Paasikivi’s red lines. The boundaries of Paasikivi’s appeasement policy 1909, 1936 and 1948

What did the appeasement policy that Paasikivi as a Fennoman endorsed – but also came to criticise after the Second World War – mean in practice? A closer inspection of Paasikivi’s thinking reveals that, in his understanding, appeasement must have its limits. In this article, my main focus is on 1909, 1936 and 1948.

“Diplomatic duplicity. Pure lies. Dishonest diplomats. Dishonest diplomacy. False diplomacy and foreign policy.”

These are markings that Paasikivi added later in the margins of his diary entry of 29 August 1939. The cause of these vitriolic annotations was the statement made by Wipert von Blücher, German Minister to Finland, on 26 August 1939, claiming that the accusations that the non-aggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union was made at the expense of the Baltic countries and Finland were completely baseless, völlig unzutreffend.

“02/09[/1946] I went to the churchyard the day before yesterday and yesterday. I walked 1 1/2 hours on both days. It is like meeting up with old friends and acquaintances.

Passing Danielson-Kalmari’s grave, I thought to myself that he must be turning in his grave seeing how I, his old friend, have found myself this deep in the extreme appeasement policy and will be forced to do so for some time to come.”

What was Paasikivi’s approach?

I wrote my matriculation examination essay at Kuopio Lyceum on “Economic and spiritual independence are a prerequisite for national independence (J. K. Paasikivi)”. This was in spring 1968.In the autumn of the same year, now a student of political history at the university, I experienced at close range the change in the intellectual atmosphere, referred to as the student revolution, which in spirit could not have been any further from Paasikivi if it tried. In 2020, I had the privilege of chairing Paasikivi’s 150th anniversary committee and serving as the editor of the www.jkpaasikivi.fi website.

Why does Paasikivi still attract such wide interest? Why do his thoughts and actions still resonate with later generations, 150 years after his birth?

Any Finn will be familiar with J. K. Paasikivi’s post-war role as the Prime Minister (1944–1946) and then President of Finland (1946–1956). I have discussed Paasikivi’s 1944 Independence Day address to the nation in many of my lectures. At that point, Paasikivi had been Prime Minister for only three weeks. This speech is considered one of the key documents of the foreign policy doctrine that bears his name, and it introduced ideas many of which are still relevant today.

The speech began with an opening that is most fitting for our present circumstances and the plight of the coronavirus pandemic:

“The path of nations is not one of continuous rise, as much as we would like it to be. Sometimes this path leads us to the darkest of valleys – valleys that may seem bottomless ravines. But at the end of the valley, there will always begin a new path leading onwards and upwards. Sometimes the climb is gentle, sometimes steep. Eventually, it will always lead us to a wide open field with arching skies above and God’s light shining upon us.”

The address laid down the foundations for Finland’s foreign policy that still hold fast:

“The all-encompassing theme in Finland’s foreign policy is our relationship with our Eastern neighbour, the Soviet Union – – National independence and autonomy is a prerequisite without which our nation cannot live happy and content and fulfil its potential – – Our nearly 700-year-long union with the Kingdom of Sweden shaped the structure of our society and our outlook of the world.”

In terms of domestic policy, the message is equally appropriate:

“We can perform the most difficult of our tasks only if our minds are alive and socially engaged – – Nowadays, the importance of democracy is emphasised and rightly so – – Our main challenges are most of all economic. One thing, however, is above all else: we must work hard and tirelessly. Vigorous production must start as soon as possible.”

Paasikivi’s closing remarks were just as poignant as his opening lines:

“On this December day, autumnal darkness is shrouding our northern land. But it will not be long until the days will again grow longer, and spring is not far away. The sun will bring warmth and uplift and brighten our minds. ‘Work hard, be frugal and always conduct yourself like an honest man, and everything will be fine in the end’ – with these wise words written by Aleksis Kivi the older generations teach the young. After the gloom of the autumn, a new day will come to our free nation and the sun will shine warmer than ever on our beloved Finland.”

In sum, the Paasikivi doctrine refers to the survival of Finnish society supported by the democratic values embraced by the independent republic of Finland and the Nordic countries. Only the means to this end have varied over the years.

