60 Years Ago: Mannerheim's Last Battle

From Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy by Jonathan Clements, available now in the UK and in the US.

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Mannerheim began his eighties still talking of responsibility and struggle. As he saw it, Finland still ran the risk of drifting irrevocably too far to the left, and he was determined to hold this off by the last means available to him – writing his memoirs.

‘Was it not my duty,’ he wrote, ‘now that the West seemed to have forgotten the gallant Finnish people, to communicate to all our friends near and far what I knew about its indomitable battle for all that a nation holds sacred, and had not my countrymen a right to hear my interpretation of the causes that had led to the position where Finland now stood?’

His decision was unsurprising, but also unwelcome to some of his successors. Mannerheim’s avowed intent was to educate the Cold War world about recent Finnish history, but his memoirs were sure to attract the attention of readers back home. President Paasikivi, in particular, fretted that his illustrious predecessor would write a tell-all book that was sure to land Finland in hot water with the Soviet Union, with which relations were still strained. Mannerheim did exactly as Paasikivi had feared but was steered into being less forceful in his published comments on Bolshevism and ‘Reds’, and also in his attitude towards the Swedes. In private, Paasikivi grumbled that if he paid heed to every one of the field marshal’s grim warnings then everyone in Finland might as well walk into the forest with a pistol and shoot themselves in the forehead.

Despite the politicians’ concerns, Mannerheim was left to write his memoirs in peace with the help of a small staff of assistants. He seems to have originally planned on doing so in Kirkniemi, a manor house he had bought in what is now the Helsinki suburbs, but continued ill health lured him out of Finland to Switzerland in the late 1940s. ‘If on this earth there is a place to be found which is dedicated to forgetting,’ he wrote to a friend, ‘it is Switzerland, with all the convenience which makes life easy, hotels, communications, order, food and the beauty of the landscape, but above all, the mountains, the Alps which give the impression of being somewhere in the atmosphere, above the clouds, between earth and sky.’ Mannerheim also observed that Switzerland, unlike so many other parts of Europe, had been spared the damage and destruction of the war – it was, in many ways for him, a reminder of the lost Europe of his younger days.

His circle of true friends, always small, dwindled predictably in old age. ‘I begin to see only graves around me,’ he commented, although his dry melancholy was economical with the truth. In fact, he spent much time in the company of a new lady companion, the elegant Countess Gertrud Arco-Valley. Some 30 years his junior, the divorcee countess was a friend of Mannerheim’s younger daughter and was often seen accompanying him on his travels.

Mannerheim spent increasing amounts of time in hospital, troubled in particular by stomach and intestine problems. A perforated ulcer nearly killed him in 1946, and kidney stones and haemorrhages laid him low in 1948. He began to lose weight drastically, and is noticeably thin and frail in the photographs of him at the clinic in Val-Mont, Switzerland, where he both took spa treatments and continued to work on his memoirs.

In early 1951, Mannerheim was hospitalised again in Lausanne with a distended abdomen, and had emergency surgery for a blocked intestine. It was, he joked with his surgeon, his last battle, and one that he was likely to lose. He said his goodbyes to those around him on 27 January, and fell into a sleep from which he never awoke. His heart stopped half an hour before midnight, although in Finland’s time zone it was already the following morning – the anniversary of his decisive strike against the Reds in the Finnish Civil War of 1918.

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