also, the Finns received large amounts of weapons from Germany (for readers with a further interest in this issue there are copious amounts of information to be found on this forum and likewise some in my book in English from 2016, Hitler's Nordic Ally?: Finland and the Total War 1939-45).

Väinö Linna was a Finnish conscript like thousands of others. He was placed in the 11th Infantry Division, which, like the men in his novel, were thrown into action in Ladoga Karelia, i.e. the area north of Lake Ladoga.

The Unknown Soldier (or Unknown Soldiers, as the latest English translation from 2016 is called) starts shortly before the outbreak of the war "near Joensuu, a small town in Finnish Karelia" (p. 5). In the second chapter of the book the battalion we follow attacks the Russian troops at the 1940 border and beats them back. After that the Finns march under continuous fighting eastwards in the direction of the old border.

Parish after parish they put behind them. Along all existing roads the marching columns poured through Ladoga Karelia. Above them were dense clouds of dust, mixed with blue smoke from countless forest fires. And the sun was beating down and burning everywhere. But in those circles where blistered feet and straps gnawing on collarbones were unknown issues, there was rejoicing: Finland was on the march! … (P. 116)


According to the history book, Linna's division was thrown into action at the beginning of July 1941. In the early part of the following month they crossed the old border and marched into Russia for real. The aforementioned Lahtinen remarks: "From heron we're on a predatory raid" (p. 119).

In late September the Finns reach the capital of East Karelia, Petrozavodsk, which Linna's unit, just like the troops in his novel, participated in the capturing of.

The first to climb up on the ridge was private Viirilä, a ruffian with a large head and a permanently open mouth … Without his boldness he would hardly have been forgiven for the way in which he saluted the holy war with indecent roars.

- Oi! You dirty pigs! That's Petrozavodsk there simmering in the dawn light of the Motherland.

They were surprised at the grey and sorry sight of the town. Some white stone houses in the middle of an irregular cluster of old hovels. That was all, and they felt cheated. (P. 205)


Starting from December, the war enters a trench phase, as was the case in all of Karelia. One of the main objectives of the campaign, the occupation of the Murmansk Railroad, was never fully realised (although the line was regularly sabotaged).

At a higher level, the Germans put pressure on the Finnish Army to advance further and, among other things, attack Leningrad. Mannerheim refused the suggestion referring to a number of practical complications. In reality, these were not only of an operational nature but also related to disciplinary issues, which Linna describes through the story of two private soldiers, who are arrested for having left their positions and refused to return to the front. They are court marshalled and condemned to death by shooting. This takes place at another unit, but during the trench phase there are serious disciplinary problems within Linnia's machine gun company, as well.

Witnesses close to Mannerheim have later described how the marshal as early as Christmas 1941 started having serious doubts about a German victory, which was another of the main reasons why the Finnish offensive was halted. Attempts to initiate separate peace negotiations between Helsinki and Moscow took place at intervals throughout most of the war with Swedish, British and American assistance, but the differences were too large to overcome.

In June 1944, shortly after D-Day in Normandy, the Red Army launched a massive offensive on the Finnish front.

The ground was shaking and trembling. It was as if the air itself was howling and wailing, and the hearts of the terrified men were beating as if they were about the explode. They tried to press themselves even further down, as flat as possible. They scraped their fingernails against the sandy bottoms of their foxholes. (P. 243)


After a long delaying retreat and much violent fighting, the Finnish Army incredibly enough managed to stop the Soviet advance, an in August the government in Helsinki reentered into negotiations with Moscow. The parties agreed to a separate peace treaty in September 1944. The border was returned to the 1940-agreement, and the Karelian population fled for the second time.

Here ends Linna's novel. But for the real Finland the peace agreement with the Soviet Union only meant that the war entered its third and final phase. Part of the conditions had been that the German forces in Finland had to be disarmed by the Finns themselves.

That was how Finland entered the final chapter of the Second World War – fighting against its previous brother-in-arms.

If the Finnish people had not previously realised what kind of co-belligerent power their leaders had secretly chosen on their behalf, they could now see it for themselves. On its way through Lapland towards the Norwegian border, the German 20th Mountain Army burned down all buildings and blew up all bridges. Of the regional capital, Rovaniemi, only sooty ruins were left behind.