Lex Paasikivi 1918: the emancipation of tenant farmers

“For Paasikivi, a ‘mind that was alive and socially engaged’ translated as a necessity for implementing certain changes. Politically, Paasikivi grew up on the spirit of social reformism endorsed by the Finnish Party and the Snellmanian ideal of improving the educational level of the entire nation. According to these principles, the Finnish nation, strengthened and unified by quite radical social changes, would be able to withstand external pressures.

At the heart of these changes was the land question and the improvement of the conditions for the landless population and tenant farmers. Paasikivi’s first term as Prime Minister in 1918 would prove a watershed in Finnish history: it saw the emancipation of tenant farmers.

In 2020, the 150th anniversary of Paasikivi’s birth coincides with the 100th anniversary of the birth of novelist Väinö Linna. What Paasikivi and Linna have in common is their dedication to the tenant farmer question. Linna’s trilogy Under the North Star tells the story of the Koskelas, a tenant farmer family. Having witnessed the backbreaking work of his father Jussi, who cleared and ploughed the fields that belonged to the vicarage, the son Akseli grows embittered and takes up arms to join the revolution. Akseli and his brothers joined the Red Guards, which set out on an offensive towards Vaasa to overthrow the non-socialist government headed by Svinhufvud.

What makes the story particularly tragic is the fact that, in reality, Svinhufvud’s government had already given its proposal to the Parliament in January 1918 on the right of tenant farmers to redeem their home farms. In Linna’s novel, while Akseli Koskela was barely surviving in the prison camp for captive Red Guard fighters in July 1918, the non-socialist rump parliament – without the socialists, but one (before the revolution the party had 80 seats) – was practically unanimous in passing the act, securing the emancipation of tenant farmers. As the head of state Svinhufvud ‒ Paasikivi was now Prime Minister ‒ approved the bill in October, and following the issuing of the decree, the implementation of the law began in May 1919.

Paasikivi had from the very early days of his political career been one of the most vocal proponents of the land reform. As an MP for the Finnish Party, Paasikivi had served as the Chairman of the Agricultural Committee, which was in charge of resolving the land ownership question.

Therefore, the most fitting name for the piece of legislation would perhaps be Lex Paasikivi. The emancipation of Finland’s tenant farmers took place under his premiership. The biggest contribution to the preparation of the legislation was made by E. Y. Pehkonen, Minister of Agriculture. It is a widely held misconception, perpetuated by politicised historical interpretation, that it would have been Lex Kallio of 1922 that achieved the emancipation of tenant farmers – in reality, Lex Kallio only added expropriation to the repertoire of legal instruments, and it was only very rarely used.

With regard to Paasikivi and the limits to his appeasement policy, the land question can be viewed as a specific example. For Paasikivi, social reform did not equal socialism. When the radical wing of the Social Democrats started talking about a class war and agitating people towards revolution, the decisive line between the Fennoman social reformists and the labour movement was drawn. This is an aspect in which Linna is also often misinterpreted: his real hero in the Under the North Star trilogy is Janne Kivivuori, who abandons violent revolution and embraces the democratic methods of Väinö Tanner’s social democracy.

1909: the limits of appeasement

Paasikivi is known for his appeasement in foreign policy. The concept originates from the Russification period of the early 1900s. The leaders of foreign policy were divided into two camps depending on their take on the Russification of Finland. On the one hand, constitutionalists with the Speaker of the Parliament P. E. Svinhufvud as their most prominent figurehead, demanded that laws be respected at all times. On the other hand, there were the Fennomans, Paasikivi among them, who were more in favour of pragmatism.

However, there were limits to Paasikivi’s lenience. It is particularly interesting to examine the “red lines” in Paasikivi’s own political thinking that could not be crossed.

