Tuesday, January 19, 2010

DBTL 16A: The Helsinki Syndrome

This is the latest installment in the Drowned Baby Timeline, an alternate history where Adolf Hitler drowned at birth and where World War II never took place. The Danzig War of 1936 - 37 saw an aggressive German régime under Ernst Röhm defeated by the combined forces of Great Britain, France, and Poland, and the three nations are now the dominant powers of Europe. In 1939 Poland joins together with Romania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland to form a defensive alliance called the Warsaw Pact. The alliance is put to the test in October 1944, when a Soviet-backed coup attempt in Lithuania brings war between Poland and the USSR.

Today's post was written by Jussi Jalonen, who has kindly consented to bring his wealth of knowledge of Finnish history to add some much-needed verisimilitude to this timeline. So, without further ado, the Johnny Pez blog proudly presents:

The Helsinki Syndrome
by Jussi Jalonen

Helsinki, Finland
9 October 1944

Brakes screeching, the black Chrysler Imperial halted on the cobblestone street in front of Smolna, on the south side of the Esplanade. President Väinö Tanner left the car, quickly paced the steps of the building followed by his adjutants, and entered the main hall where the cabinet was expecting him. As usual, heads turned to look at the President when he walked into the room. Tanner greeted the cabinet members with a quiet gesture and took his seat at the end of the table. Everyone in the room could sense the silent anger emanating from the President, and Prime Minister Risto Ryti seemed extremely distressed by it. Only Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, the Chairman of the Defence Council, maintained his calm, tranquil appearance. After four years of working under Tanner, he had come to understand the heavy pressure which history had placed on this man, the first person from the working-class district north of the long bridge of Helsinki to become the President of the Republic.

The extraordinary elections which had followed President Kallio's untimely death in March 1940 had, against all odds, resulted in Tanner's victory, making him the first Social Democrat to ever rise to the position of the President of Finland, something which many people even within the party had regarded as virtually impossible at the time. But it had happened; Tanner had carried the electoral college in the third round, with all the Social Democratic and Agrarian votes, plus half the Progressives behind him. A year later, after the parliamentary elections had ensured the continuation of the Center-Left government coalition, the new President had made a bold decision and appointed Ryti as the new Prime Minister instead of Cajander, who had expressed his wish to withdraw from the position. Old Marshal Mannerheim had remained as the Chairman of the Defence Council with Tanner's full approval. The handshake of the Social Democratic President and the Marshal, with the right-wing Progressive Prime Minister as the third party, had marked the final seal on the national reconciliation begun during the Kallio years, healing the last remaining traumas of the Civil War. Finland was once again, beyond any question, a united nation -- and the following years, which had seen the hostility of the Kremlin towards the "Social Fascist Tannerheim régime" develop to pathological levels, had painfully demonstrated the necessity for the newly-found national concord.

But the new consensus had not bridged all the political divides. Tanner directed his gaze at foreign minister Rudolf Holsti, who was struggling to conceal another morning hangover. The veteran Progressive politician had experienced his triumph five years ago, when the Cajander government had signed a treaty associating the Finnish-Estonian maritime defence arrangements with the Polish Commonwealth's Warsaw Pact alliance. Although the Social Democrats had been unwilling to support the proposal for a treaty with Poland, the surprising endorsement of the right-wing opposition had secured parliamentary ratification for the agreement; after the conquest and partition of Germany in 1937, many National Coalition members had suddenly turned into ardent champions of Polish-Finnish cooperation. The grand alliance of all border states, led by Poland and Finland, which Holsti had envisioned in 1922, had finally, after almost two decades, become reality. But it had also split opinions within the government, as the controversial foreign commitment had divided the Progressives and caused continuing friction between the Social Democrats and the Agrarian Alliance.

And now, after eight long years of continuous service as the foreign minister in the successive cabinets of Cajander and Ryti, Holsti had found himself increasingly marginalized. After his election, Tanner had concentrated the control of foreign policy back to the office of the President and, with the full support of the new Prime Minister, sought to distance the country from the Warsaw Pact. Even worse, the new generation of politicians within the Agrarian Alliance -- including Kekkonen, the young upstart -- who were free from the old fennoman prejudices and thus more inclined to favour Tanner's Scandinavian-oriented foreign policy over the Polish connection, had also started to regard Holsti as a useless relic of an old era. The frustrated foreign minister had eventually turned to alcohol for refuge -- which had not helped to restore his prestige, but at least made its loss easier to bear.

