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Does Finland need its swastikas?

Finland has officially used the ancient symbol of the swastika on monuments, awards and decorations for nearly a century. Today, it is still prominently displayed on military flags and insignia, but one professor is now asking what its use actually means for the defence capabilities of the armed forces. Does holding onto this tradition have benefits that outweigh risks to the nation’s image?

Yle News: Does Finland need its swastikas?
Eddy Hawkins

Since I've arrived in Finland, I've had this predicament. Is this a good thing? 

Resident American Keegan Elmer

Yes, swastikas.

A symbol most of the world associates with the atrocities of Nazi Germany and modern hate groups is alive and well in Finland, and an emblem still proudly displayed.

"When I first arrived in Finland I saw a military parade with these particular insignia being flown. I was scared for my life,” relates Keegan Elmer, an American Labour Researcher resident in Helsinki. ”I was running through the square and calling my friend and saying, do you realize there's some sort of fascist parade going on? I had just arrived. I had no idea. I was very alarmed and my friends told me to calm down. Since I've arrived in Finland, I've had this predicament. Is this a good thing? And, I've had many arguments with my Finnish friends about it."

This is all familiar to Teivo Teivainen, Professor of World Politics at the University of Helsinki.

“One reaction,” says Professor Teivainen, “is don't Finnish people ever travel? Don't you know what this looks like? Second, aren't you supposed to have good schools? Do you have history at school? Or third, what a wonderful exotic people in the forest who use a symbol that most of the western world has rejected. It's kind of exotic, an almost tribal thing about Finns in the forest, so there can be this kind of admiration.”

The question

Professor Teivainen has now raised a very specific issue about the use of the swastika, especially by the Finnish military. In his new book covering the history of Finland, Teivainen asks about the relevance and potential drawbacks of using the swastika in the modern world.

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Teivo Teivainen, Professor of World Politics at the University of Helsinki
Teivo Teivainen, Professor of World Politics at the University of Helsinki. Image: Yle

"My question about the swastika is whether it makes sense for the military of Finland today and tomorrow to use it for the tasks that the military has.”

Teivainen says he can see different kinds of scenarios where the fact that the Air Force Command and different branches of the Finnish Air Force have a swastika as an official symbol, could maybe not be of great harm, but a problem nevertheless for Finland in complicated security situations. this day, I haven't found convincing arguments why using the swastika would be beneficial for Finland, today and tomorrow, in conflict situations.

Teivo Teivainen

”So I've been trying to ask if those in charge of the military can find benefits for the use of the swastika. Because if they are professional in defending Finland, there should be some benefit for the symbols, as there is for the arms that they use. And to this day, I haven't found convincing arguments why using the swastika would be beneficial for Finland, today and tomorrow, in conflict situations."

When raised even for academic analysis, Teivo Teivainen has found that the subject receives a chilly response.

”When I talk to top politicians or people in the military about it, normally the response is that it has nothing to do with the swastika of the Nazis, it predates the swastika of the Nazis…end of conversation,” Professor Teivainen explains.

That backstory

The Finnish military does indeed give a quick and strident answer when asked if the swastika really projects the right image.

"First of all, it had nothing to do with the Nazis, because we got it 1918, much before the Nazis ever existed. It has always been a symbol of independence and freedom in Finland,” says Lt Col Kai Mecklin (Ret.) who is the Director of the Finnish Air Force Museum.

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The "Finnish" swastika is perpendicular, rather than angled like that used by the German Nazi Party. In the centre a short-limbed "fylfot". On the right, the "Heart of Tursas”. Image: Yle

The swastika is a symbol that has been used for thousands of years across a wide spectrum of cultures all over the world.

In Finland, the use of the swastika dates back to a least the early Iron Age, sometimes in a form known as “The Heart of Tursas” a stylized representation of a rose associated with a god of the old Finnish pagan religion. The centre lines stand out clearly as a swastika.

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Swastikas were a common architectural motif, especially in the 1920's and 1930's.
Swastikas were a common architectural motif, especially in the 1920's and 1930's. These are in a building in Helsinki that now houses a faculty of the Metropolia University of Applied Sciences. Image: Yle

During the 19th century, as advocates of Finnish nationalism mined ancient tales and myths for inspiration and identity, the swastika was one sign that experienced a resurgence.

It became a favorite motif of Finland's leading painter of the late 19th and early 20th century, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, best known for his illustrations of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala

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Akseli Gallen-Kallelan Aino-triptyykki.
Akseli Gallen-Kallela's 1889 Aino triptych is in the collection of the Bank of Finland. Image: YLE

When commissioned in 1918 to design the new Finnish government's first decoration, the Cross of Liberty, Gallen-Kallela chose to superimpose a short-limbed swastika, known in heraldry as a “fylfot”, on the cross. This is a symbol often seen on war memorials in Finland and is displayed on the official flag of the President of Finland.

Later, in 1920, Gallen-Kallela was called upon to design the decorations of the Order of the White Rose of Finland. Again he included swastikas, this time in their more familiar form as a part of the collar chain carrying the medallion.

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Examples of the Cross of Liberty, 3rd and 4th class. Image: Vapaudenristin ritarikunta
The flag of the President of the Republic of Finland.
The flag of the President of the Republic of Finland, featuring a Cross of Liberty, with its stylized swastika. Image: Public Domain

The second and more controversial strand of swastika tradition owes its origin to a Swedish aviator, Count Eric von Rosen. As early as 1901, von Rosen had adopted the swastika as a personal good luck charm and had it painted on the wings of his aircraft. He made a gift of one of those planes to the White forces in Finland's civil war in early 1918. The swastikas were retained and painted on all Finnish Air Force planes up until 1945.

