Baron Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim – Finland’s Greatest Statesman

Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim IV

Baron Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim was born on the 4th of June 1867. Mannerheim is considered the “Father of Finland”, an accolade justifiably given by the people of Finland for his great political insight and savoir-faire in maintaining Finland’s independence at the end of the Second World War, and for his astute ability as an expert political negotiator in his dealings with Josef Stalin (Stalin told a Finnish delegation in Moscow in 1947 that the Finns owe much to their old Marshal) and the leaders of the “Allied Control Commission” who considered Finland a co-belligerent with the Nazi regime during World War II, thus maintaining a cordial relationship between the opposing ideologies of Democracy and  Communism. He too is recognised for his ability to engender respect from those powers who sought to control Finland through acts of War; Mannerheim directed his militarily diminutive nation against a vastly superior Soviet force and whilst not winning the Russo-Finnish Wars of 1939-1944 in the traditional sense, managed to retain Finnish Sovereignty whilst ceding 11% of Finnish Karelia and Petsamo to the Soviet Union.

Mannerheim first came to prominence during the Finnish Civil War (27 January to 15 May 1918) as leader of the “Whites” opposing the Communist “Reds”, becoming Regent of the newly independent Finland until 1919 after the war was won by the Whites. Mannerheim would later be charged with the responsibility of leading the Finnish Defence Forces as Commander-in-Chief during World War II and became Marshal of Finland at the end of hostilities in 1944. Marshal Mannerheim was the sixth President of Finland from 1944 to 1946. 53 years after his death, Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim was voted the greatest Finn of all time.

Mannerheim was born Gustav Karlovich (“Karl’s son”) in the Grand Principality of Finland, a satellite of the Russian Empire. He was born into a family of Swedish speaking aristocrats who settled in Finland in the middle of the 18th century. Gustaf Mannerheim was born in the family home, the Villnäs Manor in Askainen. As the third child of the family he inherited the title of Baron (in Finnish Vapaaherra, in Swedish Friherre; only the eldest son would inherit the title of Count). Mannerheim joined the Imperial Russian Army rising to the rank of Lieutenant General. He had a prominent role in Coronation of the Russian Tsar and attended private meetings with the Tsar on several occasions. His understanding of the command and control structure, tactics and strategies of the Russian Army would prove to be an invaluable asset when the Soviet Union invaded Finland at the beginning of the Winter War in November 1939.

Mannerheim attended the school of the Finnish Cadet Corps in Hamina in 1882 to learn self-discipline (something he excelled in as an adult) however; his conduct was so poor that he was refused entry into the Finnish Army. Mannerheim resolved to pass his university entrance exams and did so after attending Helsinki Private Lyceum. Shortly afterwards Mannerheim was accepted into the Nicolas Cavalry School in St. Petersburg in 1887.  Besides his mother tongue, Swedish, Mannerheim would learn to speak Finnish, Russian, French, German and English, which would serve him well in politics and in negotiating a satisfactory settlement for his nation with the Russians at the end of World War II. In addition, Mannerheim is reputed to have been able to speak Polish, Portuguese and Mandarin Chinese.

Mannerheim (right) with a fellow student, Antanas Ričardas Druvė[22] in Nicholas Cavalry School, St Petersburg, late 1880s.
Mannerheim (right) with a fellow student, Antanas Ričardas Druvė in Nicholas Cavalry School, St Petersburg, late 1880s.
In January 1891, Mannerheim was transferred to Her Majesty’s Maria Feodorovna‘s Chevalier Guard in St Petersburg – a position in which his height (he stood at 187 cm (6′ 1½”)) was an advantage, and one which also led to his being given a prominent place in the ceremonies for Tsar Nicholas II’s coronation in 1896.

Tsar Nicholas II
Tsar Nicholas II

In 1892 Mannerheim was married to Anastasia Arapova, a wealthy noblewoman of Russian-Serbian heritage. The marriage was arranged by Mannerheim’s Godmother Countess Alfhild Scalon de Coligny. Mannerheim and Arapova had two daughters; Anastasie and Sophie. Their only son was still-born. Mannerheim and Anastasia Arapova separated in 1902 and were divorced in 1919.

