Ilona Pajari
“Mourning the Sacrifices”
Part III (concluding part) of "Soldier's Death and the Logic of Sacrifice" appears below.
5. Mourning the Sacrifices
6. Conclusions
To read Part I, click here.
1. Introduction
2. The Birth of the Citizen Soldier
3. Nationalism and Religion
To read Part II, click here.
4. The Logic of Sacrifice
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).
Program of the Symposium on Idealized Deaths, organized by Dr. Pajari.
The logic of sacrifice was created within the highest political and ecclesiastical elite and communicated to the masses through educational institutions, religious teaching and propaganda. In many cases people did embrace it to some extent; it was especially applicable to expressions of condolence mourning. Finding reason in death, or on a more general level, in war, was comforting and gave words and phrases to people in a delicate, emotionally challenging situation. Whether the  words and phrases were enough, and whether the sacrificial ideal actually consoled most people, that is another matter.

If the consolation was considered effective, the logic of sacrifice could, to a certain extent, prevent or lessen the trauma caused by an untimely death of a loved one. If the words echoed hollow and, as a result, the mourning person felt alienated not only from his or her emotions but also from the entire society, the logic of sacrifice could actually be a traumatic construct in itself.

Finland during the Second World War is no exception to mourning and its difficulties. It is heartbreaking to read the letters of mothers who have lost their sons. The official routine consolation would praise them for giving the ultimate sacrifice though their sons, and most mothers tried to cope with this ideal, although it was often hard. They may begin their letters with familiar phrases about the nation and the beauty of a heroic death, but soon lapse into familiar and intimate discourse about their son, the way he looked after death and how he was as a little boy. The mothers seem to try to adjust their grief to the present culture and how others had described what had happened to them and their son, but the language of military death went only skin-deep and beneath lay a traditional feeling of real emotions.

Even more heartbreaking, in a way, is to read the letters of people who truly and personally believed that dying for one’s country was the greatest deed a man or a woman can do, and the pride of the family. They had sent their sons to war quite happily. They may even have been the ones creating the culture of mourning for the fallen soldiers and propagating the ideals of heroic death. When the son died, they not only lost their child but also a very important part of their identity. Somehow the ideals they themselves had been brought up to believe in, and to which they had educated their children, did not work as they were supposed to. They did not take away the pain; they did not make sense anymore, when the actual death had taken place. Yet this was exactly what the logic of sacrifice had promised: the bitter sting of death would be taken away because of the noble cause of death.

The modernization of attitudes and changing emphases of family relations and nationalism during the first half of the 20th century in Finland may have caused   the responses to so-called heroic death become more difficult to express. The example of the mother of a young patriotic man, Bobi Sivén, who took his own life during the so-called Kinship Wars in 1921, was hard to follow. His mother had not been heard to criticize her son’s personal response to the nation’s foreign policy in any way, and later she commented on his suicide, “not as a great sorrow but a great joy”. Sivén’s family had been personally involved in many processes of the Finnish independence struggle, and the upbringing of the children had been particularly idealistic. A couple of decades later, during the Second World War,the same attitude was, at least in theory, asked of all families, independent of their worldviews and patriotism.

In reality, most men were not so eager to die for anything, and their families recognized this. They did their duty, but did not see death in war as their ultimate goal in life, especially in peacetime. After their military service as conscripts most of them built completely different careers, raised families, and led their own lives. Mourning these men as military heroes may have seemed appropriate to most people at the time, yet the family may have felt uneasiness in their afterimage of the person. The picture on the living room wall, medals of honour for the fallen and the family, the letter of condolence from commander-in-chief Marshal Mannerheim, told certain things about the death of the person, but sometimes very little about his or her life.

The wartime image of a nation is often simpler than reality. It is a common procedure that nations have censorship and propaganda during wartime; all the varieties of public opinion, not to mention classified information and other information which may be useful to the enemy, cannot be voiced at the time. People may also feel the need to support the war effort; after all, war is a national crisis which causes fear and uncertainty. Even some pacifists may moderate their expression at the time, to support the ordinary people if not the government.

