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    Edvard Hjelt - Scientist and Statesman

    George B. Kauffman and Lauri Niinistö

    One of the most significant Rectors in the past of the University of Helsinki was Edvard Hjelt. He was a multifaceted man: an able administrator, a renowned scientist and historian of science, politician and statesman - all during the turbulent years around the turn of the century and the First World War.

    Edvard Hjelt's activities occurred during the most eventful and crucial years of Finnish history - years which eventually led to Finland's becoming an independent nation in 1917. An exceptionally gifted and dedicated individual, Hjelt was not only a university administrator but a competent chemist, historian of chemistry, and textbook writer who also played a prominent role in politics, held a post now corresponding to Prime Minister, and after Finnish independence, became Finnish Ambassador to Germany.


    Youngest professor of the university

    Edvard Immanuel Hjelt was born on June 28, 1855 in Vihti near Helsinki. He completed his studies in chemistry at the University of Helsinki in a record-breaking time: master's degree in 1877 and Ph.D. degree in 1880. For his doctorate, Hjelt had worked some time in Germany under the leading chemists of the period. In 1880 an opportunity opened for Hjelt to obtain a permanent academic position. In order to qualify for the professorship, he had to present a new dissertation for which he worked two years in Helsinki and two summers in Strasbourg. As the only qualified applicant, he was appointed to the chair of chemistry in 1882. At the age of 27 he was the youngest member of the University Council, while his father O.E.A. Hjelt, Professor of Medicine, was the eldest!

    Hjelt was an organic chemist who initiated work in a new field for Finnish chemistry, namely the study of camphor and the terpenes. This was to become a field later extensively investigated by Finnish chemists among them O. Aschan and N.J. Toivonen at the University of Helsinki and G. Komppa at the Helsinki University of Technology. For sixteen years, until he was appointed Rector in 1898, Hjelt's life was primarily dedicated to scientific research and teaching. Hjelt was a diligent researcher and a prolific writer.

    He had more than 200 publications to his credit, 45 of them in the leading chemistry journal of the period, the Berichte published by the German Chemical Society. Together with O. Aschan he was invited to write international textbooks and reviews which amounted to several volumes and almost 10,000 printed pages. His textbooks, aimed at domestic and Scandinavian markets, were also well received and ran through several editions until about 1930.

    After Hjelt became Rector of the University of Helsinki in 1899, the heavy, time-consuming responsibility of this administrative position prevented him from pursuing much work in the laboratory. In 1903 he published his last experimental work. The history of chemistry, in which he had possessed a long-time interest, now became his main research topic in chemistry and the work for which he is best known today. Hjelt's main claim to chemical fame and his magnum opus is the first comprehensive history of organic chemistry, which appeared in Germany in 1916 much delayed by the ongoing First World War.


    University Rector and Chancellor

    During the period 1888-1896 Hjelt was appointed auditor of the university's accounts, and the conscientious manner in which he carried out these duties and his concomitant knowledge of university finances won him the confidence of his colleagues. In 1896 they elected him Vice-Rector and in 1899 Rector. It is a tribute to Hjelt's will power and self-control that he was able to discharge these duties, let alone carry out research on the history of chemistry, during this time of conflict.

    Although Czar Alexander I had made Finland an autonomous grand duchy in 1809, one of his successors, Czar Nicholas II, in a manifesto of February 15, 1899, deprived the Finnish Diet of almost all legislative powers and changed the previous peaceful collaboration between Russia and Finland into confrontation. The pressure of Pan-Slavism for a Russian expansionist policy and clashes between the great powers led to attempts to "russify" Finland, with, e.g., introduction of Russian postal, toll, and monetary systems. The ultranationalistic Russian Governor-General of Finland, Nikolai Ivanovich Bobrikov (1839-1904), an outspoken enemy of the university, was granted dictatorial powers by the Czar, and he ruthlessly suppressed all opposition by use of Russian police methods.

    However, rather than deal with Bobrikov, Hjelt interacted more with Vyacheslav Konstantinovich Plehve (1846-1904), the Secretary of State for Finland and Chancellor of the university, who had written the manifesto of February 15, 1899 that began the "russification" of Finland. Although Plehve and Bobrikov were supposed to collaborate, they were actually antagonistic toward each other, and Hjelt was able to play one off against the other. He convinced Plehve that because the university was Plehve's domain, it should be kept free of Bobrikov's influence or else Hjelt could not prevent student disturbances and demonstrations. During his tenure as Rector, Hjelt skillfully managed to pacify the students and faculty with empathy and understanding, while simultaneously preventing the government authorities from taking stronger, more repressive measures. He was re-elected Rector for the 1902-1905 triennium.

    During 1905 the Czar retreated both in Russia and in Finland. Russia's defeat in its war with Japan (1904-1905) and general strikes in Russia and Finland forced Nicholas II to guarantee civil liberties to his subjects and in November, 1905 to rescind the decrees based on the February, 1899 manifesto, including the governor-general's dictatorial powers.