After Mannerheim’s separation from his wife, his situation became bleak. He fell into a depression due to financial difficulties exacerbated by his gambling losses. As a result Mannerheim determined to change his life and volunteered for the Russo-Japanese War in 1904. Mannerheim joined the 52nd Nezhin Dragoon Regiment in Manchuria with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He was soon promoted to Colonel for his bravery at the Battle of Mukden in 1905. Upon returning from war, Mannerheim took the opportunity to visit relatives in Finland and Sweden in 1906. He would soon be re-called to St. Petersburg where he was issued with new orders to undertake a journey through Turkestan to Beijing as a secret Intelligence Officer.

General Palitsyn, Chief of the Russian General Staff, wanted accurate, on-the-ground intelligence about the reform and modernization of the Qing Dynasty. The Russians wanted to know the military feasibility of invading Western China, including the provinces of Xinjiang and Gansu, in their struggles with Britain for control of Inner Asia known as “The Great Game”. Mannerheim posed as an Ethnographic Collector and joined the French Archaeologist’s Paul Pelliot’s expedition. Mannerheim and Pelliot parted company through a difference of opinion and Mannerheim conducted the majority of the expedition alone. He reached Beijing in July 1908.

After compiling his intelligence report, Mannerheim returned to St. Petersburg via Japan and the Trans-Siberian Express. His military report was a detailed account of modernization in the late Qing Dynasty, covering education, military reforms, Han colonization of ethnic borderlands, mining and industry, railway construction, the influence of Japan, and opium smoking. Mannerheim’s report outlined the likely tactical uses of a Russian invasion of Xinjiang, and Xinjiang’s possible role as a bargaining chip in a putative future war with China.

At the beginning of World War I, Mannerheim served as commander of the Guards Cavalry Brigade, and fought on the Austro-Hungarian and Romanian fronts. In December 1914, after distinguishing himself in combat against the Austro-Hungarian forces, Mannerheim was awarded the Order of St. George, 4th class. He said after receiving this award, “Now I can die in peace.” In March 1915, Mannerheim was appointed to command the 12th Cavalry Division.

Mannerheim received leave to visit Finland and St. Petersburg in early 1917, and witnessed the outbreak of the February Revolution. After returning to the front, he was promoted to Lieutenant General in April 1917 (the promotion was backdated to February 1915), and took command of the 6th Cavalry Corps in the summer of 1917. However, Mannerheim fell out of favour with the new government, who regarded him as not supporting the revolution. In September he was relieved of his duties, while on sick-leave after having fallen from his horse. He was now in the reserve and trying to recover his health in Odessa. He decided to retire and return to Finland, which he did that December.

The State Senate of the newly independent Finland under Pehr Evind Svinhufvud appointed Mannerheim Commander-in-Chief of Finland’s modest Army in January 1918. He accepted the position despite misgivings about the pro-German stance of the government. The Army consisted of the Civic or “White” Guards, a voluntary militia supported by 2000 German trained Finnish Jaeger troops and 1,200 Swedish volunteers. These meagre forces were expected to evict 42,500 Russian troops from Finland. Fortunately for the Finns, the Imperial Russian Army was slowly disintegrating and had already started to withdraw its units from Finland, the demoralized, poorly trained and undisciplined Russian military forces in the country posed a substantial challenge to Finnish authority.

C.G.E. Mannerheim formulated a plan and immediately set it in motion. He established his headquarters in Vaasa and began to disarm the Russian garrisons and their 42,500 men. During the Civil War, Mannerheim was promoted to General of Cavalry (Ratsuväenkenraali) in March 1918. After four months of bitter fighting, the Red Guards were defeated and the White Guards were recognized as one of the key agents in the victory, downplaying for political reasons the role of the German intervention units and the German-trained 2,000 Jaegers. The Civil War was portrayed as liberation from Russian control after a 20 year long Russification programme, with the Whites stressing the links of the Reds to the Russian Bolshevik regime. However the White victory was achieved with assistance from the Germans. German influence after the war was so strong that the independence of Finland was greatly in question until the end of World War I.

