Jani Tiainen, a merchant specialising in war-era medals and memorabilia says that the lion on the Finland’s official coat of arms, a symbol of the country’s independence, has become shrouded in misconceptions.
"I run into it very often. Someone walked in my store off the street and accused me of selling Nazi propaganda," he said.
According to the entrepreneur the most common misconceptions have to do with the Finnish lion or the swastika, which was a symbol used by Finnish Air Forces before the Second World War. Swastikas are often seen adorning rings and frequently emerge in legacies.
"I would never put such a ring on my finger abroad. And in Finland it doesn’t help that skinheads like to use jewelry with the coat of arms. They have become neo-Nazi jewelry. They are distorting the history that I’m trying to share with people," Tiainen charged.
During the war, some 300,000 Finns donated their gold rings to the state as part of the war effort to acquire weapons to defend the country. In return, they received iron rings.
Academic: Symbols co-opted by small, vocal minority
Officials at Finnish National Defence University have also taken note of the changing associations of national symbols. They pointed out that the arms of the Finnish swastika aren't identical to the German version.
"I can imagine that nowadays it is no longer proper to wear swastika jewelry. It could attract negative attention and create false connotations," said Joonas Parviainen, a spokesperson for the National Defence University library.
Doctor of Philosophy and symbols researcher Liisa Väisänen said that attitudes to these old symbols of Finnish independence have hardened perceptibly over the past five years. She said that a small minority of people in Finland had co-opted the old motifs and created negative, racist associations around them.
"Others don’t want to get mixed up in that. Let’s say that those who go full out stridently using symbols very often succeed in changing their message. This is what’s happening here as well. It is very sad," she remarked.
In fact, last autumn the Finnish national hockey team called on anti-immigration protesters to stop wearing the team shirt, which also carries the Finnish lion symbol. The team and hockey federation said at the time that they did not want to be associated with anti-immigration sentiment.
Pacifists in retreat
The researcher compared the current situation to the time of the Second World War, when Buddhists discarded their ages-old swastika symbol once the Nazis began to use it.
"When you do enough disagreeable things publicly, peace-loving people prefer to back down."
The researcher said however that retreat is the wrong strategy.
"If we give in too much to how symbols are used, it could lead to radicalization. I don’t know who is more to blame: the noisy masses or those who just let things happen. These symbols should be used boldly and should be associated with different values," she noted.
Finnish lion not so Finnish
Artist Emmi Mustonen also put her own spin on the lion on the Finnish coat of arms when she designed a t-shirt sporting what she called "Everyone’s Lion". The garment bore a print with four lions: one black, another white, a third carrying a rainbow flag and a fourth wearing a burqa.
"I think it was an excellent and bold move, because it showed that [people] should not back down. It caused a huge discussion on the part of a vocal minority who argued that the lion symbol belongs to them. But that’s not the case," Väisänen pointed out.
She noted that the younger generation in particular might not necessarily know that the Finnish lion isn’t really Finland’s but was borrowed from a 12th century Spanish coat of arms.
"It could help people cool down if they knew the roots of the symbol. At the same time we would understand that these symbols have come from elsewhere. And that we have no special right to use them here."