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Helsinki and the Third Reich

Jenna Jauhiainen 15.4.2012

On the 31st of March, Galleri Bergman’s secluded cellar space on an inside courtyard between Uudenmaankatu and Bulevardi hosted a talk on “hidden fascism.” Two Helsinki-based artists, Minna L. Henriksson and Carl Sebastian Lindberg discussed their exhibitions that had run through March. Without being initially aware of a shared theme, both exhibitions dealt with Nazi influences in Finland around the Second World War.

Carl Sebastian Lindberg's exhibition, titled Home and Country, consisted of two videos and related documentary material, such as photographs, in Muu Gallery. The heart of it was a filmed interview with Ann-Mari Lindberg(1), the artist’s aunt, born in 1935. She tells how she and her young siblings experienced the war – playing with gas masks, meeting prisoners of war working at her grandparent’s farm. Yet, the controversial part of her reminisces has to do with her early education – she remembers “Sieg Heiling” while in Kindergarten of the German School of Helsinki, then a prestigious private school. In a drawing made by her around the age of five, the school has red flags with black swastikas hanging by its door.

Carl Sebastian Lindberg, a still from the video Home and Country

Finland’s brotherhood in arms with the Nazi Germany is a sore spot in our history, so sore that calling it a brotherhood in arms is a questionable act in itself. Before the birth of the national socialist state in the early nineteen-thirties, Finland had a long history of trade with Germany, with both countries having ports opening to the Baltic Sea. Finnish professionals from a variety of fields educated themselves in Germany, such as teachers, and in between 1915 and 1917 Finnish military personnel, Jägers, received their training in Germany (their role in the Winter War is often highlighted up to epic proportions). What happened during the war itself remains an open topic – history usually is written by the winners, and so have Finns seen to it that the presence of Nazi influences in Finland have been coined under the “necessary” or “lesser” evil when compared to the threat imposed by the Soviet Union.

When it comes to the way current generations of Finns are taught in school about the events circling the Second World War, our collaboration with Nazi Germany is usually depicted as being solely material. We got weapons, medicinal gear and training from the Germans, yet remained cold and distant when faced with their ideologies – like Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim did during the filmed visitation of Adolf Hitler to Finland, during the former’s 75th birthday. Personally, since being indoctrinated to this view in high school some years back, I’ve come across bits and pieces of material which show that there was cultural exchange in addition to material exchange – Finnish novelist Mika Waltari praised the National Socialist State in 1938, while Heinrich Himmler, a leading member of the Nazi party, embraced the writings of Yrjö von Grönhagen, a Finnish anthropologist specializing in the Kalevala. Also, one thousand Finnish volunteers served in a special battalion of the Waffen-SS, which was based on a nearly religious system of beliefs.

Lindberg was compelled to do background research into the German School of Helsinki, after the publication of a critical letter in the comment section of Hufvudstadsbladet. The commentator claimed that Sieg Heiling was banned in the German School already in 1933, two years before the birth of Ann-Mari Lindberg. When looking for historical analyses backing up his aunt’s memories, Lindberg came across with a recently published study by Lars Westerlund.(2) The purpose of the study is to shed light into the communities of Germans in Finland between 1933 and 1946. The principal of the German School of Helsinki, Philip Krämer, is mentioned in several sections of the study. He became a member of the Nazi Party in 1939, a couple of months before the onset of the war. In Westerlund’s analysis, Krämer’s actions are depicted as contradictory – leading a school educating kids from up to twelve different nationalities, including Jews, demanded the sort of political correctness that seems to have been absent in his speeches “propagating Nazism,” held both in the core of Helsinki, in Stockmann, and in the rural areas of Finland. In the school, the Nazi salute wasn’t banned, nor was it obligatory.

Contrasting Ann-Mari Lindberg’s memories, the other video of Lindberg’s exhibition ran in the back-room of the gallery, depicting the celebrations of Finland’s victory in the Ice Hockey World Championship in Spring 2011. Filmed among the crowd of tens of thousands, it reflects eerily similar gullibility as do the words of Ann-Mari Lindberg, bringing to surface the experiences of a child in a political atmosphere now made obscure.

Hidden Ideas

Back at the cellar space of Galleri Bergman, Minna L. Henriksson speaks about the background of her installation. The core of it is a painting from 1949, depicting typically Finnish scenery – a blue lake and green forest growing from hilly lands. It was a familiar sight for Henriksson throughout her life, being part of her dear grandmother's décor. After she passed away, Henriksson inherited the painting. When taking it off the wall for the first time in decades, Parteiadler, the “Party's eagle,” was found to be imprinted on the fabric behind it. Thus, years later, the painting became an embodiment of the theme of Henriksson's exhibition called Hidden.

When researching the presence of fascism in Finland around the Second World War, Henriksson found another source of hidden symbolism. Two walls of the small cellar space of the gallery were covered with crossword puzzles scanned from microfilms of Suomen Kuvalehti, published between 1939 and 1944. An important publication with a nearly hundred years of weekly issues, it has never been profiled as being political as such. Yet, the symbolism of Nazi Germany eerily shows up in the design of many of the crosswords on the walls – swastikas, lighting strikes, iron crosses and owls.

