The Mint of Finland has launched (5th June) the latest coin in their current collector’s series focusing on the past presidents of the Finnish state. The series is in conjunction with celebrations for Finland’s centennial anniversary of independence which is officially marked this year with several national celebrations. The latest coin in the series highlights the Republic’s sixth president, Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim (1867 –1951), who served as president from 1944 to 1946. Mannerheim is one of Finland’s most celebrated presidents whose leadership during the Second World War earned him the admiration and respect of his countrymen to this day that he was recently voted the Greatest Finn of all time.
The bi-metallic coin is designed by Tero Lounas. The inner disc features a portrait of President Mannerheim in three-quarter profile toward the right; the lower part of the bust extends onto the golden ring, on which the text CARL GUSTAF EMIL MANNERHEIM 1867–1951 surrounds the primary design.
The reverse features a landscape of Finnish fields, framed by an open book depicting a constructed urban environment. Reading clockwise on the outer ring, from the left, are the words SUOMI FINLAND and the date of issue, 2017; at the bottom, the denomination 5 EURO. (All coins in the series share the same reverse.)
The popular “Presidents of Finland” series continues with the Carl Mannerheim collector coin, which is officially issued on the 10th July. This series of collector coins is part of the Finland 100 programme, celebrating the centenary of Finland’s independence.
Coins honoring J.K. Paasikivi and U.K. Kekkonen will be released later in 2017, thus concluding the series in its entirety. Advance orders for the Mannerheim collector coin may be placed in the online shop from the 26th June, at 9 a.m. Please visit the website of the Mint of Finland for more information on this and other coins on offer.
The other coins in the “Presidents of Finland” series are as follows:
- Kaarlo Juho Ståhlberg(president from 1919 to 1925)
- Lauri Kristian Relander(president from 1925 to 1931)
- Pehr Evind Svinhufvud af Qvalstad(president from 1931 to 1937)
- Kyösti Kallio(president from 1937 to 1940)
- Risto Ryti (president from 1940 to 1944)
- Juho Kusto Paasikivi (president from 1946 to1956)
- Urho Kekkonen (president from 1956 to 1982)
Mannerheim—Soldier, Statesman, and “Hero” President
Few people in Finland elicit such an emotive response or sentiment from ordinary men and women as Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim (1867–1951), who it can be said charted the course of Finnish history perhaps more than any other Finn in the modern era. As Finland’s most famous military leader, he was pivotal in securing sovereignty for his countrymen, thus guaranteeing “their own independent lives within the family of free peoples.” Despite the outcome of the Second World War, which saw Finland fight alongside the Third Reich—circumstances which left Finland little recourse from this path—Mannerheim is given much of the credit for shrewdly steering the nation’s course between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union during these years of fighting, enabling it to remain an independent country outside the influence of the USSR and communism after World War II.
Born in the southwestern region of Finland during the years of the grand duchy under Imperial Russia, Carl Mannerheim was descended from a noble family with Swedish roots. Swedish heritage was not uncommon for many families in Finland who found themselves in Finnish territory after the division of the two entities in 1809. The Mannerheim family were ennobled in 1825 when Carl Erik Mannerheim (1759–1837), the president’s great-grandfather, was created a count. The president’s grandfather, Count Carl Gustaf Mannerheim (1797–1854), served as the president of the Vyborg Court of Appeals in Karelia.
His father, Count Carl Robert (1835–1914), made his name as a poet, writer, and businessman. However, his businesses were not very successful, and as a consequence, he eventually went bankrupt. His mother, Hedvig Charlotta von Julin (1842–1881), was the daughter of a wealthy industrialist who pre-deceased her husband when Carl was only 14 years old. As a result of Count Carl Robert’s insolvency, the family home of Louhisaari Manor, where young Carl was born, was sold in 1880 to cover the count’s many debts. The count eventually moved to Paris to live the life of an artist, leaving the couple’s seven children to be separated and brought up by relatives in Finland and Sweden.