The situation was summed up. Finland's contribution to the German invasion of the Soviet Union had cost the country 66,000 dead and 150,000 wounded. In addition to this there were enormous materiel losses, a new wave of Karelian refugees and a considerable war debt to be paid to the Soviet Union.
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Re: The Finnish Front in Literature

Postby Claes Johansen » 20 Apr 2017 21:04

The Novel as a National Redeemer

During the Second World War Finland had found itself in a de facto-alliance with Nazi Germany. That sounds like a damning statement, but in fact there are several mitigating circumstances to take into consideration. Whether or not the evaluation was correct, there existed after the Winter War from top to bottom in Finnish society a deep and serious conviction that a new Soviet attack was soon to happen and had to be averted at almost any cost. Also, it must be remembered that the cooperation with Berlin prior to Operation Barbarossa had been taking place behind the backs of everyone except a small group of political and military leaders, and the entire situation had been manipulated to make the Finnish military effort appear as purely a defence against a new Soviet attack. Apart from that, Finland obviously had a strong and entirely justifiable interest in winning back the territories it had been forced to hand over in the Winter War. It should also be remembered that the country in the final phase of the Second World War fought on Allied side.

Still it seems inevitable that the post war arrival of evidence showing the darkest sides of The Third Reich must have caused a moral hang-over in some parts of Finland society. Yet, feelings of regret in this regard were not the only ones, since criticism was publicly raised over the performance of the soldiers of the Continuation War compared with those of the Winter War.

In short, views were contradictory and ambivalent, and it was in this psychological climate, marked by such moods and feelings, that Linna wrote his classic break-through novel. He had several strong features to draw on: A profound and personal engagement, a highly dramatic, self-experienced story to tell, and a formidable ability to understand and communicate a wide range people types. Add to that a pronounced talent for story-telling and an optimistic view of ordinary people's ability to survive even the worst kinds of situations with their personal identity intact – often through the use of humour. Last but not least, as a Finnish writer Linna had a small but significant and distinctive narrative tradition he could use as his literary launch pad.
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Re: The Finnish Front in Literature

Postby Claes Johansen » 21 Apr 2017 10:50

The Literary Platform

Finland's literary tradition is relatively young, since Finnish until the mid-1800s to a high extent was merely a peasant language. With the writer Alexis Kivi, however, both a Finnish langue theatre and literature was established, which is all the more impressive since Kivi passed away at the age of only 38. His classic novel from 1870, Seven Brothers, deals in a humorous and ironic way with the conflict between civilisation and nature, while also managing to capture most of the Finnish national character through its story about the seven layabout brothers from Jukola Farm.

The novel's overall influence on Finnish literature is invaluable, and Linna has in interviews explained how he consciously tried to shape The Unknown Soldier as a kind of 'Seven Brothers at War'. Hence, it is probably no coincidence that Linna makes the crew in one of his machine gun groups one man smaller than the other group, ensuring that the total number of men equals the number seven.

As other sources of inspiration, Linna has mentioned the famous Russian classics, particularly Tolstoy. Furthermore, Ernest Hemingway and Eric Maria Remarque seem to be constantly moving about somewhere in the background.
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Re: The Finnish Front in Literature

Postby Claes Johansen » 21 Apr 2017 12:47

Stylistic premises

The Unknown Soldier has an unusually broad set of characters, even for a collective novel. Not only are there many central figures, there is also a large group of characters who only play a minor part in the overall plot. Finally, there is a third category of characters, who only appear in one or two scenes. It might be a group of soldiers who march along a road, while the reader is told a short story about a single member of the group. But the link to the main plot can sometimes be even smaller than that.

For the reader who might have problems just keeping up with the general characters, this of course can be somewhat confusing, particular if one is unfamiliar with Finnish names. But the purpose it obvious enough. In a war, the personality of each individual is pushed to its limit, and by letting a large group of people experience the same, often very violent situations from each their own angle and viewpoint, a highly nuanced image of human nature can be constructed.

The latter is important to include, since in Linna's universe personality equals nature. Though his characters are affected and matured by their experiences, they retain deep down their personal character throughout the book. This could be just one of the many practical demands to which a writer must subordinate himself in order to make a broad, collective story work; if all his characters changed radically along the way, it might become impossible for the reader to keep all the narrative threads gathered. Still, it is remarkable that major personal changes only happen to very few of Linna's unknown soldiers. One might carefully conclude that to this author human nature is a predestined and unchangeable feature.

Linna is to a large degree an omniscient narrator, which represents a choice of style what was going out of fashion among literary circles around the time when The Unknown Soldier was conceived. The choice is, however, hard to avoid in such a broadly based collective novel with its high risk of character confusion: it is the author's omniscience that keeps everything in its right place. Still, the question remains whether or not Linna is acting more omniscient than he need to be. Not only does he know all his characters both inside and out, he rather often interrupts the narrative with categorical, overriding author's comments.

