Väinö Linna's novel "Unknown Soldier" as a critical source

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Philip S. Walker
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Väinö Linna's novel "Unknown Soldier" as a critical source

Post by Philip S. Walker » 02 Apr 2011 12:56

Reading Knut Pipping's "Infantry Company as a Society" it struck me how close his observations of sociological and psychological mechanisms in the Finnish Army at the time are to the observations delivered by Väinö Linna in his famous novel "Unknown soldier". I also noticed that Pipping, in his preface to one of the reprints, praises Linna's work and says that though it is a piece of fiction, it can serve entirely as a sociological study as well.

The huge popularity of Linna's novel in Finland seems to confirm this, and many men that fought in that war have been praising it for it's realism. The novel seems to be the type of fiction which can communicate a kind of truth that historians can rarely achieve, and there seems to be good reason to use Linna's novel as way to really penetrate into the Finnish army at the time and get a deeper understanding of what went on.

The novel has been seen as a critique aimed at the ruling classes of Finland at the time. However, you only have to look at the first few pages of the novel to see that it is really much broader in its criticism - so broad, in fact, it makes you wonder how it has managed to gain such huge popularity in Finland. (This is all the more surprising to me when I read most Finnish postings on this forum, where any kind of criticism is normally swept aside completely.)

The two very first paragraphs of the novel clearly deals with the Finnish church and higher officer classes and is a highly ironic description of how God is supposed to start a minor forest fire in order to create a subsequent training ground for the Finnish army. Then Linna goes on to completely puncture the myths about the Winter War:
Finland's Winter War had been fought, the best of all wars so far because both sides were victorious. Still, in a way the Finnish victory was smaller since the country had to hand over landscapes to its opponent and retreat behind new borders.
In the next paragraph, Linna goes on to insinuate that the veterans of the Winter War are a somewhat emotionally inhibited, or perhaps even retarded. He says:
Why should a return to civilian life present any psychological difficulties? They couldn't afford such things. And the human soul - it may be interesting for old people who have reached the age of regret, but a soldier has no need for it.
On page two of the novel Linna goes on to insult the young recruits as well. First were hear some bragging stupidly about drunkenness, then a country boy named Mäkinen is introduced as a kind of representative of the average Finnish soldier (he doesn't appear in the novel otherwise). He is a bit of a sad fool trying to live up to the ideal of the Finnish soldier, and his view of the world situation is extremely narrow minded.
Adolf is making trouble. That was his opinion. Mäkinen knew full well what it meant to make trouble. It happened frequently at barn dances that some rowdy fellow grabbed a chair and knocked out the light bulbs and shouted: Let's empty the hall, dammit! We Finns are tough guys and we didn't start this. We have the right on our side. And if someone wants to have another go we shall pay him back in his own coin, perkele.
Linna then goes on to insult the educated classes for the way they have tried to indoctrinate the Finnish people with heroic and nationalistic poetry and myths. Is has, however, had no effect on the general population.
They felt a higher elevation when listening to stories about chaps who jumped up on tanks and knocked the machine gun barrels out of shape with iron rods. It was more reminiscent of the heroic tales of daily life. By such they were strengthened in their patriotism. In that way they loved their motherland. In a sense they were as well equipped emotionally as could be considering the task they had been gathered to fulfill.
I think anyone must agree this is quite a mouthful. Behind the dense irony there seems to be a deep disgust of the author's own people, from top to bottom. And we're still only on page 3!

Then the final salute rounding off this introduction to the main story:
Of course, Mäkinen was a kind of soldier too. Perhaps not quite like his drill sergeant wanted him to be, but good enough as he were to be hurled into the hungry mouth of world history.
Of course, this isn't just about Finland and WWII. This is about human existence in a much broader sense, showing us exactly where and why things keep going wrong on this planet. It is pure, undiluted literary genius, which probably works even stronger in it's original language. What I have quoted here are just my own translations from Swedish.

It is, in my opinion, one typical project of literature in general to look at one's own people and point out its flaws for observation. A warning against inherited psychological pitfalls. Still, you have to wonder how a novel that is so harshly critical of its own potential readers has managed to gain such enormous popularity. Of course the story, as it goes on, has its heroes as well as its villains, and everything in between, but still what strikes me most is how entirely the spirit of it contradicts the atmosphere on this Forum, where nevertheless most Finnish contributors seem to have read, understood and even liked his novel.

While I realise that we humans are contradictory and composite creature, the negative factors in this introduction are so pronounced that the popularity of the novel becomes a puzzle to an outside observer, so perhaps someone with more of an insight than I can throw a bit over light over this Finnish phenomenon.

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Re: Väinö Linna's novel "Unknown Soldier" as a critical sour

Post by Jagala » 02 Apr 2011 14:01

A quick comment: Linna's publisher, WSOY, was not known for any radical attitudes, but the old head, Jalmari Jäntti, had retired in 1951 and the new one Yrjö A. Jäntti was a vet himself (albeit an artillery officer) and he stuck to his decision despite some protests from the board. However, Linna's manuscript underwent a certain amount of editing and sentences and minor passages were deleted "for literary reasons" - this was not completely untrue - which Linna accepted (but not entirely without protest). The "uncensored" version was published in 2000 as "Sotaromaani".

