Europe's Hero Nation

Richard D. Lewis's picture

Europe's Hero Nation

Von Richard D. Lewis, London - 03.12.2017

The 6th December 2017 – Finland’s celebration of 100 years of independence.

Young countries are proud, conscientious and energetic. Their leaders start off by trying to do things right. This refreshing impetus of diligence and morality has been well-maintained on Finnish soil. We have an outstanding example of a hero nation with a virtually unblemished record in her internal and international dealings. Finland’s historical achievements are unrivalled by anyone on a similar time-scale.

From Peasantry to Presidency

In 1917, Finland was predominantly a nation of peasants, farmers and small landowners, without statehood, a Grand Ducal outpost on the fringes of the sprawling Russian Empire. The overwhelming majority of Finns worked on the land, just as their ancestors had done for centuries. The land was owned to a great extent by a Swedish-speaking minority; fledgling Finnish industries such as there were had been established by Scots, Norwegians, Germans and other foreigners. For prolonged periods in Finnish history the peasants had been drafted into the service of foreign armies – principally Swedish and Russian – where they had distinguished themselves by their valour and tenacity. As long as Europeans could remember, the bleak, wide expanses of the northern forests and lakes had been a shared nation, in which Finns had been junior partners, using other peoples’ stamps and pledging allegiance to a foreign crown.

Language and Climate

But if Finland was not a state, it was a nation, and had been for a long time. Most countries can date their independence with some accuracy, but the emergence of national consciousness is a far more nebulous phenomenon. A people derives its culture mainly from four sources: language, climate, religion and history. In the case of the last two, one has some choice. Yet the influences of language and climate are more powerful and define the cultural groups more indelibly. The importance of the Finnish language as an irresistibly binding factor to those who wield it in shining separateness cannot be overestimated. It is no ordinary vehicle of communication, like Swedish or Bahasa. Its abundance of vowels and flowing liquidity at first remind one of Italian, but, as one listens, one detects underlying, vibrant sinews unheard in southern tongues, yet quite unlike tough, thrusting Germanic. The impressive length of its regimented nouns and adjectives, the musicality of its co-ordinated case-endings, the rippling sonority of its convoluted sentences, all hint at the artistic, tenacious soul of a people come from afar. The language has in it the swishing coniferous forests and boisterous Arctic streams that we hear in the music of Sibelius, the loneliness and cold melancholy of the northern lakes, the unlimited, invigorating roaming of the Central Asian steppes, the vitality and perseverance of adventurous, hardened migrant explorers. Listening to the unfaltering harmonics of this nimble Asian tongue one is left in no doubt as to the statement it makes: we, the Finns, live up here in the North with you neighbours, we may like you and get on well with you, but you see and hear we are different. We have our own language and literature, folklore, artistry and aesthetics, music and sense of shape and colour, in short a unique world view.

This message is as implacable as the Finnish climate and environment. These latitudes engender cool, sturdy, resilient people with an inordinate capacity for self-reliance and instinct for survival. The Arctic survivor must have stamina, guts, self-dependence and powers of invention. Of the peoples of the world, only Finns settled a population of 5 million on land in its entirety above 60°N.

Finnland in Europa

At the turn of the 20th century and in spite of her geographical isolation and Russian connection, Finland was surprisingly international in outlook. From 1890 till Finnish independence in 1917, the Eastern Baltic was one of the most international areas of the world. Helsinki, Viipuri and St. Petersburg were lively centres of artistic excellence and ubiquitous multilingualism. Oulu and Tampere were multilingual and in Viipuri many people spoke 4 languages. In 1900 the number of those speaking languages other than Finnish or Swedish exceeded the total number of the Swedish-speaking minority.

Foreigners earlier had contributed greatly to the development of Finnish industry, as many household names show – Fazer (German), Hackman (German), Finlayson (Scot), Gutzeit (Norwegian), Sinebrychoff (German from St. Petersburg). The Finnish cheese industry was founded by Swiss masters and foreigners established the central part of Finland's metal industry. The national anthem of Finland was composed by the German Pacius, who spent most of his life in Helsinki.


