I recently finished Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy by Jonathan Clements a recent biography of the father or modern Finland.
Mannerheim is one of those people they just don’t seem to make anymore. A man who not only found himself in a number of key events during the early 20th century but was able to shape many of those events.
The book focuses primarily on Mannerheim’s life up to the establishment of the Finnish state around 1920. It spends a little bit of time on the last 20 years of his life, but that time is probably the most well known and the easiest to find information on.
And what a life it was. Concerned his military career was going nowhere he volunteered for service in the Far East for the Russo-Japanese war. While the war didn’t go well for the Russians it proved very fortuitous for Mannerheim. After the war he was sent on an extended spying mission throughout China to assess the threat it posed to Russia. He then cooled his heels for a couple of years and served in the Russian army during the First World War and when the Bolsheviks took over made a hair raising escape to Finland where he oversaw Finlands secession from the Russian Empire and resistance to it’s own red revolution.
Clements description of the Winter War has a different tone than the rest of the book, and it’s clear there’s a bit of hero worship here. Still, the Winter War was one of those historical events that generates amazingly impressive stories of determination and heroism. In the homeland of sisu, those crazy Finns kicked it up to 11. Indulge me for a moment with some quotes.
Upon hearing that the Soviets had invaded Finland, one Finn said:
We are so few, and they are so many…Where will we find the room to bury them all?
In one infamous incident, a lone Finn was seen calmly standing in the path of a lumbering tank, carefully sighting a pistol in between the viewing-slits on the front of the tank.
According to the footnote:
Lieutenant Virkki is the only man in history to have defeated a tank with a pistol…
That, ladies and gentlemen, is why you never mess with the Finns.
Mannerheim’s story is really an incredible one that would really be at home in a Bernard Cornwell novel. Check it out and you won’t be disappointed.