Should the Air Force of Finland Get Rid of the Swastika?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

6.12.2016,

Teivo Teivainen, Professor of World Politics, University of Helsinki

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14 thoughts on “Should the Air Force of Finland Get Rid of the Swastika?

  1. Nevertheless banning this sign did not help to avoid new rise of nazis in germany anyway.
    But shouldn’t better waterboarding and other torture discussed and forbidden instead?

    • My question is not about whether the Swastika should be banned but about whether it makes sense for the Finnish Armed Forces to keep using it as an official sign. Waterboarding and other torture should certainly be discussed and I have often done so. Not sure why it should be “instead” rather than “also”, though.

  2. Pingback: Should the Air Force of Finland Get Rid of the Swastika? | Brittius

  3. People need to be carful about getting a banning landslide started. The confederate flag is banned by some. People irrationally minded when they see it. Being nude publicly is banned too. Banning cannot make people to be better. We need good Spirited people. People will feel good about the ban looking for something else to ban and on and on we would go.

    • Banning landslide could certainly be a problem. As I stated above, my question is not about whether the Swastika should be banned. It is about whether it makes sense for the Finnish Armed Forces to keep using it. More general ban of the Swastika, as exists in some other countries is not part of my question here.

  4. Should all Christians stop using Cross symbol because satanists have used it upside down and still do??

    My answer to both is no. Swastika is 20 000 year old symbol around the world with positive and religious meanings. In Finland it has been widely used as a symbol of good luck and eternity since ancient time. Finnish air force had swastika since its beginning as it symbol. Finnish Air Force swastika was different than what Germans used in WW2. Finnish air force swastika was blue in white circle and in different angle. Blue and white are colors of Finnish flag.
    In 1918 Swedish count Eric von Rosen gave the Finnish White government its second aircraft, a Thulin Typ D. Von Rosen had painted his personal good luck charm on the Thulin Typ D aircraft. This charm – a blue swastika, the ancient symbol of the sun and good luck – was adopted as the insignia of the Finnish Air Force. The white circular background was created when the Finns tried to paint over the advertisement from the Thulin air academy. The swastika was officially taken into use after an order by Commander-in-Chief C. G. E. Mannerheim on 18 March 1918.
    Finnish Jews were just like other Finnish citizens and men fought against Russia in Wars. Hitler even gave Iron Cross Medal to 3 Finnish Jews.

    There is some information about it:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/…/Western_use_of_the_swastika_in_the_ea…
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/museums/10682975/The-Jews-who-fought-for

  5. There are museums worldwide full of valuable items before 1920 that has swastika decorations. Should we not show them anymore because some people don’t understand the use of those symbols?

    Should Christians stop using the cross as a symbol since Satanists use it upside down as in Saint Peters Cross? Nazis were Christians also and used cross symbol. Is that a reason to stop using cross symbols in Christianity and else were?

    There are some Nazi signs here: catholicarrogance.org/Catholic/NaziCrosses.html
    Should Israel and Jews stop using hexagram (star of David) symbol because it is the most used symbol in Satanism (star of Lucifer)?

    If so then we should just as well ban all use of symbols since people doing bad things have used the same symbols.

    Hexagram, swastika and cross have been mostly used as positive, religious symbols in different regions and religions around the world since The Paleolithic era.

    I think it would be better to educate people more.

    We all are terrified and feel sad about what Nazis did as well as other war criminals.
    But same kinds of horrors are happening today and victims of war need our help. I think that we should rather act on stopping the suffering in this world now than debate what symbols the bad guys used back in history and should we ban those symbols because of it. We can’t change the past but we can change the present and the future.
    Let’s not repeat the history and accept the cruelty and suffering that is happening in this world right now.

  6. I would be more worried about using stars as a symbol.. Americans, Chinese and Russians use stars and those are all in same category with nazis by killing innocent people for the money or some other agenda.

  7. I’ve read that they did get rid of the swastika insignia in the Air Force in 1944, all of it, after an unofficial remark from Soviet general A.P. Andrejev (for some reason he didn’t care about the swastikas on the tanks, which got new insignia anyway). Some of the old Air Force insignia returned after Stalin died. In 1955 president Paasikivi was invited to Moscow and told that the Porkkala area would be returned to Finland. Due to this the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, Kliment Voroshilov, was awarded the Order of the White Rose of Finland, which back then still had the chain with the swastikas. The next year he visited Finland and wore the great cross with the chain according to protocol. This was interpreted as a change in attitude, so in 1957 the swastika returned to parts of the Finnish Air Force, approved by president Kekkonen. It was part of a larger renewal of insignias, not an exclusive return of swastikas.

    In other words, the swastika was gone completely from the air force for a while, but it was taken back.

    • Many thanks. You have a good knowledge of this part of Finnish history. The swastika insignia has indeed have various changes. There was also an episode, a few years later, when Charles de Gaulle got the same swastika chains from president Urho Kekkonen. De Gaulle expressed discomfort about it. The following year the swastikas were taken away from that chain.

      This story is interesting to me also because in Finland many people react to any questioning of the swastika use by saying that we will never change anything just because a foreigner might not be happy with our symbols. These things do change from time to time.

      • Apparently things like insignia and medals were prone to change during the cold war and era of finlandization, when Finland was doing its precarious east-west balancing act. It was also easier for men in power back then (like Kekkonen, or the president overall) to do changes by themselves instead of having some sort of broad agreement. After 1991 things changed again in mentality and we might still feel the “whiplash” of this change.

        An interesting comparison can be made with Latvia, where the swastika also has a long history. Probably longer than Finland. They also used a swastika as a symbol for the air force 1918-1934. Perkonkrusts, an ultranationalist organisation, took the swastika as their symbol upon being founded in 1933 (interestingly enough this group was both anti-German and antitsemitic). This group, and all other parties as well, from left to right, were banned in 1934 when prime minister Karlis Ulmanis led a bloodless coup and essentially became the dictator of Latvia. This is also when the air force insignia changed into an Auseklis cross.

        The swastika still has a strong position in Latvian society and culture today, which sometimes leads to potential situations of confusion with outsiders. In 2006, two years after Latvia joined NATO, mittens with traditional motifs were made to give as gifts to NATO delegates for the alliance’s summit that year. To avoid embarrassing moments of confusion the local knitters were asked to avoid the swastika motif.
        http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/5268950.stm

        Russian English-language Kremlin mouthpiece RT has a tendency to grab hold of all things swastika, especially in NATO-countries, and in 2016 they published a piece about “Swastika-looking snowflakes” at a Latvian Christmas market.
        https://www.rt.com/news/369307-latvia-nazi-swastika-market/

        Another instance of upset was in 2013 during the intro ceremony to a KHL hockey game between Dinamo Riga and Russian team Yugra Khanty-Mansiysk in Latvia.
        http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-news-from-elsewhere-25037443

        As the other Baltic countries, Latvia as well has imposed a ban on the public display of Soviet and Nazi era symbols. I do not know how this ban relates to the traditional Latvian motifs. Maybe they take context into consideration when deciding these things or maybe the motif in question has to be an exact nazi symbol and not just a generic swastika. Would be interesting to know.

  8. The elephant in the room here seems to be that Finland was on Germany’s side in WW2 (again I know the excuses about them being against Russia and not for Germany, but that’s not really the point). Every other Axis power had to drop their swastikas – So I wonder why Finland was an exception?

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