Nation Is a Deity That Worships Itself
By Tuomas Tepora
Tuomas Tepora (Ph.D.) is a research fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. He has published on sacrifice in Finnish nationalism, the cultural history of war, and the history of emotions.
Book by Tuomas Tepora
The Finnish Civil War 1918: History, Memory, Legacy

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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.
When Finnish society went to war in 1939 against the neighboring super power, the Soviet Union, the society let loose of moral considerations. “Ancient” feelings and emotions—such as honor and shame—replaced more nuanced emotions such as guilt and moral virtue as the socially significant emotions.

Viewed from the outside, the ensuing “Winter War” may have signified a moral collapse. Ethical considerations of right and wrong seemed to have lost their relevance. Every means of fighting and sacrificing for the fatherland and its sacred values became cherished. Black-and-white thought became a norm. Simple solutions to life-threatening problems were rewarded. Modern society began to resemble a traditional tribe in distress.

Few people experienced cognitive dissonance between submitting to the demanding power of the nation and retaining one’s individual, even if relative, freedom. Many people fell into a trance-like, elevated state of being. It is important to understand that the “Spirit of the Winter War”—as the peculiar atmosphere became later to be known—was not simply created by wartime propaganda.

Willing sacrifice and war enthusiasm resonated in the minds of the people who rushed to the colors or participated in the home front duties. The spell was brief but very real. Carolyn Marvin has written in Blood Sacrifice and the Nation (1999) that the most successful rite of national sacrifice is not realized unless people participate in it willingly.

The Finnish experience of the Winter War (1939–40) is a prime example. The three-and-a-half-month war that ended in defeat retains a sacred position in Finnish collective memory. It can be seen as a motor or a generator of celebrative nationalism. The memory of the sacred and just war possesses the ability to overwrite other historical events.

The sacrificial ethos and the collective attachment to the idea of an omnipotent nation is a powerful force of nationalism.

“The trivial I disappears as we comes instead. Every single drop of blood shed on the soil is our blood, every child’s tear is our child’s tear and even the smallest of deeds is meaningful to our family, the Finnish nation.” (Uusi Aura, 3 December 1939)

Emotionally charged cries like this one published in a conservative newspaper at the onset of the conflict became abundant. But the calls for sacrifice crossed class divides. Just as many European socialists had rallied around the flag twenty-five years earlier at the beginning of World War I—choosing the nation above the class interest and internationalism—the majority of the Finnish left joined the struggle with a belief in the sacred cause.

This becomes all the more significant when we recall that Finnish society had been devastated by an extremely bloody Civil War only twenty-one years earlier. One percent of the population had perished within six months. This conflict between the middle classes and the socialists resulted in the Red defeat. Now many of these ex-Reds volunteered to serve the nation—led by the victors of the Civil War.

In essence, the Winter War became a rite of unifying sacrifice. The bloodshed in the trenches unmade the dividing violence of the civil war. It redirected the reciprocal violence from within onto an external enemy. The violence experienced in the winter War and in later phases of World War II was not less severe than what occurred during the Civil War—but was understood as a selfless offering to the nation, not a tragedy. The nation healed itself and became a whole when the former adversaries and their offspring repented past sins on the front.  The small nation nestled in itself and became self-sufficient.

Emile Durkheim’s classic observation on tribal religion posits that the elementary form of the religious experience is an immanent feeling of belonging to a sacred community. Nationalism can be seen as a modern form of tribal religion. The base of religion is collective self-love. Deities are our mirror images—and nationalistic wars and conflicts the highest forms of worship.

Like an ancient tribe, a modern nation has two faces. On the one hand it is a benevolent care-giver; and on the other hand a destructive, vengeful deity. Unlike Twenty-first century wars, Twentieth-century world wars were “democratic”— waged by citizen armies. At least theoretically, everyone participated in the rite of sacrifice for one’s nation. 

In my case-study, the Finland winter-war, the nation in itself became a deity to worship. “The strong arms support you”, preached writers and leaders in daily sermons to the nation-deity. Many people imagined that the life of the nation and life of its citizens were one and the same thing.

Nationalism seems to be an idea that is fueled quite literally from the blood of its subjects. If a nation is to live, dying for one’s nation should not be questioned. An editorial in the country’s leading newspaper put it straightforwardly:

“The individuals and generations change, but the life of the nation and of the whole human race continues in the new individuals and in new generations, which continue from where we have finished. A big historical task has fallen on this generation.” (Helsingin Sanomat, 17 December 1939)