There were reparations in the aftermath of the Civil War. As the Reds had murdered some 1,100 people in their zone of control (the so-called Red terror), the Whites retaliated ruthlessly, executing some 7,370 people after the recapture of the Red areas (the so-called White terror). Approximately 4,000 Whites and 4,500 Reds were killed in action. The famine of 1918 claimed another 20,000 lives. Of those who perished, some 13,000 died in the prison camps. Because of their ruthlessness and eagerness to retaliate, the White Guards earned the title Lahtarikaarti (Butcher Guard) among the Reds.

In the wake of the German defeat at the hands of the Allies in World War I, Mannerheim became concerned that Finland would face repercussions for German assistance in the Civil War. Mannerheim travelled to Sweden in order to distance himself from the Government and sought to resolve underlying tensions between Finland and the Allied powers. Mannerheim conferred with Allied Diplomats in Stockholm, in October 1918; he was officially sanctioned by his Government to persuade Britain, France and the USA to recognise Finland’s independence. In December, he was summoned back to Finland from Paris after he had been elected temporary Regent (Valtionhoitaja; Riksföreståndare) of Finland.

Mannerheim-vapaaherrasuvun vaakuna - Mannerheim Family Coat of Arms
Mannerheim-vapaaherrasuvun vaakuna – Mannerheim Family Coat of Arms

After King Frederick Charles of Hesse rescinded his claim to the Finnish throne, Mannerheim secured recognition of Finnish independence from Britain and the United States. He also requested and received food aid to avoid famine. In July 1919 Mannerheim stood as a candidate in the first presidential election, supported by the National Coalition Party and the Swedish People’s Party. He lost the election in the Parliament to Kaarlo Juho Ståhlberg and left public life.

During the interwar years, Mannerheim’s pursuits were mainly humanitarian. He headed the Finnish Red Cross (Chairman 1919-1951), was member of the board of the International Red Cross, and founded the Mannerheim League for Child Welfare. He was also the chairman of the supervisory board of a commercial bank, the Liittopankki-Unionsbanken, and after its merger with the Bank of Helsinki, the chairman of the supervisory board of that bank until 1934. He was also a member of the board of Nokia Corporation.

In 1931 Pehr Evind Svinhufvud was elected President. C.G.E. Mannerheim returned to Office as Chairman of Finland’s Defence Council. At the same time, Mannerheim received a written promise that in the event of war, he would become the Commander-in-Chief of the Finnish Army. (Svinhufvud’s successor Kyösti Kallio renewed this promise in 1937). In 1933, Mannerheim received the rank of Field Marshal (sotamarsalkka, fältmarskalk). By this time, Mannerheim had come to be seen by the public, including some former socialists, as less of a “White General”, and more of a national figure. This feeling was enhanced by his public statements urging reconciliation between the opposing sides in the Civil War and the need to focus on national unity and defence.

The Soviet Union sought to conquer (and in a sense recover) parts of Finland, which had been part of the Russian Empire as the Grand Duchy of Finland. Negotiations between Finland and the Soviet Union broke down in 1939, the Soviet Union demanded amongst other concessions that Finland cede substantial border territories in exchange for land elsewhere, claiming security reasons, primarily the protection of Leningrad, which was only 40 km from the Finnish border.Finland refused and the Soviet Union declared war. Mannerheim was duly promoted to the rank of Commander-in-Chief of Finland’s armed forces.

The Soviet attack began on the 30th of November 1939. In a letter to his daughter Sophie, he stated, “I had not wanted to undertake the responsibility of commander-in-chief, as my age and my health entitled me, but I had to yield to appeals from the President of the Republic and the government, and now for the fourth time I am at war.”

He addressed the first of his often controversial orders of the day to the Defence Forces on the same day the war began:

“The President of the Republic has appointed me on 30 November 1939 as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of the country. Brave soldiers of Finland! I enter on this task at a time when our hereditary enemy is once again attacking our country. Confidence in one’s commander is the first condition for success. You know me and I know you and know that everyone in the ranks is ready to do his duty even to death. This war is nothing other than the continuation and final act of our War of Independence. We are fighting for our homes, our faith, and our country”.

Carl Gustaf Mannerheim V

Mannerheim quickly organised his headquarters in Mikkeli. His chief of staff was Lieutenant General Aksel Airo, while his close friend, General Rudolf Walden, was sent as a representative of the headquarters to the cabinet from 3 December 1939 until 27 March 1940, after which he became defence minister.

