Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim

From New World Encyclopedia

Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim
Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim

Mannerheim studying a map.

6th President of Finland
In office
August 4, 1944 – March 8, 1946
Preceded by Risto Ryti
Succeeded by Juho Kusti Paasikivi

Born June 4, 1867, Askainen
Died January 28, 1951, Lausanne, Switzerland

Baron Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim (June 4, 1867 – January 28, 1951) was the Commander-in-Chief of Finland's Defense Forces, Marshal of Finland, an astute politician, humanitarian and a successful military commander. He was the sixth President of Finland (1944–1946). He began his military career in the Imperial Russian army, becoming the leader of Finnish government forces in the civil war of 1918, and Commander in Chief during the Second World War. He advocated for a close alliance with the West, and opposed both German National Socialism, and Soviet Communism.

Mannerheim is given much of the credit for successfully steering the nation’s course between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union during World War II, at a time when Finland faced the superior military power of the Soviet Union alone with only Nazi Germany offering its assistance against repeated Soviet military aggression.

Ancestry and early life

Mannerheim's great-grandfather, Carl Erik Mannerheim (1759-1837), had held a number of offices in Finland's civil service, including membership in the Senate. In 1825, he was promoted to the rank of Count (in Finnish Kreivi, in Swedish Greve). Mannerheim's grandfather, Count Carl Gustaf Mannerheim (1797-1854), was a renowned entomologist, and served as President of the Viipuri Court of Appeals. Mannerheim's father, Count Carl Robert (1835-1914), was a poet, writer and businessman. His businesses were not successful, and he eventually became bankrupt. He later moved to Paris and lived the life of an artist. Mannerheim's mother, Hedvig Charlotta (Hélène) von Julin (1842-1881), was the daughter of the wealthy Johan Jacob von Julin, who owned the Fiskars ironworks and village.

C.G.E. Mannerheim was born in the family home of Louhisaari Manor in Askainen. As the third child of the family he inherited the title of Baron (in Finnish Vapaaherra, in Swedish Friherre; the eldest son inherited the title of Count). Louhisaari manor had to be sold in 1880, to cover the debts of Count Carl Robert, and the following year his wife died, leaving their seven children to be split up and brought up by relatives in Finland and Sweden. Mannerheim's maternal uncle, Albert von Julin, became his guardian.

Mannerheim began his formal schooling in Helsinki Private Lyceum (1874-1879), then in Hamina (1881-1882), followed by the school of the Finnish Cadet Corps in Hamina in 1882, at the age of 15. He was later expelled for breaches of discipline in 1886. He then returned to the Helsinki Private Lyceum, passing his university entrance examinations in June 1887. Immediately after that he left for Saint Petersburg, where he was accepted into the Nicholas Cavalry School. At that time Finland was a Grand Duchy in personal union with Russia. He graduated in 1889, was promoted to the rank of Cornet, and was posted with the 15th Alexandria Dragoon Regiment in Poland while waiting for a position to become available with the Chevalier Guards.

An officer in the Imperial Russian Army

Eventually, in January 1891, Mannerheim was transferred to serve in the Chevalier Guards in St. Petersburg. His family arranged for him to be married to Anastasie Arapova (1872-1936), the daughter of the Russian Major-General Nikolai Arapov, largely for economic reasons. They had two daughters, Anastasie (1893-1977) and Sophie (1895-1963). The marriage ended in an unofficial separation in 1902, and in a formal divorce in 1919.

Mannerheim served in the Imperial Chevalier Guard until 1904. He specialized as an expert on horses, his lifelong interest, buying stud stallions and special duty horses for the army. In 1903, he was put in charge of a display squadron and became a member of the equestrian training board of the cavalry regiments. In October 1904, Mannerheim was transferred to the 52nd Nezhin Dragoon Regiment in Manchuria, with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. He fought in the Russo-Japanese War and was promoted to Colonel for his bravery in the battle of Mukden.

On returning from the war, Mannerheim spent time in Finland and Sweden (1905-1906). He led an expedition to China, traveling mostly on horseback, from Tashkent to Kashgar from July to October 1906, with the French scientist Paul Pelliot. Shortly thereafter, he led a separate expedition into China until the autumn of 1908. He met with the Dalai Lama during his journey. The expedition had strategic purposes, in addition to anthropological, political as well because these areas in northern China were a potential point of crisis between Russia, China and even the United Kingdom.