    In 1905 Hjelt was appointed to his third term as Rector, but a year later he entered the government as Assistant Head of the Board of Education. In 1908 he was appointed Vice-Chairman of the Imperial Senate's Economic Department, a position corresponding to Prime Minister. Next year he returned to the university, now to a new second professorship of chemistry, which he held until 1910, when he was appointed the university's Vice-Chancellor.

    During his almost eighteen years as Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Hjelt was astonishingly successful in moderating and hindering the government's plans to "russify" the university. Because the university had been regarded for more than a century as "Finland's heart," the importance of Hjelt's contributions to his country cannot be overemphasized.

    In 1919, after diplomatic service in Germany, Hjelt was called for duty again in the university and appointed Acting Chancellor, a post he held until his death two years later.


    Political activities during World War I

    Hjelt found Germany to be very congenial for his writing, and he usually spent his summer vacations there. After World War I broke out, Hjelt returned to Helsinki in September, 1914. The new "russification" program of November, 1914 convinced him that Finland had no future within the Russian Empire and that its liberation would best be accomplished through Russia's defeat by Germany. In 1915 Germany, in whose interest it was to cut off Finland from the Czarist Empire or at least to force Russia to deploy troops in Finland, thus making them unavailable elsewhere, had promised to give military training to Finnish volunteers, and two thousand men, including students who were encouraged by Hjelt, managed to cross the border into Sweden and from there make their way to Germany, where they formed an entire battalion. These members of the 27th Prussian Light Infantry Battalion were called Jaegers, and they later formed the core of an army of liberation for Finland. In February, 1915 Hjelt joined an "Elders' Council" for the Finnish independence movement.

    After the March, 1917 Russian Revolution and Czar Nicholas II's abdication, Hjelt accompanied other Finnish political delegates to Petrograd (St. Petersburg) and obtained a manifesto restoring autonomy to Finland from the precarious Russian interim government. In August and November, 1917 Hjelt traveled to Sweden and Germany, respectively, as a representative of the Finnish liberation movement.

    On December 4, 1917 the Finnish Senate proclaimed Finland an independent republic, a proclamation ratified by the Diet on December 6. The Senate then received recognition of independence from the Bolshevik Party in Russia, which had come to power in November, 1917, followed by recognition from Sweden. In January, 1918 Hjelt was appointed Finnish Minister in Berlin, where he obtained recognition for the new republic from Germany. France, and Denmark, and Norway followed suit within a few days. From Berlin Hjelt was sent to Vienna and The Hague and received recognition from Austria and the Netherlands, respectively.

    The accession to power of the Bolsheviks in Russia aggravated a split in the political sympathies of the new republic, and Finland's war for independence developed into a short but bloody civil war, which began in January, 1918, when radical Finnish socialists occupied government buildings in Helsinki. In this war the Red Guards (pro-Bolshevik Finns aided by Russian soldiers) fought against the White Guards (bourgeois Civil Guards representing the legitimate government). Upon the outbreak of war Hjelt arranged in Berlin for arms for the Finnish Jaeger Battalion, which formed the core of the White army of the Finnish General, Baron Carl Gustav Mannerheim (1867-1951), who later served as Finland's president (1944-1946).

    On February 14, 1918, in response to a telegram from General Ludendorff, Hjelt in Berlin, together with International Law Professor Rafael Waldemar Erich (1879-1946) in Helsinki, urgently appealed for help to the German government and military headquarters. On April 3 six German battalions landed at Hanko (Swedish, Hangs), about 80 miles west of Helsinki, followed by three battalions east of Helsinki, an action brought about largely by Hjelt's efforts. Mannerheim launched an offensive and occupied the Red Guard center of Tampere, about 100 miles northwest of Helsinki. By April 14 Helsinki, which had been occupied by the Reds, was liberated by the Germans and White volunteers, and by early May the war had been won. Later Hjelt was criticized for summoning the German expeditionary force originally on his own initiative and for signing a treaty which gave Germany an almost monopolistic position in Finnish foreign trade, although for only a very limited time. He was also reproached by his government and Mannerheim for helping Ludendorff to escape Germany with a Finnish passport after the German revolution.

    In contrast to his negative attitude toward France, Hjelt's attitude toward Germany was a warm and positive one. Politically he viewed Germany as a counterbalance to Russia, with whom France was establishing close political and military ties at the end of the nineteenth century. His Germanophilism and Francophobia reduced his effectiveness as a post-war diplomat, and after taking three months' leave, he was dismissed in May, 1919 from the Finnish diplomatic service.

    After his recall to Helsinki, Hjelt started to edit his memoirs when not occupied with administrative duties as Acting Chancellor of the University of Helsinki. Spending his summers in Germany, he suffered a burst gall bladder resulting in peritonitis at Bad Mergentheim in WYrttemberg, where he had gone for his health. Following surgery, he died of heart failure at the age of sixty-six on July 2, 1921.

    Hjelt's last book, published the same year he died, bore the title Independent Finland - from Dream to Reality. Hjelt lived to see his dream become fulfilled which was only just because he had actively worked for the cause of Finnish independence in various ways and at the same time helped to maintain the integrity of the University under an increasing pressure from the Russian authorities. Indeed, Hjelt is considered by several historians to have performed greater services to the University than anyone since its founding by Per Brahe in 1640.