Mannerheim spent most of the Winter War and Continuation War in his Mikkeli headquarters but made many visits to the front. Between the wars, he remained commander-in-chief, which strictly should have returned to the presidents (Kyösti Kallio and Risto Ryti) after the Moscow Peace, on 12 March 1940.

Mannerheim in 1940

Before the Continuation War, the Germans offered Mannerheim command over German troops in Finland, around 80,000 men. Mannerheim declined so as to not tie himself and Finland to Nazi war aims. Mannerheim kept relations with Adolf Hitler‘s government as formal as possible and successfully opposed proposals for an alliance. If Mannerheim had not also firmly refused to let his troops participate in the Siege of Leningrad, they would have ended up becoming an integral part of the siege. It is believed that Mannerheim’s refusal to commit his troops to an assault on Leningrad and the high esteem in which he was held by Josef Stalin were the reasons that Finland was not occupied by the Soviet Union in 1944.

Mannerheim’s 75th birthday, 4 June 1942, was a major occasion. The government granted him the unique title of Marshal of Finland (Suomen Marsalkka in Finnish, Marskalk av Finland in Swedish). So far he has been the only person to receive the title. A surprise visit by Hitler in honour of Mannerheim’s birthday was less pleasing to him and caused some embarrassment. Hitler did not travel much, but the “brave finns” (die tapfere finnen) and their leader Mannerheim he wanted to visit.

Adolf Hitler decided to visit Finland on 4 June 1942, ostensibly to congratulate Mannerheim on his 75th birthday. But Mannerheim did not want to meet him in his headquarters in Mikkeli or in Helsinki, as it would have seemed like an official state visit. The meeting took place near Imatra, in south-eastern Finland, and was arranged in secrecy.

C.G.E. Mannerheim with Adolf Hitler
C.G.E. Mannerheim with Adolf Hitler

As a military commander Mannerheim was generally successful. Under his leadership the Finnish Defence Forces saved Finland from Soviet occupation. Mannerheim took care not to waste the lives of his soldiers, and avoided unnecessary risks. Perhaps his greatest shortcoming was his unwillingness to delegate. While he had a number of able subordinates, such as Lieutenant General Aksel Airo, Mannerheim insisted that all the department heads in the Finnish General Headquarters should report directly to him, leaving his Chief of General Staff General of Infantry Erik Heinrichs little to do. Mannerheim overwhelmed himself with work, and as a result coordination between the different departments in the General Headquarters suffered. It has been suggested that one reason why the Soviet offensive in Karelian Isthmus in June 1944 took the Finns by surprise was that Mannerheim was unable to see the forest for the trees. There was no other authority save Mannerheim to collect the intelligence and turn it into operational orders.

CarlGustaf Mannerheim I

There was some tension between Mannerheim and the other prominent Finnish leaders during the Winter and Continuation Wars. President Ryti at least once criticized Mannerheim for acting so as to retain as good historical reputation as possible. Prime Minister Linkomies in his posthumous memoirs criticized him for mood swings and capricious behaviour, which at times resembled that of famous artists. Prime Minister Paasikivi, who succeeded Mannerheim as President, also claimed that Mannerheim was so old that he could not always control his mood swings.

On the other hand, it can be argued that Mannerheim excelled in politics. Even though he was a soldier, and was not supposed to take part in politics, Mannerheim could not help but be a highly political figure. A vital question during the war was when to make peace with the Soviet Union. Too early would mean that Germany would be in a position to retaliate. Too late risked Soviet occupation of Finland. From 1942, it became increasingly clear that Germany would not win the war against the Soviet Union. Mannerheim was kept, as it were, in reserve, in order to potentially take the leadership of the nation and lead it to peace. Mannerheim played this role skilfully; he had a clear vision of how Finland should conduct its war in the sensitive situation when the war’s ultimate end was unclear. He knew how to treat the Germans to secure as much military support as possible without involving Finland in any binding treaties. For instance, during the build-up for the Continuation War in 1941, Mannerheim was offered command of all German forces on Finnish soil. While such an arrangement could have made prosecuting the war easier, Mannerheim recognized that this would mean subordinating himself to Hitler. As Mannerheim wanted at all costs to avoid this, he refused the offer.

