Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Finnish History II

Further to my post about the conflicting interpretations of Finnish history, here is the letter from the ambassador (which I have abridged) sent in response to Alex Ross's column on Sibelius:

Other than in the early 1930s, when Fascist elements unsuccessfully challenged our democratic system, Fascism has never played a significant role in Finnish politics. There were never any "Nazi-style race laws" in force in Finland, and the Finnish government's wartime policy of resisting German attempts to inspire anti-Jewish actions in Finland has been publicly appreciated by our Jewish communities.

[However, the handing over of Finnish Jews to the Nazis is also well documented.]
For Finland, the Continuation War of 1941-44, as it is called in our history, has its roots in the Winter War[...] the annexation of the Baltic countries, in the summer of 1940, demonstrated the expansive nature of the Soviet policies and left the area vulnerable to further aggression. The Continuation War, then, was a defensive struggle for my country, politically separate from the war of the great powers.

Pekka Lintu, Ambassador of Finland, Washington, D.C. (printed in the New Yorker, July 23 2007)

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Our man in Northfield

I was very pleased to note this afternoon that my dear friend in Northfield MN, Alex Freeman, has launched his own website. The site contains everything you'll ever need to know about Alex who, as a composer, singer-songwriter, tenor, bass trombonist and, latterly, assistant professor of music at Carleton College, is without a doubt one of the most multitalented people I am honoured in knowing.

Much as, on a recent visit to London, I tortured myself by reading the concert listings at the South Bank, leaving myself hopelessly salivating over all the wonderful concerts I wouldn't be able to attend, Alex's site features tantalising news of upcoming events and performances of his work. If you happen to be in Northfield on February 8th you're in for a treat. For anyone outside Finland, the performance of Magnolia for kantele, a Finnish harp-like instrument, promises to be quite an event.

But for those of us who can't make it, hope comes in the form of mp3 downloads of some of Alex's recent work, including three of the Four Songs of Hellaakoski performed by the HOL choir, a group that has championed music by Alex and Canadian composer Matthew Whittall, under the direction of Esko Kallio. You can also listen to (though not download) a number of other pieces, including O Magnum Mysterium, a choral work that I had the pleasure of singing in December. Though the loud sneeze during the quiet section is annoying, the performance is great. This music makes me weep.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Crash Course in Finnish History

Given that this blog claims to be a "review" of sorts, it seems fitting to begin 2008 with a review of a film I saw this evening, namely the latest film by Finnish director Lauri Törhönen, Raja 1918 ("Border 1918").

The film is set during the Finnish Civil War of 1918, a year after Finland had declared independence from Russia. In a nutshell, the war was between the "Whites" (the national guard) and the "Reds" (the Bolsheviks). The film follows the young Captain Carl von Munck who is sent to the newly established border to make sure that undesirable elements (Russians, Jews, Bolsheviks) are kept out of Finland. Of course, ther's also a romantic subplot between von Munck and the local school teacher Maaria Lintu, who, it transpires, is hiding her Bolshevik fiancé from the firing squads. [The "tragedy" motif in the soundtrack was presumably a quote from Im Treibhaus, the third movement of Wagner's Wesendonk-lieder and a study for the beginning of Act III of Tristan and Isolde.]

Anyway, back to the film! I was most impressed by the script. In less than a hundred years spoken Finnish has changed radically and this script preserves a level of formality that younger audiences are unused to hearing. The actors delivered the antiquated dialogue convincingly.

However, far more interesting (almost than the film itself) is what the film tells us about Finnish history. Some Finns have a difficult relationship with their nation's history. To give, in my opinion, a telling example: in the July 9th edition of the New Yorker music critic Alex Ross wrote an extended piece about Jean Sibelius, Finland's "national composer". The article goes through each of the seven symphonies in considerable detail and, by way of offering the reader some context to the Eighth symphony, which Sibelius eventually destroyed, Ross explains that:
Then, in 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, and Finland became part of a chess game between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Early in the war, Finland was applauded in the West for its hardy stand against the Soviets, and Sibelius was more popular than ever. In 1941, though, Finland aligned itself with the Germans, partly because Fascist elements had infiltrated the government and the Army, and partly because the Nazis would have taken over the country anyway.
[Alex Ross, New Yorker July 9th 2007]

The above sentence provoked a letter of response (which I can't locate for the purposes of quotation) from none other than the Finnish ambassador to the US who dismissed Ross' summation of events as essentially untrue and proceeded to tell readers just how hard "my people" had fought for "my country". Though Finland's relationship with Nazi Germany is well documented (most recently in Prof. David Kirby's book A Concise History of Finland), it is common in Finland to claim that there was no relationship whatsoever (the fact that Marshal Mannerheim and Hitler were on such good terms that, in 1942, the Führer paid Mannerheim a surprise visit on the latter's birthday seems easily forgotten).

Similarly, Swedish historian Henrik Arnstad caused a furore here when, in an article in Svenska Dagbladet, he suggested that "the entire Finnish foreign ministry should be sent on a crash course in history" – again in reference to the systematic denial in Finland of any dealings whatsoever with the Third Reich. [For those with Swedish, the article can be read here.] The outcry over Arnstad's book and his subsequent articles speaks volumes about a nation still not at peace with its past.

Raja 1918 thus marks something of a departure for Finnish cinema: in gruesome detail, the film points out that the ethnic cleansing that took place in the early 1940s has its roots in the rise of nationalist sentiment during the Civil War. The film attempts to demonstrate how easily concentration camp style "quarantines" were set up along the new border and how people were only allowed into the country if they looked right (ie. didn't look Russian or Jewish) and could pronounce Finnish words without an accent. Towards the end of the film, there is even a scene in which a visiting German officer and another high-ranking Finnish officer are discussing how easy it would be to attack Russia as a unified force and that their primary objective should be to move the Finnish border beyond St Petersburg, fortify their "indigenous people", thus creating a "Greater Finland" (Suur-Suomi). Though this is 1918, the sentiment is clear.

There are numerous works of fiction on the subject of the Finnish Civil War (two recent examples being Leena Lander's Käsky and Asko Sahlberg's Tammilehto, neither of which are available in English), but with subtitles on a DVD this film will – and should – reach a much wider audience. Highly recommended – even for members of the Finnish foreign ministry.