The conversation lead by Henriksson circles around this hidden symbolism, trying to find a reflection ground of such obscured forms of fascism from our concurrent political atmosphere. There is a sense of fear behind the words, as there often is when faced with an unknown threat. What took place in the Third Reich has been largely demonized, leaving many questions unanswered – like, why were so many duped into accepting, even embracing the ideologies of the national socialists, both in Germany and in other countries?

In my view, the National Socialist Party in Germany didn't appear from a void, nor did it come into being through the crafting of “purely evil” men. It had its roots in eastern religions and philosophies that inspired, more or less directly, many of the late eighteenth and nineteenth century German philosophers – Goethe, Hegel and Nietzsche all derived parts of their thinking from the East. Ron Dart says the following in his analysis of the philosophy of George Grant:

“The 19th century witnessed two important events; Science replaced Christianity as the new religion and source of authority; this is an aspect of modernity. As Christianity was marginalized and science rose to the throne, a spiritual thirst still existed that science could not slake. There was a turn to the East to make sense of such a thirst and hunger. Western modernity had marginalized Christianity, but the spiritual void was filled by an increasing interest by westerners in the Orient. Germany was front and centre in this turn to the East.”(3)

In addition to philosophers, such systems of thought and their symbolism must have affected the minds of many around Europe. Both Buddhism and Hinduism use the swastika as a symbol, where it denotes happiness or, as translated from Sanskrit, “all is well.” These associations in the European subconscious were, in a very clever manner, crafted into a propagandist whole by the inner group of the National Socialist party. To my knowledge, it is the first political party ever to do such extensive branding.

From Minna L. Henrikssons exhibition "Hidden" (Photo by Jenna Jauhiainen)

In a book published a decade ago, Hitler, Buddha, Krishna - Eine unheilige Allianz vom Dritten Reich bis heute (4), Victor Trimondi presents a controversial analysis of the beliefs of high officials of the Nazi Party. It is generally known that the party went “shopping” for ideological bits and pieces to fit its racist and nationalistic goals, though the extent of it has remained rather dim. Trimondi argues that elements not only from Buddhism and Hinduism, but also from Tantrism, Tibetan Lamaism and Japanese Zen and Samurai traditions served as influences. According to him, Heinrich Himmler carried a copy of the Bhagavad Gita wherever he went. Himmler is also coined to have written the introduction to a brochure on the Japanese Samurais, distributed in the quantity of 52,000 for the Schutzstaffel.

It is difficult if not impossible to know which came first – the ideologies followed by political goals, or the goals for which serving ideologies were searched for. Nevertheless, it is mind bending to realize that the apotheosis of the Führer was likely derived from the ancient Buddhist concept of Chakravartin - the sacred, global ruler of the world - or that the glorification of war and the warrior stemmed from several of the ideologies mentioned, as well as did the social caste system based on race. All of this supports the interpretation of National Socialism as a political religion.

These things are important to mention, because the metaphysical aspects of the Nazi Party shed light onto the whole construct of the Third Reich. Europe has a history of fascist systems of governance, which have largely been based in similar kinds of myths. The emperor cults of ancient Rome, Christianity and “Papal Supremacy,” kings of the medieval period and god-like political leaders like Lenin and Stalin, somehow have all gained support, or at least acceptance, from the masses of men. In order to never fall for such delusions again, it becomes necessary to understand the psychological structures existent in each individual that make these systems possible.

Henriksson seems to be on the right track when seeing fascism as a hidden element, something that lives in the wildest dreams of, dare I say, us all. Carl Jung’s take on the matter is well formulated in a catalogue describing his book, The Undiscovered Self;

“Dr. Carl Jung - one of history’s greatest minds - argues that civilization’s future depends on our ability as individuals to resist the collective forces of society. Only by gaining awareness and understanding of one’s unconscious mind and true, inner nature - “the undiscovered self” - can we as individuals acquire the self-knowledge that is antithetical to ideological fanaticism. But this requires that we face our fear of the duality of the human psyche - the existence of good and the capacity for evil in every individual.”(5)

Back in the cellar of Galleri Bergman, both the Swedish ‘Sweden Democrats’ and Finnish ‘True Finns’ are brought up as examples of today's political parties which reflect a certain kind of nationalism, with racist and fascist tones. When looked at from the paradigm of distinctively Scandinavian social democracy, both parties seem to be taking a step away from the defining characteristics of both Swedish and Finnish societies – openness, equality and humanitarian values.

Parteiadler from Minna L. Henrikssons exhibition "Hidden" (Photo by Jenna Jauhiainen)

I do not personally see nationalism being evil as such, but I do understand the stance of those who argue against it. Nationalism easily becomes a key element of the image one has of oneself, which escapes critical analysis with sentimentality-ridden idealism. Yet, in our concurrent times in Europe, nationalism can be a rational choice leading to the defending of values and practices that have taken a long time to establish. The structural relationship between the European Commission and the MEPs of the European Union is a prime example of a threat to the ideals realized. Seeing the hidden fascism in the structure of our highest governing body should stir up some healthy nationalism.

