A silent president has his say
Risto Ryti's diaries shed little new light on wartime history
By Markku Jokisipilä
The publication of the wartime diaries of President Risto Ryti in book form is a significant act of history. Ryti has been one of the most "silent" presidents that Finland has had. Although he tried, he never managed to finish his memoirs. However, his diaries, free of any hidden agendas, offer a much more interesting peephole into the activities of this Finnish statesman.
The editors have collected Ryti's scattered notes into a chronological whole. The greatest amount of space in the book is nevertheless devoted to the notes of other people, which fill in the gaps left by Ryti.
The reader also gets to compare the notes of Ryti and those of people he held conversations with. The most interesting of these are the extensively quoted reports of official representatives of foreign countries.
The book also contains 38 different information packages which are useful especially for readers who are unfamiliar with the subject matter.
It is hard to imagine more appropriate editors for the book than Professor Ohto Manninen and Finnish National Archives researcher Kauko Rumpunen. War historian Manninen knows his subject thoroughly, and is a die-hard traditionalist in his use of sources.
Rumpunen, for his part, is the uncrowned king of Finnish archive wizards. His previous works include books such as the diaries of President J.K. Paasikivi and government protocols of the Winter War.
There has been something of an uproar surrounding the publication of the Risto Ryti diaries, concerning questions of authenticity.
[The news magazine] Suomen Kuvalehti suspected that something was not being brought into the open, and published an extensive extract from a version of the diaries found in 1989 at Stanford University by researcher Hannu Rautkallio. However, it turned out that the document was a copy of Ryti's summary of his diaries, which he drafted for use as part of his defence in the war guilt trial, which had been freely available in the National Archives for decades.
The 100 typed pages now form the framework of the newly-published book. After comparing it with what remained of the hand-written originals, the journalists were convinced that it corresponded well with the original notes.
However, the problem was that part of the originals are unaccounted for. Some of the notes were made immediately, some with a delay of a few weeks, and some were made after the war.
The impact of the war guilt trial and the difficulty of specifically timing the writing of the notes must naturally be taken into account when considering the value of the diaries as source material. The most serious gap is the fact that the most decisive discussions between Ryti and the military Commander-in-Chief, Marshall C.G.E Mannerheim are not included. Therefore, this is not a completely authentic or complete diary.
The diary is in the image of its maker: honest, free of sentimentality, and lacking all illusions. The reader confronts a pessimistic realist, for whom the foreign policy of a small country means adapting to external conditions and making compromises.
It was necessary to adapt to great power politics, but not to acquiesce. Even in tight spots, there is room to manoeuvre, which the country's leadership had to take advantage of. It was most important to survive to the end of the great war.
Ryti had no illusions about the true nature of Nazi Germany, but he understood that it was Finland's only support against the Soviet Union.
"Germany is the only state that can currently defeat Russia, or at least to significantly weaken it, and it would not harm the world even if Germany were to become weaker in the game."
In discussions with Western partners, Ryti tirelessly underscored his thesis that Finland was involved in a separate war with the Soviet Union. To British Ambassador Gordon Vereker he said that the British struggle most benefitted the Soviet Union, and advanced "the loss of European hegemony, the changing of its social system to a Bolshevik one, and the destruction of its civilisation".
With great clarity Ryti predicted already in 1941 that the war would end in victory either for the United States, or the Soviet Union, and that the greatest threat to the Western powers in the future would be communism.
"Must maintain coolness and detachment. No emotional thinking, or wishful thinking. History does not listen to propaganda: it moves forward with cold logic on the basis of actions and facts", Ryti wrote on December 31st, 1941.
He says nothing about the agreement of August 1940, allowing Germany to use Finnish territory for the transport of soldiers to and from occupied Norway. Similarly splintered is the image of the events that led to the Continuation War, and the military cooperation between Finland and Germany. What is made clear is that Mannerheim decided many questions, which constitutionally would have belonged to Parliament and the government.
Ryti does not give much of an answer to why the massive Soviet offensive on the Karelian Isthmus came as a surprise to Finland. The diary extract ends in May 1944. The notes for the critical days of June were taken from memorandums used for Ryti's defence speech in the war guilt trial, bypassing the more detailed notes on those days that were in Ryti's own archive collection.
There was an extensive entry on discussions with [German Foreign Minister] Joachim von Ribbentrop, but there was nothing about pressure by Mannerheim and Prime Minister Edwin Linkomies to sign the agreement. [In June 1944, when Finland was fighting off a Soviet offensive, Foreign Minister Ribbentrop flew to Helsinki, offering military supplies and grain in exchange for a political treaty linking Finland closer with Germany. Mannerheim and Linkomies pressured Ryti to sign it as President, and not to bring it before Parliament. The supplies helped Finland blunt the Soviet advance, and Ryti's resignation in August nullified the agreement with Germany, allowing Finland to pursue a separate peace with the Soviet Union.]
On the other hand, the text gives a very honest impression, and no conflicts or hindsight are to be seen.
Mannerheim and Paasikivi, who were very cautious of their future reputations, would probably not have left behind them descriptions of Hitler as a "warm, heartfelt, well-meaning, and sensitive person", or ponderings of hereditary criminality, and the prevention of the "physically and psychologically deficient" from having children.
Based on the diaries, Ryti remained firmly in control all the way to the end of the war.
With the help of his good memory and keen intelligence he had a command of politics, economics, and armament issues. He also had energy for less urgent matters, such as arrangements for a Swedish-language medical professorship.
For those seeking sensational new information, the diaries will be a disappointment. One would have liked to learn more especially about the real extent of the political influence of Mannerheim, but in this respect, the catch is fairly small.
A likely reason for the deference is Ryti's desire to respect the aim of both the Soviet Union and the Finns to keep the most important guarantor of the transitional period away from the war guilt trial.
The change in Finnish history writing that took place after the fall of the Soviet Union is reflected in the treatment accorded to Ryti. The same historical factors that brought Urho Kekkonen down, have raised the stature of Risto Ryti.
The rehabilitation of the President involved in the war guilt process, who was not spoken of much in Finland in the years of the Finnish-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, began with a state-financed biography written by Martti Turtola in 1994, and culminated in a second-place finish right after Mannerheim in the Greatest Finn competition in December 2004.
It is good that in the midst of this re-evaluation, which occasionally reeks of vengefulness and martyrdom, we can also hear Ryti's own cool and sensible voice again. The diaries, which have been used by researchers surprisingly little, bring a valuable addition which clarifies, and sets the background to printed wartime publications.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 26.1.2006
Previously in HS International Edition:
Wartime diaries of President Risto Ryti to be released (13.1.2006)