Redirecting Violence: The Finnish Flag as a Sacrificial Symbol, 1917-1945
by Tuomas Tepora
For a complete list of Library of Social Science’s essays and papers, please click here.
About the Author
Tuomas Tepora, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Helsinki. He has published on the cultural history of war and on the history of emotions related to the Finnish war experiences in the 20th century.

“Carolyn Marvin and David W. Ingle (1999) studied the American flag as a symbol signifying blood sacrifice for the nation. The Stars and Stripes, they suggest, symbolize not only past but present sacrifices — binding citizens into the national collective, or social body, periodically calling upon people to sacrifice themselves. The sacrificial flag offers something in exchange. This can be a feeling of immortality, an intense identification with the collective resulting in the loss of individual boundaries.”

Book by Tuomas Tepora
The Finnish Civil War 1918: History, Memory, Legacy

For information on ordering through Amazon, PLEASE CLICK HERE.
The Finnish Civil War 1918 offers a rich account of the history and memory of the conflict between socialist Reds and non-socialist Whites in the winter and spring of 1918—and traces the legacy of this bloody war. The volume brings together political and social history—with the cultural history of war, memory studies, gender studies, history of emotions, psychohistory and oral history. Among themes discussed are violence and terror, and enemy images.

Professor Kelly Denton-Borhaug, author of US War-Culture, Sacrifice and Salvation: “I suggest that thinkers and writers involved in the Library of Social Science would be well served by our attempts to bring together as many diverse analyses of sacrificial dynamics as possible, to reach many different audiences with a far-reaching and comprehensive investigation.”

Premised on the interplay between national flags, violence and sacrifice, this article sheds new light on the significance of flag culture in nation-building. It specifically highlights the role of the Finnish flag in directing violence outwards from Finnish society after the Civil War of 1918. The new national flag introduced after the war came to symbolize an ideal of oneness which found its expression in a propagated willingness to make sacrifices for the collective.

National Flags and Collective Memory

National flags are essential in making sense of the citizens’ sense of belonging to the nation. National celebrations—as well as the routine, everyday ‘lagging’ of the nation in the media—form a context which shapes peoples’ experience of their environment. National flags represent the shared feelings and values of a collective, forming a link between civil society and the state. The flag links together autobiographical memory as well as the collective memories of various groups within society.

The Sacrificial Flag

According to Émile Durkheim’s seminal totem theory, totemism is the very basic form of religious practice in which the community worships itself. The solidarity of the group is maintained by regular rites, which define the realms of the sacred and the profane. The rites create reality by forming the group’s worldview (Durkheim 1915). It is argued that Durkheim’s theory is applicable to nationalism: the nation itself being the deity of worship (Smith 1991).

In the Australian tribal communities researched by Durkheim the collective ‘sentiments’ created by societal activity were projected onto the external objects, totems. In a similar way, the national flag is one of the most important symbols of the nation—and can be seen as a collective and sacred symbol invested with powerful emotions. For Durkheim, collective rites generated solidarity between group members.

The Civil War and the Heraldic Change

It is a popularly held myth that the heraldic change of 1918 occurred due to the rejection of the color red as associated with socialism. But the change certainly had other aspects as well. The youth was given an important function in creating a sacrificial will attached to the new flag. The young liberals who naturally were on the bourgeois side during the war collectively changed their preferred flag and symbolically returned under the blue-and-white totem of their fathers.

An ideal of oneness developed around the national symbol. This oneness could only be held intact by constantly strengthening the nation’s willingness to make sacrifices. Despite the heraldic change, the new national flag heralded the continuity of the nation, albeit at the same time trying to define Finnishness as separate from the Swedish legacy. The Swedish-speaking middle class still continued to cherish the red-and-yellow flag as their symbol. They did not see the red color as threatening.

For this article I have analyzed flag speeches given in Helsinki and published in newspapers—along writings in different media. The findings can be grouped into several recurrent patterns, which reflect on the idea of the flag as the ultimate representation of the nation.

Firstly, the nation was defined by what it was not. The communists were designated as the definers of the national boundaries of the totem. ‘Only communists do not put out a flag on Midsummer Day’, ran one of the slogans. Communism was seen as decaying the national body-politic. One speaker for example referred to it as a ‘purulent wound’ in the flesh of the nation.

Secondly, fathoming Finland as a geographical body was emblematic in the development of flag culture. The national flag consecrated and fenced in the sacred ground. It was even customary by some flag propagandists to rent an aeroplane on Midsummer Day in order to check the density of flags in the countryside. Symbolic boundaries created by the flags were important, strengthening not only the physical boundaries of the nation but the mental ones as well.

The flag was referred to as the ‘only symbol that invites and gathers people’. The flag was something extra-political, symbolizing rejection of a fractured society. Independence gained by fratricide required a completely fresh start. None of the historical or mythical reference points in the past could provide a clear and redemptive way out of the situation.

The Second World War: Rebirth of a Nation

The deep divisions of society were widely, albeit temporarily, felt to have been resolved by the eruption of the Winter War in 1939 between the Soviet Union and Finland. Symbolic sacrifice under the national flag was transformed into the real sacrifice of the youth as well as the establishment of the renewed inner boundaries of the nation. The socialists were symbolically integrated into the nation following the national flag, partly by their own initiative. During the Second World War the national flag officially became the symbol of national unity.

The flag’s status as a sacrificial symbol was visible for example in funerals for the fallen soldiers. In the trenches, however, soldiers hung on to more personalized totems: photographs of loved ones, personal letters and Christian symbols. The blue-and-white flag of Finland was a symbol of collective mourning and renewal, not a private one. The death of individuals renewed the collective proclaimed an editorial in a conservative newspaper after the beginning of the war:

The trivial ‘I’ disappears as ‘we’ comes instead. Every single drop of blood shed to the soil is our blood, every single tear of a child is our child’s tear and even the smallest of deeds is meaningful to our family, the Finnish nation.

The Winter War was also portrayed as a collective coming of age. The nation was seen to leave its adolescence behind through engaging in a purifying war.


In a broader historiographical context it seems that national flags alone can be successful at generating an emotional contact with the nation-state and therefore their study should not be neglected. National flags can be seen as mediating symbols between civil society and the state as well as between different groups within civil society. Therefore they are not just emblems of the political power of the state or the banality of everyday nationalism. National flags can also become containers of powerful sacrificial emotions and thus they have an important role in societies’ boundary formation.

The national flag was used in creating a unified ideal of the nation, which was celebrated in special flag ceremonies. However, the Finnish flag also represented enforced oneness in a divided society. The national flag contested the workers’ flags. In the flag ceremonies of the interwar period the Finnish flag was represented as a sacrificial symbol. It connected the past sacrifices of the nation to the anticipated sacrifices in the future.