In World War I, Mannerheim served as a cavalry commander at the Austro-Hungarian and Romanian fronts, distinguishing himself in combat. In December 1914, he was awarded one of the highest honors of Imperial Russia, the Sword of St. George soon followed by the Cross of St. George, 4th class. In April 1917, Mannerheim had been promoted to Lieutenant General, however, he fell out of favor with the new Bolshevik government, who regarded him as one of the officers who did not support the revolution. Mannerheim became a determined opponent of Communism. In September he was relieved of his duties, while on sick leave after falling from his horse. He began planning retirement to civilian life and a return to Finland, arriving there in December 1917.

From Civil-War victor to Head of State

In January 1918, the Senate of the newly independent Finland, under its chairman Pehr Evind Svinhufvud, appointed Mannerheim as Commander-in-Chief of Finland's almost nonexistent army, which was then not much more than a number of locally set up White Guards. His mission was the defense of the Government during the Civil War in Finland. He established his headquarters in Seinäjoki and began to disarm the remaining Russian garrisons and their 42,500 troops. During the ensuing Civil War (or War of Liberty, as it was known among the "Whites"), Mannerheim was promoted to General of Cavalry (Ratsuväenkenraali) in March 1918.

After the White victory over the Reds, Mannerheim resigned as Commander-in-Chief, dismayed at the increasing German influence in Finnish military and political affairs. He feared the reaction of the Allies to the seemingly pro-German policies of the Finnish government during the last months of World War I. Seeking to distance himself from the current Finnish government, Mannerheim left Finland in June 1918 to visit relatives in Sweden. He was, thus, out of the country during the last, fateful period of the civil war, a time of mass deaths as a result of disease and starvation in prison camps and of lengthy trials. During the war, he had already tried to stop the "White terror" and had opposed the mass imprisonment of "Reds."

In Sweden, Mannerheim held discussions with Allied diplomats in Stockholm, stating his opposition to the Finnish government's pro-German policy, and his support for the Allies. In October 1918, he was sent to Britain and France, on behalf of the Finnish government, to attempt to gain recognition of Finland's independence by Britain and the United States. In December, he was summoned back to Finland from Paris after being elected as Protector of the State or Regent (Valtionhoitaja; Riksföreståndare). Some monarchists even wanted to make him King of Finland.

Mannerheim secured recognition of the independent Finland from the United Kingdom and U.S. He also requested and received food aid from overseas to avoid famine. Although he was an ardent anti-Bolshevik, he eventually refused an alliance with Russian White generals because they would not have recognized Finnish independence. In July 1919, after he had confirmed the new republican constitution, Mannerheim stood as a candidate in the first presidential election, supported by the National Coalition Party and the Swedish People's Party. He lost the election in the Parliament to Kaarlo Juho Ståhlberg and retreated from public life.

Between the Wars

In the interwar years, Mannerheim held no public office. This was largely due to the fact that he was seen by many politicians as a controversial figure due to his outspoken opposition to the Bolsheviks, his desire for Finnish intervention on the side of the Whites during the Russian Civil War, and the antipathy felt against him by the Finnish socialists, who saw him as the "bourgeois White General." During the interwar years, Mannerheim's pursuits were mainly humanitarian. He supported the Finnish Red Cross and founded the Foundation.

In 1929, he refused the right-wing radicals' plea to become a de facto military dictator, although he did express some support for the aims of the right-wing anti-communist and semi-fascist Lapua Movement. After President Pehr Evind Svinhufvud was elected 1931, he appointed Mannerheim as chairman of Finland's Defense Council. At the same time Mannerheim received the written promise that in the event of a war, he would become the Commander-in-Chief (Svinhufvud's successor Kyösti Kallio renewed this promise in 1937). In 1933, he received the title and rank of Field Marshal (sotamarsalkka, fältmarskalk). By this time, Mannerheim had become regarded by the public, including many socialists, as less of a "White General," and was seen as a truly national figure. This feeling was further enhanced by his many public statements of the time, urging reconciliation between those who had fought on opposing sides in the civil war, and the need to focus on national unity and defense.

