In the December issue of Chronicles, Edward Dutton writes about the peculiar self-censorship that characterizes Finnish political and cultural life (“Letter From Finland: Finland, Democracy, and Those Cartoons,” Correspondence). This reality was confirmed as the magazine was likely going to press, when the Finnish prime minister told journalists that they should not ask government ministers whether they have paid their TV-license fees or hired illegal workers, since a politician’s lawfulness has to be assumed, and such questions are “hurtful” and “improper.”
Modern political correctness aside, the uneasiness with dissenting opinions in Finland has been a complex phenomenon, relating to national characteristics, political threats, and other factors. Disagreements have often been more hidden here than in other countries. There are, however, a couple of objections to Dr. Dutton’s article that I must register.
Dr. Dutton’s attempt to trace the roots of this climate in the interwar period is incorrect. Historians disagree about whether the nationalist, anticommunist Lapua movement should be defined as fascist. Only at the end of its existence could this be said of it. It was not “persuaded to back down” by President Svinhufvud; the president had it outlawed. Neither was he their protégé; he used them for his own purposes. As a matter of fact, few of the young nations of Europe were as successful in resisting fascism as Finland was. The idea that Finland fought off Soviet invasion in the Winter War by “violently suppressing any dissenting opinions” is news to me. It is also highly misleading to say that, after the war, Finland was only “in theory, still within the West.” In some respects, she was outside the West, but, in most respects, she was (and is) more conservative than, for instance, neighboring Sweden.
As a Swedish-speaking Finn, I take strong exception to Dr. Dutton’s account of our status, which is heavily influenced by the perspectives of the populist True Finns—a seductive, but not very fruitful, source regarding political correctness. The rights we enjoy are prescriptive rights affirming our essential role in the history of Finland and our desire to carry on our inherited culture. Any account of our situation has to take into consideration our millennium-long presence in the country, as well as the fact that an overwhelmingly Swedish-speaking heartland is home to many of us. Ascribing an appeal to abstract rights to us (if that is what Dutton intended) is simply false.
As to the requirement that all Finns study Swedish at school, we must remember that an important part of our culture is Swedish, and that Swedish is spoken in our neighboring country and understood throughout Scandinavia.
Dr. Dutton’s reliance on the True Finns explains some factual errors. It is not true that a certain portion of public-sector jobs are reserved for Swedish speakers. Neither is it true that it is impossible to get work unless you can speak Swedish in towns where Swedish speakers number only eight percent. I have lived for several years in Turku, Finland’s gate to the West, and regularly had difficulties obtaining service in Swedish in the public sector.
The Karelian evacuees were settled all over the Finnish-speaking parts of Finland in 1944. Towns with Swedish-speaking majorities, however, paid a special tax to compensate for not having to receive permanent inhabitants. I cannot see why history textbooks should bother to write about that. If you want to keep your culture intact, it is crucial not to weaken the demographic structure in favor of the majority population, as the experience of southern Finland shows. The mentality of Swedish-speaking Finns entails politely yielding for Finnish speakers—some of the latter complain that they never get an opportunity to exercise their Swedish, since the former insist on speaking Finnish with them—and that makes it all the more important to have solid Swedish-speaking environments, where linguistic continuity can be guaranteed.
Dr. Dutton Replies:
Mr. Förars presents an interesting critique. With regard to his criticisms of my historical discussion, I assume that he and I have read somewhat different historical literature containing different degrees of nuance and caution. Mr. Förars argues that my assertion that Finland was, during the Cold War, in the West only in theory is misleading. I should clarify this. Unlike Soviet satellite states, Finland was perceived at the time to be “one of us,” a democracy. With regard to the evacuation, I would argue that the failure of certain Swedish-speaking towns to accept evacuees is important because it would seem to demonstrate that Finland Swedes placed maintaining their linguistic power in a certain area ahead of assisting “fellow Finns.”
Mr. Förars argues that the privileges afforded Swedish speakers in Finland affirm their essential role in that nation’s history. I suggest that such rights affirm the Finland Swedes’ essential role in the history of Finland as the Finnish aristocracy. Thus, I find his summary both trenchant and revealing. In England, when Tony Blair removed the hereditary peers from the House of Lords, one of the arguments for their retention was that their families had played an essential role in the country’s history. (They represented the establishment.) The almost constant presence of the Swedish People’s Party in Finnish coalitions might be seen as a parallel to the original role of the House of Lords in the United Kingdom.
I do not find Mr. Förars’ justifications for compulsory Swedish in Finnish schools especially persuasive. Swedish is not part of Finnish culture. I would strongly suggest that Finnishness is defined in relation to an “other,” which is Swedishness. Swedish is not understood throughout Scandinavia. English is understood throughout Scandinavia, except in Finland, where the standard of English is worse than in neighboring countries because of the obscurity of Finnish and, perhaps, wasting time at school learning Swedish, which is never used. Moreover, Finns are taught Finland Swedish, so that, when they go to Sweden, they often find it difficult to communicate effectively. Finns learn Swedish at school because it is the language of the elite. Being forced to learn this language is a symbol of the power of Finland Swedes, which explains why certain Finland Swedes vehemently oppose making the study of Swedish voluntary.
Mr. Förars disputes my assertions about Swedish-speakers in the workplace. Yet there is a Swedish section in Finland’s national broadcasting corporation, and you have to know Swedish to be a senior civil servant. In Kokkola, where Finnish is spoken by 82 percent of the people, you have to be fluent in Swedish to work as a nurse.
The fact that True Finns advocates a certain point of view doesn’t mean that the point of view is inaccurate, even if, as one Swedish-speaking acquaintance put it, the True Finns are “the rednecks of Finland.”
I sincerely hope that I have not offended Mr. Förars—or any other Finland Swede—with my article. I have found Finland Swedes to be exceptionally amiable—far more so than the somewhat taciturn Finnish speakers. My concern is that even a discussion of abolishing compulsory Swedish in Finland’s schools is off limits. Finland is a fascinating country, and the Finland Swedes, a rather successful minority. But the language issue there is persuasive evidence that Finland is still considerably less free than her neighbors.