Young Carl was left with his maternal uncle, Albert von Julin, who became his guardian until he left for military school in 1887. Prior to the death of his mother, he began his formal schooling at the Helsinki Private Lyceum until 1879, then on to Hamina in 1881 for one year. At the age of 15, he was enrolled in the Finnish Cadet Corps (also in Hamina) in 1882, but was later expelled in 1886 for breaches of discipline. He then returned to the Helsinki Private Lyceum, where he passed his university entrance examinations in June 1887. Immediately after, he left for Saint Petersburg, having been accepted into the Nicholas Cavalry School. Carl Gustaf graduated in 1889 and was promoted to the rank of cornet; he was thereafter posted with the 15th Alexandria Dragoon Regiment in Poland while waiting for a position to become available with the Chevalier Guards.
By January 1891, Mannerheim was transferred to serve in the Chevalier Guards in St. Petersburg. It was at this time that his family arranged a marriage between Carl and the daughter of Russian Major General Nicholai Arapov. The marriage was for the most part for economic reasons, but he and his new bride, Anastasie (1872–1936), settled down to married life and became the parents to two daughters, Anastasie (1893–1977) and Sophie (1895–1963). The marriage was not a happy one, and by 1902 the couple had separated. They divorced in 1919. This was a trying time, not only for Mannerheim and his family for personal reasons, but also for Finland, as it had undergoing tremendous transition from that of a dependency within the Russian Empire to an independent state.
Finland’s Journey to Independence
With the outbreak of the Great War and during the height of fighting, Czar Nicholas II abdicated in March 1917, leaving the vast empire directionless due to the immense power vacuum created from the antiquated Imperial and autocratic system of government. Several territories took this opportunity to free themselves of Russian domination, including the Finnish grand duchy and the Baltic states. As it was uncertain to Finnish loyalists just who was now the head of state of Finland, a unilateral declaration of independence was introduced to the Finnish parliament on the 6th December 1917, on the heels of the rise of the Bolsheviks in St. Petersburg after the October Socialist Revolution. By April 1917, the highly decorated Mannerheim had been promoted to lieutenant general; however, due to his close connections to the Imperial Russian government, he was mistrusted by the new Bolshevik government, which regarded him as one of the officers and elites who did not support the revolution. Mannerheim was already a fierce opponent of Communism, and because of his known dislike of the Bolsheviks, he was relieved of his duties in September. Mannerheim was still in St. Petersburg, and as a result of being relieved of his command, he began to plan his retirement and a return to civilian life, as well as a return to Finland, where he arrived by December 1917.
It didn’t take very long for Mannerheim to come to the attention of the fledgling Finnish government, and by January 1918, the senate of a newly independent Finland appointed Mannerheim as commander in chief of Finland’s almost non-existent army, under its chairman, Pehr Evind Svinhufvud.
Finland’s new army was not much more than a number of locally set up White Guards, but Mannerheim’s mission was to organise the defence of the Finnish government and its territory during the Civil War. As part of his new task, he established his headquarters in Seinäjoki and swiftly began to disarm the remaining Russian garrisons and their more than 40,000 troops still on Finnish soil.
During what was to become known as the War of Liberty by loyal White forces, Mannerheim was promoted to general of the cavalry in March 1918; after the eventual White victory over the Reds (or Communists), Mannerheim resigned as commander in chief. The primary reason for his own departure was due to his great dislike of the increasing influence of Imperial Germany in both Finnish military and political affairs.
Mannerheim left Finland in June 1918, taking this opportunity to visit relatives in Sweden. Thus, he was out of the country during the appointment of a German prince to establish a new Finnish kingdom—which he had vehemently opposed. The newly created Kingdom of Finland did not last very long, as it abolished upon the defeat of Imperial German forces by November 1918, when the parliament was compelled to declare a Republic. While in Sweden, Mannerheim took part in discussions with the diplomats from Allied countries, meeting in Stockholm. He stated his opposition to the Finnish government’s pro-German policy and its new kingdom under a German prince, and he reiterated his support for the Allies. In October 1918, the Finnish government dispatched Mannerheim to Britain and France—his mission was to seek recognition of Finland’s independence by these two countries, as well as by the newly emerging world power, the United States.
In December 1918—by which time Finland was approaching the first-year anniversary of their declared independence—Mannerheim was summoned back home from Paris. He had been elected as protector of the state or regent of the still-current Kingdom of Finland, replacing Pehr Evind Svinhufvud, who had held the post from May. Since Finland’s newly created king had never arrived from Germany, and despite his opposition to the designation of Finland as a kingdom, some monarchists supported the call to declare Manerheim king of Finland in place of Prince Frederick Charles of Hesse.