See for instance http://yle.fi/mot/130300/kasis.htm (in Finnish).

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Very good fiction but not a historical source

Post by Hanski » 02 Apr 2011 14:11

Above all, Tuntematon sotilas by Väinö Linna is a novel, a work of art, rather than a historical source. Instead, Knut Pipping's "Infantry Company as a Society" is based on methodically collected sociological observations. Of course, they share a lot and don't need to contradict each other.

Linna is a gifted writer, that's for sure, and he is the most prominent post-war novelist to have brought publicity to the viewpoint of the working class in his trilogy Täällä Pohjantähden alla (= Here Under the North Star, according to the first line of lyrics of a traditional religious folk song) 1959, 1960, and 1962, especially on the events of the Finnish Civil War / Liberation War.

The original manuscript of Tuntematon sotilas has been published in 2000 with the title Sotaromaani (= "War novel"), and the difference between this original and the final novel, after the input of the publishing editor, is that Linna's original bitterness towards officers, condemnation of the ruling classes etc. is much reduced in the novel published 3 December 1954, to the benefit of the outcome.

Many well-formed phrases of Tuntematon sotilas have been established as shared national "inside stories" of the Finns, as Linna's characters speak out observations and truths that are common, even universal. Anyone familiar with the book can recognize the meanings and contexts of the dialogue lines that are often quoted in today's contexts, thought to have analogy.

I remember having read that Okänd soldat was sometimes used as education material in the Swedish officer school, I wonder whether that is really true?

It is a pity that the English translation is so miserable and even manipulates the plot of the novel that it is supposed to represent.
...still what strikes me most is how entirely the spirit of it contradicts the atmosphere on this Forum, where nevertheless most Finnish contributors seem to have read, understood and even liked his novel.
How should I put this, not to violate the Forum rules... well, perhaps an outsider lecturing with zeal on the completely wrong solutions of the Finnish leaders, appearing with a patronizing attitude of moral superiority, will get a similar reception as pompous besserwissers would in Linna's novels.

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Re: Väinö Linna's novel "Unknown Soldier" as a critical sour

Post by Philip S. Walker » 02 Apr 2011 16:20

@Jagala
The "uncensored" version was published in 2000 as "Sotaromaani".
And it's a great shame it hasn't been translated into any other language. Perhaps the best idea would be to make a version than follows the editor's changes where Linna agreed with them, and keeps the other bits the way he wanted them.

@Hanski
Above all, Tuntematon sotilas by Väinö Linna is a novel, a work of art, rather than a historical source.
No one in his right mind would use it as a source for factual detail. However, it seems to be spot on with regard to the feel of the period. Since as human beings we are quite dependent on feelings, it is an issue that is very much part of history, too. The Finnish people are lucky to have such great and courageous writers, but I'm sure you are aware of that already. The Danish writer Gynther Hansen (who grew up in a German minority family in Southern Jutland) once told me that his own first three or four books had been a direct attempt to write like Veijo Meri, in his opinion simply one of the best authors ever. And I agree. Particularly "Peilin Pirretty Nainen" ("Kvinde i Spejlet" or "Woman in the Mirror") seems to have almost healing powers. If I feel a flu coming on I just read that book again, and when I'm through with it, the illness is gone. I kid you not. Try it!
Linna is a gifted writer, that's for sure, and he is the most prominent post-war novelist to have brought publicity to the viewpoint of the working class in his trilogy Täällä Pohjantähden alla (= Here Under the North Star, according to the first line of lyrics of a traditional religious folk song) 1959, 1960, and 1962, especially on the events of the Finnish Civil War / Liberation War.
Pure genius, too. I think they are currently being made into a trilogy of films, too, but I haven't seen them yet. When our youngest daughters (twins) were born my wife was reading these novels. One of the girls was named Johanne, and to this day we still occasionally call her Juhani, though I know it isn't quite logical.
is that Linna's original bitterness towards officers, condemnation of the ruling classes etc. is much reduced in the novel published 3 December 1954, to the benefit of the outcome.
What kind of benefit? Literary or political? It's quite critical already and without that it wouldn't work in my opinion.
I remember having read that Okänd soldat was sometimes used as education material in the Swedish officer school, I wonder whether that is really true?
I wish my own officers and NCOs had read it too when I was in the Danish Army. Though one or two of them actually acted as if they had read it and learned from it (which may well be the case), most of them didn't. I believe it has been used more broadly in Finland for leadership training ... ?
perhaps an outsider lecturing with zeal on the completely wrong solutions of the Finnish leaders, appearing with a patronizing attitude of moral superiority, will get a similar reception as pompous besserwissers would in Linna's novels.
Perhaps said "outsider" was appalled by the amount of whitewash on these pages, so blatantly in opposition to what Linna had tried to tell his own people in his novels - a question of what came first, the chicken or the egg, perhaps. Might be worth to go back and check.