In June 1944, Gustaf Mannerheim, to ensure German support while a major Soviet offensive was threatening Finland, thought it necessary to agree to the pact the German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop demanded. But even then Mannerheim managed to distance himself from the pact, and it fell to President Risto Ryti to sign it, so it came to be known as the Ryti-Ribbentrop Agreement. This allowed Mannerheim to revoke the agreement upon the resignation of President Ryti at the start of August 1944. Mannerheim succeeded Ryti as president.

Carl Gustaf Mannerheim VI

When Germany was deemed sufficiently weakened, and the USSR‘s summer offensive was fought to a standstill thanks to the June agreement with the Germans, Finland’s leaders saw a chance to reach a peace with the Soviet Union. It became clear that Mannerheim was the only person who had sufficient prestige, both internationally and domestically, to extricate Finland from the war. He enjoyed the confidence of a majority of the Finnish people, and was effectively the only one with the authority necessary to guide Finland in the transition from war to peace.

At first, attempts were made to persuade Mannerheim to become prime minister, but he rejected this because of his age and lack of experience in the running of a civil government. The next suggestion was to elect him Head of State. Risto Ryti would resign as President, and parliament would appoint Mannerheim as Regent. The use of the title “Regent” would have reflected the exceptional circumstances of his election. Mannerheim and Ryti both agreed, and Ryti submitted a notice of resignation on 1 August, giving as reasons his health and the necessity of combining civil and military authority in one person at that moment. Mannerheim decided that he wished to be elected president to avoid any misconceptions about the nature of his office. Due to the difficult conditions, general elections could not be held. Instead, the Parliament passed a special act conferring the presidency on Mannerheim on 4 August 1944. He took the oath of office the same day.

The dangerous state that Finland found itself in was reflected in Mannerheim’s inauguration speech before the Finnish Parliament:

“Mr. Speaker, I wish to express my heartfelt thanks for the kind words that you spoke about me. Honourable members of parliament, in accepting for the second time, at this difficult moment of national destiny, the duties of head of state, I am so deeply aware of the responsibilities placed upon me. Great are the difficulties that we will have to overcome in order to safeguard our future. Foremost in my mind at this moment is the army of Finland, now in its fifth year of battle. Trusting the Almighty, I hope and I believe that, with the support of the parliament and the government and having a unanimous people behind us, we will succeed in preserving our independence and the existence of our nation”.

A month after he took office, the Continuation War was concluded on harsh terms, but ultimately far less harsh than those imposed on the other states bordering the Soviet Union. Finland retained its sovereignty, its parliamentary democracy and its market economy. Territorial losses were considerable; all Karelia and Petsamo were lost. Numerous Karelian refugees needed to be relocated. The war reparations were very heavy. Finland also had to fight the Lapland War against withdrawing German troops in the north, and at the same time demobilize its own army. It is widely agreed that only Mannerheim could have guided Finland through these difficult times, when the Finnish people had to come to terms with the severe conditions of the armistice, their implementation by a Soviet-dominated Allied Control Commission, and the task of post-war reconstruction.

Mannerheim Cross
Mannerheim Cross

Mannerheim’s term as president was difficult for him. Although he was elected for a full six-year term, he was in his late seventies, and had accepted the office reluctantly after being urged to do so. The situation was exacerbated by frequent periods of ill-health, the demands of the Allied Control Commission, and the war responsibility trials. He was afraid throughout most of his presidency that the commission would request that he be prosecuted for crimes against peace. This never happened. One of the reasons for this was Stalin’s respect for and admiration of the Marshal. Stalin told a Finnish delegation in Moscow in 1947 that the Finns owe much to their old Marshal. Due to Mannerheim, Finland was not occupied. Despite Mannerheim’s criticisms of some of the demands of the Control Commission, he worked hard to carry out Finland’s armistice obligations. He also emphasised the necessity of further work on reconstruction in Finland after the war.

