Paasikivi, the eternal monarchist

Prince Frederick Charles of Hesse, King-elect of Finland. Lappeenranta Museums, photographer T. H. Voigt.

Analysing J.K. Paasikivi’s political career, the first thing that usually comes to mind is his pragmatism: his caution, ability to see reality, aversion to wishful thinking, and his dislike of extremes. However, there is one exception to this otherwise consistent line of thought: Paasikivi’s first government (Senate, as it was called at that time) in 1918 and its attempt to install a German prince as the king of Finland. This has been the cause of continuous bewilderment: how could Paasikivi not see that Germany was about to lose the First World War and collapse as soon as in November the same year? How come he failed to understand that the republic was the inevitable form of government almost everywhere in Europe?

Posterity has the luxury of analysing this phenomenon with all the wisdom of hindsight. However, the above questions are, in truth, extremely superficial when studying the work and political career of Paasikivi. A more correct question to ask would be, how would he not, in the light of his personal history and situation in spring 1918, have come to the conclusion that a monarchy, moreover one with a German prince on the throne, was the best of the possible solutions and perfectly feasible at that moment?

In 1918, Paasikivi was already approaching 50 years of age. This is an age when one’s political views have already been forged and become established, and he had lived his youth during a period when the monarchy was not even questioned. Finland had been a monarchy for 700 years. There were only three republics in Europe: France, Switzerland and Portugal. France was hardly a poster-child for republicanism, what with its chaotic internal politics and international image as a declining superpower. Switzerland was simply a curiosity, and Portugal was considered backward.

Outside Europe, in the Americas, republics were more common. However, they were also seen mainly as warning examples and, when viewed from the perspective of the leading ideology of Paasikivi’s era, nationalism, they seemed almost unnatural constructs. The starting point for nationalism namely was that ideally nations would form nation states in a geographic region which that nation had inhabited for centuries if not since time immemorial. Each nation was considered to have their own unique history, characteristics, and national psyches. In this light, the republics in the Americas were artificial and unnatural formations: The United States a melting pot of nationalities, the republics in Latin America mixtures of different races and ethnicities. At that time, the United States was not considered a superpower of any import except economically. A Finnish nationalist would perceive the US mainly as a materialistic business-oriented world that had not produced a genuine culture.

Paasikivi grew up and reached middle age in a world where large monarchies were the norm. He had been brought up in a world that was ruled by the emperors of Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, the British Empire, which was the largest the world had ever seen, and the Scandinavian monarchies closer by. Monarchies existed in Italy, the Iberian Peninsula, and the Balkans. In spring 1918, monarchies were still the gold standard of government in Europe. While times were certainly changing and putting pressure of democratisation on the royal houses, monarchies remained the norm.

As an added peculiarity, Finnish nationalism had long incorporated a special relationship with the Russian Tzar. Paasikivi’s philosophical roots were in J.W. Snellman and Y. S. Yrjö-Koskinen, whose political maxim had been loyalty towards the Tzar, and specifically in his role as the Grand-Duke of Finland. The Tzar had pledged to defend the constitution of Finland. As long as he had trust in Finns, they would be left alone to build their nation. This loyalty had been reciprocated including when Russia was facing difficulties in foreign relations. Moreover, the Grand-Duke was the only person who could keep other Russians at bay.

Therefore, it was only natural in Paasikivi’s frame of reference and for his conservative value system to consider a monarchy as a viable form of government. Compared to the reality that surrounded him, the idea of a republic seemed somehow theoretical and hazy.

The years of Russification that began in 1899 had dented people’s confidence in traditional principles. Nicholas II was seen in a new light as a treacherous emperor who did not keep his word. However, this was not reason enough to turn people into republicans. The disappearance of the imperial institution did not seem plausible. A bank manager in his forties with an established position was not a likely candidate to reconsider their fundamental worldview and reposition themselves politically towards a more radical end of the spectrum.

The election of the monarch

In aftermath of the revolution of spring 1917, the republic suddenly seemed the road that Finland should follow. Paasikivi was one of the members of the Constitutional Committee chaired by K.J. Ståhlberg, aiming at establishing a Republic of Finland. In those radical times, monarchy in any shape or form was suddenly no longer an option, and the only alternative for a non-socialist republic was revolution and a socialist republic. As the social disintegration process continued, Paasikivi began to acknowledge the merits of a “firm government”.

Paasikivi’s reference group had already reconciled themselves with the notion before the Civil War that Finland could become a republic, either as part of Russia or as an independent state.

The Civil War turned the tables one more time, and supporting a monarchy mainly represented a return to normal. Many drew the conclusion that the republic had been a grave mistake, a shortcut to an uprising and socialist revolution. To counterbalance such volatile forces, a stabilising force was required, a power that transcended party politics, that is, a hereditary monarchy. No president of a republic could hope to claim similar eminence as a king, because he would always be brought up by a political party and could never secure the support of a major power for Finland.

In this light, the republican aspirations of 1917 appeared just a speck in history, barely more than an ill-fated escapade. After the revolution, it was time to return to realism, and at this point, realism meant securing Finland’s independence against Russia with the support of another major power. According to Paasikivi’s analysis, the only major power that had any interest in securing Finland’s independence against Russia was Germany. Therefore, it was imperative that Germany be tied to Finnish interests on as many levels as possible so that it would not sell Finland out back to Russia under any circumstances. It was self-evident to Paasikivi that Russia would try to reconquer Finland, regardless of what the political regime across the border would turn out to be.

