The aftermath of Brexit has again brought up the question how canonized national histories may influence people who are trying to make the sense of the present and decide about the future. These national narratives are the histories people want to hear: uncomplicated stories of greatness and progress. The “ups” are glorified and the “downs” suppressed. The mechanisms of writing such histories are well-known: selective and biased reading of sources, neglecting information that does not fit into the picture, and in the worst case, distorting or inventing facts. The storyline is then consolidated by constantly repeating and reproducing it in different guises from texts to television shows. Gradually the narratives become so ordinary and pervasive that they are no longer questioned. I was reminded of this disquieting fact only recently after discovering a letter from Samuel Rawson Gardiner (1829–1902) in which he bluntly said “no” when he was asked to sign a petition supporting Finns in their struggle against the Russification measures.
Finnish protestations in 1899 against the Russification measures– for instance the attempts to limit the autonomy by unifying legislation and administration and by increasing the control of the Russian officials in press, politics, and at the university – have formed the backbone of the narrative of a small and heroic nation defending its rights. One of the bold measures Finns took was the so called “Pro Finlandia” petition, a petition addressed to Emperor Nicholas II and signed by 1063 scientists, writers, and artists all over Europe. Although the Emperor refused to receive the international delegation that brought the petition to him, it has been depicted as a great victory for Finland: Europe showed its support and sympathy for us and for our cause. Gardiner’s refusal to sign this very petition uncomfortably suggests that the academic world did not stand quite as united behind Finland in this matter as we have been told it did.
Samuel Rawson Gardiner was a renowned historian, a London professor and Oxford fellow, who had published a number of studies about seventeenth-century England.
He was considered by his colleagues an honest and impartial truth-teller, whose methodological rigor was infallible and source criticism unparalleled. Although he was not complemented for a lucid narrative style, he seemed to improve even in this. In 1897 Frederick York Powell was surprised about Gardiner’s excellent style in the Cromwell’s Place in History and admitted that in this sense Gardiner “ripens like old ale in the eastern counties.” In short, he was a champion of the new scientific history that valued preciseness rather than narrative eloquence. He was the man from whom Edvard Westermarck, the sociologist and active supporter of the Finnish cause, received a polite letter with a firm refusal to publicly take a stand in the matter.
Gardiner, feeling “considerable hesitation,” explained his decision with two reasons. First, he did not consider it wise for foreigners to “interfere even with counsel in the affairs of another state.” This, Gardiner told, was crucial because he had learned from the English press that the Emperor had sent a representative to Finland to inquire “the real nature of the feelings of the people.” If this was the case, then external interference could seriously endanger the goodwill of the Russians. Another reason to reject the petition was Gardiner’s ignorance in the matter. What he had heard about the Russification measures through the local newspapers did not give a reason to protest, because it seemed that the Tsar was not going to touch the Finnish constitution in the internal matters. Gardiner also implied that the complaints about the planned Conscription Act did not sound unreasonable. Abolishing a national army and evening out the defense costs between the different parts of the Empire did not sound suspicious. Contrary, Gardiner found it unfair that at the moment some subjects of the Empire paid less of the national defense than what some others did. Yet, he admitted that he was poorly informed about the situation in Finland and it was this that disqualified him to “meddle in the affairs of others.” The response must have disappointed Westermarck, especially as he writes in length in his autobiography about the false reporting on the Russification measures in English newspapers and lists the actions he and the other Finns in London took to correct what they considered partial news.
Westermarck’s autobiography reveals that Gardiner was not the only English historian whom he invited to sign the petition. James Bryce, who was Westermarck’s old friend, helped Finns to revise the text of the petition, listened attentively to their worries, and instructed Westermarck about potential scholars whom to contact about the petition. Lord Acton and Oscar Browning for their part gave advice to Westermarck. Significantly for the argument here, Westermarck mentions that Acton, “for reasons he kept secret”, did not sign the petition. Hence, we have even another English historian who preferred not to intervene with Russian politics.
Gardiner’s and Acton’s refusal to sign the petition do not yet undermine the exceptionality of the petition: in less than three months 1063 scientists and artists in Britain, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Hungary, Austria and Scandinavia had signed the petition. In Britain, nine out of the altogether 150 signers were historians. Considering the logistical challenges and the political risks of the endeavor, it certainly was remarkable. Yet Gardiner and Acton serve as reminders that history has a tendency to be much more complicated than what the simplified – and often selective – national narratives tell us. Gardiner and Acton also help to highlight the importance to problematize canonical events in national histories. This is something that even historians tend to fail to do too often. Ville Kajanne has observed how we actually know very little about the petition. It is easy to agree with him: a quick survey of the manuals of Finnish history from different decades shows that the petition has established itself as a fundamental component of Finnish national history and that it has been explained in a one-dimensional fashion as a proof of international support for Finland. Quite remarkably, Wikipedia is one of a few sources that acknowledge that there were some who refused to sign the petition for political reasons. Those who participated in collecting the signatures had their reasons to describe the petition as success-story, but if Westermarck dared already in 1927 to admit that the invitation to sign the petition was not always accepted, then, in 2016 it is certainly more than time to ask questions that complicate the established “Pro Finlandia” –narrative. It may be so that Gardiner and Acton were not the only ones who said “no” to it in 1899.
Samuel Rawson Gardiner to Edvard Westermarck, 13 May 1899. Edvard Westermarck papers, X, Åbo Akademi University Library.
Westermarck Edvard, Minnen ur mitt liv. Stockholm: Bokförlaget Natur och Kultur, 1927.
Elton Oliver, Frederick York Powell: A Life and as Selection from his Letters and Occasional Writings, vol. I. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906.
Kajanne Ville, “Kulttuuriadressin taustat, tavoitteet ja laatiminen”, Pro Finlandia: Suomen tie itsenäisyyteen, eds. Jussi Nuorteva & Pertti Hakala. Helsinki: Edita, 2014: 124-130.