Mannerheim’s diplomatic efforts secured recognition of an independent Finland from the United Kingdom and the United States and also succeeded in securing food aid from Washington to avoid famine. By July 1919, he had successfully confirmed Finland’s new, republican constitution, and it was at this time that he made the decision to stand as a candidate in the first presidential election. Although he was supported by the National Coalition Party and the Swedish People’s Party, he lost the election, which was voted by parliament to Kaarlo Juho Ståhlberg. Thereafter, Mannerheim retired from public life and retreated to a simpler existence, happily keeping out of the public glare.
Rise to Power
From his defeat as a presidential candidate and up until the start of the invasion by the USSR of eastern Finland, Mannerheim held no public office, largely due to the fact that he was seen by many politicians as a controversial figure. He remained outspokenly opposed to the Bolsheviks, to the extent that he supported Finnish intervention on the side of the Whites (republican forces) during the Russian Civil War.
Mannerheim also had to counteract the antipathy felt against him by the Finnish socialists, who regarded him as a titled elite and “bourgeois White general.” Despite his critics, Mannerheim’s pursuits were mainly humanitarian during his years of private life and retirement He took this time to found the Finnish Red Cross and supported their continued activities.
In 1929, he was called upon again—with the support of right-wing radicals—to become a de facto military dictator, which he refused despite some sentiment for their policies and anti-Communist stance. After the election of Pehr Evind Svinhufvud as president in 1931, Mannerheim was appointed chairman of Finland’s Defense Council, with the written promise that in the event of a war, he would be elevated to the rank of commander in chief. This promise was also upheld by Svinhufvud’s successor, Kyösti Kallio, in 1937. Mannerheim attained the rank and title of field marshal in 1933, by which time he had become regarded by the public, including many socialists, as less of a political figure or liability and more as a truly national figure. Much of this sentiment was due to, and further enhanced by, his many public statements at the time in which he urged reconciliation between those who had fought on opposing sides during the civil war, and declared that it was now crucial to focus on national unity and defence.
As a proponent of increasing Finland’s military industry, he also sought—but failed to establish—a military defence union with Sweden, who themselves sought to retain their neutrality with regard to European military conflicts. The task of rearming and reorganising Finland’s army was not as easy as had been envisaged. Mannerheim was instrumental in constructing a defined line of defence, which was referred to as the “Mannerheim Line” and stretched across the southeastern frontier in Karelia. In spite of his stance on defence and the need to shore up Finland’s armed capabilities, he had many disagreements with various members of the president’s cabinet, resulting in many signed letters of resignation.
War and the Rise to Commander in Chief
Tensions between Finland and their previous masters in Russia—now the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—had threatened Finnish territory with both invasion and forced incorporation into the new geopolitical entity. When negotiations with the Soviet Union failed in 1939, Mannerheim withdrew his resignation once again, on the 17th October, thereby accepting—again— the position as commander in chief of the Finnish army in case of war, which he believed was imminent. He set forth to reorganise his headquarters in Mikkeli, about 120 kilometres northwest of Vyborg, capital city of Karelia, and once more officially became the commander in chief. His instinct that war with the USSR was imminent was indeed correct, and by the 30th November, fighting had broken out. The invasion was condemned by the League of Nations and the Soviet Union was expelled from the international body as punishment for their aggression.
Finland was unprepared militarily, and although Finnish forces fought with distinction and bravery, the cause was hopeless. A peace treaty was signed in Moscow on the president’s behalf, ending the 105-day-old conflict; as a consequence of the so-called peace treaty, much of the province of Karelia was ceded to Moscow in exchange for their promise of non-aggression against Finland. However, this peace would not last long, and the Soviet Union invaded Finnish territory again in June 1941. Mannerheim spent most of the Winter War of 1939 and Continuation War of 1941 in his Mikkeli headquarters, but made many visits to the front. Between the wars and despite the fact that the authority of commander in chief should pass back to the president, he held on to this position after the Moscow Peace Treaty was signed on the 12th March 1940.