But today, Holsti had made a smashing comeback. He had decided that he was not going to fall into obscurity and allow all that he had worked for to be quietly buried. How did these people even dare to think that he could be overlooked in the country's affairs? Who else in the political establishment had as profound an understanding of international relations and the role of the League of Nations as he did? Who else could comprehend the depths of the social and political human interaction like he could -- he, Rudolf Holsti, the Westermarckian philosopher-King, the man who was destined to guide this nation through the stormy waters of European politics? As soon as he had received the news of the Soviet attack on Poland, he had known exactly what to do. And he had done it, and acted in accordance with the obligations he had as the foreign minister of Finland, and which Finland had as a treaty partner of the Polish Commonwealth and as a member state of the League of Nations.

At least, it had seemed like a good idea at the time. But now, a day later, when Holsti looked at the ominous figure of the President, he couldn't help but wonder whether he had really gone too far.

"Now, let's get down to business." Tanner's voice was both calm and menacing. "Two hours ago, I received a personal telephone call from the Soviet ambassador, who told me that the Kremlin has decided to give a negative answer to the ultimatum dispatched by our government yesterday morning. Since I happen to be the person in charge of the foreign policy of this country and had neither issued nor given my permission to issue any ultimatums, you can perhaps imagine my surprise. It took a quarter of an hour for me to discover that the Foreign Ministry has acted on its own authority in this matter." The President snapped his fingers, and his adjutant handed him a document. "Eloquent text, I must say. 'If the Soviet government fails to provide a satisfactory answer to the demands of the Finnish government and if the armed forces of the Soviet Union continue their advance against the Polish Commonwealth, the Finnish government will consider itself forced to take action in accordance to the Eighth Article of the League of Nations Covenant and the Fifth Article of the Warsaw Pact agreement, and resort to harsh measures to bring the Soviet government back to its senses.' " Tanner leaned back in his chair and gazed at Holsti even more intensely than before, with the wrath of God in his eyes. "Now, Minister Holsti, I'd like to hear you to explain just what the hell were you thinking when you sent this to Moscow?"

Holsti cleared his throat and began to wipe his eyeglasses. "International law, Mr. President," he answered after a brief moment. "The Relation of War to the Origin of the State. While we must, first and foremost, seek for non-violent solutions in our conduct as a member of the European community -- and I still continue to believe that in time, this will become an accepted norm everywhere -- we still cannot ignore the fact that at times, circumstances may require that we take action in defence of our principles. Our reputation and our entire standing as an independent nation are based on how we observe the treaties and agreements which we have concluded with the other sovereign states. We cannot overlook our obligations simply because we may have, for one reason or another, come to find them uncomfortable. Even among the primitive tribes of the Pacific islands --"

"I'm not interested in a lecture in Westermarckian sociology at the moment, Minister Holsti," Tanner interrupted bluntly. "Are you equally aware of the fact that aside from international law, our political hierarchy is also based on a certain order, and that we have various norms and procedures, often dictated by legislation, which are meant to ensure that this country practices its foreign policy as a cohesive entity? Or is it really too much to ask that you would know this?"

For a brief moment, Holsti thought that he could actually hear Tanner's teeth grinding against each other. "If you question my intellect, Mr. President, I must refuse to respond," he answered. He put his glasses back on, but somehow, everything looked even more blurred than before.

Sensing that the possibility of murder was becoming high, Prime Minister Ryti decided to intervene. "Mr. President, if I may? I'm as surprised as you are, but since you've called this meeting under a state of emergency, both I and the rest of the cabinet have to know what kind of action we are going to take, and whether you have established your own communications with the Russians."