Like official and ecclesiastical texts, private letters and newspaper death notices also went through changes during the Second World War. In the Winter War both were quite traditional and relied on the national canon dating from the 19th century. In the beginning of the Continuation War patriotic enthusiasm was high as were the millennial and even apocalyptic visions. Later, especially after 1943, the soldiers and their families started to concentrate more and more on everyday matters; especially the death notices describe personal grief, not so much heroism and the cause of the fatherland as such. “I was left alone to walk the path of life/ and to take care of the little orphans.” The War of Lapland was, as has been mentioned above, void patriotism and most meanings a war can have. This was also mirrored in private and semi-private texts.

Mourning is a multifaceted phenomenon, and the letters written right after death may not be entirely representative. What is important to question here is the pressure that was laid upon families at the time. In Finland most soldiers were brought to their home towns and villages to receive their funeral service and burial there. This meant that the local community could participate in the ritual, which had many civilian features even if they tried to make things as military as possible. This also meant that even if the family was not particularly patriotic and happy about their sacrifice, the last rites were saturated with these ideals. In most countries, soldiers’ funerals were brief and dominated by the military; in Finland it is possible to say these funerals brought the values and rituals of war to the home front. Yet they were quite civilian, with few soldiers present and local notables speaking and showing their respects to the family. But if the family wanted to have a private funeral for their fallen son, it was difficult and even impossible to organize.

We must not exaggerate this, of course. In the 1940s in Finland the funerals were not such private occasions like later in the 20th century. Neighbors were almost always invited, especially in the countryside; if people had the means to give a large funeral feast it was common to do so. But the large military funerals, with up to 20 coffins at the altar were not only important for the mourning families but for the entire community. The memorial service was often held by the White Guards and Lotta Svärd.  Curiosity, the need to console the families, the need   to deal with the various emotions the war had evoked, all these were reasons for people to attend military funerals at the home front.

For poorer people the large funerals and place in the military burial ground may have felt a great honor. They could rarely get such attention for their dead in any other setting. There are examples in fiction how the families were quite excited and touched about it all, yet the actual mourning process may have been much more difficult. The rituals did not concern the person but an ideal. One of the best- known fictional descriptions of such an occasion is written by the Finnish author Väinö Linna. In his trilogy Under the North Star the village harlot Aune loses her son Valtu in the Winter War. Valtu happens to be the first local casualty of the war, and the village elite are more than eager to celebrate him as a great hero of the nation and to forget his bad deeds and suspicious origin. Aune, a simple woman, is more than happy to be part of this and takes her role as a mother of a hero. But after all is said and done and the last visitor leaves her cottage, she moans the death of her son like any mother at any time. In a way she has now been used by the villagers like she has been used sexually all her life – her personal experience has not been changed.

Another problem in 20th-century warfare was, and still is, the actual anonymity of death. Heroic ideals were congruent with ancient warrior ideals, but the modern- day soldier may have died without firing a single shot or seeing actual battle. This made the reality of war death difficult to compare with the logic of sacrifice. When the war went on and these facts became well known to the general public, the ideal shifted from the heroism of the individual soldier to the collective sacrifice. There may have been more realism in the image – like the memorials in which the nude classical poses changed to more modern ones – but also this collectiveness was problematic in its own way.


One must not forget that in the middle of all the sacrificial fervor, losses are always a problem to the military. The logic of sacrifice is used by the military to justify its activity, but it is usually created and proclaimed by other quarters. It is not good for the morale of the troops to learn about endless numbers of fallen heroes, even if the most intense nationalistic texts would hint at just that. And the military needs men and women alive, not dead or fatally wounded. The fact that war may cause people to lose their lives must be explained somehow, especially in conscript armies, but dying in war is the goal of an ancient warrior or a poet, not a modern soldier.