In any case, Finland's history is bound to cause some faulty conclusions with outsiders unless they get quite deep into this extremely complicated subject. That, I would say, is a point worth realising and finding the right attitude and approach to, or you end up making friends into enemies. Luckily, it's not so bad in my case. As late as yesterday I gave the aforementioned "Juhani", now seventeen, a long lecture on the troubled and almost impossible situation Finland was in during the Interim Peace. She, being a Nordic girl, had been in an argument at school with some Irish kids about this. At the same time my wife had been thrown into a similar discussion with a woman she was hitching a ride with down towards Skibbereen. This may sound as if it had something to do with me, my activities on this glorious forum etc. But no. These issues just come up from time to time when people learn where you're from. We don't see ourselves particularly as Danes, we are Nordic, so we need to have replies ready when people look at us with disgust and ask: "Is it really true that the Finns were on the German side in the War." If you think it is an easy thing to explain in a hurry, you're wrong. It sometimes seems to me that you guys have no idea what you're up against, emotionally.

In any case, back to the novel. I'd really like some comments to my questions, basically: how can a writer become so popular when he is so critical of his own people? Even his most likable characters, such as Koskela and Rokka, have some serious flaws. Perhaps Hietanen is the only one that slips through the needle eye completely. And in his own way maybe Riitaoja too.

I would also like to touch upon some of the issues we have been discussing such as:

1. What did Linna say/feel about the war from a more overall angle? Could it have been avoided?
2. What is his attitude to the guilt issue?
3. Does he over emphasise phenomenons such as propaganda and the role of the pro-Karelia people?
4. Does he over emphasise the Prussian tendencies among the professional part of the officer corps?

Regarding the last point, I once had a conversations with the Swedish author Peter Nisser, who had been a volunteer Lieutenant for 14 months in the Continuation War and was also an officer in the Swedish Army. When I asked him about the differences he immediately replied: "Things were more Prussian in the Finnish Army." But perhaps that doesn't say so much.

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Re: Väinö Linna's novel "Unknown Soldier" as a critical sour

Post by Seppo Koivisto » 02 Apr 2011 18:15

When I was in the Reserve Officer School in the early 80´s, the original film version of "Unknown" was shown as part of the couse.

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Re: Väinö Linna's novel "Unknown Soldier" as a critical sour

Post by Hanski » 02 Apr 2011 18:30

Philip S. Walker wrote:
is that Linna's original bitterness towards officers, condemnation of the ruling classes etc. is much reduced in the novel published 3 December 1954, to the benefit of the outcome.
What kind of benefit? Literary or political? It's quite critical already and without that it wouldn't work in my opinion.
Definitely literary benefit. Like you say, it's quite critical already, enough for the message to come through, and without the publishing editor's input, it would have been overblown to the effect of being counterproductive to the literary value.

I believe it has been used more broadly in Finland for leadership training ... ?
Any reader of the book might guess that Ensign Koskela is often referred to as the right kind of leader for Finns. One of his dialogue lines is often quoted (= a shared expression among Finns after the novel): "The sensible matters we will sort out, otherwise we'll be like Ellu's hens." To understand this, you need to know an old Finnish adage about "Ellu's (nickname for Eleanora, Elisa etc.) hens, they neither lay eggs nor hatch", depicting people who are plain lazy. Koskela thus distinguishes between the attitude towards truly essential and relevant matters, as opposed to obeying orders merely for the sake of Prussian style external discipline -- Finns respect a no-nonsense leader who is responsible and pragmatic but does not make fuss about himself.
In any case, Finland's history is bound to cause some faulty conclusions with outsiders unless they get quite deep into this extremely complicated subject. That, I would say, is a point worth realising and finding the right attitude and approach to, or you end up making friends into enemies.
To begin with, it is rare to come across with outsiders who have any interest in Finland or its history whatsoever. How many TV news items have you seen in Ireland about Finland during the most recent year? I bet you can count them with the fingers of one hand. No news is good news!
Luckily, it's not so bad in my case. As late as yesterday I gave the aforementioned "Juhani", now seventeen, a long lecture on the troubled and almost impossible situation Finland was in during the Interim Peace. She, being a Nordic girl, had been in an argument at school with some Irish kids about this. At the same time my wife had been thrown into a similar discussion with a woman she was hitching a ride with down towards Skibbereen. This may sound as if it had something to do with me, my activities on this glorious forum etc. But no. These issues just come up from time to time when people learn where you're from. We don't see ourselves particularly as Danes, we are Nordic, so we need to have replies ready when people look at us with disgust and ask: "Is it really true that the Finns were on the German side in the War." If you think it is an easy thing to explain in a hurry, you're wrong. It sometimes seems to me that you guys have no idea what you're up against, emotionally.
I am all amazed about what you are telling about. I have worked in Britain three times, totalling about four years. Very rarely have I encountered people with interest in Finland's role in WWII, and I do agree, the misconceptions are common to people who immediately think of Nazis when they see a swastika. Before bothering to even correct the gross misunderstandings, I first made sure whether I am listened to and whether it is worthwhile to continue, or just waste of time - if there is a hurry, it's not worth even trying. I only remember one genuinely interested audience.

You have a very extraordinary neighborhood in Ireland, I must say! Even ladies interested in this topic -- most unusual!