Tanner grunted. "The Soviets won't goddamn talk to me. I'm a bloody Menshevik, see." He grimaced bitterly. "In fairness to our foreign minister, it appears that Stalin had prepared at least some kind of a diplomatic offensive against us before this mess began. That still doesn't mean that Black Rudolf here made the right decision when he decided to fire the first shot, but what's done is done." Tanner now directed his words at Ryti and the rest of the cabinet. "In any event, our association with Poland, in spite of the fact that it has become more and more remote in the last few years, would have made us a direct Soviet target. Stalin trusts no one, least of all us. And I must admit, against my own wishes, that we simply cannot back down from our commitment, especially at a moment like this. I opposed the decision to sign the pact, but it nonetheless binds me. We signed a contract, and we must fulfill our end of the bargain. It's the only honest thing to do, as our Prime Minister here said of our debt repayments to the United States."

Ryti smiled. He just loved being quoted. "Have we consulted the Estonians?" he asked.

"I have," Marshal Mannerheim suddenly said. "I had a long talk with General Laidoner on the telephone this morning. They are ready to fight, with or without us, and they are quite frankly expecting the Red Army to cross their border any second now. Given that they have experienced a Communist coup attempt once in the past, their feelings are understandable. At any rate, they will stand or fall with Poland, and would like to know that we are on their side . . . though the General made it clear that this time around, they will not wait forever so that we can make up our minds first." A quiet smile lingered under Mannerheim's moustache. "I have never heard the General so uncompromising. It seems that our southern neighbors want us to finally take them seriously."

Tanner didn't even consider questioning Mannerheim's right to negotiate with the Estonian general; as everyone knew, Estonian foreign affairs were conducted entirely by the general staff on Pagari Street in Tallinn, and it was best to allow soldiers to interact with other soldiers. "What I'd like to know is if we are taken seriously," Tanner said. "Have you made any other phone calls this morning, Marshal?"

"I ran into ambassador Sokolnicki on my way here. Everyone in Poland already thinks that we are at war on their side. Three hours ago, Marshal Skwarczyński formally declared in a radio broadcast that 'in alliance with the Commonwealth, the Republic of Finland is also facing Soviet aggression.' He used the Polish word 'sojusz', and even made a brief reference to 'the common historic experiences of our two great nations,' specifically to the presence of Piłsudski and the PPS delegation at the 1905 Kirkkonummi Conference." The Marshal gave a hearty laugh; as an old Tsarist officer, he was still inclined to regard these references with amusement. "The latter one must have been intended to accommodate our Social Democratic President. It's the first time that I've ever heard the Marshal of Poland quoting Leon Wasilewski with so much gusto. But I suppose that citing our participation in the suppression of the November Insurrection would not have been quite as appropriate under the present circumstances."

Tanner clenched his fists. "As soon as I find out the blasted blockhead who has made these premature promises to the Poles--" He stopped and looked once again at Holsti, who had opened his mouth to speak. The foreign minister's words died on his tongue when he saw the flames in the President's eyes. This time, Tanner had to really struggle to suppress his rage.

"Marshal, if you've made any preparations for a situation such as this, now would be a good time to put them into effect," Prime Minister Ryti said.

Mannerheim shook his head. "No state of war has been declared yet. The President of the Republic is still the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces."

The room fell quiet. Tanner lifted his hand to his forehead. He knew what he had to say, and he had prepared for it, but it was nonetheless difficult, and at a moment like this, how he would say it was especially important, both for himself and the rest of these people. Bitterly, Tanner sensed how his rationality and caution now made him reluctant to decisively take the initiative, whereas Holsti had managed to turn his own drunken megalomania into an undeniable, if irresponsible achievement. Tanner realized that there was a thin line between initiative and insanity, and also that it was now up to him to take control of this irrationality. Although he had not created this situation, it was one of those moments he would inevitably be remembered for afterwards.

For a while, all the right words had been clear in his mind, but then he had lost them. The President was still trying to remember them when the door to the hall opened again and another one of his adjutants strode inside, handing him a telegram. Tanner read the text on the paper, and turned to address the cabinet in a low voice:

"It seems that Stalin has made the final decision for us. Twenty-five minutes ago, the Red Air Force attacked our forward positions on the Isthmus. We're at war." He sighed. "Marshal, you're now appointed Commander-in-Chief, effective immediately."

Mannerheim nodded. "Do I have your permission to take action and respond to the hostilities without any further consultation?"

"Absolutely," Tanner answered without hesitation. The old, stern look had returned to his face again. "Do your worst, Marshal."

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