Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim was born on 4 June 1867. He was the third child of seven in the marriage of Count Carl Robert Mannerheim and Helene von Julin. Gustaf was born into an aristocratic, well-off (the financial status was to significantly deplete during Mannerheim's childhood), Swedish-speaking respectable family. Gustaf was still very young when his father left for Paris in an attempt to compound a new family fortune. At around the same time, in 1881 his mother died. Gustaf’s childhood and indeed the childhoods of his six siblings was tough, but not the kind of stuff that legends are made of.
Mannerheim's interest in a career in the army became apparent fairly early on. He joined the Cadet Corps at Hamina at the age of thirteen and progressed very positively at his studies. (1) However several years later, the young Gustaf's life took a turn that would set it in a different course forever more. He was booted out of the Cadet Corps with only a short amount of the required time left to be served. Gustaf had tried the old stash a dummy in your bed so that it looks like your sound asleep when you're actually out getting drunk trick one too many times. This event was significant because it left Mannerheim with a vacancy in his life, and hence the opportunity to go to Russia.
In the summer of 1887 after passing an entrance examination, Mannerheim was accepted into the Nikolaevskoe Cavalry School. The first step towards a career in the Imperial Army had been taken. It is interesting to note that although it was not uncommon for respected members of the Finnish nobility to pursue a life and career in Russia, Mannerheim's family were deeply against Gustaf taking this road. (2) Nevertheless, Mannerheim confidently learnt the Russian language and embarked on a highly successful climb up the Russian military ranks. Perhaps that in itself reveals something about Scandinavian history. A history of acceptance. Here was a man who would come rule Finland but who did not even speak Finnish until he was fifty. (3) A man who spoke fluent Swedish and Russian was to come to be a hero in a land in which he couldn't even speak the native tongue.
The Russo-Japanese War begun in 1904, and it was a time that would see Mannerheim I s career begin to take root. Eager to gain military experience, Mannerheim offered himself to numerous types of operations during the war. It was to be an important time for two main reasons. Firstly important types began to notice the capabilities of Gustaf Mannerheim and secondly, Gustaf learnt some vital first lessons about leadership and how to get the best out of the common soldier. Unfortunately, many success stories involve the person in question forgetting the very roots from which they themselves sprung. Stig Jagerskiold notes that Mannerheim concluded from his Russo-Japansese war experiences that troops had to be "taught discipline and order" and "must not become slack or drink to excess". (4) Interesting that Mannerheim himself was thrown out of the Finnish Cadet Corps all those years before for a blatant and stupid breech of discipline.
The Russo-Japanese war ended in a Russian defeat, on 5 September 1905. Mannerheim had done well out of the war and it didn't take long for those he had impressed to set him upon a peacetime task. General Palitsyn, (the then chief of the general staff) asked him to go on a reconnaissance mission along the empire's southern border adjoining China. Mannerheim completed the task successfully and returned home to give the Tsar his personal account of the mission. In the ensuing years Mannerheim was relocated to Poland where he soon rose to the rank of major-general. He was deservingly being promoted at the speed of wild-fire.
Some writers such as Jagerskiold suggest that Mannerheim was in turmoil over the decision to fight for Russia in The First World War because of confused emotions and distress about what the war might bring Finland. (5) The truth is that Mannerheim was more than ready to fight for his beloved Russian Empire, wild horses wouldn't have kept him away. During the Great War Mannerheim served Russia as loyally and effectively as he had done during the Russo-Japanese War and rose to the rank of Lieutenant General.
The last few months of 1917 were to take Mannerheim's life on a new course. Russia was to become not only chaotic, but utterly devastated by a Civil War after the Great October Revolution of that year. It was not a place to be for the old school types such as Mannerheim. Put simply their lives were in great danger at a time when there were so many anti-establishment revolutionaries galloping around. J.E.0 Screen notes in his book "Mannerheim: The Years of Preparation" that Mannerheim's "career had been ruined by the revolution that was destroying completely the world in which he had served so long and successfully". (6) Mannerheim was to become a Finnish hero in the eyes of so many but the truth is he may not have even ever returned there in 1917 had circumstances not forced him to do so. Unlike most national heroes it was the ambition to have of a grand career not his heart that was driving him most to fight for and lead his homeland.
Mannerheim returned an unknown to Helsinki in December 1917. Before long, events leading up to the Finnish War of Independence (which would later develop into a Civil War) were taking shape. Mannerheim soon gained authority in Finland and fought passionately in words and action against the Red Peril threatening his new beloved homeland. Marvin Rintala states in his book "Four Finns" that for Mannerheim the war in Finland was but one step towards an ideal eventual overthrow of the Bolshevik Government in Russia. (7) Where did this man's loyalty lie? It seems that if the Mensheviks had won the civil war in Russia that Mannerheim would have caught the first train back. Nevertheless, after his team the whites had taken victory in the Finnish Civil War he was to become Regent of Finland. Mannerheim held this position for a couple of years and then in the 1920s, drifted into obscurity as a private citizen, away from the military and politics. He was to return to the public service throughout the 1930s and become prominent again with the onset of the Second World War. Mannerheim always had his hand up when a war was to be fought. War was his finest area of expertise. Who among us doesn't put their hand up when volunteers are being asked for to carry out a task that they are naturally good at and are sure they could complete? Mannerheim rose to the challenge for Finland in the Second World War and indeed made a legend of himself in his place of birth.
