[A version of this column by Janne Strang was originally published on Swedish Heritage Day 2017. The text has been edited for clarity and length]
You might be wondering why Finnish flags are hoisted on every available pole on a random Monday in November.
Today Finland is celebrating Svenska dagen – the Finland Swedish Heritage Day – in order to reluctantly remind ourselves of why the country is officially bilingual.
Many readers might already be aware that Finland has a tiny minority of native Swedish speaking citizens, some 300,000 people or 5% of the population, who persist with their struggle to be able to live their public lives entirely and exclusively in Swedish. It is a right granted in the constitution, albeit a right that is constantly questioned and demanded to be amended.
This is of course not a unique arrangement, many countries are multilingual, but few ethnic minorities in any country enjoy the status us ‘finlandssvenskar‘ do, relative to our tiny size in the overall population.
There’s publicly-funded Swedish education all the way from kindergarten to university; Swedish public service media; and the right to use Swedish in any and all situations involving legislative issues, police and judicial courts. Bilingually defined municipalities have the same obligations within their jurisdiction.
It is sometimes hard for ‘proper Finns’ to accept this situation. Many like to speak of undue privileges for a spoiled few, but there are some good reasons for the arrangement, not least historical ones.
History of Independence
The Republic of Finland is turned 100 last year, and the concept of a Finnish nation is not much older than that. In fact, as many a finlandssvensk is keen to point out, the country was invented by the local Swedish elites in the mid 19th century, coinciding with and contributing to a wave of nationalist ideology sweeping across Europe.
At the time, and for some 600 years before that, ‘Finland’ was merely a geographical attribute describing the vast eastern territory of the Swedish kingdom, that was lost to Russia in a war that ended in 1809.
In March that year the estates of occupied Finland pledged allegiance with Russian Tsar Alexander I, who in turn promised his new subjects full legislative and religious autonomy within a framework of an autonomous Grand Duchy. In effect, the people of Finland would be able to continue their everyday lives as the Swedes they were.
And Swedes they were, at least the ones in power, whether within politics and civil service, cultural life, education or the church. The Finnish language, though widely spoken inland, had not yet entered the public sphere.
As the relationship with Russia started to decay and the subsequent Tsar Nicholas I came along with ideas of a stronger unity and assimilation of all the regions into Mother Russia, the idea of a new national identity grew stronger. The sentiment of the time is neatly expressed in the well known uttering of journalist and writer Adolf Ivar Arwidsson: “Swedes we are no longer, Russians we do not wish to become, let us therefore be Finns”.
This became the credo of the Fennoman movement, an elite group of Swedish speaking cultural profiles, most notably perhaps Johan Vilhelm Snellman, Fredrik Cygnaeus and Johan Gustaf Hellstén (who later became president of the republic under his new Finnish name Juho Kusti Paasikivi). The noble and ambitious aim of the movement was to undo the prejudices surrounding the Finnish language and culture, create a Finnish identity, and ultimately establish an independent Finnish country.
Finnish: It’s a Hit!
Through hardship and toil, they eventually succeeded – and did so far beyond their wildest dreams. ‘Finnishness’ was a total hit. A home run for the ages. So much so, that the old elites started to quiver, intimidated by the sheer force and speed of the progression they had unleashed. With independence from Russia in 1917, the introduction of parliamentary democracy, modernity and urbanisation, identitarian Finns and the Finnish language swept in through the halls of power and blew away the old order, ie. the old Swedish elites.
And that is why already in 1908, in one of their last-ditch efforts to rally the troops and regain some respect in the eyes of the marauding hoards of what they perceived as peasant savagery, they had established Svenska Dagen – the Finnish Swedish Heritage Day – the very same anniversary we are celebrating today.
Street fights between language groups were common during the early decades of the republic, and are the stuff of legends. People sympathetic to the Swedish cause and heritage, called Svecomans, wore red and yellow on their sleeves, while the opposing Fennoman side sported white and blue rags around their arms, and off they went at each other with fists and blades.
The animosity always tended to escalate on the 6th of November, and this grudge was carried on until both sides had to go out and fight off the Russians during World War II, side by side for a common fatherland. Or so the myth of the nation is told today.
Hesitating to Speak Swedish
But as any adult finlandssvensk will tell you, many of us have hesitated to speak Swedish in certain situations and crowds. The threat of violence and mockery was always there while growing up.
I can only hope that the young generation today, living in the globalized world of the information age, is spared this behaviour.
Unfortunately, it seems the bigots in the streets have only readjusted their cross-hairs, and now direct their slander towards immigrants instead of us. Conspiracy theories have even been floated, that this is the reason why the Swedish Peoples’ Party SFP/RKP has taken such a welcoming stance in the immigration debate. That is of course utter nonsense – the reason is that they look towards Sweden and see the correlation between immigration and economic growth.
The date of our Swedish Heritage celebrations, 6th November, is not without controversy, either.
It marks the death of war-loving King Gustav II Adolf on the battlefield of Lützen 1632, during the pinnacle of expansion of the would-be Swedish empire. Furthermore, Svenska dagen is not to be confused with the National Day of Sweden (which is also called the Day of the Swedish flag) which is celebrated annually on the 6th of June, in remembrance of the crowning of Gustav Wasa in 1523.
In Sweden, sadly, the 6th of November has been hijacked by the neo-Nazis and other far-right organisations, casting somewhat of a distasteful shadow over the celebrations in Finland, as well as the historical reasons for it. These questions, however, are actively ignored. Instead, Svenska dagen in Finland is nowadays regarded merely as an opportunity to bestow people with prizes and honorary titles, dress up and mingle among the Swedish-speaking elites.
And of course, silently reminding the nation that, historically, without the Swedish speakers of Finland, we would all be speaking Russian.
So don’t you dare touch that constitution.
Follow Janne on Twitter at @jannestrang