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December 12, 2009


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Very nice, Jussi! And the question of the forgetting is an interesting one.

Noel's handy map tells us that we have a South African reader. Welcome!

Bernard, the question of why the participation of the Finnish volunteers in the South African War was eventually so completely forgotten is difficult to answer. I can just as well mention some of the data points here, because I can't really explain it any better even if I wrote a detailed analysis.

During the inter-war era, the memory of the war was invoked in Finland on many occasions. As I mentioned, Kent gij dat volk was translated in Finnish and included in elementary school songbooks. The festivities of 1924 were followed by a Scandinavian shooting contest named "Memory of Magersfontein" in Helsinki in the summer of 1925. I have an encyclopedia from 1938 which contains a page-length article on the Finnish volunteers in South Africa, as a prologue to the history of the Finnish independence struggle. It was definitely considered as an important historical event.

Sometimes, the memory of the Boer War was even used in Finnish political rhetoric. Perhaps the most famous example is Juho Kusti Paasikivi, who was the chairman of the conservative National Coalition party in the 1930s, and became the President of the Republic after the war. At the height of the extreme right-wing reaction and the activities of the Lapua movement, Paasikivi sought to actively distance the right-wing conservatives from the extremist elements and established himself as the right-wing champion of parliamentary democracy. On June 21st 1936, he traveled to the town of Lapua in Ostrobothnia, to the very cradle of the right-wing extremism, and he held a speech titled "Freedom", defending parliamentary democracy and civil liberties, urging the locals to abandon the extreme right-wing radicalism.

As a historical example to be followed, he invoked the memory of South Africa, and made a reference to a speech where Jan Smuts had also defended parliamentary form of government:

"As I was thinking my presentation, I re-read one speech, held two years ago by a freedom fighter who, even though he lives and operates far away from our country, is a Western man by his opinions and character - the leading general and statesman of the Boer nation in South Africa, his name is Jan Smuts. As we all know, those Boer farmers, who served their God and fought for their freedom far away in the southern lands, share the same mentality with the people of Ostrobothnia..."

The Union of South Africa, a model that was invoked by the inter-war Finnish champions of democracy. It's one of those sublime historical ironies, involving two nations on separate hemispheres.

As for why it was forgotten, I honestly don't know. My best guess is that with the two wars against the USSR in 1939-1940 and 1941-1944, the Finnish involvement in this distant colonial conflict simply lost its actuality and relevance. I don't think there were any deliberate "memory politics" involved, even though it's not impossible that the apartheid may have also had something to do with it. The young people who lived in the inter-war era sang the Finnish translation of Kent gij dat volk in schools. In contrast, my generation was singing the Finnish translation of Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, which also became hymn number 501 in the choral book of the Finnish Lutheran Church.

I still remember memorizing it as a child. I'm not a member of the Church anymore, but it's still a good song.

And, as I said, there are several other reasons why the South African War should be remembered, still today. The times that we're living have many, many similarities to the Age of Imperialism, in good and in bad.


J. J.

A question: was there any feeling (then or later) in Finland that the Boers were in the wrong? I know English-speaking historians have become a lot less sympathetic to the Boers than they used to be because of the race issue. Of course, it's not like the British declared the war to be a war of black liberation anyway...

But in any case, was there any sort of backlash in Finland against the Boers for this? (Kind of like how there's been a micro-backlash against American volunteers for the Abe Lincoln brigade in Spain.)

Tzin, the Finnish press did express also some criticism towards the Boers. The one newspaper which stood out was the venerable conservative-fennoman Uusi Suometar (approx. "New Finlandia", Suometar translates as the feminine embodiment of Finland), at the time the leading national newspaper with the widest circulation.

Already during the autumn of 1899, Uusi Suometar adopted a critical tone towards president Krüger's confrontational policy, and criticized the government of Transvaal for a lack of realism. As far as I know, they were also the only newspaper which criticized the Boer actions towards the native African peoples in any way. The newspaper also expressed understanding for the British interests, attempted to portray the war in a "fair and balanced" fashion, and expressed a hope that Britain would be willing to grant tolerable peace terms to the Boer republics.