Paasikivi was serving as a Minister of Finance, when the last of the cabinet ministers in favour of appeasement policy in August Hjelt’s government eventually resigned in 1909. They found that the any further concessions would be against Finland’s interest and destabilise its position. Paasikivi’s memoirs from the Russification period, which are available on this portal, include Paasikivi’s in-depth analyses of these red lines. Prime Minister Hjelt wrote to the Tzar, then head of the Grand Duchy of Finland:

“The political view that the current members of the Senate [Cabinet] have long been endorsing in the Parliament as well as in their other public activities is not unknown to Your Highness. Seeing that it is our duty to do the utmost within our power for the relations between Finland and Russia in a manner that while supporting the best interest of the empire it would also honour the rights guaranteed to Finland, we have abided by the request of Your Highness to accept the appointment in the Senate. However, it is to our chagrin that we must concede that our actions to promote such relations have remained effectless. In the course of the past year, the conflict has only escalated to the point in which it is threatening to cause great misfortune to our nation in the near future. It is in this situation our obligation to accept that the purpose for which we took our seats in the Senate and the justification of which we are still fully convinced, appears to have become impossible to achieve under current circumstances. Therefore, we have considered it appropriate to request that Your Highness when humbly proposing the composition of the Senate for the forthcoming three-year term would refrain from considering the current members of the Economic Division of the Senate for these positions.”

1934: distancing from national socialism and fascism

Paasikivi also held his ground against excessive appeasement in his role as the Chairman of the conservative National Coalition Party between 1934 and 1936. He wanted to clearly distance the party from ideologies leaning towards German national socialism and Italian fascism. Paasikivi gave a talk in Tampere and Vyborg under the heading “Democracy or dictatorship?” in October 1934, less than a year after Hitler’s rise to power in Germany.

Paasikivi’s message to Finns who were drawn to the extremes represented by Germany and Italy was: “The house must be repaired, not demolished”.

1948: the red line of Communism

The explosive language of Paasikivi’s diaries is born out of the tension between expedient political rhetoric and reality.

Considering his entire career, the most important red line that Paasikivi ever drew was related to the events of 1948. In addition to fulfilling the conditions laid down in the Moscow Armistice of September 1944, Finland had conceded to several additional demands of the Allied Control Commission in Helsinki, such as convicting and sending to prison a number of her wartime leaders in the so-called “war-responsibility” trials.

In 1947, the peace treaty had been signed in Paris between Finland and the Allied Powers and the Control Commission had left Finland. In 1948, Finland signed the Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance (YYA Treaty) at the Soviet Union’s request.

After this, Paasikivi refused any further concessions to the Communists. He appointed K-A. Fagerholm’s Social Democratic minority government and drew up a secret 24-point programme, which he would then preach to all non-Communist politicians in their one-on-one meetings. It was time to put a stop to the onslaught of Communist policies.

The secret programme has been published in full in an appendix to the 5th volume of Tuomo Polvinen’s Paasikivi biography, published also in this website.

Paasikivi’s goal was to stop Finland from drifting into a Communist dictatorship. The main points of the programme were:

– Finland’s independence and democratic social order must be protected.

– Finland should not step any further in serving the military interests of Russia than the binding treaties required.

– Trading with Russia should be developed but Finland should not become dependent on it.

– We would be part of the Nordic Countries and the Western sphere.

– “It is us, i.e., the Parliament and the President, not Moscow, who decide who takes a seat in the government.”

– Non-communists should sternly react to any attempts to influence the composition of our government.

– The objective of the Soviet Union is: “First a left-wing and a coalition government with Communists included, so that the Communists may build their clout in the government, take control of the Social Democrats and ultimately achieve Communist dictatorship.”

– We must steadfastly hold on to our rights. “We are, and have of recent been, fighting a spiritual campaign for the life and existence of the Finnish nation and state.”

– The lack of support shown for the Communists in general elections has not stopped them from rising to power in Romania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Balkans.

– A government with no Communist representatives is in a position to carry out the “reorganisation and purges that must be carried out to safeguard a legal, democratic social order”.

Paasikivi concluded:

“These views of mine do not stem from any hostility towards the Soviet Union. To the contrary, my views are absolutely and completely friendly towards the Soviet Union and in favour of good relations between us and the Soviet Union. If the Russians honour the treaties and let us carry on conducting our affairs as we are bound by the treaties, everything will be well.”


Professor Matti Häikiö is the chair of Paasikivi’s 150th anniversary committee and the editor of www.jkpaasikivi.fi website. His published works include the biographies of P. E. Svinhufvud and Prime Minister Antti Hackzell, both of whom worked closely with Paasikivi.