The cultural history of nineteenth-century Europe, by Hannu Salmi, is a timely addition to the Polity list. Produced in 2008 by a Press in Bridge Street, Cambridge, and gracing John Wiley & Sons Limited Publishing List, Nineteenth-Century Europe gives very much more than the usual historical canter in a typical short history of the period. It provides a Finn’s eye view of a broad range of issues, including industrialization, cultural nationalism, the home and family, department store, consumerism, and colonial culture. At its heart is the story of the establishment of an embryo European identity.
The book is short, and about a quarter of it is taken up by the bibliography and the index. The end notes are most useful for serious scholars who want to follow up the many interesting ideas canvassed in the work, but hopefully the book will reach a wide audience, and end up on the shelves of many libraries, as it has a great deal of general interest also. The book is full of references to the cultural DNA of European civilization, and will ring a bell at many levels of literary and scholarly experience.
The relationships between distant margins are explored in an unusual and enticing way. To take a small example, the classic horror story hit of 1886, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is teamed up with Darwin’s contribution to evolutionary biology to illustrate a dualistic view of human nature. The material on this is engrossing, as is Salmi’s book itself.
It’s a book written by Finnish- speaking Finn, and should be read as such. Finns know all about dualism. Although it has for generations been politically incorrect to observe the non- congruent perspectives of the Finnish-speaking majority, and the Swedish- speaking minority, who live in Finland and co-exist, the diverging members of Finland’s two language groups behave differently, and have different perspectives, encouraged by different education systems from the sand pit and the park auntie to University level. Hannu Salmi is Professor of Cultural History at the University of Turku, Finland. Instruction is given in Finnish. A few streets away is an older University, where teaching is in Swedish: Abo Academi. Abo was the name Sweden used for the town when its kings ruled, and now republican Finnish -speaking Finns call their town Turku, which is what Finnish Finns have always done for many centuries.
Swedish speaking Finns prefer to live in Abo, call their city Abo, and insist on their legal rights to have their mail delivered to Swedish language street names, and to book international flights and ferries to and from Abo not Turku. If you can imagine Istanbul having a sizeable minority who called their city Constantinople well into the twenty-first century, you might be able to glean there is something odd happening in Finland, where the relationship between the plantation class, and the indigenous inhabitants, is still quite tricky.
With the passage of time, and since the entry of Finland into the European Union, the cultural rivalry between the two language groups and their political differences are disappearing, on the surface at least. Only the Irish have embraced E.U. membership more readily than the Finns, who have dumped the Marrka and have gone head over heels to try to demonstrate that they are real Europeans, and only marginally Finnish, a sort of reverse burst of national romanticism, and the complete opposite of the manic drive for independence and national sovereignty which characterized Finnish attitudes during the nineteenth century.
Finland’s key position at the junction of the Baltic ,where strategically located forts could bar the sea roads to Russia and Scandinavia, was a prize acquisition for Sweden when Sweden was an embryo great power, and struggling with what are now Norway, Denmark, and Germany for territorial mastery of the Scandinavian region. In Finland, the language of government was Swedish, and a ring of Swedish castles encircled Finland to keep it safe for Sweden and safer from Russia. The castles were ruled by the Finnish equivalents of the Anglo-Irish. Most of the Swedish ruling plantation class never bothered to learn the Finnish language, which was dismissed as a sort of Gaelic by them. The efforts of the Swedish speaking Finns resulted in their language and separate identity being guaranteed by their post independence constitution. A Swedish speaking Finn, P.E. Svinhufvud, wrote it and it was based on a Swedish medieval template.
But the Swedish- speaking Finns contribution in shaping the character of Finnish nationality has been written out of the plot in a tactful masterpiece of revisionism. Before the Russian revolution and the Finnish civil war between Red and White Finns, Finland had long been a prize possession of Russia, as it had been of Queen Margaret and Sweden thereafter. The Russians set up Finland as a Grand Duchy.
Finland became gradually independent of its two imperialist masters, Sweden in the early nineteenth century, and Russia in 1917 when Lenin, (who did not have much of the Grand Duke about him) impressed by the corruptibility of the Finnish border police, tossed this neighboring possession-country aside, and left the Svencomen and Fennomen to fight it out. Lenin liked Finland and independence was a Bolshevik principal, but Stalin and his generation were to regret Lenin’s act during the Winter War and the Continuation War. Soviet military forces occupied a small but humiliating enclave near Helsinki as insurance against the war- like Finns until the end of the Cold War.
Late nineteenth century Russification efforts, and fiercely independent national romanticism, combined to establish the young nation, although many educated Europeans were ignorant of the Finland’s position as a sovereign country for another fifty years. Some confused Finland with the Baltic States. Others invented the term Finlandization to describe a position where the Russians ruled de facto but not I Finnish foreign policy.
At the beginning of his book, Salmi pays homage to Aristotle’s Poetics, so perhaps I may also. I adopted and followed, in my own misspent professional career as a University teacher, Aristotle’s views on Humor as a didactic tool, but I cannot find much humor in this book to provide education with a smile. The Leningrad cowboys show Finns have a terrific sense of humor. The complexity of the Finnish language even in translation rules out irony and the subtlety needed to cross national boundaries with laughter.