It would have been tough for the now weary, older, wiser man that he was to devote the energy needed to see Finland through the Winter War and the Continuation War. Indeed he notes in his memoirs: 'I had really hoped to end my days without once more having to go on campaign'. (8) However, one doubts the sincerity of such a reflection given Mannerheim's enthusiasm for wars and military operations prior to the outbreak of the Winter War.
Mannerheim's overall triumphs during the war were as follows. As Commander-in- Chief of the Finnish Army during the Winter War he urged for a quick peace because in his eyes the Finns were inevitably going to lose. He wisely appraised that a quick peace would stop them losing too much. Secondly, he was able to lead Finland out of the Continuation War in 1944 when it became obvious to him (but to very few others) that Germany was going to lose. Mannerheim knew how vital it would be that Finland end fighting with the ominous victors of the war and exonerate ties with the soon to be losers. (9)
Mannerheim was inaugurated as President of Finland on 4 August 1944, a post at which he served for just two years. Once some of the post-war complications had been suitably dealt with Mannerheim resigned from his presidency predominantly because of his worsening health.
Having said so much about Mannerheim's life in chronological terms, of his experiences, successes and failures, what more of the man himself? What did he stand for and what does his life reveal about Scandinavian history? Mannerheim was born into a Swedish-speaking family, spent thirty years in Russia and spoke fluent French before learning the Finnish language. A harsh critic would suggest that his arrival as a Finnish national hero (to some), really only came about because circumstances deemed it so. True heroes and leaders such as Che Guevara and Vladimir Lenin are revered so because of the fact that their desire and belief for what they work and fight for is so undeniably constant. Mannerheim was a different case because he spent about half of his life away from the homeland where he is remembered most, fighting other causes for other reasons. Mannerheim was consistently dedicated to at least one thing though, the battle against the onset of communism.
Rintala describes him as la cosmopolite in the age of nationalism, an aristocrat in the age of democracy, a conservative in the age of revolutions'. (10) This appraisal is apt and explains a great deal about the man. His cosmopolitan nature meant that he was able to serve and work in multiple nations with great success. The fact that he was essentially an aristocrat and a conservative explains why he had such a terrific time in the Imperial Army in Russia for all those years.
It almost impossible to analyse exactly what Mannerheim stood for politically. It's been noted that different foreign observers at different times viewed him as an Anglophile, a Francophile, a Russophobe, a Germanophile, and even a pro-Nazi. (11) His stance is so hard to assess because he never flew the flag for any one long-term goal for a huge amount of time. If he were here now held be claiming that Finnish Independence and the eradication of communism were his perennial aims.
Mannerheim's life was so unique that it reveals little about Scandinavian history as a whole. One notion that his success in life does suggest however is perhaps the accepting nature and overall intelligence of the Scandinavian people. Finland was a nation in grave danger of losing her independence in the Second World War and rather than shut out a man who had spent half his working life serving the enemy, the Finnish people allowed the accomplished Mannerheim to lead their country out of potential history-changing strife. The support of many accompanying politicians and most of the population enabled Mannerheim to exercise his capabilities in getting Finland out of World War 2. It was vital that most Finns were smart enough to temporarily forget the huge downside to Mannerheim's past. In particular, his involvement with the Russian Empire and his actions during the Civil War.
Finland it seems bore the brunt of wars heading Scandinavia’s way. Norway also had its involvement in World War 2 but Finland was the country that had the least luck being situated right next to the Soviet Empire. It had fought a civil war amongst herself in order to create some sort of successful independent nation only to have to defend that shaky turf twenty years later from an aggravated old foe in the form of an empire-seeking Russia. This is something that studying Mannerheim's life tells us about Scandinavian history. During the course of his military career it was Finland who saw the most bloodshed. Sweden and Denmark as ever seemed to escape it all. The Finns are the only of the four Scandinavian countries that have had to fight with an enemy as big and powerful as the Soviet Union in order to maintain their independence. They are the most nationalistic and patriotic bunch in the whole region for that one reason.
(1) Stig Jagerskiold, Mannerheim: Marshal of Finland, Minnesota, 1986, 3.
(2) J.E.0 Screen, Mannerheim: The Years of Preparation, London, 1970, 29.
(3) Marvin Rintala, Four Finns, Los Angeles, 1969, 20.
(4) Jagerskiold, Marshal of Finland, 17.
(5) Jagerskiold, Marshal of Finland, 33.
(6) Screen, The Years of Preparation, 125.
(7) Rintala, Four Finns, 30.
(8) C.G.E Mannerheim, The Memoirs of Marshal Mannerheim, translated by Count Eric Lewenhaupt, London, 1953, 322.
(9) Rintala, Four Finns, 35.
(10) Rintala, Four Finns, 22.
(11) Rintala, Four Finns, 18.
Jakerskiold, Stig, Mannerheim: Marshal of Finland, Minnesota, 1986.
Mannerheim, C.G.E, The Memoirs of Marshal Mannerheim, translated by Count Eric Lewenhaupt, London, 1953.
Rintala, Marvin, Four Finns, Los Angeles, 1969.
Screen, J.E.0, Mannerheim: The Years of Preparation, London, 1970.