When the opportunity came to achieve independence, the Finns took it, swiftly and efficiently. They recognised their historical moment and they were fortunate with their leadership at the time. Bloodshed was kept to a minimum, reprisals were few. As quickly as they could, the Finns set about establishing a modern state based on equality and freedoms. Nationalist fervour was high, but arrogant chauvinism has been noticeably absent in Finnish history. Their treatment of the Swedish-speaking minority (now 5 per cent) was scrupulously fair. Swedish is retained along with Finnish as a national language and Finn-Swedes (who feel Finnish, not Swedish) have their own political party, newspapers and equal rights.

For 20 years (1919–1939) Finland's progress was steady, at times spectacular. Many atheletic triumphs followed – particularly at the 1936 Olympics. A long line of Finnish atheletes became world-famous figures, from Paavo Nurmi in the 1920s to Lasse Viren in the 1970s. Women were given the vote and genuine democracy blossomed. Sibelius, Kajanus, Saarinen, Järnefelt, Gallen-Kallela and Alvar Aalto assured the country's representation at the highest artistic levels; intelligent management of the Finnish forest and other resources led to a quickly rising standard of living.

The Second World War was a cruel shock and a severe setback to the young nation, but even defeat was a victory, since independence was maintained and the subsequent fate of 10 East European countries has served to emphasise Finland's good fortune earned by her determination to fight to the end for what she believed in.

After the war, the saga continued. Finland's achievement in resettling 400,000 refugees from Karelia in the space of a few months went largely unrecognised by the world at large. The war-battered country immediately set about the task of paying off war reparations to the Soviet Union – settled in full by the appointed date. The 1950s and 1960s were difficult economically, with Finland starting off as the poor relation in the Nordic family. National diligence eventually triumphed: first Finland surpassed Sweden in cross-frontier investment and eventually enjoyed a boom for the ten years beginning with 1978. A clean, crime-free and poverty-less society entered the ranks of the world's 10 most prosperous countries in the early 1980s. And without ruining the environment.

Entry into the EU

If the years 1917 to 1970 witnessed the consolidation of the Finnish national identity, the corollary of which being some diminishment in involvement in international affairs, the 70s and 80s heralded the re-awakening of Finland's Europeanness as large firms such as Kone and Nokia internationalized. It was only a question of time before the European Community looked north to the Nordic countries for fresh, reliable members. Again the historical moment beckoned, once more the Finns accepted it swiftly – more decisively than the Swedes. Finland was not entering Europe, she was re-entering Europe.

Finns, though possibly of Asian provenance, think like Europeans and most of their social institutions came along with Lutheranism from Sweden and the West. Finns are arguably just as European as Danes or Swedes and possibly more so than Spaniards or even the British. Finnish communication patterns are Asian, but their values and standards are western, liberal, European. It would be wrong for Finns or others to think of Finland and Sweden as ”new boys” in Europe. ”Prodigal sons” might be a better description. Finnishness and Swedishness give a true European balance to the EU. They are qualities which should be welcomed, possibly emulated – certainly not diluted or compromised.

Finnland's EU Presidency

In 1999, Finland attained a new level of involvement in European affairs when she assumed the EU presidency. This is a daunting challenge for a young nation: the presidency can set the political priorities of the Union. It can act as a consensus – builder or broker. It represents the Union to the outside world. Of great importance to Finland is that it attracts prestige to the handling Member State. Each presidency has its own style, and this style is of course inseparable from national identity. The Italians, for example, set themselves a typically grandiloquent agenda full of good intentions – bringing stability to the Balkans, promoting peace in the Middle East and creating jobs in Europe. It is what one would have expected from them. Other nationalities have a more pragmatic, less idealistic approach.

The Finns and the Swedes look for positive roles. The Finnish image may have something to do with sincerity, common sense, succinctness, calmness and impartiality, not to mention a reputation for clean dealing.

Finland’s image as she enters her second century of independence is that of a modern, proud, sturdy nation, confident in her high standards of education, social welfare, technology and innovation.  A respected member of the European Union, whose ultimate composition remains to be seen, Finland can be expected to play an integral and exemplary role, while standing on her own feet, as she has done in the past.

The Finnish Communicator – Weaknesses and Strengths

Much has been written about Finnish weaknesses in international communication situations and it is no myth. Finns often appear as reluctant communicators and frequently fail to make the required impact when they speak. However, Finns have hidden strengths in this area; more often than not, they do not realize that they have them.