Mannerheim supported Finland's military industry and sought (in vain) to establish a military defense union with Sweden. However, rearming and reorganizing the Finnish army did not occur as swiftly or as well as he hoped for. He constructed a line of defense, called the "Mannerheim Line" across the Southeastern frontier, in Karelia. He had many disagreements with various Cabinets, and signed numerous letters of resignation.


When negotiations with the Soviet Union failed in 1939, Mannerheim, on October 17th, again withdrew his resignation, thereby, again, accepting the position as Commander-in-Chief of the Finnish army in case of war. He reorganized his headquarters in Mikkeli. He officially became the Commander-in-Chief after the Soviet attack on November 30.

Mannerheim himself spent most of the Winter War and Continuation War, two wars against Soviet aggression, in his Mikkeli headquarters but made many visits to the front. Between the wars, he held on to the authority as Commander-in-Chief, which according to the letter of the law should have gone back to the presidents (Kyösti Kallio and Risto Ryti) after the Moscow Peace, March 12, 1940.

In the Continuation War, Mannerheim kept relations with Nazi Germany's government as formal as possible and successfully opposed their proposals for a treaty of alliance. Mannerheim also firmly refused to let his troops contribute to the Siege of Leningrad.

On Mannerheim's 75th birthday on June 4, 1942, the government granted him the unique title of Marshal of Finland (Suomen Marsalkka in Finnish, Marskalken av Finland in Swedish). He was the first and only person to receive the title. A surprise visit by Adolf Hitler in honor of Mannerheim's birthday was much less pleasing to him and caused some embarrassment.

The Hitler visit

Discussion with Adolf Hitler and Risto Ryti. Mannerheim is to Hitler's left (center of the photo).

Adolf Hitler had decided to visit Finland on June 4, 1942, ostensibly to congratulate Mannerheim on his 75th birthday. Mannerheim did not want to meet Hitler, either in his Headquarters at Mikkeli, nor in Helsinki, as it would have seemed more like an official state visit. The meeting took place at a railway siding near the airfield at Immola, in south-eastern Finland, and was arranged in secrecy.

From the airfield, Hitler, accompanied by President Ryti, was driven to where Mannerheim was waiting at a railroad siding. When Hitler saw the Marshal, he ran toward him. "An officer doesn't run," Mannerheim is said to have remarked to the officers accompanying him. "Only corporals do that."

After a congratulatory speech from Hitler, and following an awkward meal, at the conclusion of which Mannerheim lit a large cigar fully knowing that his guest could not abide cigar smoke, Hitler returned to Germany, having spent only around five hours in Finland. He had reportedly intended to ask the Finns to step up their military operations against the Soviets, but the uneasy encounter with Mannerheim appears to have deterred him from making any specific demands.

During the visit, an engineer of the Finnish broadcasting company YLE, Thor Damen, recorded Hitler and Mannerheim in a private conversation, something which had to be done secretly as Hitler never allowed recordings of him off-guard. Today, the recording is the only known recording of Hitler not speaking in an official tone. In the recording, Hitler admits to underestimating the Soviet Union's ability to conduct war (some English transcripts exist).

Assessment of Mannerheim's leadership

Mannerheim's wartime record as the Finnish Commander-in-Chief is not easy to assess. At the time, and even to this day, Mannerheim's immense prestige made criticism of his conduct of war almost tantamount to treason (especially as the criticism often came from Soviet sources and Finnish communists).

As a military commander, Mannerheim was generally very successful. Under his leadership the Finnish Defense Forces fought a generally successful war that in the end saved Finland from Soviet occupation. Mannerheim took great care not to waste the lives of his soldiers, and avoided unnecessary risks. Perhaps his greatest shortcoming was his unwillingness to delegate. While he had a number of very able subordinates, foremost among them was Lieutenant General Aksel Airo, Mannerheim insisted that all the department heads in the Finnish General Headquarters report directly to him, leaving Chief of General Staff General of Infantry Erik Heinrichs with little to do. Indeed, Mannerheim said that he did not want to be "one man's prisoner." Mannerheim overwhelmed himself with work, and as a result coordination between the different departments in the General Headquarters suffered. It has been suggested that one reason why the Soviet offensive in Karelian Isthmus, in June 1944, took Finns by surprise, was that Mannerheim was unable to see the forest for the trees. There was no other authority, save Mannerheim, who could collect all the intelligence and turn it into operational directives.