At a time when Finland faced the superior military power of the Soviet Union alone, it was the Third Reich that offered its military assistance against repeated Soviet military aggression. A theatre of war already existed between Great Britain and Germany, Paris was soon to be occupied, and the United States was geographically too distant to be in a position to come to Finland’s assistance. As these three allies were also fighting on behalf of the USSR to repel Nazi aggression, it seemed less likely that they would or could do anything to lessen Soviet aggression against Finland.
An unlikely alliance with Hitler seemed to be the only option, and during the Continuation War of 1941, Mannerheim entered into this alliance. He kept relations with Nazi Germany’s government as formal as possible and diplomatically declined their proposals for a formal treaty of alliance. Mannerheim also firmly refused to let his troops contribute to the Siege of Leningrad, despite German pressure to do so; Leningrad, formerly St. Petersburg, was his one-time home. Admittedly, Finnish policy towards the Russians and Finland’s methods of warfare substantially differed from those of the Germans, thus making Finland seem like a very reluctant ally of the Third Reich.
Mannerheim’s 75th birthday was observed on the 4th June 1942, and for the occasion, the government granted him the unique title of Marshal of Finland. He was the first to receive this honour and remains the only person to have ever received this title. To Mannerheim’s consternation, a surprise visit was paid by Adolf Hitler in honour of his birthday, which was more annoying than welcoming and caused some embarrassment. Hitler spent a total of just five hours in Finland and returned to Germany, without being able to ask the Finns to step up their military operations against the Soviets. It was remarked at the time that the uneasy encounter with Mannerheim appears to have deterred Hitler from making any specific demands.
During the fighting in the Continuation War, Finnish forces actually advanced into Russian territory with the intention of annexing eastern Karelia, a region which had never belonged to Finland. The war was increasingly turning against the Third Reich and their terror on Europe, and by 1944, it was becoming clear that Hitler and his Axis would not be able to regain their advantage. The invasion of Normandy by the Allied forces of the United States, Great Britain, and Canada, along with Free French forces, was certainly a turning point. For the Axis, it was merely a matter of when rather than whether Hitler would surrender. By May 1945, with Soviet forces within miles of Berlin, Hitler committed suicide to ensure he could not be taken alive to Moscow. Marshal Zhukov’s army liberated Berlin, they sacked the city and committed unspeakable acts against the civilian population.
By June 1944, to ensure German support at a time when a major Soviet offensive was threatening Finland, Mannerheim believed it would be necessary for Finland to agree to the defence pact the German foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, demanded for continued German support. Tactfully, Mannerheim managed to distance himself from the pact, which fell to President Risto Ryti to sign; it came to be known as the Ryti-Ribbentrop Agreement. Mannerheim’s policy reached its analytical conclusion when the agreement was effectively revoked with the resignation of President Ryti in July 1944. Mannerheim succeeded Ryti as president, which would mean he would lead the country out of the war and into peacetime.
As Finland had allied itself with Germany, more out of a sense of the need to fend off Soviet invasion than from ideology, they did not fare well, either. Much of the eastern provinces of Finland were lost when more than 11 percent of the country’s overall territory was ceded to the USSR as part of a peace treaty. It is important to note that Finland was never a member of the Axis powers, as it had never signed the Tripartite Pact, but rather that it was aided against the military assault from the Soviet Union by Germany, from the beginning of Operation Barbarossa in 1941 to the separate peace with the Soviet Union in 1944. Finland was led by a democratically elected president and parliament during the whole period of 1939 to 1945, and as a result, some political historians believe this was one of the few instances where a democratic country was engaged in a war against one or more other democratic countries—namely the democracies in the Allied forces. Nearly all Finnish military engagements in World War II were fought solely against an autocratic power, such as the Soviet Union.
After the war, Mannerheim was regarded as a very successful military commander primarily due to the notion that under his leadership, the Finnish defence forces fought a generally successful war that in the end saved Finland from certain Soviet occupation. As a commander, he took great care not to waste the lives of his soldiers and avoided unnecessary risks; it could be said that perhaps his greatest shortcoming or criticism was his unwillingness to delegate. While his strategy or tactics during the war may remain open to debate, however, it can be argued that Mannerheim excelled as a politician. Though a soldier by career, and as such not supposed to take part in politics, Mannerheim could not help in the end becoming a highly politicised figure.
