Thursday, 24 February 2011

Finns preparing for the Winter War, and the Finnish Concept of "Sisu" (Courage)

Pictures from the book Suomen Sotaväki (The Finnish Army), published in 1937, two years prior to the start of the Winter War with the Soviet Union (30 November 1939 – 13 March 1940). The Winter War is a landmark event in Finnish history and national identity. The numerous war graves in every small village, representing a large portion of Finnish men of that generation, are still very prominent, and are memorialized each year on Finnish Independence Day. Against an overwhelming foe, and lacking the aid promised by the Western Powers but never delivered, the Finns held out for 105 days before signing a peace treaty with Moscow and ceding considerable territory in Eastern Finland.

[Learning tactics.]

[One of many modes of transport.]


An extremely important concept to the Finns was, and remains, that of "Sisu." It is usually translated as "courage," "determination" or, more literally, "guts," and is a cornerstone of Finnish identity. It may in some ways be related to the British "stiff upper lip" but, as the translation implies, it is much more visceral and wrenching. Sisu is not undertaken recklessly, but as a long course of action, even if a rather difficult one. It explains the extraordinary fortitude of the Finns during the Winter War, and their attitude towards even lost causes.

Courage is generally a universally praised characteristic, especially since (as is the case with the Winter War) it traditionally alluded to military valor, a virtue highly prized by society. There is also sheer physical courage of sorts -- risking entering a burning building to save another human being, for example. In the modern day few of us ever require this variety of courage -- ours tends to be of a more mundane and personal sort, though climbing mountains and the like would qualify (though in this context there is a fine line between courage and recklessness). Courage is still highly prized, perhaps more highly than other necessary virtues. Its practice can be incredibly empowering and ennobling, and is recommended on a frequent basis, but there can also be risks involved. Exercising courage might well change us, its very strength revealing who we really are and surprising even ourselves. It might not even prove as difficult as popularly imagined, and we could well find that in the process we have unknowingly tapped into our more cold-blooded self. The whole notion may not really be as straightforward as it would seem.

No doubt definitions of courage will alter as society changes, but the old heroism of armies and warfare will probably never lose their mythology and appeal. Nor, probably, will the idea of Sisu. For Finns, it remains a point of pride, a symbol of perseverance through long, cold winters and national oppression. A reminder that one needs inner reserves of courage most of all.

[A classic image of the Finnish army from the Winter War...
trudging onward through the snow.]

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 


Kristina said...

Great post! So true...Sisu is pride,stubborness, strenght, courage and endurance. And the will to not give in no matter the cost. The loss of identity is allways greater than the loss of material things...

IdleHistorian said...

Thank you kindly for your comment, Kristina. I can simply say that I agree fully!

Helena Halme said...

I agree with Kristina, though sisu can also be utter stupidity, not giving in or up when one really should do...or to drink oneself silly just because someone said you couldn't do it. Ah, alcohol and Finns - there's another, different kind of blogpost entirely.

Great blog - will follow.


IdleHistorian said...

Thank you for your comments, Helena. I have found your blog as well -- very interesting!

I do agree that there is a fine line between "good" sisu and going a bit too far with it. Which reminds me of a great outtake from Top Gear with Mika Häkkinen, when he outlined the difference between sisu and just being stupid. This clip always makes me smile:

A Seasonal City Life said...

I've always felt that the darkness, the rather ironic implication of courage with the term 'sisu' came from the years of living under Swedish and then Russian rule. If I remember correctly, they finally became an independent state just after the Russian Revolution. Then the cold war and Finlandization happened.
I figure it's pretty difficult to romanticize a concept in this situation - the irony is actually, I think, rather appropriate. You can see it in a lot of their literature - the heroes always seem to die. It's a bit depressing but the situation was a 'bit' depressing.

IdleHistorian said...

Yes, I think that "sisu" was definitely derived from a feeling of oppression by Sweden and then Russia. And there certainly is a dark underside to the whole idea!

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