The Rise of Finnish Nationalism

Finland Table of Contents

The eighteenth century had witnessed the appearance of embryonic Finnish nationalism. Originating as an academic movement, it incorporated the study of linguistics, folklore, and history, which helped to establish a sense of national identity for the Finnish people. The leading figure of this movement was professor Henrik Gabriel Porthan of the University of Turku. The work of Porthan and others was an expression of the Finns' growing doubts about Swedish rule, and it prefigured the rise of Finnish nationalism in the nineteenth century.

In the nineteenth century, Finland witnessed the rise of not one but two national movements: Finnish-language nationalism and Swedish-language nationalism. The creation of the independent Finnish state in the twentieth century was made possible in large part by these nationalist movements.

Finnish-language nationalism arose in the nineteenth century, in part as a reaction against the dominance of the Swedish language in Finland's cultural and political life. The ethnic self-consciousness of Finnish speakers was given a considerable boost by the Russian conquest of Finland in 1809, because ending the connection with Sweden forced Finns to define themselves with respect to the Russians. At first the Russian government generally supported Finnish linguistic nationalism, seeing it as a way to alienate the Finns from Sweden and thereby to preclude any movement toward reintegration. For the same reason, the Russians in 1812 moved the capital of Finland from Turku to Helsinki, bringing it closer to St. Petersburg. Similarly, after a catastrophic fire in Turku, the University of Turku was moved to Helsinki in 1827. The University of Helsinki soon became the center of the Finnish nationalist movement. Finnish-language nationalism, or the Fennoman movement, became the most powerful political force in nineteenth-century Finland. A famous phrase of uncertain origin that was coined in the early nineteenth century summed up Finnish feelings as follows: "We are no longer Swedes; we cannot become Russians; we must be Finns."

The leading Finnish nationalist spokesman was Johan Vilhelm Snellman (1806-81), who saw increasing the use of the Finnish language as a way for Finland to avoid assimilation by Russia. Snellman stressed the importance of literature in fostering national consciousness; until the nineteenth century, however, there had been almost nothing published in Finnish except for religious works. The publication in 1835 of the Kalevala, the Finnish folk epic, filled the void, and in the late twentieth century the Kalevala continued to be the single most important work of Finnish literature. Its author was a country doctor named Elias Lönnrot, who, while practicing medicine along Finland's eastern border, compiled hundreds of folk ballads that he wove together into an epic poem of nearly 23,000 lines. In the years following the publication of the Kalevala, numerous other works of Finnish literature were published. Of special importance was the work of the Swedish-language poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804-77), who authored a collection of poems called The Tales of Ensign StAl. The first poem of the cycle, called "Our Land," was soon set to music, and it became the national anthem of Finland.

The growth of the militant and increasingly powerful Fennoman movement threatened the traditional dominance of the Swedish speakers in Finland, who reacted by forming a Swedish-speaking nationalist countermovement, the Svecoman movement. The main idea of the Svecomans was that the Swedish-speakers of Finland were a separate nation from the Finnish-speakers and needed to preserve their Swedish language and culture. The Svecomans became a small but powerful political movement that won the backing of much of the Swedish-speaking community in Finland.

A third political faction at this time was the short-lived Liberal Party. This party sought to obtain reforms for Finland, especially freedom of the press, greater self-government, and increased economic freedom. It was split, however, by the growing language controversy, and most of its members were absorbed into either the Fennomans or the Svecomans.

Emerging as a debate among educated Finns, the nationalist movement reached ever wider circles of the Finnish people in succeeding decades in the nineteenth century. Major breakthroughs for the Finnish-language movement were made possible by Russia's humiliating defeat in the Crimean War (1853-56), which opened up an era of reform in Russia. For example, in 1858 Finnish was established as the language of local self-government in those administrative districts where it was spoken by the majority of the inhabitants.

When Poland revolted in 1863, the Finns remained at peace, and the Russian government showed its gratitude by granting the Finns two major imperial edicts. The first summoned the Finnish Diet for the first time since 1809, an event that had long-term repercussions. The Diet enacted legislation establishing a separate Finnish monetary system and creating a separate Finnish army. The subsequent regular meetings of the Diet gave the Finns valuable experience in parliamentary politics. The second edict of 1863 was the Language Ordinance, which over a period of twenty years gave the Finnish language a status equal to that of Swedish in official business. Although Swedish speakers found ways of blocking the full implementation of the Language Ordinance, it still made possible a vast expansion of the Finnish language school system. Ultimately, the Language Ordinance led to the creation of an educated class of Finnish speakers, who provided articulate mass support for the nationalist cause.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress