pensI had my writers’ group this evening. I always look forward to these meetings. In the first place, my fellow writers have become good friends, and it’s always good to see one’s friends. In the second place, these meetings are a complete change of scenery, not just in terms of content and environment (the back room of an Ixelles pub, as it happens) but also in terms of democracy, meaning that I have no special responsibilities and can just be part of the group, which is great. In the third place, though, the quality is high and the intellectual discipline strong. Both were in evidence this evening. I was ‘up’ and had submitted a draft of the sixth chapter of my magnum opus. Because of the composition of the group, the critiques come from different angles but everybody had dilligently read and conscientiously commented on some 5,000 words. Sebastian, the other author ‘up’ this evening, tabled the last part of a wonderfully atmospheric novella he has just completed. Again, the group’s members had diligently read and commented on 5,000 words of text. That’s 10,000 words’ worth of reading and criticism in one week! In the last place, we grab a bite to eat afterwards and let our hair down and that’s also great fun. Below is my exercise this week, based on what I learnt whilst in Joensuu a few weeks back.


 If you have a Finn in your squash team you can be sure of long, hard, attritional rallies. Tough and apparently humourless, it’s always better to have them on your side. I was thinking about that in Joensuu a few weeks ago. There are very few traditional old wooden buildings in the town. My host mentioned in passing that they had been destroyed ‘during the war’. Then, on the way to the airport, I spotted a sign pointing the way to the ‘Bunker Museum’. There had been fighting here, then. The airport itself is a strange place. It is some way away from the town – fifteen to twenty kilometres, I’d say – and is in the middle of a forest. But the strangest thing about it is the sheer size and length of the many runways. They stretch into the far distance on all sides. The terminal, on the other hand, is a small shed-like construction. The mystery is resolved in the terminal building for there, in a glass case, the piston ring of an old aircraft is displayed. On the wall behind it is a photograph and a long explanatory text.

These days Finland is ranked second in the world for stability and prosperity (in terms of social, economic, political and military indicators). But it wasn’t always like that. In 1918, just after the Russian October Revolution, a civil war broke out in Finland. The conservative Whites were supported by imperial Germany, the social democratic reds by a communising Russia. Modern European history still teaches about the Spanish civil war, but the Finnish civil war has disappeared from Europe’s collective memory. And yet it was one of the ghastliest of wars, setting Finn against Finn in mortal street combat, and was very similar to the later Spanish civil war and indeed presaged it. Russians fought Germans by proxy. Cities were destroyed, child soldiers were recruited, terror campaigns launched, concentration camps built, death squads roamed the battle zones. Of the 37,000 official deaths, some 6,000 were between the ages of 14 and 20. After the conflict, the victorious Whites incarcerated 80,000 red soldiers in concentration camps, where a combination of Spanish flu, malnutrition and Guantanamo-type justice killed many of them off. The civil war left deep scars in Finnish society. Some argue that they still exist.

 But Finland’s troubles did not stop there. In the 1939-1945 period Finland fought two bloody wars against the Soviet Union and one against Germany. In November 1939 the Soviets, who had four times as many soldiers, 30 times as many aircraft and 218 times as many tanks, attacked. The Finns resisted fiercely and with surprising success. The two sides signed a peace treaty in 1940. Finland retained its sovereignty but nevertheless had to cede a large amount of territory. In 1941, when fascist Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, Finland became involved in a so-called ‘parallel war’ against the Soviet Union. However, such were the ambiguities of the time that democratic Finland relied on the material support of fascist Germany. Indeed, in a rare example of a democracy fighting a democracy, the United Kingdom declared war on Finland. Once again, the Soviets began the hostilities and, heavily outnumbering the Finns, inflicted ghastly damage on Finnish cities and towns – including Joensuu.

 And that leads me back to the airport. For Joensuu was Finland’s major military base in the east and the launching point for most of its air raids on Leningrad and other Russian cities. The Finns bought 48 Junkers bombers from the Germans. In order to increase their bomb loads to a maximum, they built especially long runways, so that the planes could lumber slowly into the air. The piston ring in the glass case was from the wreck of one of those bombers. The photograph behind showed such a bomber in the air and on its wings and fuselage it sported a reverse swastika – then Finland’s symbol but, confusingly, nothing to do with fascism (the Finnish airforce had used the symbol since 1918).

 So there you have it. One ghastly civil war and three equally bloody wars in the 1939-1945 period about which I remembered, if I had ever known anything, precisely nothing until I went to Joensuu. I don’t play squash anymore but I work with a lot of Finns and appreciate them even more now I know what horrors brought them to their current state of well-being.