Burrowing into Foxholes


A translation of Jukka Huusko’s article in Helsingin Sanomat, 29/8/15, published with his kind permission.

The Finns burrowing into their foxholes might learn from Eino Leino’s humanism

As shots ring out in the Helsinki night, the poet Eino Leino, finding himself on the brink of a nervous breakdown, scribbles a foreword for his anthology “The Book of Liberty” (Vapauden kirja).

It is March 1918. The Civil War – or, as Leino put it, “the Fratricide” – has broken out a couple of months earlier. The Reds have taken Helsinki.

Although Leino is sympathetic to some of the goals of the workers’ movement, the Red Terror distresses him. He has aligned himself with the Whites in the middle of the Civil War.

On this “sleepless and distressing night”, at the darkest hour of his nation’s history, Leino pours out bitter words on paper. They are words, however, that do not only attack the Red rebels who have allied themselves with the Bolsheviks. The entire Finnish nation and the dark side of its “national spirit” get an earful.

“This country tolerates nothing and nobody greater than itself,” Leino snaps.

“It is a master of hatred, not love, because it lacks the capacity to love others as it loves itself and its own. If they were to say to me on my deathbed that this peninsula was home to a people who were not fratricidal, not secretly hateful, not covetous of their neighbours, then I should close my eyes with good reason, knowing that the Finnish nation had died[.]” (Leino’s italics)

The poet, newspaperman, columnist and critic Eino Leino (1878-1926) is known above all for his National Romantic poems and his bohemian lifestyle.

But let’s for the moment overlook the parroted Lapland Summers and Nocturnes. Leino was also a social thinker, influential in the frenzied decades when Finland transformed itself from a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire into an independent state.

In his acerbic newspaper writings Leino often considered burning ideological questions such as the sense of nationhood and nationalism.

A hundred years after Leino the debate about patriotism and nationalism has re-emerged in Finland – this time in the context of the Europe-wide debate about immigration and multiculturalism.

Online, they are presented in hostile terms. The nationalist populist Olli Immonen (Finns Party), who is accused of being a neo-Nazi, justifies his ideology as patriotism.

To speak of patriotism may be almost discomfiting for his political opponents.

But what did Eino Leino – a writer steeped in the struggle for Finland’s independence – think about patriotism?

For Leino, patriotism was above all the love of one’s fatherland. In this respect, Leino distinguished between patriotism and nationalism.

“Nationalism is negative; patriotism is positive,” Leino wrote in 1911.

“The former is based on hatred of others; the latter on love for one’s own nationality.”

Leino’s spiritual and political home was with the liberal Young Finns’ movement. In his columns Leino frequently attacked the conservative Finnish Party, which he accused of “nationalist zealotry”.

Especially as a young man, Leino was politically active, but he esteemed higher spiritual values more than he did party politics.

One of these was the concept of the national spirit, and the national consciousness arising from it.

The national spirit, which according to Leino had taken shape in Elias Lönnrot’s life’s work “The Kalevala”, was what bound all Finns together regardless of political affiliation.

“His [Lönnrot’s] memory cannot be used to whip up any kind of national intolerance or self-centred factionalism, for before his level-headed spiritual majesty all baser and darker motives evaporate like clouds in sunlight,” Leino wrote in the newspaper Sunnuntai (Sunday), of which he was editor-in-chief, in 1917.

Indeed, Leino often used the words “tolerance” and “intolerance” in his writings – for example, when presenting the Young Finns’ basic principle of “humanity” in the newspaper Hämetar (Woman of Häme) in 1906.

“This alone – the quest for light, culture and an elevated, tolerant humanity – can piece together again a single people from the fragments that we now call the Finnish nation.”

“Be tolerant to one another, people, for great, O great is this land,” Leino wrote in his poem, radiant with faith in humanity, Hymyilevä Apollo (Smiling Apollo) in 1918.

Many of Leino’s poems and articles seek to stir up feelings of patriotism. But patriotism was not for Leino an endpoint, but a step.

“May the concepts of universal humanity and internationalism, the boundless ocean into which our rivers flow, now and always be common to all our national pastimes.” (Helsingin Sanomat 27/2/21)

“At one and the same time we must be Finns and good citizens of the world. How far we are from this happy combination of these seeming opposites each may find from their nearest surroundings, unless perchance they find them even closer to home – in themselves.” (HS, 28/2/10)

Leino did not hesitate to get embroiled in debate with his political opponents. In one such encounter Leino sees himself as falling between two extremes: the ultranationalist Finnish and Swedish identities.

“I have tried to show just how necessary it is for small nations at least to try to think broadly and in a spirit of universal humanity, and also the suffocating spiritual atmosphere enveloping those nations which close in on themselves like a beetle,” he wrote in Sunnuntai in 1917.

Finns seem again to be burrowing into their foxholes. Much of Leino’s writing seems astonishingly topical at present.

Might we find answers for the contentious issues of our time in Leino’s thinking?

The world and its social issues were different at the beginning of the twentieth century. Leino’s notions of a “national spirit” do not stand up to critical scrutiny. We find ourselves looking for answers to contemporary challenges such as multiculturalism.

But as Leino wrote concerning the development of a Finnish identity in an article for the newspaper Karjala on 6th November 1908:

“We must not allow ourselves to be so in awe of the work of our ancestors that the present generation’s initiative and desire to plough new furrows become paralysed. But we can draw lines from the past to the present, and see which of them might afford some clues for the future.”

What if we took some cues from Leino’s principle of a universal humanity?

In the evening of his short life, and following Finland’s tragic civil war, Leino began to dream of returning to his home province of Kainuu.

In his unfinished autobiography “An Album of my Life” (Elämäni kuvakirja, 1925) Leino walks through the landscapes of his home village of Paltaniemi, a place “where nothing is strange”.

His consciousness aflood with childhood memories, the poet concludes that what a person needs to know of their origins is the relationship between love for the fatherland and a sense of universal humanity.

“Love for the fatherland is a rootless tree if there is no corresponding love for one’s home,” Leino avers.

“Even the most fiery expression of affection for all humankind is but a sounding brass and a tinkling bell, if it does not have any effect on one’s closest surroundings and the people in it.

“Nevertheless, everyone who has attained self-knowledge, who feels and thinks, is themselves close to being human.”

Leino’s individualistic humanism was nourished by the soil of his love for his birthplace. It grew into a love for his fatherland, but that growth did not stop; it reached out to the higher dimension of love for humanity.

Its motivation was love, not hatred.

Let each of us learn to love according to our will, strength and capacity.

Translation by Rupert Moreton

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