This position was essentially a reflection of those same arguments which the newspaper had advanced in the question of the Finnish autonomy and relations with Russia. As conservatives, they advocated Finnish acquiescence and compliance towards the Russian imperial interests, in order to avoid excessive imperial reaction; and at the same time, they were also reluctant to criticize Britain, because they considered the British goodwill and sympathy important in the international campaign for the Finnish autonomy.

(For details on the internation campaign on behalf of Finland, you may check the address Pro Finlandia. Signed by Florence Nightingale, Émile Zola and Anatole France. The year 1899 was an important year for many small nations, and Finland was a small cause célèbre for European intellectuals for a short while.)

Uusi Suometar was the largest newspaper, but it was probably an exception in its moderate approach to the conflict. Other Finnish newspapers were more openly pro-Boer. The constitutional Päivälehti ("Daily Newspaper", direct predecessor of today's Helsingin Sanomat, "Helsinki News") was very pro-Boer, although they also remembered to mention how Britain should be considered as the "supporter and guardian of Finland in Europe". Not surprisingly, the newspaper was also the favourite target of the Russian censorship. The socialist Työmies ("Worker"), which was censored by the Russian and Finnish authorities, was overtly pro-Boer, and regarded the conflict as an imperialist war initiated by the British capitalists.

Swedish-language Finnish newspapers were in the class of their own, because they were the only ones which mentioned the race factor openly. Nya Pressen, which advocated constitutional resistance towards Russia, condemned the British actions in South Africa precisely because of their nature as actions against another white nation. The newspaper made it specifically clear that they wholeheartedly approved colonial rule over "inferior" people, but the Boers were "representatives of the European culture". This was a clear reflection of the newspaper's own view of the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland as the "bulwark of Scandinavian civilization" against the Russian influence.

The other Scandinavian newspapers were equally divided in their opinions. The conservative Svenska Dagbladet was pro-British, but the liberal and social democratic Swedish newspapers were pro-Boer. The Norwegian Aftonbladet and Verdens Gang were pro-Boer, but also tried to avoid excessive criticism of Britain. The Norwegian reasons for this moderation were a bit similar to the Finnish motives; they were reluctant to jeopardize British support for Norway at the time when the termination of the personal union with Sweden was becoming topical.

So, the Finnish newspapers were more or less part of the Scandinavian mainstream in their opinions and in their differences of opinion. The Russian opinion, however, was adamantly and absolutely pro-Boer and anti-British all across the political spectrum, from Tolstoy to Lenin.

As the war continued, even Uusi Suometar gradually adopted a more pro-Boer stance. The decisive thrust was given by the British actions at the end of the war, the scorched-earth tactics and the concentration camps, which aroused absolute horror even in Finland. The reason was simple. The British Empire was regarded as a liberal, responsible and humane great power, and if they could resort to such methods, what was going to prevent the other, more callous great powers from taking equally harsh actions on other small nations? Because of the censorship, the Finnish newspapers could not openly mention that the British actions had ignited their fear of Russia, but the message was clear from between the lines.

Once again, this is something which has importance still today. These days, the United States is in the same position, and enjoys more or less the same international standing which the British Empire had a century ago. And for the same reason, when the United States acts in breach of international justice, or when the American military forces commit atrocities, the response is exactly similar. The reason behind it "If the Americans can do this, what's going to prevent the others?"


J. J.

I linked to this over at my blog. As I said there, it's interesting that Finns volunteered at Paardeberg since volunteers from my hometown fought on the other side.

(Bows to Jussi in awe)Thank you! As always, the more I know, the more I know that I don't know anything.

And mentioning how 1899 was a year for small nations...makes me wish it had been more of one. As in, if the Balkan and northern Slavic nationalists had been able to co-ordinate this early, maybe a lot of crap wouldn't have gone down...unless they did co-ordinate and I just didn't know.

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