The non jocular heart of Salmi’s serious book is set out in the informative introduction, where the author writes
Writing a history of the nineteenth century becomes meaningful only when the period is seen as an open-ended process of change, rather than a closed entity; a process with roots extending far into the past and effects felt to our present day.
There is no knowledge without comparison, and Salmi makes deft use of examples and a wide variety of European sources. His comments on Il gattopardo and Visconti’s cinematic rendition bring out the extent to which a lost world can never be recovered- except by means of fiction. Salmi is successful in providing a route to the feelings and imagination of what he describes as “historical agents” and begins the main section of the book with a chapter on economics, culture and industrialization, which canvasses the views of Arnold Toynbee and Adam Smith, Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo. The redefinition of workers’ cultural identity by Marx and Engels well covered, and William Wordsworth, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Dickens are all marshaled to produce a convincing picture of the reality of urban life in “the smoke-covered, foul smelling cities that were born around the world”. The material on William Blake, who died in 1827, does due justice to the poet, who targets were often inhumane machinery and war, reflecting the fact that England was at war for thirty five of the seventy years Blake lived.
The book comes alive (as Finns do after a few beers and a sauna) when Salmi quotes Zachris Topelius on modernization
They strip and sell thee, my country!
They take away thine winter fleece
like drunkards, they trade every mother’s best coat, for a drop of spirit
Modernization produced victims as well as progress. The Finnish author Juhani Aho who wrote a novel called The Railway. Aho describes how the Finns in the woods thought of the railway as a horse which eats logs as they wondered if modernization was an improvement, and if they were better off as a result of technological advance, and pondered if they had sold their souls to the devil in return for a transformation of their environment and a higher standard of living. Salmi moves from Faust to Philistine in a chapter on the worship of art and the cult of genius. Using Florence, he shows that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that observers often differ when describing elements of the same experience.
The most interesting section of the book is a section on the cultural history of nationalism; Salmi shows how the Finnish experience was shared by many others in Europe. Celts and Finno Ugric’s alike moved down the same tracks, enchanted by folk music and folklore, and using language as a marker for national identity. Ossian spoke for the Celtic fringe, while Lonnrot translated the Kalevala. The English language poet Longfellow brought the meter of spoken Finnish to a huge world audience when he pirated much of Kalevala content and all of the loping story tellers’ art from the Finnish original in his masterpiece Hiawatha, a poem which mimics in its meter spoken Finnish. The enthusiasm for comparative philology, which often focused on Finnish, has a dropped off since the nineteenth century, and no English speaker has come up with a Canine Hiawatha.
Salmi points out how imagined national histories were popular in the nineteenth century, with the Scottish author Sir Walter Scott serving as a role model. In the Nordic area Zachris Topelius wrote novels Tales of a Field Surgeon. These began serials in the Swedish language Helsingfors Tidningar between 1853 and 1866. Salmi records that the world presented in these stories left an indelible mark on literary and historical consciousness in Sweden and Finland. Topelius’ yarns, which began in the middle of the Thirty Years War and ended with the murder of Gustav 111 at a masked ball at the end of the eighteenth century and ran in two parallel streams, the story of a family over the period, inter twined with the decline of Sweden as a great power.
Salmi writes warily about this material, and the translator onto English cannot disguise the unease Finnish Finns feel about the role of the Swedish speaking cousins. Salmi records
In the history of Finnish nationalism, Topelius represented a strongly Swedish-sympathizing tendency. Finland had come under Russian rule in 1809, but in his art Topelius wanted to emphasize the historical ties between Sweden and Finland. Thus Topelius took part in constructing a Finnish history that was an in separable part of the undertakings of Western Europe.
Peter Burke writing on the dust jacket won’t be the only reader among many (I hope) to recognize that that the author’s recurrent use of Finnish examples offers something new to readers from other parts of Europe. Along with material on European peep shows, Carl Jung, Pasteur, thunderstorms, department stores in Paris, the sinking of the Titanic (but not the Estonia, whose survivors were rescued by Finnish servicemen off Uto – in another century) Stanley and Stendhal, the British Museum and Jack the Ripper, there is material on the Finnish February Manifesto in 1899, Finnish women novelists, Lonnrot and the Kalevala, two members of the Runeberg family and the Finnish view expressed in Uusi Suometar about the shock effects achieved by early cinema. But where is Bobrikov? Where is Sibelius? What has happened to Mannerheim? Isn’t Axel Gallen- Kallela a great example of many of the themes Salmi is writing about? Sibelius’ family sent him off to learn Finnish as well as his mother tongue as soon as he could walk, and many Swedish Finns have gone to great pains to learn Finnish. Finnish speaking Finns on the other hand would rather learn English, Russian, German, French, Italian – anything so long as it wasn’t Swedish. On the other hand, many Swedish speakers are more Finnish than the Finns when it comes to protecting their heritage which after all stretches back to the middle ages and earlier, and has more than a touch of the No Surrender chant of the Ulster protestant.
I’m hoping that Polity will encourage Salmi to cultural history of Finland and address in it the issues raised on the larger scale in the successful cultural history of the nineteenth century. By being more parochial and less diffident about the importance of Finland, Salmi is in a unique position to contribute a chapter in the understanding of how the integration of Europe is developing since the competitive rat race between the local powers in their nineteenth century struggle for independent national sovereignty.