On the other hand, it can be argued that Mannerheim excelled in politics. Even though he was a soldier, and as such not supposed to take part in politics, Mannerheim could not help but be a highly political figure. A vital question during the war was when to make peace with the Soviet Union. Too early would mean that Nazi Germany would be in a position to retaliate. Too late risked a Soviet occupation of Finland. As soon as 1942, it became increasingly clear that Germany would not necessarily vanquish the Soviet Union. Mannerheim was kept, as it were, in reserve, in order to potentially take the leadership of the nation and lead it to peace. Mannerheim played this role very skillfully. He had a clear vision how Finland should conduct its war in the sensitive situation when the war's ultimate end was unclear. He knew how to treat the Germans to secure as much military support as possible without involving Finland in any binding treaties. For example, during the build-up for the Continuation War in 1941, Mannerheim was offered the command of all German forces on Finnish soil. While such an arrangement could have made progressing the war simpler, Mannerheim recognized that Hitler would not give Finns a free hand in directing this part of the German offensive. Mannerheim wanted, at all costs, to avoid a situation where he would be forced to take directives or orders from Berlin, so he refused the offer.

End of the war and a brief presidency

In June 1944, to ensure German support at a time when a major Soviet offensive was threatening Finland, Mannerheim thought it necessary for Finland to agree to the pact German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop demanded. But even then Mannerheim managed to distance himself from the pact and it fell to the Finnish President Risto Ryti to sign the pact that came to be known as the Ryti-Ribbentrop Agreement. Mannerheim's policy reached its logical conclusion when the agreement was revoked by the resignation of President Ryti in July 1944. Mannerheim succeeded him as President.

At the moment when Germany was deemed sufficiently weakened, and the USSR's summer offensive was fought to a standstill (thanks to the June agreement with the Germans), Finland's leaders saw a chance to reach a peace with the Soviet Union. It became clear that Mannerheim was the only figure with sufficient prestige, both internationally and domestically, to extricate Finland from the war. He enjoyed the confidence of a large majority of the Finnish people, and was effectively the only statesman with the authority necessary to guide Finland in the transition from war to peace.

At first, attempts were made to persuade Mannerheim to become Prime Minister, but he rejected these proposals on account of his age and lack of knowledge of the detailed techniques of government. It was then suggested that he should become Head of State, with him being elected by Parliament as Regent after Ryti resigned. The use of the title of Regent would have reflected the exceptional circumstances of his election. Mannerheim and Ryti both agreed to this proposal, and Ryti resigned as President on July 29, giving as his reasons the state of his health and the necessity of combining civil and military authority in one person at that key moment. Mannerheim then decided that he wished to be elected as President to avoid any misconceptions about his taking office. Due to the difficult precarious conditions, general elections could not be held, and therefore it was the Parliament which elected Mannerheim as President of the Republic on August 4, 1944. He took the oath of office later that day.

The dangerous state that Finland found itself in at that moment was reflected in Mannerheim's inaugural speech before the Finnish Parliament:

Mr. Speaker, I wish to express my heartfelt thanks for the kind words that you spoke about me. Honorable members of parliament, in accepting—for the second time—at this difficult moment of national destiny, the duties of the head of state, I am so deeply aware of the responsibilities placed upon me. Great are the difficulties that we will have to overcome in order to safeguard our future. Foremost in my mind at this moment is the army of Finland, now in its fifth year of battle. Trusting in the Almighty, I hope and I believe that, supported by parliament and the government, a unanimous people behind us, we will succeed in preserving our independence and the existence of our nation.

