Meet Mr. Finland – the czar’s swedish-speaking spy

Baron Mannerheim is the man without whom Finland might have wasted decades
as part of the Soviet Union. He is the only
man ever to be named Field Marshal of Finland, but then, the Republic has known
no other Commander-in-Chief in times of war. In fact, Mannerheim’s bio reads
like a crash course in Finnish independence. He was there for it all. He led the
government troops to victory in the Civil War, united the nation in two wars
against the Soviet Union, and finally expelled
the German army from Finland
at the end of the Second World War. And saving Finland was something Mannerheim
only took up after retiring from the Russian Army at the age of 50.

 

Mannerheim: the controversial national
hero
Over the years, Mannerheim has inspired awe in many Finns and foreigners. One
of his ardent fans is Matthew Kirk, the former British Ambassador to Finland
(2002-2006). Now Vodafone’s director of external relations, Mr. Kirk still has
fond memories of the time he lived just down the road from Mannerheim’s house
in Kaivopuisto.

  
“One of my favourite things about Mannerheim actually
is the fact that he never owned his house, but rented it from the confectioner,
Karl Fazer, whose signature still appears on the famous Fazer Blue chocolates”,
Mr. Kirk says. Mannerheim's signature can be seen in many public buildings throughout
Finland,
but the only document on which these two most famous signatures appear is the
lease for the house in Kaivopuisto. The house, which was transformed into
a museum after Mannerheim’s death, still gives a very vivid impression of this
extraordinary man.

  
The many parallels between Mannerheim and Churchill
also fascinate Mr Kirk. Both were born into great houses, both were badly
behaved at school, and dropped out. Both travelled widely, and had military careers.
In the run up to the Second World War, both argued for rearmament against the
wishes of the political majority in their countries. Both smoked, and enjoyed a
drink or two.
 
An officer in the Imperial Army
Born in June 1867 at Louhisaari Manor, near Turku, Mannerheim was the second son
of a moneyed, Swedish-speaking noble family. (The family actually spoke a
different language every day of the week: Swedish, English, French, Russian,
German, and Portuguese. And yes, even Finnish.) While Mannerheim’s mother was a
devout Christian, a dutiful and loyal person, the Count passed on to his son an
appreciation of the good life, a love of beautiful women, good food, and the
fine arts. Indeed the Count was declared bankrupt and, taking his mistress with
him, fled to Paris
before Gustaf turned 15. The family home was sold, and the mother died of a
heart attack.
  
At the time Finland
was still a part of the Russian Empire, even if an autonomous Grand Duchy. It
was not exceptional for young men to seek their fortune outside their native
land, and in 1887 the impoverished young Mannerheim enrolled in the Nikolayevskaya Cavalry School
in St. Petersburg.
This was the start of what was to be 30 eventful years of loyally serving the
Emperor in the Imperial Army. Mannerheim was an ambitious man, but fortunately
he also turned out to be gifted, effective, and absolutely just as a military
leader. He demanded the impossible from everyone, including himself.
  
Maintaining a lifestyle suitable for a Cavalry Officer in Guard's cavalry was expensive.
In 1892 Mannerheim came into a great deal of money by way marrying a wealthy
Russian heiress. This, however, proved only a temporary solution, since after a
few unexpectedly happy years Baroness Mannerheim emigrated permanently to Paris with the couple’s
two daughters. This left Mannerheim free to pursue his career unobstructed, but
sadly out of funds. Already in 1911 he complained to a friend about his
financial situation: “I am forced to lead a very moderate life. All my money
goes to horses and beautiful women. There is nothing left for trifles!”

  
A great traveller

Being a soldier and a lover were not the only things
that defined Mannerheim. Among other things he was also a masterful rider, an
adventurous explorer, an accomplished photographer, and a skilful diplomat.
These at least were the qualities required of him on the two-year reconnoitring
(spying) expedition his Russian masters sent him on at the beginning of the
20th century.
  

Like many others, Mr. Kirk too is amazed by
Mannerheim’s journey. Under the cover of a Helsinki University
professor engaged in ethnological and biological research, Mannerheim travelled
from the Middle East to the eastern Chinese
coast during the years 1906-08. A fair-sized entourage accompanied him, but in
the end only two were there for the whole length (over 14,000 kilometers) of
the journey: Mannerheim and his horse. Mannerheim drew maps for 3,000
kilometers, took more than 1,350 photographs, obtained more than 1,200 objects,
prepared impressive statistics, and wrote detailed reports. Ironically, his
ethnographic studies are still of use today while the products of his spying
were soon buried in archives.
  

A man ahead of
his time

Mannerheim’s national importance to Finland is not
solely due to his role as the supreme wartime Commander-in-Chief. He was also a
political leader who twice assumed the role of Finland's Head of State. Straight
after the declaration of independence, Finland decided to become a
monarchy and invited a German prince to become king. In the interim, Mannerheim
became regent. The prince never came, and the Finns decided to become a republic.
Mannerheim became President of Finland during the war in 1944 in order to
secure peace with Russia.
As Mr. Kirk points out, Mannerheim was effectively both a royal and a republican.
He was a loyal servant of the Czar, advocated monarchy for Finland, and
ended up as the head up the Republic himself.
  
As a travelled cosmopolitan Mannerheim had a very broad field of vision, or the
rare gift of reconciling the national interests of a small, peripheral country
with those of the great powers. A man of many contrasts, paradoxes and
exceptional timings, Mannerheim was “cosmopolitan in a time of nationalism,
aristocrat in the era of democracy, and conservative in the age of
revolutions.”