Officers are often described as being 'infinitely admired by their men'. That is an unsympathetic and furthermore incorrect manner of speaking. The Finnish officer who is infinitely admired by his men has yet to be born. (P. 46)


One might wonder why Linna feels he has to express himself so directly, and it is tempting to skip some of his author's comments just to see what might happen. In that case, one finds that many of the novel's pivotal points lose too much of their emphasis. The novel is so so multi-faceted that the reader can easily get lost unless the author keep a tight clasp on things.

Incidentally, Linna's original manuscript had quite a few more author's comments, which – much to his regret – were weeded out by his editor before the book went to print (the original text was finally published in Finnish in 2000 but still remains to be translated into other languages).
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Re: The Finnish Front in Literature

Postby Claes Johansen » 21 Apr 2017 13:36

Narrative Angle

The novel has many anonymous quotes. The purpose of this is to give the reader a sense of views and feelings among the crew in general, and it works perfectly. Still, it would be wrong to see Linna's novel as centred on the enlisted privates. In fact, the most prominent characters are officers and lower-ranking NCOs. This in particular goes for personnel bearing the rank of corporal (Linna's own rank during the war). The corporals function as squad leaders, partly also as half platoon leaders, and are very close to their crews, who are not treating them particularly respectfully. Now and again the reader has to remind himself that these people are actually NCOs. They have gone through special training and live in separate barracks quarters or tents. Though they have a low position in the military hierarchy, they are not all the way down on the bottom along with the privates. Besides, they have far more confrontations with the crew than, for instance, platoon leader Koskela. Generally, one could say that personnel from corporal up to lieutenant rank are most profoundly described. Descriptions of the privates are less individual and more often seen from the outside. A character like private Vanhala, to name but one, is abundantly represented in the dialogues. He is a humorous young man, but what Vanhala otherwise thinks and feels largely remains a mystery.

Moving up through the ranks, there is a gradual reduction in the author's sympathy for his characters. Captain Karna, who, as already mentioned, commands the machine company at the start of the story, is largely described in sympathetic tones. Major Sarastie, however, is a superior and unsympathetically smug character. We are told that "like most officers of the higher ranks he perceived the positive achievements of his men as proof of his own merits" (p. 187). There is a rather neutral description of an unnamed colonel (the regiment commander, p. 160), but later on a certain Lieutenant-Colonel Karjula is portrayed as a pure devil.
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Re: The Finnish Front in Literature

Postby Claes Johansen » 21 Apr 2017 18:16

Koskela

At the other end of the officers' spectrum we find Second-Lieutenant Koskela. Calm, sensible, but more than anything resigned, he leads his platoon without having to call upon any formal discipline. When the war breaks out, he soon introduces a comradely tone between the crew and himself (equivalent of using 'thee' and 'thy' etc. in Old English instead of 'you', 'yours', 'sir' etc.). "The tensed minds relaxed," it says (p. 46). "Their leader got kind of closer to them, and from him they expected a solution to any problems the future would face them with." Later on, the issue of tone pops up several times in the book. Corporal Rokka uses the comradely form of addressing others indiscriminately, much to the resentment of many officers. It is Rokka's belief – and probably Koskala's too – that the war represents at common task, whose importance everyone has understood: the Russians must the chased out of the areas they conquered during the Winter war, and there is no need for the officers to put themselves up on a pedestal, or boss the men around in a Prussian manner, when everyone agrees on the situation and has decided to do his best.

So Koskela uses a comradely tone towards his men, he never works himself into a temper and, besides, he is a skillful platoon leader. Apart from that we are actually not told a lot about what makes his so well-liked, other than he is one of 'nature's bull's eyes'. However, that says almost everything in Linna's world. Despite the author's solidarity with working-class people he does not seem to be a subscriber to the Marxist theory of heredity.

As hinted at already in the above, The Unknown Soldier is to a large degree a book about leadership. Hence, from the very start when the book was published, part of the criticism aimed against it dealt with Koskela as a person and his leadership abilities. Let us accept that such a 'peasant officer' really exists, it was said. But that can never in itself be an argument against general use of military discipline. You might be able to find ten men cut from the same cloth as Koskela in a population of three and a half million. But the Finnish Army needed hundreds of second-lieutenants, and it was unthinkable they could all be 'nature's bull's eye', so how could they perform their function without the support of formal discipline and distance between the ranks?