A month after he took office, the Continuation War was concluded on harsh terms, but ultimately far less harsh than those imposed on the other states bordering the Soviet Union. Finland retained its sovereignty, parliamentary democracy, and market economy. The territorial losses were considerable, especially due to the amounts of Karelian refugees that needed to be housed, and the war reparations were heavy. Finland also had to fight the Lapland War against the withdrawing German troops, who fought a scorched-earth war in the north, and at the same time demobilized her army. It was widely agreed that only Mannerheim could have guided Finland through these difficult times, when the Finnish people had to come to terms with the severe terms of the armistice implemented by a Soviet-dominated Allied Control Commission, and the task of post-war reconstruction.

Mannerheim's term as President was a difficult period for him. Although he was elected for a full six-year term, he was in his late seventies, and had accepted the office reluctantly after being urged to do so by various politicians. The situation was exacerbated by his frequent periods of ill-health, and the pressure of the demands of the Allied Control Commission, and the war responsibility trials. He was fearful throughout most of his presidency that the commission would request that he himself be tried as one of the "war guilty," but this never came about.

Despite his criticisms of some of the demands of the Control Commission, Mannerheim worked hard to carry out Finland's armistice obligations. He also emphasized the necessity of further work on reconstruction in Finland after the war.

Mannerheim was troubled by recurring health problems during 1945, and was absent on medical leave from his duties as President from November of that year until February 1946. He spent six weeks during that time in Portugal on a break to restore his health. After the announcement of the verdicts in the war trials had been announced in January, Mannerheim decided to resign. He concluded that he had accomplished the duties he had been elected to carry out. The war had been ended, the armistice obligations were being carried out, and the war trials ended.

Mannerheim resigned as President on March 4, 1946, giving as his reasons his declining health and his view that the tasks he had been elected to carry out had been accomplished. Even the Finnish communists, his enemies in 1918, recognized his peacemaking efforts and his role in maintaining the unity of the country during a difficult period. He was succeeded by the conservative and Russophile Prime Minister, Juho Kusti Paasikivi.

Later life and legacy

After his resignation, Mannerheim bought Kirkniemi Manor in Lohja, intending to spend his retirement there. But in June 1946, he had a life-saving operation carried out on a perforated ulcer, and in October of that year he was diagnosed with a duodenal ulcer. In early 1947, it was recommended that he should travel to the Val-Mont sanatorium in Montreux, Switzerland, to recuperate and write his memoirs. Mannerheim’s goal in writing his memoirs was to show, mostly to the West, what difficult situation Finland was in during the wars, and that fighting along side Germany against the Soviets was not her own choice, but the only option available to a small country fighting a superior opponent who could at any time attack and turn Finland into another occupied country.

Val-Mont was to be Mannerheim's main place of residence for the remaining years of his life, although he regularly returned to stay in Finland, and also visited Sweden, France, and Italy.

Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim died on January 28 (Finnish time, January 27 local time), 1951 in the Cantonal hospital in Lausanne, Switzerland. He was buried on February 4, 1951, in the Hietaniemi cemetery in Helsinki in a state funeral with full military honors, and today retains respect as one of Finland's greatest statesmen.

Mannerheim's birthday, the fourth of June, is celebrated as the Flag Day of the Finnish Defense Forces. This decision was made by the Finnish Government on the occasion of his 75th birthday in 1942, when he was also granted the title of Marshal of Finland. Flag Day is celebrated with a national parade, and rewards and promotions for members of the Defense Forces.

Preceded by:
Risto Ryti
President of Finland
Succeeded by:
Juho Kusti Paasikivi

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Lewenhaupt, Count Eric, and Mannerheim, Carl Gustaf Emil The Memoirs of Marshal Mannerheim. Dutton, 1953.
  • Screen, J.E.O. Mannerheim: The Years of Preparation. Univ of British Columbia Press, 1993. ISBN 978-0900966224.
  • Screen, J.E.O. Mannerheim: The Finnish Years. Hurst & Co Ltd., 2001. ISBN 978-1850655732.
  • Jägerskiöld, Stig Axel Fridolf. Mannerheim: Marshal of Finland. University of Minnesota Press, 1987. ISBN 978-0816615278.
  • Trotter, William R. A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940. Algonquin Books, 2000. ISBN 978-1565122499.

External links

All links retrieved November 26, 2023.


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