ON THE ‘WINTER WAR’ TRAIL: EILA LEGENDA!

Frontispiece pic Helsinki 1

Six years after it was first published in Finland under the title Taistelu Suomesta (The Battle of Finland), three years after the publication of the U.S. edition, my ode to the Talvisota, as the Finns call the 1939-40 Winter War, now increasingly accepted as the standard one volume book of this neglected episode of World War II and European history, continues to garner praise and create or inspire spin-offs of various kinds and in diverse media.

Most recently, I had the honor of giving lectures and/or briefings based on the book, as well as my recent reportage from the Nordic/Baltic region, at three leading institutions of higher learning and independent scholarship in Finland, Britain and the U.S., respectively.

On November 5th, along with my fellow historian and friend, Henrik Meinander, I gave a reading-cum-presentation co-sponsored by the American embassy and the history department of Helsinki University. In the lecture at the university I talked about the tortured relationship between Finland and the United States during World War II, a major theme of my book, as exemplified by the strange career of Hjalmar Procope, the Finnish ambassador to Washington during the war, who went from being America’s best-known diplomat during the Talvisota, when Finland was “America’s Sweetheart” (in the words of Christopher Isherwood), to persona non grata during the Continuation War of 1941-44, when Finland was a co-belligerent of Nazi Germany, and was ultimately kicked out of Washington. Ouch!

The following week I flew to London, where I gave a presentation, “Unquiet Flows the Balt,” about the fast-shifting security situation in the Baltic region which also touched on the Winter War at the Royal Institute of International Affairs for a distinguished group of representatives from the London diplomatic corps, the Royal Air Force, and the Foreign Office, including a clutch of former British ambassadors to the Kremlin at Chatham House, as the RIIA is also known, at its Georgian manse overlooking St. James square, near my old haunt, the Oxford-Cambridge Club.

FinlandPoster

Amongst those in attendance was my friend the lovely Rose Keegan, the great actress and daughter of my mentor, the late Sir John Keegan, the iconic military historian, who was one of those who encouraged me to write about the Winter War. How well I remember giving Sir John a personal tour of the Mannerheim House in Helsinki, when he visited the Finnish capital for the first time. Godspeed Sir John and thank you!

More recently, on this side of the Atlantic, on February 8th, I gave another reading-cum-presentation from the book–which has also been translated into Estonian and Russian, friends in Tallinn and Moscow, please note!—at the Brookings Institution along with the noted military expert, historian and analyst, Michael O’Hanlon, co-director of Brookings’ Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence. Amongst other things, O’Hanlon is the author of several books himself, including his recently published The Future of Land Warfare, published by Brookings, which I highly recommend. If we ever go to war, I want Mike in the trenches with me! He also happens to be a very nice guy!

In attendance, in addition to a sizable fraction of the Baltic diplomatic corps, much to my surprise and delight was my old journalistic hero Marvin Kalb, late of CBS and NBC News, now a senior fellow at Brookings.

Marvin Kalb!

Helsinki lec pic 2

Yes, that Marvin Kalb! At 85, Kalb, who began his journalistic career as CBS Moscow bureau chief in the early 1960s, is still going strong—and writing great books, too. I know, because I am reading his most recent tome, The Imperial Gamble, about the origins and aftermath of the Ukraine crisis, also published by Brookings.

After the animated discussion that followed the reading, in which he participated, Marvin mentioned that he had been good friends with the late great Max Jacobson, the Finnish journalist, historian and diplomat who I met during my memorable first visit to Suomi all the way back in 1977, in the midst of the Kekkonen era (which I am now writing about), and who first encouraged me to write the book that became Taistelu Suomesta.

So you knew Max too!

Small world indeed!

After the presentation, I left a complimentary copy of the book for Marvin on the off chance that he might peruse it at some point in the future. Shortly afterwards he sent me the following mail:

“Dear Gordon, I have begun to slip happily into your book, and it has been a pleasure—not only delightfully readable but rich with detail that could only be the result of deep digging. I love your use of news stories and reporter observations. Your interviews with aging Finns and Russians who remember the war are remarkable. I am enjoying the experience completely, and I thank you for the book, which reconnects me with Finland and Max, and makes me realize how special the Finns are and I hope will always be. You have done a great job. Congratulations. Best, Marvin.”

Made my day!

Finally, while I am on the subject of the Talvisota, I would like to bring your attention to a superb new novel, Lost Ground, about the war, by Finnish-Canadian author Ulla Jordan. The novel, which revolves around a love triangle set during the conflict, was the author says, partly inspired by my book. To be sure, readers will recognize a number of references to the dramatis personae of The Hundred Day Winter War in Ulla’s book, but the style and the unforgettable story are all her own. You can purchase your copy here. I strongly suggest you do, my fellow winter soldiers!

I also have been told by numerous cinema-minded friends that there is a great dramatic movie in the book, as well–perhaps not so surprising since I structured the ‘real time’ book as a film.

Hint?


JFK’S FINEST FORGOTTEN HOUR

What was JFK’s finest hour? Received historical wisdom is that it was his adroit handling of his face-off with Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis of October, 1962. However six months before, Kennedy also stood his ground during an all-but forgotten battle with Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis E. LeMay, the same “bomber general” […]


THE GREENING OF ICELAND

(CS Monitor 12/30/15) SPRENGISANDUR is an ancient unpaved road veering across the rugged, volcano-strewn central highlands of Iceland. Twelve centuries ago, the 125 mile-long windswept pass, whose name derives from sprengya, the Icelandic verb for riding a horse to its death, was one of the routes by which Icelanders made the long trek to Althing, […]


INTRODUCING LOREAL PRYSTAJ

Every once in a while I make a special discovery which I am keen to share with my friend and the larger GFS community. Sometimes it is a book or a film which I can’t stop thinking about. Sometimes it is a new city you must see. Once in a great while it’s an artist […]


LITHUANIA’S SUICIDE EPIDEMIC

(CS Monitor 11/30/15) VILNIUS– 21st century Lithuania has a number of distinctions of which its three million people are proud. It was the first of the former Soviet socialist republics to break its shackles to the Kremlin, declaring its independence in March, 1990. It “grows” basketball players: Lithuania is home to no less than ten […]


REMEMBERING MY MOTHER DORRIT SANDER

AS some of you may know, my dear mother, Dorrit Hilde Sander, passed away a year ago last June 15th. In the event, I was in Stockholm at the time of the yahrzeit. I did the best I could, by saying kaddish for my mother at the historic synagogue in the Swedish capital (after I […]