I do have an idea what prejudices there are in Britain and how few people are interested in anything Finnish beyond Formula 1 drivers, hockey players, and Nokia (and that's only natural). But that doesn't concern me, as if I am in a dialogue with a sensible person, I am convinced that he/she will also be sensible enough to understand the contexts correctly when they are explained, and I have nothing to feel ashamed about, and we both gain. And if the listener is not sensible, who cares... let the Disneyland historians keep their own beliefs.
In any case, back to the novel. I'd really like some comments to my questions, basically: how can a writer become so popular when he is so critical of his own people? Even his most likable characters, such as Koskela and Rokka, have some serious flaws. Perhaps Hietanen is the only one that slips through the needle eye completely. And in his own way maybe Riitaoja too.
Linna is a master in his enjoyable and creative usage of the Finnish language and in understanding various provincial subcultures, and his characters are so true we recognize in them our own attitudes and habits as well as of those around us. It is easy to identify with the emotions of the characters in those often charged situations, and there is also an appropriate sense of humor present as well. Perhaps what was felt as the single most insulting detail in Finland about The Unknown Soldier after it was published was its Lotta character, who was made to behave in a morally questionable manner, which gave a very distorted idea of the values of the Lotta Svärd organisation and was much out of line with the contemporary culture.
I would also like to touch upon some of the issues we have been discussing such as:

1. What did Linna say/feel about the war from a more overall angle? Could it have been avoided?
2. What is his attitude to the guilt issue?
3. Does he over emphasise phenomenons such as propaganda and the role of the pro-Karelia people?
4. Does he over emphasise the Prussian tendencies among the professional part of the officer corps?
1. I think Linna feels it is a force majeure tragedy, beyond the power of influence of any actor present in the novel.
2. I think the last page of the novel sums it up. He does not point fingers, other than via the propaganda parodies presented by Private Honkajoki, such as his "evening prayer" of the Lord not letting the Finnish ruling class any more butt their heads against the Karelian pine tree.
3. I think making parody and jokes about own propaganda is a repeating theme for Linna, like among others Private Vanhala uses it all the time to cheer up his mates with a laugh. I believe the propaganda did exist as Linna describes it, I don't really remember the novel having much about pro-Karelia people - only the Karelian Privates Rokka and Susi wanting back their own. Interestingly, the eccentric Private Honkajoki seems to give a prophecy: he ironically "predicts" the collapse of Communism in its own inherent impossibility (which was really considered most unlikely if not impossible in 1954), while making mockery of war-time anti-Soviet propaganda!
4. To answer that properly, we should ask veterans. I don't think generalizations are justified, but it depended on personalities and unit subcultures. In the original manuscript, I believe there was over-emphasis. Linna's indirect criticism of the Prussian style officers appears in the confrontations between the jovial hero-soldier Rokka and his superiors, some of whom see him as defiant and undisciplined.
Regarding the last point, I once had a conversations with the Swedish author Peter Nisser, who have been a volunteer Lieutenant for 14 months in the Continuation War and was also an officer in the Swedish Army. When I asked him about the differences he immediately replied: "Things were more Prussian in the Finnish Army." But perhaps that doesn't say so much.
Fortunately our generation has been spared from it, but I understand the "Prussian" order also serves in combat to maintain methodical aim-oriented activity, so it is not merely about pointless drills for their own sake. When you have to face risk of death, you need mental structure to carry out your tasks. Nigel (CanKiwi2) makes very good points in addressing this in his text on the ideas about the desired quality of Finnish soldiers on the thread on pre-war training.
See: http://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic. ... 9&start=45
Last edited by Hanski on 02 Apr 2011 20:50, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: Väinö Linna's novel "Unknown Soldier" as a critical sour

Post by Philip S. Walker » 02 Apr 2011 20:46

@Hanski

Thanks for you post. I always enjoy what you're writing, as well as contradicting you! Though the tone can get excited sometimes, we should never forget that we are just bickering between brothers here.
Definitely literary benefit. Like you say, it's quite critical already, enough for the message to come through, and without the publishing editor's input, it would have been overblown to the effect of being counterproductive to the literary value.
I can well imagine that. I think because the book is full of quite exciting battle scenes, Linna was afraid it might be read as a kind of adolescent boy's novel - as indeed it has been accused of being, and many have probably read it like that - so Linna perhaps felt a need to over emphasise his real message. But I think there's quite enough as it is for a mature reader.
I am all amazed about what you are telling about. I have worked in Britain three times, totalling about four years. Very rarely have I encountered people with interest in Finland's role in WWII, and I do agree,
So now we know why your English is so good. I recognise your experiences. I lived in England for 13 years and close friends would still ask me questions like: "So are you going back to Holland for your holiday this year?" In Ireland it's totally different. They know a lot about other small countries, but only recently have they started getting really interested in the situation in Europe during WWII. The novel "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas", written by an Irish author (with no knowledge of the KZ camps whatsoever) has had a colossal influence. They learn about the Nordic countries at school, including Finland, but only knowing the rough details makes them draw some hasty conclusions.
How many TV news items have you seen in Ireland about Finland during the most recent year?
Never had a TV, never will. And now they say you have to pay for it anyway if you have an internet connection. As a devoted anti-TV person I can't tell you how that feels.
I do have an idea what prejudices there are in Britain
Word of advise: never mistake the Irish for the British!
as if I am in a dialogue with a sensible person, I am convinced that he/she will also be sensible enough to understand the contexts correctly when they are explained
I wouldn't take this quite so lightly if I were you. You haven't even quite convinced me yet and the problem lies partly in the attitude department.
I have nothing to feel ashamed about
I agree, though that's not necessarily saying that you don't.
Phil: What did Linna say/feel about the war from a more overall angle? Could it have been avoided?

