Depicting Finland’s 100 years, or the coin controversy
In early April, the Finnish Ministry of Finance announced its anniversary coinage, celebrating 100 years of Finland’s independence. The coinage was to depict scenes from the country’s history. Controversy struck quickly: the first coin, representing the Finnish civil war, features a soldier about to be shot at close range. However, the authenticity of this image, based on a popular historic has been questioned since the scene is believed to have been staged. The coin has now been withdrawn from mint, but it brings to mind questions concerning how does a country decide what becomes cultural memory.
For many, the comparison with the coin designed for the 2010s, featuring the words “Global justice” (globaali oikeudenmukaisuus) is ironic to many. Finnish social media began to question: is this how we want our civil war to be depicted? What type of image should be used to encompass and represent this difficult past?
The Finnish Civil War (sisällissota/ kansalaissota), which lasted from January to April 1918, tore apart families across political lines. Individuals who sided with the communist Reds against the Whites were not buried in church graveyards after the civil war. Even today, this past is often not discussed openly, and only recently has there been open a debate about the brutality used against the Reds.
Even the issue of which word to use to describe the war – sisällissota or kansalaissota – has been subject to historical controversy because of its implicit meanings. Sisällissota, which directly translates to something like ‘a war within/inside’, is used as a more neutral term, and creates the illusion of unity of individuals within the country fighting a war; kansalaissota is more directly related to the English ‘Civil War’ or the German Bürgerkrieg. This difference in language captures communicative memory at work on a public and private level.
Ilkka Suppanen, the artist who created the anniversary coins, stated to YLE news on Tuesday 25 April: “The point of the collection is that a coin has two sides. This idea, that each time period has its own achievements, but also its difficulties. In my opinion, the most significant challenge of independent Finland was the civil war (kansalaissota).”
Finnish Civil War historian Pertti Haapala stated in an interview to Helsingin Sanomat that he was “shocked after seeing the coin”. However, he did not see the usage of the word ‘kansalaissota’ as negative in this case.
The differences between how Suppanen, as an artist, and Haapala, as a historian, understand and imagine the civil war are stark. Using Jan and Aleida Assmann’s theory of the relationship between communicative and cultural memory, allows us to view this controversy in a different light. Their theory, put simply, is that people create communicative memory through discussion in private. Individual identity is the result of a mixture of collective memory present in society at large, becoming, over time, a distinct cultural memory tied both to national and individual identity.
This sudden controversy over anniversary coinage illustrates the difficulties of transitioning between communicative memory and cultural memory. Further, the lack of discussion or reflection on the Finnish civil war today makes this tension even more visible. What should the cultural memory of the Finnish civil war be like? At its essence, cultural memories emerge “in the mode of potentiality”, through representations of the past found in different cultural centres (archives, libraries, museums) (Kansteiner, 182). Yet, if you visit the Finnish National Museum in Helsinki, there is nothing about the civil war in any of its permanent collections. Only in smaller cities, such as Hämeenlinna, a city that was controlled by the Reds, do such exhibits exist.
The controversy surrounding the anniversary coinage will hopefully develop into a more critical discussion about the place of the civil war in Finnish cultural memory. It seems that there has been a lack of communicative memory to begin a general formulation of a cultural memory of the Finnish civil war.