Vol 8 2004 - Review by Craig Cormick in Suomi


Author: Tony Griffiths

As anybody knows who has ever gone through book shops looking for something up-to-date on Scandinavia - there are very few good and affordable books available in Australia. That is - until this year. A new book, simply titled, `Scandinavia', by Tony Griffiths of Flinders University of South Australia, gives a concise and highly readable account of modern Scandinavia over the past few centuries, providing the political background for the shaping of the modern nations of Norway, Sweden, Denmark and, of course, Finland.

On a recent edition of the ABC Radio National's `Books and Writing' program, Tony Griffiths said the book outlined the historical context of the major changes that shaped the Nordic countries' modern characters.

He said, "If you take a Finnish peasant for example, in the 17th Century, he'd been under a Swedish King in the 19th Century, as a result of these great upheavals he was put under a Russian Tsar - but he still spoke Finnish.

"But to make it even more complicated, Finnish wasn't even the language of Government in Finland, and so you had a situation where the indigenous people had to try and use, through a romantic national movement, I suppose, the language as a form of asserting nationality. "It was a search for nationality through language that really was behind both the Norwegian and Finnish independence struggles that coincidentally both went into the early years of the 20th Century."

Throughout the book, Griffiths uses the artists of the time to show how the art they were expressing was also an expression of political activism.

In his ABC interview, he said, "Sibelius was born in Finland in the 19th Century when Finland was a part of Russia, his father and mother were determined to bring him up knowing something about the constitutional position of Finland within the Russian empire, but also being aware of the Finnish independence movement. Sibelius belonged to the Swedish speaking Finnish `ruling class' - if you like - and so they sent him to a Finnish speaking grammar school. So he was unusual in his milieu - he could speak Finnish and Swedish. He understood about the Finnish constitutional position, but he understood the Finnish independence movement.

And in his most famous works, Finlandia, the whole nation used this as a means of protesting against the Russian Tsar when there was no other means available them."

Tony Griffiths also said the great Norwegian playwright Ibsen was similarly inspired by the Norwegian independence movement, and devotes most of a chapter in the book to dealing with Ibsen, entitled `Out of the Doll's house' - named after Ibsen's famous play.

But the book is also about modern Scandinavia. "Nowadays one in eight Swedes is born to parents who weren't themselves born in Sweden - which is astonishing statistic. The Australian Democratic Party - if you can laughingly describe Hawke and the ALP as that - are looking to Swedish models", Griffiths added.

'They are also becoming more enmeshed in the Scandinavian defence structure. The defence forces are being re-equipped with Swedish submarines for example, and the telephone network is an Ericsson network.'

They are aware, I think that the Swedes are far more positive and contribute more - and the other Scandinavians - that the Japanese, who are great investors, but very rapacious. They invest in commercial real estate, rip the guts out of the country - but the Swedes, with their social democratic ethos, and the rest of the Scandinavians, try to put back as much as they take out."

The book contains material relating to the latest political upheavals affecting Scandinavia - namely the monumental changes within the Soviet Union and the Baltic States. I quote events as recent as last year, making it both a highly readable and timely book for anyone who has spent too many hours searching bookshops and come away only with 1960 Time-Life books on Scandinavia.

A short example of the very readable style of Tony Griffiths:

From 1968 until 1981, Kekkonen was a symbol of national identity, having a vast number of personal qualities that appealed to the Finnish collective subconscious. There were by then many Kekkonen jokes, some said to have been minted by the president. His diplomatic encounters with foreign heads of state in the coffee tent on the harbour front quay of Helsinki and his daily jog were irresistibly charming and deeply reassuring. Born in 1900, his extraordinary vigorous longevity provided a problem for political scientists trying to foresee Finland after Kekkonen, although some were reassured after searching the constitution to find that the president of Finland need not be alive. Kekkonen did not try to unravel the mystery; on the contrary, he bought a turtle and, having been told that turtles live for two hundred years, remarked: To a Finn, to see is to believe.