Hanski: I think Linna feels it is a force majeure tragedy, beyond the power of influence of any actor present in the novel.
Absolutely. But I wondered if he has said anything in interviews for instance.

In the novel, it seems to me he is basically saying that there was a very bad situation and someone made it worse. The Civil War weighs heavily over things. In fact, it's as if this is a continuation of THAT war more than of the Winter War - a class war. You get the same feeling from reading Pipping: that some officers take the war as an opportunity to further the suppression of the lower classes, bringing their efforts from the Civil War to an extreme conclusion and erasing the democratic and social progress made during the 1920s and 1930s.
Philip: What is his attitude to the guilt issue?

Hanski: I think the last page of the novel sums it up.
I agree. But there's more than that. On page 14 Hietanen says:
- Where are we going from here? Straight to hell, perhaps?
Koskela stared at the horizon and replied:
- I don't know. An order is an order. I have to go now. Get a move on.
That was how little they were told about their task. Therefore their responsibility is limited to a minimum. But they were eager.
So though the guilt issue doesn't pervade the novel, it does frame it in a sense and thus we can see that it was important to the author. Please also note that it is only the people at the bottom of the totem pole that are freed from it.

Regarding the "Prussian" aspect, the "bad guys" in Linna's novel are clearly a large group of officers who dream of turning the Finnish army into a miniature copy of the German army, or rather the old Prussian army. Considering the background of some of the Finnish officer corps at the time that comes as no surprise.

Again: someone took a bad situation and made it worse.

Regarding training etc., I think that any officer who dreams of cramming more out of his soldiers than was the case in Finland needs to return to Planet Earth in one hell of a hurry, because Linna's novel shows quite clearly where it would get him.

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Re: Väinö Linna's novel "Unknown Soldier" as a critical sour

Post by Hanski » 02 Apr 2011 21:41

Philip S. Walker wrote: In Ireland it's totally different. They know a lot about other small countries, but only recently have they started getting really interested in the situation in Europe during WWII. The novel "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas", written by an Irish author (with no knowledge of the KZ camps whatsoever) has had a colossal influence. They learn about the Nordic countries at school, including Finland, but only knowing the rough details makes them draw some hasty conclusions.
That's interesting, I didn't realize this as I have always thought the Irish identify themselves with the Allied despite having been neutral in WWII, so I assumed they also share all common Allied misconceptions.

But there's more than that. On page 14 Hietanen says:
- Where are we going from here? Straight to hell, perhaps?
Koskela stared at the horizon and replied:
- I don't know. An order is an order. I have to go now. Get a move on.
That was how little they were told about their task. Therefore their responsibility is limited to a minimum. But they were eager.
So though the guilt issue doesn't pervade the novel, it does frame it in a sense and thus we can see that it was important to the author. Please also note that it is only the people at the bottom of the totem pole that are freed from it.
Linna certainly frees the rank and file soldiers from responsibility beyond their own "spheres of influence". At the moment, I don't have copy of the book at hand, but perhaps this eagerness at the start of the war might have to do with the tinge of Ostrobothnian blood that we Finns like to see in ourselves. It has to do with those features of national character that I believe you made references to in your early posts, about the Finnish knife culture. (Everyone please excuse me now for deviating here from serious history research.)

Finns often with pride refer to their country as Härmä, a small country town in Ostrobothnia, famous for its defiant troublemakers in the 1800's, who used to crash parties just for the heck of it. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puukkojunkkari

A famous Ostrobothnian folk song with a grim rhythm and melody tells about "The Horrible Wedding in Härmä, with drinking and fighting going on -- from the hallway to the head of stairs dead bodies were carried...". One of these notorious knife-fighters was Anssin Jukka, of whom the lyrics tell

When Anssin Jukka set out for the wedding
the Devil sat down on the shaft
like a gust of wind drove Anssin Jukka
past the Pikku-Lammi house


Artist Erkki Tanttu has made a famous painting of this instance leading to that Horrible Wedding, masterfully depicting Finnish spirit of aggressive intention, see below. So when Koskela, Hietanen, and all the rest of the Finnish Army went for the offensive in late June 1941, perhaps there was the Devil sitting on the shaft... :lol:
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Re: Väinö Linna's novel "Unknown Soldier" as a critical sour

Post by CanKiwi2 » 02 Apr 2011 22:38

That reference to the Puukkojunkkari is quite fascinating. I had just been reading about The Biggest Knifefight in Lapland and now it makes a lot more sense.