There have been claims that von Rosen's good luck symbol was also the inspiration for the swastika of Nazi Germany. Count von Rosen was acquainted with a German aviator, Hermann Göring, who would go on to marry his wife's sister and later become one of the most powerful figures of the Third Reich. It is all but certain that Göring knew of von Rosen's use of the swastika. However, the Nazi Party had already adopted its own version of the swastika a full two years before Göring met Adolf Hitler for the first time.

Neo-Nazis in Finland do not use the swastika as their emblem of choice, rather an ancient rune character that looks like an upright arrow and is associated with the Norse god Tyr.

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Pohjoismaisen vastarintaliikkeen kulkue Hakaniemessä tiistaina myöhään iltapäivällä.
Flags of the Neo-Nazi Finnish Resistance Movement. Image: Jyrki Lyytikkä / Yle

Finland's National Police Board this year filed a court motion to dissolve the Finnish branch of the Neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement. It is expected that if banned, propaganda and symbols associated with the neo-Nazi group will be outlawed.

Distance and revival

In 1939-1940 Finland defended itself against an invasion by the Soviet Union in a conflict known as the Winter War, and did so alone. Hostilities resumed in 1941 with what the Finns call the Continuation War. This time Finland battled the USSR as a co-belligerent of Germany, receiving aid and assistance up until an armistice with the Soviet Union in the early autumn of 1944. Under the terms of that agreement, Finland entered yet a third conflict, the Lapland War of 1944-1945 to drive Nazi German forces from Finnish territory.

A British-Soviet Allied Control Commission was installed in Helsinki to oversee the implementation of the interim peace agreement. In 1945, a Soviet member of the Commission privately and unofficially voiced objections to the continued use of the swastika by the Finnish Air Force. As a result, at the end March 1945, the swastikas were replaced with a blue-white roundel, and all other Air Force symbols including the swastika motif were abandoned.

President Urho Kekkonen (in office 1956–1982) displayed an ambivalent attitude toward the use of the swastika. In 1957, he approved its reinstatement on the flags of Air Force units, but five years later he saw to its removal from the Grand Cross of the White Rose of Finland. Another four years, and Kekkonen signed off on swastika-patterned uniform badges for the Air Force Command Organization and the Air Force Academy.

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The flag of the Finnish Air Force Academy.
The flag of the Finnish Air Force Academy. Image: Finnish Defence Forces
Insignia of the Finnish Air Force Command.
Insignia of the Finnish Air Force Command. Image: Finnish Defence Forces

“It’s a funny thing,” Professor Teivo Teivainen points out, “that many people in Finland say ‘why should we let the Russians interfere with what we do?’, and they present the swastika today in the Finnish military as kind of symbol of belonging to the West, a sort of ‘the Russians can’t tell us what to wear, what symbols to use.' You ask the Germans, you as the French, you ask the Dutch if this makes us look like we belong to the West. That question normally gets a hilarious response.”

The eye of the beholder

If and when the subject of swastikas comes up, many Finns display what Professor Teivainen calls “false memory” and will immediately claim that the Finnish swastika faces left, not right like the Nazi symbol. This may be in part because the first photo that comes up in a Google image search for the flag of the Finnish Air Force shows it in reverse. Just as much, it may reflect a deeply engrained cultural perception that both the symbol and what it means are “different”.

Kai Mecklin, Director of the Finnish Air Force Museum.
Kai Mecklin, Director of the Finnish Air Force Museum. Image: Yle

If we now deny the use, or stop using the swastika, we could give a signal abroad that actually it was a Nazi symbol in Finland - which it never was.

Kai Mecklin

Kai Mecklin of the Air Force Museum says that there has been some discussion about changing the swastika shoulder insignia for operations abroad.

“Our soldiers are ready to tell the story, but they have to tell it all the time. The worst thing is if there is just whispering going on about the swastika and not asking why we have it. Many of the military people who come to Finland know the history of the swastika, so they're not surprised. Most of the surprise is seen among Finns themselves, schoolchildren who come to the museum and shout 'hey, look Nazi planes!’ So, we have to tell them the story of our symbol.”

Still, Teivo Teivainen is not convinced that this message about the nature of Finland's "separate swastika", as he's called it, is a clear one.

”My main concern is that I can easily imagine scenarios where, let's say, Finland needs help, and then whether it’s the German Parliament or the French cabinet or Dutch this and that, somebody brings it up, ’ look this is the official symbol of the Finnish Air Force’, so at least it wouldn't help. Whether it creates true harm is hard to say, but certainly it is a risk"

”It's kind of controversial thinking”, counters Kai Mecklin. If we now deny the use, or stop using the swastika, we could give a signal abroad that actually it was a Nazi symbol in Finland - which it never was. We are still proud of it and still using it. It's also a symbol of Finnish stubbornness that we don't give up our right or our own history, if there is not any reason to be ashamed of it. ”

"I've never advocated prohibiting the use of swastika, I've asked about the usefulness of using it as the official symbol of the Finnish Air Force, today and tomorrow. When you try to ask here in Finland if there are some benefits for it, does it have a real military use, if it helps to defend the nation, then I get very few answers,” points out Teivainen.

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