Tuomas Tepora, who studies the cultural history of war and emotions, has discussed the mythical "spirit of the Winter War" in his 2015 book Sodan henki. Kaunis ja ruma talvisota.
Tepora describes three distinct levels to the spirit of the Winter War. On one hand, there was the spontaneous reaction that united the people: despite their political disagreements, Finns were united in their distress.
On the other, the spirit was consciously created and supported by propaganda. The moods and opinions of the citizenry were monitored and swayed.
“The spirit of the Winter War had many cooks and masters of ceremony.”
After the war, the spirit of the Winter War quickly became a political slogan and eventually a cliché, an idea that can be used to justify, sell and market nearly anything.
“Once political disagreements reappeared and the experience of the war turned into nostalgia, the question arose of why that wonderful feeling of community could not be re-evoked," Tepora states. “It’s interesting that the same question is being asked in Finland today, for example, when it comes to restabilising our national economy. We are, after all, not at war.”
A dishonourable peace?
In terms of war and the cultural history of emotions, a dishonourable peace is a classic concept, often relating to the defeat of Germany in the First World War.
According to surveys, many Finns call the peace after the Winter War a dishonourable one. Tepora believes that this is due to the loss of Karelia to the Soviet Union, a defeat which many consider dishonourable.
“The Winter War was brief, and the fall came quickly. Before it, Finland was overly optimistic and trusting in the success of its defence, while the media successfully spread propaganda about victories in battles and military encirclements. When this peak morale crashed, the result was extreme disappointment and a collective sense of shame.”
Tepora goes on, “For many, the country’s military defeat felt like a personal shame."
Within a few weeks, the positive sides of peace started to become apparent and the national mood calmed down.
Breaking the war trance
Tepora is fascinated by the phenomenon of rapid fluctuation in powerful collective emotions. His theoretical framework is to study how emotions become collective and how they are transmitted. A key factor is a crisis, as well as the fact that feelings of shame and honour are primal.
“War is the most destructive political and social crisis, and it generates powerful emotional responses in its temporal and cultural context. Finland in the Winter War is a textbook example of how a relatively homogenous community functions in a crisis, and how the nation itself becomes an object which supports its citizens.”
Once the crisis was resolved, the situation became very different.
“Some people may have even felt ashamed of having been so completely swept up in the general mood."
Politics of memory, war trauma and cultural history
When we talk about contemporary Finland, Tepora emphasises the diversification of war memories. An ethos of the unambiguously good hero is no longer the only dominant narrative.
“Today we can also openly remember things about the wars which are unpleasant or incriminating for Finland, even though such elements are understandably not the stuff of the national culture of memory.”
In traumatic experiences, a society or country which was thought to be reliable ultimately becomes the very institution sending its citizens to die for it. War also generates a wide variety of identities: war orphans and children, refugees and migrants, all of whom are marred by a nebulous sense of inferiority or loss.
“At the same time it is fascinating how people associate incredibly powerful and noble experiences and meanings with war,” Tepora continues.
War trauma and the related symptoms have only become a topic of the academic study of Finnish history in the past 10 to 15 years.
“One of the reasons is that there is sufficient temporal distance from the events, and it is possible to discuss war history outside the political framework of the Cold War. Partially, the new perspectives in war history are reactions against the neo-patriotic atmosphere of the early 1990s,” Tepora points out.
One interesting question is what will happen to the memories and interpretations of war as fewer and fewer people are around who have experienced it first-hand. We have already seen cautionary examples of the rise of populism and nationalism.