Ilona Pajari
“Soldier's Death and the Logic of Sacrifice”
Part I of "Soldier's Death and the Logic of Sacrifice" appears below.
1. Introduction
2. The Birth of the Citizen Soldier
3. Nationalism and Religion
To read the original essay, including footnotes, click here.
Ilona Pajari
Dr. Ilona Pajari is Senior Researcher in History and Ethnology at the University of Jyväskylän (Finland).
For program of the Idealized Deaths Symposium, organized by Dr. Pajari, click here.

The soldier’s death has throughout human history been understood as a very special kind of death. As long as there has been any kind of organized warfare, various meanings, hopes and dreams have surrounded it. Death in war has been the surest way to heaven or similar otherworldly place; most often dead warriors have gained the admiration and gratitude of others. The rational age of modern nations may seem very different from ancient tribal societies, but some things have remained the same. At least until the Second World War many nations cherished the idea of a heroic soldier whose death would be a blessing, not only to the soldier himself who would surely go to heaven, but to the entire nation which needs such pure sacrifices.

Sacrificial ideas are practical in connecting people with larger entities and entire nations. There may not be much to be gained in return, but the entire system   of love and sacrifice, giving everything only for the greater good of everyone in the group, has enthralled human minds for centuries. In the same vein, religions may have trouble explaining their power when divine interventions are not  easily observed, but ideas on joining the divinity in rituals and with offerings render them meaningful. Also those members of the community with little or no authority and voice, like women and children, may feel empowered by their power to sacrifice their all.

Christianity, with its central doctrine on love and sacrifice, is essential for understanding nationalistic sacrificial ideals in the context of this article. Nationalism has been claimed to belong to a new, rational age in which religions and older belief systems have lost their impetus, but nationalism itself has included mystification and otherworldly motivations – in many cases it still does.

The background of this article is Finnish military history and especially Finland during the Second World War. I will make some comparisons with other nations, especially to Great Britain, whose social history of modern warfare is well researched in many aspects. German 19th century ideas on men, women and families in connection with nations and nationalism also seem to have been particularly well embraced in wartime Finland. It can be argued that nations do not always live in the same time frame; some nations may approve of certain ideals that other nations have already found outdated. Death is a phenomenon closely tied to religious belief and custom, and secularization has caused many changes in death rituals. Nationalism and wars have also played their part in this process. Also the general understanding on war death and its meanings is dependent on the modernization process.

The Birth of the Citizen Soldier

The age of the citizen soldier has often been claimed to have begun in the French Revolution. When we think of the honor of common soldiers, this seems especially true. Heroes of the revolution were praised and their sacrifice was understood to be part of a greater whole. As nation-states were created in Europe and around the world, the role of the common soldier changed everywhere, especially at   the ideological level. The common soldier was no longer thought of as a paid mercenary, and the idea of forced conscription was replaced by the image of more or less voluntary, highly patriotic men.

Instead of fighting for an often distant ruler the soldiers in conscript armies were said to fight for the nation, which included also their home and families. The honor was theirs, because they were supposed to be willing even to give up their lives for the nation, but essentially the honor was the nation’s, because it was for the greatest value of everyone. Soldiers fought to safeguard the nation’s destiny; their bravery was proof of national virility, personal manhood and national honour.

In this they were not alone, for their families were also said to be offering a great sacrifice.

The most evident feature of the citizen soldier is that every man is supposed to defend his country. The definition of man is obviously quite limited here, because armies do not have much use for children and the young, the elderly, crippled   or mentally challenged. If dying for one’s country is supposed to be the ultimate sacrifice and only the best citizens can manage this, being an able-bodied male is the first qualification.

In Europe, the upbringing of children and the young has been heavily loaded with nationalism since the 19th century. The developing educational institutions recognized their responsibility in this process, but originally love for the homeland was supposed to be taught at home, especially by mothers. This was considered to be their essential role in the nation, apart from giving birth to children. Educational institutions continued the task of the family, so by the age of conscription young men would be more than willing to do their duty. Yet the seeds of patriotic spirit were sown at home. It is no surprise, then, that when the actual war began, and even before that, families and especially mothers were also praised. They were, it was said, also giving a great sacrifice, to which their entire lives and even giving birth to their sons had aimed at. Their deepest wish was supposed to be to send their sons to war and solemnly, if not happily accept their deaths.

The reasoning is the following: the death of a soldier is proof that the family (mother) brought him up to be a valorous and patriotic man. Hence the family (mother) must be patriotic and cherish the ideal of sacrifice. There cannot be one without the other. There are no fallen soldiers whose mothers did not raise them to be just that; there are no mothers of fallen soldiers whose sons were unwilling to die for their country. And no mother would mourn their son without feelings of gratitude and sense of purpose; mothers were also supposed to be exemplary in their grief for the entire nation.

Nationalism and Religion

As Eric Hobsbawn and others have pointed out, whereas religion is often thought to belong to an earlier phase of human thinking, nationalism is more associated with modern rationalism. In this context nationalism is usually seen only as a political movement in which people would realise their mundane goals and ideals. Religion or religiously inspired thinking is not part of nationalism’s mental structure in this context; nationalism has no otherworldly goals or justification from above.

Yet when it comes to matters of death and sacrifice it is obvious that religion and similar ideals are not left to ancient times. Benedict Anderson, while not placing very much emphasis on the theme, nevertheless felt it important to consider not only why men are willing to kill for their nation, but why they are willing to die for it. The nation gives people (men) something so precious that they are able to have a sense of belonging and acquiring something essential from it. More cynical analysts may find that nations and nationalism have skilfully played on human emotional and social needs to attach people to the nation. They may feel they must follow the example of the nation’s ancient heroes, forefathers, founding fathers or other figures; national rituals and commemorations are centered around common history and myths.

Anthony D. Smith has attempted to place nationalism in a continuum with earlier thinking and traditions rather than emphasizing the break with the past. His “ethno- nationalism” is, of course, applicable only to those nations which have strong written or oral traditions and an actual connection with their past. In nations like Finland the modernist approach is clearly valid: Finland really is a “constructed” nation, whose creators had to find (and create) the national past and teach it to the people, who for most part were unaware of it or knew only fragmentary parts of it via church teaching and folklore. Especially the idea of the Finns being one nation with one language and common pursuits was a creation of the 19th century. We must not confuse actual nationalism with earlier identification with the state and monarch. Like in many other Protestant nations, in Sweden (of which Finland was a part until 1809) obedience to earthly rulers was preached from the pulpit. Also, after Finland became an autonomous part of the Russian empire, the church remained loyal to the state.

Countless wars have been fought in the name of Christianity. The original passive attitude of martyrs towards violence against them has been replaced by a more belligerent image of believers. In Finland, the Lutheran conception of a just war has been powerful in theological discussions but also in secular political interpretations of present political and military developments. This religion-centered thinking and especially language, when propaganda was needed, was based on the history of Finnish nationalism. As Jouko Tilli states:

since Finnish nationalism relied on religious conceptions of the political community and the convergence of a Lutheran identity with national identity, the national community was still conceived in theological terms in the twentieth century as well.

In this combining of religion and nationalism men are usually the primary subjects in both contexts; gender relations are hierarchical and women’s acceptable role is focused around reproductive activities. Yet traditionally women have passionately promoted both religions and nationalism, either as almost or completely otherworldly symbols, or by finding the right of existence and salvation in motherhood. The nationalistic logic of sacrifice has taken particular advantage of these aspirations.