The logic of sacrifice has faced many social and political challenges in the decades after the Second World War. The case of Israel may highlight what has happened in many other countries, although Israeli history and especially its recent military history cannot be compared with most nations. Udi Lebel has analyzed the cult of the fallen soldier in independent Israel. In the first phase, the logic of sacrifice was applicable and the sacrifices were almost unanimously praised until the 1970s. It was then that people started to criticize the errors of the political leaders and wars in general. Only in the 1980s could the military be criticized and its often unnecessarily cruel practises be questioned.

The thing many of us tend to forget is that soldiers also have personal needs when it comes to death, and not only as concerns their own death. In Second World War Finland they usually could not participate in the funerals of their fellow soldiers, because the funerals were held back in the home towns and villages. Nowadays they have an expressed wish to do so, if possible. They want to be the coffin bearers and pay their own respects to the family. Death is always an emotional thing and in a close-knit community it is even more so. When studying military death this fact cannot be ignored. During the Second World War the soldiers may not have been able to participate in the funerals of their fallen fellow soldiers, but they could place a death notice in a newspaper. They also felt the need to write to the families to tell more about the conditions of death, or visit the family when they got a chance to do so. A kind of “adoptive kinship” may have developed from these contacts. The living comrade in arms may have partially replaced the dead family member. These contacts may have begun along patriotic lines and admitting the importance of the logic of sacrifice, but continued as private and unofficial ties.

The logic of sacrifice may have lost its position as the core of a certain kind of nationalism and nationalistic propaganda in the late 20th century. Not many nations can ask their soldiers to die for them in such elevated tones; and, for example, in the United States the homecoming of the fallen soldiers has been a publicity problem for the military. Yet nationalism has not died, as recent history, for example in Eastern and South Eastern Europe, shows. Also the Finnish national identity has acquired some “retrospective” ingredients from the past after the beginning of the 1990s.

To die for something requires that that something is the most important thing in the world; the greatest good there is. The logic of sacrifice has been able to openly declare the nation – often called the father- or motherland to emphasize the familial bonds among the nation – to be this greatest good. Most nationalistic and patriotic speech about and around military death includes these themes, but only in some countries, at some time in history, has this particular cultural construct been as clear and well-defined as in Finland during the first half of the 20th century.

Female citizenship was a controversial issue in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The logic of sacrifice offered women special roles in the national scene. They would be the mother who would raise their sons to be able to play the role of a warrior hero, and the first mourners of their sons when they had given their lives to the fatherland.

Some women truly believed in these ideals and tried to fulfill them. When the fulfillment of a patriotic mother’s life came, the ideals often seemed empty and inadequate for consolation. This was a disappointment to many families, because the logic of sacrifice specifically promises that grief would be lighter and sorrow easier to bear when the cause of death was the greatest sacrifice of all. Many people recognize a sense of sublimity after an elderly person has died after a long and full life. The logic of sacrifice tried to create a similar ideology around military death, but often failed.

In Finland in the Second World War the cult(ure) of the fallen soldier was strong and families found it hard to discuss these matters without officially approved words and phrases. From the first announcement of death though to the military funeral to letters of consolation, people used phrases like “he has given the greatest sacrifice” and “it is easy to rest after dying with honor.” Older and less heroic expressions were still at hand, like describing the body after death, speaking about the deceased as a beloved child and not a soldier, and, naturally, traditional religious discourse without patriotic tones.

Most often religion has been connected with nationalism in the modern era, especially in nations in which one denomination has been the dominant one and has had a constitutional position. War may have been given an apocalyptic interpretation – it has been called the final battle between good and evil after which a new era would surely dawn. Even in less inspired interpretations, wars are usually not only a political and military matter with purely mundane motivations. If nothing more, they can be said to purify the nation and to prove its valor and virility, its right to exist as a nation among nations.