Mannerheim was troubled by recurring health problems during 1945, and was absent on medical leave from his duties as president from November until February 1946. He spent six weeks in Portugal to restore his health. After the announcement of the verdicts in the war crimes trials were announced in February, Mannerheim decided to resign. He believed that he had accomplished the duties he had been elected to carry out: The war was ended, the armistice obligations carried out, and the war crimes trial finished.

Mannerheim resigned as president on 11 March 1946, giving as his reason his declining health and his view that the tasks he had been selected to carry out had been accomplished. Even the Finnish communists, his enemies in 1918, appreciated his efforts and his role in maintaining the unity of the country during a difficult period. He was succeeded by his conservative Prime Minister Juho Kusti Paasikivi.

Mannerheim leaves the President's Residence in Helsinki on 11 March 1946 after his short presidency.
Mannerheim leaves the President’s Residence in Helsinki on 11 March 1946 after his short presidency.

After his resignation, Mannerheim bought Kirkniemi Manor in Lohja, intending to spend his retirement there. In June 1946, he was operated on for a perforated peptic ulcer, and in October of that year he was diagnosed with a duodenal ulcer. In early 1947, it was recommended that he should travel to the Valmont Sanatorium in Montreux, Switzerland, to recuperate and write his memoirs. Valmont was to be Mannerheim’s main residence for the remainder of his life, although he regularly returned to Finland, and also visited Sweden, France and Italy.

Because Mannerheim was old and sickly, he personally wrote only certain passages of his memoirs. Some other parts he dictated and described; and the remaining parts were written by his various assistants, such as Colonel Aladár Paasonen, General Erik Heinrichs, other Generals Grandell, Olenius and Martola, and Colonel Viljanen, who was also a war historian. As long as Mannerheim was able to read, he proofread the typewritten drafts of his memoirs. He was almost totally quiet about his private life, and focused instead on Finland’s events, especially on those between 1917 and 1944. When Mannerheim had a fatal stomach attack in January 1951, his memoirs were not yet in their finished form. They were published after his death.

Mannerheim died on 27 January 1951 (which was already 28 January in Finland) in the Cantonal Hospital in Lausanne, Switzerland. He was buried on 4 February 1951 in the Hietaniemi Cemetery in Helsinki in a state funeral with full military honours. Today he retains respect as Finland’s greatest statesman. This may be partly due to his refusal to enter partisan politics (although his sympathies were more right-wing than left-wing), his claim to always serve the fatherland without selfish motives, his personal courage in visiting the frontlines, his ability to work diligently into his late seventies, and his foreign political farsightedness in preparing for the Soviet invasion of Finland years before it occurred.

Mannerheim's funeral parade in Helsinki Senate Square on 4 February 1951.
Mannerheim’s funeral parade in Helsinki Senate Square on 4 February 1951.

Mannerheim’s birthday, 4 June, is celebrated as Flag Day by the Finnish Defence Forces. This decision was made by the Finnish government on the occasion of his 75th birthday in 1942, when he was also granted the title of Marshal of Finland. Flag Day is celebrated with a national parade, and rewards and promotions for members of the defence forces. The life and times of Mannerheim are memorialized in the Mannerheim Museum.

The most prominent boulevard in the Finnish capital was renamed Mannerheimintie (Mannerheim Road) in the Marshal’s honor during his lifetime.

Various landmarks across Finland honor Mannerheim, including most famously the statue of him on horseback located on Helsinki’s Mannerheimintie in front of the later-built Kiasma museum of modern art. Turku has Mannerheim Park which includes a statue of him. Tampere’s Mannerheim statue depicting the victorious Civil War general of the Whites was eventually placed in the forest some kilometres outside the city (in part due to lingering controversy over Mannerheim’s Civil War role). Other statues, for examples, were erected in Mikkeli and Lahti.

Mannerheim’s image was selected as the main motif on a recent Finnish commemorative coin, the €10 Mannerheim and Saint Petersburg commemorative coin, minted in 2003. The obverse of the coin features a portrait of the Marshal.

Mannerheim and Saint Petersburg commemorative coin.
Mannerheim and Saint Petersburg commemorative coin.

On 5 December 2004, Mannerheim was voted the greatest Finnish person of all time in the Suuret suomalaiset (Great Finns) contest. A biographical film about Mannerheim’s life is currently under way, directed by Renny Harlin.


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