Postwar, the Presidency, and Recovery
Finland’s future depended on the question of when to make peace with the Soviet Union, a move that was seen as a necessary evil if the country was to continue as an independent state. Finland could easily have suffered the fate of the Baltic states, which were incorporated into the USSR from the end of 1944. Negotiating too early might have meant that Nazi Germany would be in a position to retaliate; and, too late, might have risked a Soviet occupation of Finland and eventual annexation. As early as 1942, it became increasingly clear that Germany would not triumph over the Soviet Union, but Mannerheim kept his inclinations to himself in order to potentially take the leadership of the nation and lead it to peace should the situation call for it. He knew how to treat the Germans to secure as much military support as possible without involving Finland in any binding treaties, and he did so with as much skill as anyone could have. It was the moment when Germany was deemed sufficiently weakened, and the summer offensive of the USSR was at a standstill, that Finland’s leaders took the chance to reach a peace with the Soviet Union.
What was clear to all during this tense time was that Mannerheim was the only prominent figure with sufficient prestige, both internationally and domestically, to extricate Finland from the war and, at the same time, save their independence. Effectively the only statesman with the authority necessary to guide Finland in the transition from war to peace, he enjoyed the confidence of a large majority of the Finnish people, who had suffered hardship due to the fighting with an especially vicious enemy.
Initially, the suggestion had been made to Mannerheim that he become prime minister, but he rejected this proposal due to two factors: first, he cited his age; and second, he admitted his lack of knowledge of the function of the office and its structure in government. It was at this juncture that the suggestion of his becoming head of state, with the election of parliament as regent after the resignation of President Ryti. There was precedence for this position and title, as Mannerheim he had been named regent in 1918 during a state crisis; this might be the second time he would hold the title of regent, which would have reflected the exceptional circumstances of the time. The proposal was agreeable to Mannerheim and Ryti, who resigned as president on the 29th July, citing poor health as well as the need to combine the position of head of state with commander in chief as his reasons to leave office before the end of his term.
Shortly after assuming the role of the presidency, Mannerheim believed it would make more sense if he were to be elected president rather than appointed, to avoid any misunderstandings concerning his position. Since the country was still fighting a war, a general election could not be held, and as such it would fall to the parliament, which officially elected him president of Finland on the 4th August 1944. He was sworn in later that same day and delivered his first address to Parliament as Finland’s sixth president, declaring:
I am so deeply aware of the responsibilities placed upon me. Great are the difficulties that we will have to overcome in order to safeguard our future. Foremost in my mind at this moment is the army of Finland, now in its fifth year of battle. Trusting in the Almighty, I hope and I believe that, supported by parliament and the government, a unanimous people behind us, we will succeed in preserving our independence and the existence of our nation.
The serious circumstance that Finland found itself in at that moment was reflected in Mannerheim’s inaugural speech before the Finnish parliament. Just a month after he took office, the Continuation War came to a final conclusion—though with very unfavorable terms for Finland (perhaps ultimately far less harsh than those imposed on the other states bordering the Soviet Union0. According to the terms agreed by Moscow, Finland would retain its sovereignty, parliamentary democracy, and market economy. Territorial losses, however, would be considerable. Finland would also absorb the substantial numbers of refugees from Karelia who wanted to leave their homes in what was now Soviet territory, and would assume responsibility for war reparations, which turned out to be very costly and severe. Aside from negotiating a peace with Moscow, Finland was also fighting the Lapland War against the withdrawing German troops, who implemented a scorched-earth strategy in the north, and at the same time they needed to demobilise her army under treaty terms. It was widely agreed that only Mannerheim could have guided Finland through these difficult times, as the Finnish people had to reconcile themselves to the severe terms of the armistice implemented by a Soviet-dominated Allied Control Commission.
Mannerheim’s term as president was a challenging period for him as well as the government. Having been elected for a full six-year term, he was very aware that he was also in his late seventies and may not serve his full term; nonetheless, he accepted the office of president reluctantly after being urged to do so by several politicians. He suffered frequent periods of ill health, and the pressure of the demands of the Allied Control Commission as well as the war-responsibility trials often took their toll on him. As president and Finland’s head of state, he was particularly concerned during much of his term that the commission itself would request that he be tried as someone guilty or responsible for war crimes. Thankfully for Mannerheim, this did not occur.