If Koskela just once in the novel was put in a real conflict vis-à-vis his men, the reader might learn something more concrete about him and his leadership methods. But on the few occasions were such a situation is about to occur, it just dissolves itself, either due to the man's charisma or because he becomes evasive. It seems strange that Koskela, despite his taciturnity and loneliness, still comes across so realistically, particularly in a story so highly based on dialogue. A central episode in this regard occurs at a point when the order from above tells the regiment to leave Petrozavodsk and move south to the Svir Front.

The soldiers went from room to room and encouraged each other to refuse to leave …

- We're definitely not leaving until we get another company commander.

- We want Koskela as company commander.

Lammio was neither offended nor hurt. It was beyond him to perceive a no-confidence vote against himself as something that could be seriously meant.

- This is no Red Guard unit, where people decide by voting who shall be their company commander. Understood? I now order you for the last time. After that I shall use different methods.

All the time Koskela had been standing silently by himself. Now he walked over to his platoon. Quietly, as if nothing had happened, he said:

- I think the time has come to hurry up a bit. Of course the lorries will be late, but still. Don't bring along any unnecessary rubbish …

Quietly, the men of Third Platoon started bringing their marching equipment in order.


Based on a scene like the one above you can hardly call Koskela a weak leader. His personal aura is too pronounced for that. But there are strong personalities among his subordinates, too, particularly the blunted Lehto. And it is precisely in relation to him that Koskela meets his match.

This happens in the first stage of the war, where the platoon has captured a Russian prisoner. Lehto marches off with the man. A moment later there is a shot and a scream, and then another shot rings out.

Koskela glanced sideways at Lehto. His voice was not truly accusatory, rather a bit evasive, when he said:

– That wasn't necessary. He wasn't that kind of person.

– I 'll be damned if we should start sorting that lot into different types.

Lehto let out the piercing laughter they had always found to disgusting.

– You shot him from behind. He wasn't trying to flee.

Hietanen was appalled.


Koskela is appalled, too, but he keeps it to himself. A "hint of anger and discontent in Koskela's voice" (p. 105) is the only kind of reprimand Lehto receives for a serious crime, to say the least. And this is not because Koskela feels, as Lahtinen does, that the general madness of the war justifies killings like the one Lehto has just carried out. "He had, perhaps more clearly than any of them, realised the stupidity in Lehto's act," we are told (p. 105). And as one would expect it does not take long before Lehto shoots his next defenceless prisoner.

He shot a wounded prisoner and said he could not bear to hear the man's complaining. No one dwelled much at that occasion. They had now become fully-fledged soldiers. (P. 148)


There is a clear leadership lesson and psychological morale to be learned from this, not to mention material for a long author's comment about Koskelas permissiveness and its consequences. But in this instance Linna is quiet and allows the reader to think for himself. Koskela is a skillful leader and a sympathetic soul, but he is no smart psychologist with fancy solutions to everything.

As for the reasons behind Koskelas sullen silence more generally the issue is clear. This is not just something natural; there are socially related causes. Second-Lieutenant Koskela is the son of a former Red Guard member so it goes without saying that he feels uncomfortable around the other officers and prefers the company of his own men. His feelings about a Greater Finland are left for the reader to guess, but that is not hard to do.

One could say that Koskela's personality and behaviour are closely connected to strong personal trauma, that he is a self-repressive and evasive type. Or you could call him a disguised humanist, who generally manages to find the least terrible solutions to a continuous string of monstrous scenarios.
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Re: The Finnish Front in Literature

Postby Claes Johansen » 21 Apr 2017 20:51

Hietanen and Lehto

Corporal and half platoon leader Hietanen does not hold himself back during the skirmishes, but he is still the one person in the novel who comes closest to showing sympathy for the enemy, for instance in the scene where the psychopathic Lehto for the first time shoots a Russian prisoner:

The desperate outburst had upset him and furthermore, since he was really the most open and immediate person of them all, he was affected by the prisoner's investigative smile. To him the man was in fact a living human being and not just a creature who had been turned into a concept in order to make it easier to kill him.


All in all, Hietanen is a kind of 'the author's pet', a pure and natural human being. He is not clear-minded or critical like the Communist Lahtinen, but nevertheless far more vibrantly and sympathetically described, which perhaps more than anything else indicates where Linna stands in the whole nature-versus-civilisation debate that runs through large parts of Finnish literature.

In a somewhat earlier scene the men consider if it is correct of them to start on their emergency rations. Remarkably, it is in this instance Lehto who educates the others:

It's forbidden to kill people, too. Isn't it the Fifth Commandment that says so? Knocking a hole in a tin can is only a small matter when you're smashing other people's heads in for breakfast, lunch and dinner. (P. 101)
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