One thing that keeps amazing me is to see the Finnish military marching and some of the Air Force guys carrying a swastika. I am not talking only about documentaries from the 1930s. I am talking about today. The image posted above is the current emblem of the Air Force Command.
Swastika-like figures appear in some other official Finnish symbols, including the presidential flag. My focus here is on the one used by the Air Force since it is probably the one that has clearest resemblance with the Nazi symbol. The colors and the position are a bit different, but the association is difficult to avoid.
Foreigners sometimes ask about this oddity. For some of them, more than an oddity, using a symbol so strongly associated with Nazi ideas seems outrageous. Especially when racist nationalism has an increased visibility in various places, including Finland.
If asked, the Finns who defend its use tend to respond by first saying: “Oh, it has nothing to do with the Nazis”.
Then comes an erudite flow of historical facts about the historical usage of the symbol by the Hindus or the Hopi tribes or, most importantly, by some ancient Scandinavians.
“See, it is only people who do not understand history that may think the swastika we use is derived from the German national socialism”.
“Besides, the Finnish air force started using the swastika because this Swedish count called Erik von Rosen donated an airplane to the white troops of Finland during the civil war. He had painted a swastika on his plane because he liked the symbol.”
If it is mentioned that this particular Swedish count was a well-known Nazi sympathizer, the response is always ready: “The donation happened before he could be a true Nazi sympathizer. At the moment, in 1918, Hitler was a nobody”.
Many, including Henrik Jaakkola on my Facebook site, have pointed out that the association of the swastika with far-right racist movements precedes its use by Hitler:
“The Nazi-party of Germany was not the only fascist or far-right movement using the swastika – it was pretty popular and widespread throughout the European far-right after the 1st WW. This is the context in which it ended up being used by the (very political and very right-wing) army that was the Finnish state military during the Civil War against the Reds”.
This characterization seems quite accurate to me, though I am not a specialist on that historical period. Feel free to correct me on this one. In any case, it is undeniable that the swastika still used by the Finnish military is associated by many with a racist and fascist ideology.
Sometimes the use of the swastika is defended by referring to freedom of expression. “If the communists can march waving red flags with Soviet symbols, why should the swastika be prohibited?”.
The question I am raising here is, however, not about freedom of expression. This is not about whether the swastika, the sickle and the hammer, or some other sign that many consider offensive should be made illegal.
This is about whether it makes political, strategic or any other sense to it use the swastika as one of the official symbols of the armed forces.
Arguments about “rewriting history” also come up at times in discussions around the swastika. The fact that the Finnish military was directly associated with the German Nazi government is one of the issues. A little like the arguments about freedom of expression, these debates are interesting but not always relevant to the question I am asking here.
This is not a question about manipulating historical records by removing controversial symbols such as the swastika from museums or history books. This is about the way the Republic of Finland wants to present its armed forces today.
Sure, the Air Force swastikas are today less visible than before the end of the Second World War. But they are still carried proudly and form part of the official symbols.
In some military doctrines, winning the hearts and minds of people, including potential allies, has been considered important. These days there is plenty of talk about possible military cooperation in possible future scenarios. In Finland, there are discussions about Nordic or European collaboration, as an alternative to a possible NATO membership.
More generally, the question of finding sympathy or solidarity from others in times of crisis is surely relevant for those responsible for the future of the Finnish military.
Perhaps someone has calculated that the potential costs of alienating potential solidarity in times of crisis by waving a swastika flag are greater than the benefits? I would be happy to hear about such calculations. Meanwhile, I think the case for getting rid of the swastika is stronger than the case for keeping it.
Teivo Teivainen, Professor of World Politics, University of Helsinki