Albert Bonniers förlag, 2017.
Reviewed by Kate Lambert in SBR 2018:1
Review Section: Non-fiction
In the 1990s, I spent three years teaching English in the Finnish town of Mikkeli. Invariably, when I introduced myself to a new class of adult students, someone would say, ‘Kate? That’s the same name as Mannerheim’s horse!’ Fifty years after Marshal Mannerheim made his headquarters in Mikkeli’s central school in the Winter War and the Continuation War, he, and his horse, were still an abiding memory for the local population.
Herman Lindqvist’s biography is a highly readable account of the life of Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, from his birth on the Finnish west coast estate of his Swedish-speaking, upper-class family in 1867 to his state funeral as Marshal and former President in 1951.
Lindqvist is a journalist and former foreign correspondent, and his biography is not a dry or dull recital of historical facts. The narrative is cinematic in places; indeed, the section in which Mannerheim embarks on a mission to China in 1906 to spy for the Tsar, disguised as part of a French science expedition, is introduced by imagining it as a spy adventure film. It would make a very good one. Lindqvist has an eye for snapshot-like details, including the way Mannerheim tied his shoelaces (neatly, with no bows), the stuffed owl and globe in the schoolroom commandeered as his HQ, the way it took two servants to ‘shake’ an officer in the Russian Chevalier Guard into his figure-hugging elk-skin uniform trousers, and Senator Louhivuori sleeping on the floor with his head resting on Finland’s statute books when in hiding from Bolsheviks in 1918.
Mannerheim’s story is the story of Finland and, as well as being an account of one man’s character and career, the book makes an accessible and engaging introduction to Finland’s twentiethcentury history. When Mannerheim was born, Finland did not exist as an independent nation. Formerly part of Sweden, Finland was a Grand-Duchy of Tsarist Russia. When Mannerheim set his sights on the army as a career, this meant a Russian regiment, and he served the Russian army for 34 years. His military career involved service at the Tsar’s court, in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904–1906, and in Poland, before gaining his discharge and returning to Finland on Finland’s declaration of independence in 1917. In creating the Finnish army and commanding the White side in Finland’s Civil War, and Finland’s troops in the Winter War and Continuation War, he was a key figure in shaping the country’s destiny.
As the ‘mask’ and the ‘myth’ of the title suggest, Lindqvist attempts to look beyond the rigidly maintained outward persona and the military and diplomatic achievements to the man beneath. We read about the schoolboy unable to obey discipline and the lover described as being as cold as ‘Finnish snow’, at least until a romance in his eighties. Although he always described himself as a Finn, Mannerheim was a cosmopolitan who spoke six languages. (He learned Finnish to win the trust of his men). Lindqvist describes him as an ‘elegant mercenary’, and in the early years even his elegance is beyond his means and paid for by a long-suffering uncle. Given to resigning and going to Asia to hunt tigers or to Paris when things do not go his way, he emerges as an egotist and a gentleman adventurer. But Finland’s 20th-century history would have been very different without him.
Readers will gain a clearer picture of Finland’s class tensions, political polarisation – not least in the bloody Civil War that followed independence – and the ever-wary relationship with Soviet Russia that shaped Finland’s position in the twentieth century. The knife-edge course steered by Mannerheim between Hitler and Stalin that saw Finland survive independent at the end of World War II is a gripping read even when one knows how it ended. I have seen the railway carriage in which Mannerheim met Hitler – it is at Mikkeli railway station – but I had not realised that this was because Hitler invited himself to Mannerheim’s birthday party. An officer of the Chevalier Guard is trained to cope diplomatically with anything.