Puukkojunkkari (or häjy, Swedish: knivjunkare, translated to English as knife-fighter]) was a term used for troublemakers who were active in the Southern Ostrobothnia region of Finland in the 19th century. Fights among puukkojunkkaris were common, and often resulted in homicide; one could even get stabbed at a funeral. Puukkojunkkaris usually made trouble at weddings, stole horses and circulated among towns and villages. They also participated in gambling, thievery and courtship with women (ahem - shocking stuff). The most notorious puukkojunkkaris lived in towns near the Lapuanjoki river, such as Kauhava, Ylihärmä and Alahärmä. The first homicides happened in the 1790s, but the famous "golden age" of the puukkojunkkaris lasted from the 1820s to the 1880s.
Puukkojunkkaris were present in all society classes and included both free houseowners and farm servants. The houseowners were often gang leaders. Puukkojunkkaris were often feared and respected, and fought for their honour. The code of honour disallowed fear and respected fighting. Puukkojunkkaris were often difficult to prosecute because few people dared testify against them. Puukkojunkkaris also received admiration and respect because they dared to stand up against society and authorities. Many attempts have been made to explain the rise of puukkojunkkaris. In the 19th century, the living standard in Ostrobothnia rose, and because of this, weddings became grandiose events with lots of alcoholic beverages. Young men in Ostrobothnia did not often get a chance to inherit their own farm in their home town and earn their own wealth, which led to frustration.

Hanski - re your mention of that writeup on military training I have been doing - I am half way thru the next post now, should post it next week sometime, but its on this very subject and a large part of the focus of the thesis for this area is on the conscript experience as documented in personal recollections and books - and in particular the books by Mika Waltari and Haanpaa (sorry, on another computer today so do not have the article handy and I may not have the name quite right). Anyhow, there respective books on the conscript experience were a complete contrast to each other. Waltari looked at training from the perspective of the white nationalist upper middle class, Haanpaa came at it from the working class perspective. The post will go into it in detail. Quite fascinating. The guy that wrote that thesis did an excellent job after all the gender stuff is stripped out 8-)
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Re: Väinö Linna's novel "Unknown Soldier" as a critical sour

Post by Hanski » 03 Apr 2011 06:27

Nigel, indeed there is a lot in common with Linna and Haanpää in depicting the Finnish working class soldiers' attitudes. Waltari is a famous and very productive Finnish author of historical novels, best known for his international bestseller The Egyptian (Sinuhe egyptiläinen) about the time of the pharaohs.

If I remember correctly, in the beginning of Linna's Unknown sodier someone jokingly says "in Ostrobothnia they have to tie men in trees, to hold them back from not going across ahead of time". The häjy or puukkojunkkari took pride in boldly displaying his lack of fear, and in Erkki Tanttu's painting above, you can spot a detail, the traditional decorative Ostrobothnian belt and knife; see: http://www.iisakkijarvenpaa.fi/products.htm . So you could express the idea of after the defeat and injustice of the Winter War eagerly going for the Continuation War in lines along "Bloody hell, you are dead wrong if you think I have given up the fight!", which fits in the häjy mentality.

I think I also read from some source long ago that Russian soldiers considered their respective German and Finnish POWs different: after their surrender, the Germans were compliant, but you could never trust the Finns, who might suddenly do something unexpected...

The organized society of the 1800's could not tolerate the knife fighters and took due measures to regain control over them. Below is a historic photo of the two famous "heroes" of another popular Ostrobothnian folk song, "Isontalon Antti and Rannanjärvi".

Isontalon Antti and Rannanjärvi
they chatted between the two of them
"Will you kill that ugly sheriff of Kauhava
so I will marry his beautiful widow."
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Re: Väinö Linna's novel "Unknown Soldier" as a critical sour

Post by Philip S. Walker » 03 Apr 2011 13:25

@Hanski
That's interesting, I didn't realize this as I have always thought the Irish identify themselves with the Allied despite having been neutral in WWII, so I assumed they also share all common Allied misconceptions.
Since you don't state which "misconceptions" you are referring to, I can't really comment on that. But you are probably aware of the cooperation between the IRA and Berlin during WWII, leading to murderous bombing campaigns on mainland Britain.

Going back to the novel and in particular Linna's portrait of what some would see as a certain inherent tendency to violence in Finland, I don't find the author quite as jovial as some would like to make him out. A good example is Rokka, whom I suppose most commonly is seen as a real Finnish hero. But you have to read your Linna very carefully and never draw easy conclusions.

In fact the portrait of Corporal Rokka is quite ambivalent, a typical example of Linna's tendency to avoid easy solutions and monochrome psychological imagery. At first glance Rokka is a cheerful and straightforward farmer from the Karelian Isthmus who feels he has a personal score to settle with "the neighbour". Rokkas opinion on the war is seemingly quite simple:
We won't give a toss about Europe. We will take back Karelia and then we will go home.
p. 139

This statement is understandable, sympathetic and probably also representative for a person like Rokka - but insightful it is not. Just for a start, it is uttered at the point when the old border has long been crossed and it has become obvious that Germany is beginning to expect a lot more from the Finnish war effort than what Rokka is suggesting.

