Year 2018 marks the centennial memory of major crises in many European countries. First World War, the most destructive of wars by then ended in November, leaving behind 16 million dead and 21 million wounded. In Finland, the declaration of independence from Russian Empire (Finland had been a grand duchy of Russia since 1809) was followed by a civil war between the Reds and the Whites from January till May 1918. This was the bloodiest civil war in 20th-century Europe from the point of view of deceased people in proportion to population. Some 38,000 people died in the war: one third lost their lives in the battlefields, one third was murdered or executed, and one third died of diseases, hunger or violence in the prison camps for the Reds during summer and autumn of 1918. The war that lasted 3½ months was part of the First World War that shaped Eastern Europe, in particular, politically, ethnically and socially, and became the seed of the next major war, the Second World War.
Hundred years ago, these wars were real crises that destroyed lives, communities and societies to a point that required years of reconstruction and reconciliation.
For almost a decade now, crisis has been an almost daily catchword in the media. First we were introduced the economic crisis that began in the USA in 2008. It was followed by the economic crisis in Greece and respective EU sanctions. In 2015 the headlines screamed about refugee crisis, and lately we have been talking about the crisis of democracy as a result of populist politics in many European countries and the American presidential election. Climate change will soon constitute a crisis in itself.
We should nevertheless ask whether these are crises in the real sense of the word: “an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending, one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome”, or “a situation that has reached a critical phase”? (e.g. Merriam-Webster Dictionary).
Already in 2015 when asylum seekers from the Middle East, Afghanistan and from the African states started to migrate to Europe in large numbers, media coverage and social media channels voiced out opposite views. There was, on one hand, sympathy towards the asylum seekers for the hardships they had faced in their home countries and for the exhausting and often dangerous travel through Europe. On the other hand, there was rejection and suspicion about why young men had left their families in a home country in turmoil. The public as well as some politicians used such terms as refugee crisis, flood of refugees, asylum shoppers, and welfare refugees. At one end of the polarized discourse, there was utmost prejudice against the refugees and at the other humanitarian sympathy. Some were quick to point out that the real crises were taking place in the migrants’ home countries, not in wealthy Europe.
In recent years, documentary films in Finland have addressed difficulties of dialogue between migrants and people in receiving societies (e.g. Kiehumispiste, 2017, director Elina Hirvonen). In parallel, literatures emerging from populations and communities that traverse cultural boundaries have addressed, for example, themes of migration, displacement and reculturation. In Finland, one of the most noted example of this is Pajtim Statovci’s novel Kissani Jugoslavia (2014; translated into several languages, in English My Cat Yugoslavia), where one of the themes is an Albanian refugee family’s effort to find home and meaningful existence in Finland.
In an international conference, ‘European Narratives of Crisis’ at the University of Helsinki in May 2018, scholars from humanities and social sciences discussed European identities and legal policies and practices, in particular. In my own paper, I investigated public discourse about refugees in Finland in 1917–1929, particularly whether the word crisis was coupled with refugees. Within four or five years after the revolution in Russia, some 35,000 refugees had come to Finland. Most used the country as a transit place to continental Europe, whereas of the 11,000 East Karelians who formed the biggest ethnic group among the 35,000, some 5-6,000 stayed in Finland as refugees and stateless people. They were given what became known as the ‘Nansen passport’, created by Fritjof Nansen, the famous Norwegian explorer and later diplomat, from the request of the League of Nations for refugees who had lost their citizenship.
What makes it possible to explore such public discourses in history is digitalisation that is rapidly expanding, and changing, our ways of conducting research. Most Finnish newspapers and majority of the weekly or monthly magazines are now available online, and enable searches by words or phrases. Instead of reading every paper page by page – an impossible task, in fact – we can excavate specific topics with simple searches. Of course, with targeted searches the researcher also loses much information that historical newspapers and magazines could provide about a range of topics, commercials, and of the general media practice of their time.