The collapse of Germany was not yet obvious to anyone in the spring and summer of 1918. On the contrary, it appeared in spring that Germany may win the whole war or at least reach an equilibrium whereby it would secure full dominance over Eastern and Northern Europe. Besides, reliance on German support was not the exclusive policy of the monarchists. Although many republicans would later appear to suffer from a degree of amnesia when it came to their actions during 1918, most of them were in reality fully supportive of allegiance with Germany.

Practically nobody among the non-socialists could even begin to envisage a revolution in Germany and the replacement of the monarchy with a republic. Paasikivi mentions in the unprinted sections of his memoirs how he had discussed the political situation of summer 1918 and how the war was turning in favour of the Allies with J.R. Danielson-Kalmari. Yet neither of the two had even contemplated the possibility that a revolution would take place in Germany and it would abolish monarchy.

As the Chairman of the Economic Division of the Senate, the equivalent of Prime Minister, Paasikivi was now in favour of a monarchy and he justified his views to the parliament with both foreign policy considerations and internal politics: with Germany’s support, Finland’s security could be better guaranteed, and a monarch would be able to restore domestic peace. In a parliamentary debate on 12 June, he stated: “Only under a strong monarchy has the Finnish nation a chance to fulfil her historical destiny: to build a thriving kingdom that stands on her own two feet with her head held up high, up here in the North, between the East and the West.”

He went on to say: “Monarchy as a form of government is able to guarantee, better than a republic, certain consistency in the exercise of power and, as far is possible between human beings, it is able as the supreme governmental power to rise above daily party political scuffles and expedience.”

Paasikivi was not, however, prepared to revert to old extremes: he summarily rejected the idea of intervening with the structure of the parliament or universal suffrage.

Paasikivi’s senate was unsuccessful in pushing through its bill on the form of government following the procedure for constitutional enactment, which forced the senate to resort to section 38 of the Swedish 1772 constitution and carry out an election of the king on 9 October 1918.

No regrets

With Germany’s collapse a month later, the monarchist movement came to an end. Nearly all of the former monarchists were busy finding excuses for their actions during 1918 and preferably wanted to forget the episode altogether. Very few expressed any support for any type of monarchy, neither in practice nor theory. The republic was the new normal, which could not be questioned without being branded a reactionary or even a comical character.

However, Paasikivi was one these few. Naturally, he no longer advocated monarchism or raised the issue on his own initiative, but neither did he voice any regrets for his political activities in 1918 or quietly change his mind and concur that the republic was, after all, the better system. Not even when he was President of the Republic himself.

Paasikivi’s monarchist convictions would occasionally raise their head in passing, mainly in his diary entries. On many an occasion, he voiced his despair of the dismal level of political life in countries with a republican form of government and maintained that the constitutional monarchy was ultimately the better option. He gave an exceptionally illustrative piece of his mind in a private letter to K. N. Rantakari in 1938, in which he objected to Rantakari’s views of the decisive role Mannerheim had played in saving Finland’s independence during his period as Regent.

In his response, Paasikivi showed that he had never changed his views about the events of 1918, followed by an onslaught of examples of perfectly well-functioning monarchies: “The proponents of democracy, in particular, should realise how wrong they have been in criticising these matters. Monarchies are the places where democracy and peace have prevailed most successfully. England – the cradle of democracy is a monarchy, and nobody there is even thinking of overturning it. Holland and Belgium, democracies and monarchies. Scandinavian countries as well.” Instead, republics had failed abysmally in Germany, Austria, and Spain. In Czechoslovakia it was not faring well, whereas in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania it had led to “dictatorship or party dictatorship where democracy was but a thin veneer.” In the French Republic, crises followed one after the other, and the Russian republic had spiralled into a Bolshevist dictatorship. “All told, the republican order has, since the war, put on a very poor show,” after all the expectations that were placed on its shoulders in 1918–1919, Paasikivi wrote.

What Paasikivi omitted to mention in his analysis was that there were plenty of monarchies in Europe that were not democracies: Italy, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, and Albania; even Hungary could be counted among these, as constitutionally it was a kingdom although the throne remained vacant.

In 1931, Paasikivi went as far as publicly admitting his monarchist ideas. In a piece in the newspaper Uusi Suomi, he wrote that he had already arrived at the conclusion that Finns had grown into a republic. However, the presidential had made him see that this was still not the case and that monarchy remained the better form of government of the two.

His diary was the forum in which he could vent his monarchist opinions in later years. In his entries during the Continuation War and even in 1952 and 1955, he emphasised the national security aspect of the monarchist movement in 1918 and the significance of Germany’s support for Finland’s independence. As the Continuation War turned against Germany, he could not but admit in his diary in October 1942: “I have once sided with Germany in 1918, and I saw what happened when it started to go wrong.”

Paasikivi gave Ståhlberg’s republicanism of 1918 the credit it was due but was quick to point out that Ståhlberg had been in a much more comfortable position than him or his senate. They had been obliged to consider the security of independence.

Despite having adjusted to the new world order, Paasikivi was a 19th century conservative until the end of his days and upheld his ideological affinity with the monarchy regardless of how unpopular or anachronistic those ideas came to be.

Vesa Vares is a professor of political history at the University of Turku.