The Finnish strengths lie in their values and code of behaviour, not in their expressiveness. The dilemma of the Finns is that they have western European values cloaked in an Asian communication style. The two are in a sense incompatible. European values are determinate, logical, often Hegelian. In northern Europe especially they tend to be ”black and white”. Asian values are less cut and dried, more ambiguous and peripheral. The Asian communication pattern – hesitant, deferential, ambivalent, always restrained, is an admirable medium for Asian values. In Finland it is a bad match.

Finnish Women

Finnish women, besides possessing the strengths listed above, are also more communicative than Finnish males. When women are in the chair, the following must be borne in mind:

  • The equality of the sexes in Finland is a functioning reality.
  • The educational level of Finnish women rivals or exceeds that of any other nationality.
  • Finnish women are communicative, exploratory, directly engaging.
  • Some emotionality on the part of Finnish women may mean heightened sensitivity to messages and the ability to read them. This could result in a more holistic, all-embracing (conceptual) approach to many issues.
  • Some nationalities, e.g. Italian, Portuguese, possibly Swedish, find it sometimes easier to approach a (Nordic) woman than a man.

There is no doubt that Finnish women play an important role in the EU connection.

How to approach Finns

Your best starting point is to get it crystal clear in your mind that a Finn is a formidable person. The slow, reticent and apparently backward behaviour often referred to by Swedes, Germans and French among others is no more than a deceptive veneer covering a very modern individual. The more one has to do with Finns, the more one realises that they are, in effect, perfectionists. They defer politely to your cleverness or smoothness but, in fact, they usually upstage you.

The upstaging is done discreetly, but effectively. Your modest Finnish partners, so complimentary of your own attributes, turn out to be highly qualified technocrats with very solid assets. Their office, car and clothes may well be of better quality than yours, their house almost certainly will be. They have ne plus ultra standards of cleanliness, honesty, stamina, workmanship, reliability, hygiene, safety and education. In Finland you can drink tap water and lakes, doctors know how to cure you if you are ill, buses, trains and aeroplanes leave on time, there are no hurricanes. Newspapers are printed on good quality paper and the ink doesn't come off on your hands; Finnish milk and coffee are arguably the best in the world. Food is wholesome, society is solid. The Germans, Dutch, Swiss and other peoples also say how solid they are, but the Finns possess a squat, flat-footed solidity which always makes you feel you know where you are with them.

Finns look for solidity in others. Refer to your own culture's achievements, but always in a modest tone. Low profile works wonders with Finns. Never boast. When you have said your piece, don't expect any feedback. They are thinking about what you have said. They don't think and talk at the same time. Enjoy the silence – not many people give you this luxury. Consider silence as a positive sign, then you can relax. Go to the sauna and have a drink. When working with Finns you should try to set clear goals, define objectives and appeal to the inner resources of individuals to achieve the task under their own steam and to be fully accountable for it. Finns like to demonstrate their stamina in a lone task – they excel in such lonely pursuits as long-distance running, skiing and rally driving.

Finnish businesspeople wish to have both their responsibility and authority well defined. They don't want one without the other. Self-discipline is taken for granted. Finns do not like being closely supervised; they prefer to come to you with the end result. You should listen well to Finns, for when they eventually have something to say, it is often worth listening to. You have to watch for subtle body language, as they have no other. You may not oversell to them, but charisma is OK. Finnish newspapers are among the best and most objective in the world, so they are probably better informed on most matters than you are. Show a lively interest in Finnish culture – it is rewarding in any case. Make it clear that you know that Finland and Finnish products are high-tech.

If you are managing Finns, remember that they are high on self-respect and inner harmony, as opposed to craving the support of teamwork. They like the idea of profit centres and accountability. They will sometimes be slow in making up their mind but, once it is made up, you are unlikely to succeed in changing it.

Finally, remember they are very dry (this quality, too, brings its delights). The great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, who occasionally used to go on three- or four-day drinking sprees with other intellectuals, was once phoned by his long-suffering wife asking him for a forecast of when he might come back home. ”My dear, I am a composer. I am involved in the business of composing music, not delivering forecasts”, was the reply.


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