Militarism in Finland

Kaj Raninen

In its own way, Finland is a very militarised country, although it might not look like that at first sight. Finnish militarism does not mean that the military is strikingly visible in society or that it necessarily has more influence in the society than in other Western European countries. It is rather a state of mind, a historically constructed way of thinking, according to which Finland is always under military threat - even when no one has got any idea who might cause this threat or no one can imagine a situation where it might materialise. But because of this threat, Finland will always need an army which is based on a very extensive conscription system.

Finnish militarism is the result of a historical heritage created by events during the Second World War. During the war Finland fought twice against the Soviet Union (in 1939-40 and again in 1941-44). Although Finland lost in both cases, and during the latter war was in fact allied with Hitler's Germany, the wars were seen as "defensive victories" with the army as a rescuer who saved the country from Soviet occupation and Stalinist tyranny. Historically this might be partly true, although the Finnish participation in WWII might have been possible to avoid by adopting a wiser foreign policy.

But more importantly the wars, especially the Winter War (1939-40), when Finland fought against the Soviet Union without allies, are still affecting people's mentality and are still politically used. The remaining veterans of WWII, normally represented by military or right wing politicians but sometimes even representing themselves, are presented as a "role model" for young people (for example, the annual collection of money for veterans' health care was advertised this autumn under a slogan "would you have had the guts to do the same").

In the Finnish political debate concerning military matters, a quite common right wing argument is "what would the veterans think about this" (of course they are normally not asked what they really think, but the modern military and its backers think they have an authorisation to speak for them). One of the most widely respected public figures in Finland in the 1990's was the last surviving major officer of the war years, general Adolf Ehrnrooth, whose somewhat oddly extremist opinions decorated the Finnish media regularly during the decade. When he died in spring 2004, over 20000 Finns gathered on the streets of Helsinki to pay their respect. A quite common opinion of a young Finnish male reaching conscription age is "I go to military service because I 'owe' it to the veterans" and there is no CO in Finland who has never been asked a question like "what would you had done in 1939" or "what had happened to us if everyone was like you in 1939".

The last 15 years have been a good time for Finnish militarism, especially among older people. During the Cold War Finland, although it was a parliamentary democracy with a state controlled market economy, had a special political relationship with the Soviet Union. During those years Finnish politicians practised some kind of "self-censorship", and critique of the Soviet Union and the negative aspects in history between the two countries were more or less avoided. This situation changed when the Soviet Union collapsed and those who felt themselves humiliated and limited during the years of "finlandisation" felt that their time for compensation had arrived. The result was a rebirth of Finnish militarism; suddently it was again possible to openly recall and praise the Finnish struggle in the Second World War - and use its memory for one's own political aims: the "war veteran myth" described above was created and the military started to take a more open and visible position in society. During the 90's it increased the cooperation with different institutions of civil society; with schools, sport organisations etc. At the moment the military is even sponsoring one of the biggest Finnish rock festivals.

Since the Second World War the very extensive conscription system has been the cornerstone of Finnish militarism (see article above). According to the recently published "Defence White Paper 2004" (by the Finnish Foreign and Defence Ministries), conscription won't be abolished or even reformed in the near future. The proportion of those who do military service will diminish a bit from the current level but will still remain very high. This is officially explained by the fact that Finland is a large, thinly settled country and "conscription is the only way to create a military reserve big enough to defend the whole country". This is not, of course, the real reason and no one can really imagine a situation where Finland might need its vast reserve of almost half a million soldiers. According to this report "At the same time this creates a foundation for the strong will of citizens to defend their country and for commitment to national defence" (see article below). In other words, conscription is needed so that people have a positive attitude to the military.

COs in the depths of Finnish militarism

The attitude of Finnish authorties towards conscientious objection has always been more characterised by "punishment" and "marginalisation" than by "integration". The main aim of the policy has been, and is, to keep the number of COs on a relatively low level and prevent it from endangering the existence of the conscription system. And that is the main reason why it has always been very difficult to improve the Finnish CO legislation.