A commentator from the audience makes a distinction between sophisticated nationalism and unrefined nationalism. In the same breath, the sophisticated end of that spectrum is seen to reflect from structural, sophisticated fascism, stressing the possibility of its political forms being intellectual creations. Following on the trails of Jung in supposing that we all have latent qualities that would in “right” circumstances serve fascism, I see it as a fact that many highly influential and intelligent members of past societies have strived to establish and maintain fascist systems of governance. It would also be naïve to think that no influential Finn ever held fascist values.

Yet, even though fascist systems of governance can be seen as “intellectual creations,” it doesn't take away the responsibility from the masses to assess what their governing bodies are doing and why. In my mind, while listening to the discussion in Galleri Bergman, the two videos in Muu Gallery by Lindberg begin to share a common theme through gullibility. The masses celebrating the Hockey World Championship a year ago seem to me to be eerily as credulous as the kids who went around Sieg Heiling in the hallways of the German School.

Hidden in Plain Sight

Henriksson has done admirable background research into the subject of her installation. Turning the discussion to the swastika as a symbol, she tells how a Swede called Eric von Rosen donated the first airplane for the whites, during the Finnish Civil War in 1918. It had blue swastikas on it, Rosen's personal symbol of luck. Akseli Gallen-Kallela later copied them to serve as the official symbol for the Finnish air force. On the opinion of Henriksson, the swastika served racial purposes in the Finnish air force - later, it was also found out that Rosen belonged to the Swedish Nazi party.

In the third piece of her installation, Henriksson has printed a page from Wilhelm Reich's book Mass Psychology of Fascism, published in 1939. On the English version of it, Mannerheim is coined to be one of many European dictators. In the Finnish translation from the early eighties the translator has left a comment to the page, urging the reader to consider the validity of the statement.

A question arises from the audience – can an artist exhibit works that might have aesthetic or other value for fascists themselves? A commentator claims that antifascist art should be inapproachable for fascists themselves. As in the case of Henriksson's installation, there exists a possibility for a fascist to enjoy the works from his own stance – as historical evidence supporting his political views. Henriksson deals with the claim well, stating that as an artist her purpose is to take things from the past that have the potential to shed light onto our concurrent issues. I agree. An artist cannot be assumed to hold super-human responsibility over how his works are perceived – except maybe through arranging a public gathering where the presented themes are openly discussed, like in the gallery space right next door to Henriksson’s own studio.

That is one of the reasons why the ongoing debate in the comment section of Hufvudstandsbladet is important. Arguing about the political affinities of a long ago dead person (Krämer) shows that there is a lot left to be discussed from the past decades.

The only way to fight “hidden” fascism brought to discussion here is through becoming conscious of it. The antifascist thinkers and sects of society often tend to have nearly militant opinions and ways of expressing them, which serves to exhibit the cognitive dissonance inherent in each of us. We often fail to admit that the fantasy for a god-like leader is alive and well in both our culture and individual psyche.

The mindscape of Europeans has been long influenced by the Judeo-Christian concept of an omnipotent, fatherly God. Accepting the existence of such a being opens the door to fascism – the belief or hope that a man of flesh-and-blood could serve in a political position demanding omnipotence. If this supposition is brought to surface and rationally discussed, it doesn't take a long time to realize it to be faulty. Fascism would be the perfect form of governance were it to be lead by an omnipotent, god-like man, yet that is impossible in the light of the capacities of any human being.

As long as fascism remains demonized or curtained in a mask of “pure evil,” as in the case of the Nazis, the possibilities for the promotion of rational discussion remains marginalized. Antifascism is, at best, embodied in clearly stated, conscious values that can be argued upon and, most importantly, compromised. Discussing Finland’s past and the undercurrents of fascist thought on our soil is a process that yours truly welcomes with open arms. In addition to Lindberg’s and Henriksson’s exhibitions, the spring of 2012 just saw the premier of one other majorly Finnish cultural product dealing with the Nazis – the movieIron Sky, which transcends political correctness by placing the Nazis into the service of a science fiction farce.

RESOURCES

1. A teaser for the video can be viewed at the artist’s homepage at www.sebastianlindberg.net
2. Lars Westerlund’s, Itsetehostuksesta nöyryyteen, suomensaksalaiset 1933 – ’46, Kansallisarkisto 2011, can be read online in finnish at: www.arkisto.fi/uploads/Palvelut/Julkaisut/
3. George Grant and Hinduism: Contemplative Probes by Ron Dart, can be found online at theowlgeorgegrant.blogspot.com
4. A review of the book which lists some of the key points in it can be read at www.nazi.org.uk/hitler-buddha-krishna.htm
5. Quote from: www.penguin.ca