Tuesday, May 15, 2018

'Built upon this Rock' - The Lost Speech that helped unify Finland

On the 5th May, in the small town of Nivala, hundreds of citizens of Finland gathered outside the Town's Church, including the country's President, Sauli Niinstö and Prime Minister Juha Sipilä. They were all there to celebrate the 100th anniversary of what has become known as the Reconciliation Speech. 

Part of the crowd at the Nivala Church, 5th May 2018. Source: Kaleva, Jukka-Pekka Moilanen

The Background

From late January 1918 till May of that year, Finland was torn apart by a vicious civil war that saw the country completely divided and confused. With the collapse of the Russian Empire and the subsequent Civil War raging their between various Red (Communist and Socialist elements) against various White (Monarchists and Parliamentarians) , as well as smaller other groups, Finland saw itself free for the first time in its existence but despite unifying to form a new Finnish state, the country was engulfed by a political match for power that soon broke into open warfare. 

Even though it was on the peripheral of the Eastern Front of the First World War, it was still of value to both Russia and Germany, who both put their influences into their respective sides and sent various forms of aid. Despite this though, the war remained heavily Finnish based.

On the 8th April the Battle of Tampere was over and no longer would the Reds hold the upper hand. From here it was retreat followed by retreat, with small scatterings of holdouts that quickly collapsed, for the Finnish Red forces. 5th May saw the final defeat of the Finnish Red Forces (but not the end of the Finnish Civil War as there were still several small Russian garrisons holding out in the country) at Ahvenkoski and it was on this day that the foundation for the unification of Finland was laid.

Kyösti Kallio

President Kyösti Kallio at his desk. Source: National Board of Antiquities

Born on the 10th April 1873 in the farming town of Ylivieska, Kyösti was brought up in a politically active and hard working family. He was educated not only in his birth town but also in near by Raahe and eventually moved to Oulu to study at the Lyseo (Secondary education). It was here that he became influenced by the Young Finnish Party and eventually became an active member of the organisation and its protests against the Russification of Finland. At 31 years old he was voted into the Diet of Finland which was remarkable for someone so young, he wouldn't let his young age be tempered by older heads and was known to be a very opinionated and vocal politician, especially against policies that were detrimental to the Finnish state. 

He rose in political prominence, being voted into the first parliament in 1907, being made agricultural minister in 1917, and during the Civil War he was in hiding until the liberation of Helsinki, in which he led the Senate of Helsinki.

After the Civil War he held various positions within the newly independent Finnish state, from Agricultural minister to President. He led the country during the Winter War and thus signed the 1940 Moscow Peace Treaty, in which he stated "May my hand, which is forced to sign such a paper, wither." It would not be long after that his prophesy came true, as due to failing health, his right arm became paralysed. He suffered a stroke in August and his duties passed to his Prime Minister, Risto Ryti. After a long struggle, he decided to resign from office in November and wanted to retire to his farm in Nivala. In December he attended a formal farewell ceremony at Helsinki train station, where he suffered a heart attack and died whilst the band played the Porilaisten marssi.

Taken as President Kallio goes to retirement. The farewell ceremony on the 19th Decemeber 1940 at Helsinki train station. Seconds after this photo was taken, he would suffer a heart attack that would claim his life. Source: Hugo Sundström, Wikimedia

The healing starts

Even though the war was still in effect, it was in the final stage, and almost all but the very South Eastern areas were in the hands of the Whites, the process of healing a divided and broken Finland needed to be started.

Kallio had taken a train from Helsinki to Nivala, passing through the devastated Finland (especially the heavily mauled city of Tampere). It was here that he, acting as a senator, gave a message for peace and reconciliation between Red and White. This wasn’t exactly an easy message to deliver, the senate was still suspended (it would be called again the next day, 6th May), martial law was still in effect, thousands of reds and their supporters were in prison camps and there was still violence in the streets (summary executions was not unheard off).

So what was the speech? That, in the words of President Niinistö, is a great “irony of history that the speech was not saved in its entirety for posterity”. To date there hasn’t been a single copy of the speech found, nor do any Newspapers record it. However, what has been quoted, and passed on to this day, is “We need to create a Finland where there are no Reds and Whites but only Finns who love their fatherland, citizens of the Republic of Finland who all feel themselves to be members of society and who are at home here”.

These words started the process to create an independent Finland, one united together in a common cause of national identity and pride above such petty divisions like politics. Some historians have questioned the validity of this much repeated quote due to no copies being saved, but Professor Kari Hokkanen believes it to be correct albeit that Kallio didn’t have it in written form but freely spoke it. Prime Minister Juha Sipilä said at the ceremony, "Thousands of people were killed in post-war altercations and prison camps before the reconciliation policies began to be implemented in earnest. Kallio preferred a policy of mercy over revenge,...This integration effort reached its fulfillment years later, after Kallio was elected president and named both the winners and losers of the conflict to work side by side in the government,"

The relevance today

With the centenary of the Civil War, there is obvious discourse within public and academic forums about the war. Most have been of a civil disposition, with many books and articles being published taking a more middle ground approach to the war, but some have pushed a more extreme position, blaming one side or the other for the bloodshed.

President Sauli Niinistö and Prime Minister Juha Sipilä were both present at the ceremony this year and urged all those in Finland to respect one another regardless of views. Source: Kaleva, Jukka-Pekka Moilanen

President Niinistö stated at the ceremony, "The events which took place a hundred years ago are still of relevance for Finland today, and it is not insignificant how we account for the past. Civil war is the worst thing that can happen to a nation. Let it be a lesson to us to remember and preserve our stability at a time of turmoil in various parts of the world,". He would continue by pointing out today’s issues, especially with regards to social media and internet forums and the rise in antagonism, "I encourage you, ladies and gentlemen, to take the responsibility. Nurturing democracy is an invaluable tool in reconciling different points of view. This is a good rule of thumb: even where there is diversity and people of different backgrounds, convictions and goals, we have a right to disagree. This is something we must be able to respect, however differently we ourselves might think. This is what Kyösti Kallio urged his fellow citizens to do, to seek reconciliation, in his famous Nivala speech as well as consistently in his other actions. Let's not forget it."



The title 'built upon this rock' was chosen not only because Kallio's speech was seen as the cornerstone for building a new Finland but also because Kallio translates to rock. 

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