The ongoing discussion on Finnish CO legislation, which has mainly focused on the length of service, started in 1998 when the length of military service has been reduced. At time same time the Finnish cabinet started to prepare a government bill according to which substitute service was to be shortened to 12 months. However, suddenly it changed its mind, probably because the generals had suffered a major setback few months earlier when parliament refused to accept a delivery of military helicopters and the cabinet did not see it appropriate to hurt their delicate minds again. In the autumn of 1998, despite strong protests of COs, the Finnish parliament rejected a parliamentarians bill to shorten the service time to 12 months. In 1999 the cabinet again started to prepare improvements of the CO legislation. In the end they decided to propose a one month reduction of service time, but parliament rejected it in autumn 2000.

On both occasions substitute service divided the Finnish political field sharply: greens, leftists and almost all social democrats but only a handful of more liberal representatives of centre and right wing parties supported the reduction. And on both occasions the majority of centre and right wing parliamentarians went totally frantic. One MP stated his opinion during the parliamentary discussion:

"The independence of our country cannot be taken for granted. In my opinion we have a debt of honour to the men and women who have defended our country during war and that debt obligates us to at least preserve the service system we have now. Shortening the period of civilian service does not serve the needs of general conscription. Civilian service is only an option for those whose conviction prevents them from carrying out military service. Convictions for convenience or laziness are not weighty enough reasons for exemption from military service. Therefore civilian service should not be made more attractive as an alternative. In such a case we might start to have too many young men with a 'conviction'".

And another one said "During the weekend a veteran said, when he heard that we would be discussing this, that remember in the parliament, that if there was an invader or somebody thinking about invading, they would definitely not count how many men with brooms we have at our border, but they would have to count how many trained armed men we can place at the border."

Although conscientious objection has always been a very controversial question in Finland, all Finnish parliament has accepted improvements to the CO legislation in the past, lastly 1992 when the current Civilian Service Act came into force. However, today the situation seems to be even more difficult than before and there are many reasons for this. Firstly, because of Finnish "neo-militarism" people's attitude towards COs is even harder than before - or at least some politicians think it is and act accordingly. Secondly, after substitute service was shortened from 16 months to 13 months in 1992, the amount of applications started to rise quite drastically (from 600-900 per year in the 1980's to 2500 per year in mid the 90's). And the military is sure this was because of reduced service time and because substitute service had became "on the whole less challenging" than military service.

The reduced service time was probably not the main reason for the increase - at the same time the number of applicants to substitute service rose dramatically in many other Western European countries too - but the military is sure this was the reason and they most certainly do not want the same to happen again.

Finland's position in international politics has changed dramatically during the last 15 years and this seems to play to our disadvantage, too. In the 1980's Finnish politicians were very sensitive about Finland's image in the West and it was a noteworthy thing - even to those right wing politicians - if for example Amnesty International adopted imprisoned Finnish COs as prisoners of conscience and Finland was mentioned in the same list of countries with prosecutors of consciousness such as, say, GDR (Eastern Germany), Poland or the Soviet Union. Nowadays Finland is a member of the EU and unquestionably one of the "Western countries" and no-one seems to care anymore, although Amensty International has adopted 49 Finnish COs since 1999.

And finally, we have had some bad luck too. If the cabinet would have proposed a shorter service time in 1998 the parliament would probably have accepted at least this inadequate improvement, but when the cabinet finally did so in 2000 the composition of parliament was less favourable than it was two years earlier. In 2000 the parliament's discussions on the Civilian Service Act were held at the same time when parties were campaigning for the municipal elections. The conservative party, those days a minor partner of the social democrats in the cabinet, obviously used their strong opposition to improvements of the Civilian Service Act as a means to sharpen their image without really endangering their relations to their mightier coalition partner.

Kaj Raninen is an activist with the Union of Conscientious Objectors Finland