Under peaceful circumstances Rokka's life would probably have been pretty undramatic. He is portrayed as a loving and conscientious father, husband and farmer. But when dressed in uniform and sent to the front he starts showing some otherwise hidden sides of his personality. It's impossible to count the amount of killings Rokka manages to carry out during the war. After one of them, 52 dead Russians are found in the snow. Though he never shows any hatred for the Russians a people, neither does he mind killing them:
Don't start feeling sorry for the Russian now, because this is no Sunday School. Out here it's all about doing as much killing as you possibly can. As I always tell you we haven't come here do die, but to make others die. Personally, we prefer to carry on living.
p. 177

(Strangely the sentence "We haven't come here to die" sounds like a reversal of a famous Foreign Legion paratrouper motto, but that may be coincidental or something that evolved during the translations. I'm translating into English now from the Danish version, just so you know ...)

Rokka's very undisciplined behaviour throws him into some serious conflicts particularly with the stif-upperlipped company commander Lammio. Rokka is a one man army, so how can his superiors expect any more from him? Well, Lammio does expect more. He demands Rokka stands at attention, addresses him politely and spends his spare time decorating the paths between the officer's barracks with round stones. Rokka is as baffled as he is furious.

Thus far Linna is on Rokka's side. But he doesn't hide the fact that Rokka also carries inside him exactly the kind of devil that Hanski has already mentioned and even shown us an illustration of. (Brilliant!)
Rokka shot the patrol leader and at the same time he let out a terrible roar which terrified his own comrades so much that the most nervous among them started running away.
p.276

The crucial scene with regard to Rokka is the already mentioned massacre of the 52 Russians. It is literally all Rokka's work. The Russians are marching unknowingly over a frozen lake while up on a nearby slope Rokka is looking on with a submachine-gun. Along with him is a private called Lampinen (who otherwise doesn't feature in the novel).
Lampinen had never before witness such a comprehensive butchery of human beings, and though he felt no qualms of conscience for that reason he nevertheless felt disgusted by this ruthless killing.
p. 246

During the massacre Rokka himself is hit by a Russian bullet. He faints and Lampinen gets up in order to flee the place. At that moment a hand grabs him around his ankle.
It was Rokka who had grabbed hold of his foot and he was laughing. But to Lampinen this was a horrible laughter. Rokka's face was twisted in pain, and since it was also stained with blood it looked to Lampinen as if the Devil himself was lying there before him in the moonlight.
p. 246

Rokka is an unreflected character, he is a hunter, and he hunts like a elegant predator. He is also part of the explanation why something as crazy as war is possible at all.

It's remarkable how broadminded this novel is. One moment you feel as a reader that Rokka is an amusing and lovely guy, the next he displays himself as a cynical killer. It is this kind of nuanced presentation that makes "Unknown soldier" one of those novels you can read over and over again, every time learning something new from it. But at the same time those very same factors that can cause gross misinterpretations, because important details can easily be overlooked due to superficial reading.

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Re: Väinö Linna's novel "Unknown Soldier" as a critical sour

Post by CanKiwi2 » 03 Apr 2011 15:27

Philip S. Walker wrote:Rokka's very undisciplined behaviour throws him into some serious conflicts particularly with the stif-upperlipped company commander Lammio. Rokka is a one man army, so how can his superiors expect any more from him? Well, Lammio does expect more. He demands Rokka stands at attention, addresses him politely and spends his spare time decorating the paths between the officer's barracks with round stones. Rokka is as baffled as he is furious.
You will see this discordance constantly in Finnish novels about the war. Essentially, the Officers inherited the old Prussian-style approach to discipline and training from the Jagers and carried this forward. It was a given that this sort of approach to discipline and order occurred in most European Armies of the period (and after - back in the NZ Army in the late 70s we had to do the same thing - those very British white-painted stones bordering the flowerbeds outside the barracks. Charming touch you know, old chap....). I suspect that as with us Kiwis, with the Finns there was a marked difference between the troopies and the Officers. It is apparent in all the Finnish war novels I have read and its that basic conflict between a peoples basic character and the military-officer class who are rather more throughly indoctrinated. The challenge for any military is to adapt the core military requirements to best fit a nations underlying characteristics. The Finnish Army struck a balance of sorts, but it was an unofficial balance. Juha Malkki in his book Herrat, Jatkat Ja Sotataito goes into this in real detail.

Linna does an excellent job of portraying it in a Finnish context. So does John Virtanen in his english-language novel of the Winter War, Molotov Cocktail. (I recommend you pick that up Phil, it is a good alternative to Linna and while Virtanen was a Finn, he had immigrated to the USA and was writing in English for an English-speaking audience). He is not the writer Linna is, but he is OK.
ex Ngāti Tumatauenga ("Tribe of the Maori War God") aka the New Zealand Army

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Re: Väinö Linna's novel "Unknown Soldier" as a critical sour

Post by Hanski » 03 Apr 2011 18:11

Philip S. Walker wrote:Under peaceful circumstances Rokka's life would probably have been pretty undramatic. He is portrayed as a loving and conscientious father, husband and farmer. But when dressed in uniform and sent to the front he starts showing some otherwise hidden sides of his personality. It's impossible to count the amount of killings Rokka manages to carry out during the war. After one of them, 52 dead Russians are found in the snow. Though he never shows any hatred for the Russians a people, neither does he mind killing them:
This is the scene in question from Edvin Laine's movie. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ncpHXvpma8o

As Rokka prepares for opening fire (from 0:43 on), he first swears when detecting the enemy plot, then he keeps calming down his companion, orders him to fill in the empty magazines and to make sure to keep them in order, advising him to hum a song in his mind or to imagine all sorts of crazy ideas, as "it will keep your mind light, that's how you do the strategy of mind".