Despite his stern criticisms of some of the demands of the Allied Control Commission—still dominated and influenced by the USSR—Mannerheim worked diligently to carry out Finland’s armistice obligations. He was at the same time concerned with the crucial need to work further on reconstructing Finland’s economy and social cohesion after the war. Recurring health problems during 1945, including medical treatment, resulted in Mannerheim’s taking a leave of absence from his duties as president from November of that year until February 1946. It was during his absence that the verdicts in the war trials and tribunals were announced in January, and Mannerheim took this opportunity to announce his resignation as president. To him, his work was concluded, and he believed that he had accomplished the duties he had been elected to carry out: steering the country out of a very costly war and on the path to reconstruction with its independence intact. The time was at hand for a new administration and government. He formally resigned on the 4th March 1946, citing his declining health as his reasons while at the same time reiterating his view that the tasks he had been elected to carry out had been accomplished.
During his last address to parliament, his peace-making efforts were acknowledged—even by the Finnish Communists, former antagonists and opponents spanning as far back as 1918, who acknowledged his role in maintaining the unity of the country during a difficult period. He was succeeded by a conservative prime minister, Juho Kusti Paasikivi.
Life After the Presidency and Mannerheim’s Legacy
After he resigned his office, former President Mannerheim moved to Kirkniemi Manor in the town of Lohja, 40 miles west of Helsinki, with intentions of spending his remaining years of retirement there. His health issues continued, and his health declined so much that by June 1946, he underwent life-saving surgery to repair a perforated ulcer. In October the same year he was diagnosed with a duodenal ulcer, hardly surprising taking into consideration his concerns and responsibilities during the years of the war and as president. In June 1947, and as a measure of his recuperation, he was advised to travel to the Val-Mont sanatorium in Montreux, Switzerland, and it was during this period that Mannerheim decided to write his memoirs. His underlying reason for writing his memoirs was to explain and demonstrate, mostly to the West, what a difficult situation Finland had been in during the wars and the complex decisions taken during this time. Mannerheim believed it was important to explain to later generations and to those outside Finland to understand that fighting alongside Germany against the Soviets was not her own choice. Faced with certain invasion and permanent occupation, it was the only option available at that time to a country with a small population who were fighting a superior opponent, the USSR, which had invaded first and was intent on re-absorbing Finland.
As fate would have it, Val-Mont was to be Mannerheim’s primary place of residence for the remaining years of his life, and although he regularly returned to Finland, he was also able to visit Sweden, France, and Italy on occasion. Former president and one-time regent Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim died on the 28th January (27th January, Finnish time) 1951 in hospital in Lausanne, Switzerland, at the age of 83. His body was returned to Finland and was accorded the honour of a state funeral with full military honours, and buried on the 4th February 1951 in the Hietaniemi cemetery in Helsinki. Mannerheim’s birthday, the 4th of June, is celebrated as the Flag Day for the Finnish defence forces, a decision which was made by the Finnish government on the occasion of his 75th birthday in 1942, when he was also granted the title of marshal of Finland.
Mannerheim’s wartime record as Finland’s commander in chief is not easy to assess then or now. To this day, his immense prestige and standing is such that many Finns believe that any criticism of his conduct during the war is almost tantamount to treason—especially as much of the criticism has often come from Soviet sources and Finnish Communists. What is certain is the place he does hold for many Finns who were alive at the time and those who were born during the beginning of the Cold War. Mannerheim is credited with protecting and saving Finish independence despite the fate of the rest of Eastern Europe who fell behind the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union.
Finland managed to carve out for itself a place in Europe and internationally post–World War II, and did so by carefully balancing their place as part of the West and bordering the USSR. This, perhaps more than any other element of his influence on the country, is Mannerheim’s legacy. This balancing act survived until the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 and the eventual collapse of Communism in much of Europe in the early 1990’s. Finland became part of the European Economic Community (later the EU) in 1985, but declined membership in NATO, believing this could disrupt their delicate position both politically and geographically—a stance very much intact to this day. ❑