Friday, May 26, 2017

100 years of the Hanging Tree

Just after midnight on the 3rd or 6th of October 1916 , a figure was escorted by soldiers to a wooded area outside of the city of Oulu and then hung from a tree. The next day his lifeless corpse was buried by the tree in an unmarked grave. He would become the last person hanged in Finland.

The man’s name was Taavetti Lukkarinen, a forestry foreman and his crime was high treason. But what were the details of his crime?

Finland in 1916 was part of the Russian Empire under the title of the Grand Duchy of Finland. While technically an autonomous region of the Empire, it was still ruled by the Tsar, Nicholas II, and his representative, the Governor-General Franz Albert Seyna, who were limiting the power of the Finnish Diet in a period know as the Russification.

When Russia went to war with the Central Powers in 1914, Finland was obviously in tow too, and many of Finland’s young men became part of the Russian war machine. Some, however, continued in their normal occupations and some others still supported the Central Powers.

Finland saw numerous Prisoner of War camps dotted across its landscape and became the ‘home’ of many German soldiers, captured on the Eastern Front until peace was declared. Like many POW camps, there were escape attempts, and one camp in the Oulu/Kemi area saw 3 German soldiers escape in December 1915. The harsh winter made it difficult for the Germans but they did find a sympathetic ear in the local population and soon found their way to Kemi (107km north of Oulu) with the intention of getting to the border city of Tornio and into neutral Sweden. Lukkarinen decided to help hide the Germans near the train station but all 4 were soon caught by the Russian authorities. On their way to a new holding facility, Lukkarinen managed to escape and cross the border into Sweden.

He would have remained safe there if not for homesickness. Getting passage to Finland on a forged passport, he made his way by train to Oulu but on getting jitters he jumped off shortly before the main station. His act would be witnessed by Russian soldiers who soon tracked him down and arrested him. His identity was discovered and he was taken to Oulu Prison to await trial. Finland, like all of the Russian Empire, was under Martial Law because of the war and so Taavetti’s trial was to be held in a secret court by the VI Corps. He was declared a traitor to the state and that he would be hanged for high treason. His execution was kept a secret and he saw himself moved in the dead of the night to a horse drawn cart surrounded by 40 Russian soldiers, the site chosen was a place known as Kontinkangas, part of the military area of the Oulu Garrison but outside of the city grid. The only Finns present at his hanging were the Prison Priest and 2 Finnish policemen.

However, the secrecy didn’t last long and despite orders to keep clear of the area, Finns started to visit the area on Sundays in an act of protest towards the hanging, they carved crosses into the hanging tree and the surrounding trees. Oulu’s Governor, Axel Enehjelm, was criticized for his lack of action to try and save Taavetti. Soon the Russian authorities became irate and orders were given to cut down the trees in the area and to deter Finns from visiting the area, forcibly if needed.

This did not deter the remembrance of the event and soon after Finland gained its independence the site became a sacred spot. In 1935 a memorial was erected in the area and given a very patriotic and moving ceremony, attended by Veterans of the Civil War and Lukkarinen’s widow and two children. The memorial is a iron fence on a red granite base surrounding a tree, obviously the tree isn’t the actual tree but its symbolism is what has become important. The tree became a symbol to many as a reminder of the harsh days of Russian rule. Until its closing down, the Oulu Garrson used to take the new recruits here as part of a three stop tour, it was used as evidence of what would happen to them if their motherland was ever taken by foreign troops.

As for the body of Taavetti, it was exhumed shortly after the independence of Finland and interned at the main Oulu cemetery. His memorial and grave are maintained by the Artillerymen guild of Northern Finland and the Oulu Chapter of the Lions Club. His memory is still remembered 100 years on and he has become a symbol for how important it is for Finland to remain independent and in charge of its own affairs.

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