Friday, December 6, 2013

Uncivil Wars

Not long ago I borrowed from our local library a book, Punamustavalkea -- 1918 kuvat ("Red Black & White -- 1918 Pictures"), which documents the Finnish Civil War in a collection of photographs that are sometimes both banal and deeply unsettling.

One that particularly sticks in my mind was taken in my wife’s home town of Varkaus, a place I know well and, let’s be frank -- though it has its charms, I guess -- I’ve always found to be a bit dull. (This is my elitist cosmopolitan Helsinki sensibility showing through.)

In this nearly 100-year-old image, two men stand with their backs to a tall pile of cut timber, precisely the kind of stack of logs you can see anywhere in the Finnish countryside today. One of the men, the older one, has an old-fashion, Lech Walesa style moustache. Other than that and their dress, which I can’t help think of as being straight out of a production of “The Fiddler on the Roof”, the two look like any two Finnish men you would see today at a hockey game or in a office cubicle.

It must be springtime, judging by the scattered patches of snow in the background and the brightness of the day. One of the men has carelessly thrown his coat on the bare ground beside him, the other holds his cap in his hand. They both, with eyes downcast, stand expectantly facing a group of other men, fellow Finns, standing not four steps away with rifles leveled straight at these two hapless men. A moment later, after the photo was snapped, they would be dead.

What I find so moving and compelling about this image of an impromptu firing squad (“summary execution” in today’s media-speak) forever frozen in time, is not only the tragedy of two men standing there, dazed, grappling at that moment with the horrible knowledge of their imminent death.

It’s also the “ordinariness” of the setting, an early-spring day in a place I associate with drowsy summer vacations. And it’s the fact that any of those men with rifles could easily pass for one of my neighbors. It’s not impossible that some of the men about to pull the trigger were neighbors of the two poor souls standing impassively before them.

I can’t say I know much about the Finnish Civil War (Suomen sis√§llissota) beyond what little I’ve read, but I have understood that it was brutal. From late January to mid May of that year, 1918, right after Finnish independence, conservatives (the Whites) with the help of German troops fought and defeated the supporters of the Finnish Social Democratic Party (the Reds). In just over a hundred days, Finns on both sides slaughtered over 20,000 of their fellow countrymen, many in cold-blooded bouts of terror and retribution, a fact that somehow seems completely incompatible with the Finland I know today.

There are still small reminders of this cruel conflict, however, beyond mere photographs. I recall seeing in Lahti, a small city best known for ski jumping, a memorial commemorating the massacre of Reds that took place there. The National Museum in Helsinki has famously preserved a bullet hole left in its front door from the fighting. My wife remembers the impressive constellation of bullet holes still visible in the side of a shed at her childhood home in Varkaus, a paper-mill town and a stronghold of Red supporters, probably like the two condemned men in the photo.

Red Terror depicted in a socialist newspaper, 1918.

In the scheme of things, this shockingly violent internal conflict took place not that long ago, much more recently than the one fought in the US.

And that’s what strikes me – how, in only three generations, such a short-lived, but bitter confrontation has been so completely healed over. Or so it seems. Living here now, in this land of civil tranquility and political consensus, it’s hard to imagine the killing spree that went on 95 years ago, while in America echoes of an even bloodier civil war still seem to reverberate.

To outside observers like myself, any real acrimony from that part of Finnish history has long since vanished. I do know someone whose grandfather and great-grandfather were interned together in the harsh prison camp on Suomenlinna for their leftist activities during the war (the elder one was among the 10% who did not survive the camp), and even whose father was unable to find work in the early 1950s due to the “sins” of his fathers. But for the present-day generation of Finns, such former hard feelings seem well and truly buried.

Maybe Finns are expert at sweeping things under the rug, even the killing of an average of  200 citizens a day at the hands of their compatriots. Or maybe they truly have moved on.

The conventional wisdom is that the threat of Soviet takeover in 1939 united the country, burying any lingering grievances from twenty years before. Perhaps this is why every year on Independence Day (Dec. 6th) the classic WWII movie Tuntematon sotilas ("The Unknown Soldier") is shown on TV, rather than any cinematic depiction of the civil war that erupted at the dawn of independence itself.

Americans sometimes don’t seem as adept at getting over the past. In the last few years, the US Civil War has surfaced as a surprisingly live issue for debate, with some folks refusing to accept that the true cause for the war was the odious institution of slavery. Such blinding denial so long after the fact is amazing. I hope it’s just a fringe thing.

At the same time, US politics seems to be flashing back some 150 years as old North-South divisions are re-emerging and the states that made up the Old Confederacy are increasingly coalescing into a solid reactionary bloc, thanks to the Tea Party. For example, all of the former CSA states, except Arkansas, have strongly resisted key provisions of Obamacare.  

The word “secession” has even been branded about, and not just by angry, crackpot letter-writers (or bloggers), but actual state officials. Of course, this is not to say any of these trends should be taken too seriously I expect the Tea Party will run out of steam well before  the point of open insurrection.

Still, it does feel that the scars from American’s own domestic bloodbath are surprisingly tenderer even now than those from the horrible-enough violence that Finns inflicted on each almost a century ago.

1 comment:

  1. After the Russian Revolution, the western nations pulled out all of the stops to prevent any spread of leftist movements and to do whatever they could to destroy communism in Russia. Britain and Germany were notorious for funding, promoting, and advising right wing groups to violently put down any left wing movements elsewhere in Europe.