He then decides the fate of the officer in front: "when his head comes by that small spruce tree, that's when the Grim Reaper will come and get him - that's how I have decided it for his lot. And the rest will then start getting the same. Look, how they are stepping. They keep coming in a que. You devils won't know what's waiting for you! Soon you will see how the Lord invites his own. If they have done any sin, Old Man in Heaven please forgive them. But do hurry up! They will start coming right now."

The match of Rokka in real life was Viljam Pylkäs. http://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic. ... 9&t=168609

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Re: Väinö Linna's novel "Unknown Soldier" as a critical sour

Post by Philip S. Walker » 03 Apr 2011 19:07

CanKiwi: You will see this discordance constantly in Finnish novels about the war. Essentially, the Officers inherited the old Prussian-style approach to discipline and training from the Jagers and carried this forward.
A fine observation, and in fact it probably goes even deeper than that. In a lot for Finnish literature and films the basic theme is the old Hemingway classic "man versus nature, nature versus man", but where in Hemingway's case it is to be taken quite literary, the same juxtaposition is projected onto inter-human relations in the Finnish case. Few take it as far as Paavo Rintala, who, I suppose, can be seen as representative of an almost neo-"skogfinn romanticism". Linna manages to stop himself well before that. There is nothing romantic about his "skogfinns", at the most a tint of humor. You wouldn't want to spend much time with them, particularly not if you have a healthy sense of smell :D .

It's interesting that the famous Finnish books about the Continuation War rarely concern themselves with the larger aspects of the confrontation between national interests and political ideologies which took place in Karelia during WWII. And still writers like Linna, Meri and Rintala (and also the Swedish writer Peter Nisser, whose debut novel "Blod och snö" is set during the Winter War) are remarkably occupied with nature, inside an outside of the characters, and perhaps in that you could see a contrast to the big Soviet industrial machinery and Stalin's dictatorial regime. While none of the books display any enthusiasm for Imperialism, Capitalism or class society, there is an obvious longing for a life in harmony with the demands of nature. With their background in Finnish geography, history and literary tradition, Finnish authors are from the start endowed with quite obvious possibilities for tackling a subject matter of this kind.

Incidentally, I think this aspect of "Unknown soldier" is far better captured in Rauno Mollberg's cinematographic masterpiece than in the old film. As I have written elsewhere in a review of this film, it feels towards the end of it as though the characters are quite literary merging in with the landscape.

With regard to the violence discussion, it seems to be - according to Linna - an integral part of the whole explanation of how the Finnish war effort could be so incredibly efficient, alongside the other well-known elements (mainly: motivation, leadership, and the incompetence of the enemy). It raises the simple question if there is a stronger presence than normal of the so-called "Warrior Gene" among the Finnish population. Despite surfing the net a bit on this issue I haven't found anything significant other than this newspaper article, which only concerns a very small part of the Finnish population but is nevertheless quite remarkable. I'm sure most Finnish members will be familiar with it: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/ ... fight.html

I hasten to add that all the Finns I know are extremely peaceful, friendly and helpful people, and I've never seen any of them wear a "puukko" by their belts - unlike me, who once nearly got thrown off a train in Belgium for that reason!

Well, this may all be a load of rubbish, but Linna doesn't seem to think so. My suggestion would be that he is right, but rather than a genetic feature, the "knife culture" could be connected to a way of life that is, at least historically, close to nature including a closeness to death and a need for toughness in order to survive.

Regarding the gang fights etc in the later part of the 1700s, it apparently wasn't just in Finland such tendencies flourished. I recall reading somewhere about the problems with youth gangs in England around that same time, and it more or less looked like a synopsis for "A Clockwork Orange".

As always, feel free to contradict. The day we can no longer learn from each other, we may as well be dead.

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Re: Väinö Linna's novel "Unknown Soldier" as a critical sour

Post by JAK » 04 Apr 2011 06:56

Philip S. Walker wrote:With regard to the violence discussion, it seems to be - according to Linna - an integral part of the whole explanation of how the Finnish war effort could be so incredibly efficient, alongside the other well-known elements (mainly: motivation, leadership, and the incompetence of the enemy). It raises the simple question if there is a stronger presence than normal of the so-called "Warrior Gene" among the Finnish population. Despite surfing the net a bit on this issue I haven't found anything significant other than this newspaper article, which only concerns a very small part of the Finnish population but is nevertheless quite remarkable. I'm sure most Finnish members will be familiar with it: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/ ... fight.html
Rather than "Warrior Gene", I'd say it was more about the fact that some 70% of Finns were still living in the countryside in 20s and 30s which made them accustomed to moving and operating in our "local" forests. I have read also that Suojeluskuntas contribution was major factor not to mention the horrible attrition of Soviet forces on other fronts.

-Jari

Edit: Grammatical errors
Last edited by JAK on 04 Apr 2011 10:24, edited 1 time in total.

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