Surprisingly, when investigating the use of ‘crisis’ and ‘refugees’ I found out that the word ‘crisis’ was not once mentioned in connection to refugees or migrants. Partly this was due to the State Refugee Aid Organisation’s efficient media coverage, where the aim was to reassure the public that not too much of tax payers’ money was spent on foreigners, and that it was the duty of an independent nation to aid people in need. Instead, the word crisis came out in connection to economic difficulties, such as lack of foreign currency, interest rates, inflation, and political and parliamentary turbulence in foreign countries. In left-wing papers crisis was associated with the crisis of imperialism or World War I as a war for economic and human resources in the colonies and metropole. Lengthy articles mostly cited the speeches given at the meetings of the Third International.
In fact, there were several references to the triple crisis in Europe in the 1920s’ papers: economic, societal and political, i.e. parliamentary crises. Reflecting on the development of (the rest of) Europe, Finland was also seen as suffering from some of these but in general, optimism prevailed: the country was an independent nation-state under construction. If crisis and Finland were linked it may have been in an article on cultural crisis, such as the erosion of Christian morals or problematic trends in literature or theatre.
In general, refugees from Russia were welcome to Finland for two reasons. First, the young state wanted to present itself as one of the ‘civilised nations’ whose duty was to help people in need. Second, the refugees were politically suitable, ‘victims’ of communist revolution, and stateless people. For example, even the left wing and working-class newspaper Uusi Aika (‘New Era’) wrote in March 1921 that it is
“necessary that Finland follows closely the clauses of the peace treaty [of Tartu, 1920, …] and gives security and shelter that the refugees are entitled to according to international practices, no matter which social class they represent […] until they are able, with consent of the Soviet government, to return to their homes, or in opposite cases, move abroad.” (Uusi aika, 22 March 1921)
While more right wing or moderate newspapers remained positive towards the refugees, there were also negative attitudes and hard language towards the refugees. They gained strength when it became obvious that thousands of them were going to stay in Finland and compete for the mostly manual jobs with Finnish workers. In 1925 Pohjan Voima, the newspaper of workers and small farmers wrote:
”As a result of the military games of Finnish bourgeoisie there is a big group of so called refugees in our country now […] It is obvious that such a group, particularly now that finding employment is difficult, will be destructive to Finnish workers. […] When shall we get rid of this menace.” (Pohjan Voima, 31 January 1925)
So where is the crisis in this refugee history case? There is no, if you keep looking for the word crisis. Europe was witnessing the move of refugees from Russia; in Berlin alone, there were more than 360,000 people from Russia, in Ottoman Turkey at least 100,000. Revolution and its consequences were startling war-torn Europe that entered a period of economic crisis.
In Finland, thousands of refugees from post-revolutionary Russia were welcome ‘brothers of kin’ (heimoveljet in Finnish) who could be managed and resettled with thrifty aid policy of the state. From the point of view of the right-wing governments of the 1920s and the 1930s, helping anti-bolshevist refugees from Russia was Finland’s responsibility as an independent state and a ‘civilised nation’. In some nationalist circles this nourished hope of Greater Finland and the extension of state borders to Soviet Karelia.
So where does all the crisis talk today emerge? Globalisation has generated issues that are beyond the control of states and civil societies and have instead fuelled populist politics in Europe and the USA. Crisis rhetoric may well be a discursive strategy to make people alert and ready for changes that some politicians or experts consider necessary. (Today these experts are mainly economists rather than, for example, social scientists.) Crisis involves an idea of threat, and today some justify their own political agenda by labelling refugees, migrants, or other group of internal or external ‘others’ as a threat to society.
In fact, are we being managed by all this crisis talk? Historians could give new perspectives to public debates by analysing the different contents and uses of the concept of crisis. After all, there are, and never have been, simple solutions to complex problems on societal, national or international level.
(Refugees /not/ welcome. Scripture at Oulu railway station in summer 2015. Photo: Seija Jalagin.)