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The responsibility of an artist

by Veijo Murtomäki

Jean Sibelius was a political person throughout his life, although this should be understood in the right way. He was never a member of any political party, nor did he participate in any such activities. He was politically active in a different way.

Sibelius and his fellow artists – such as painters Axel Gallen(-Kallela) and Eero Järnefelt, author Juhani Aho, poet Eino Leino and many others – had a classical education, and their readiness to fight for Finland’s independence stemmed from the spirit in which the Classical heroes of Antiquity defended their poleis. Finnish artists were patriotically active especially during what are known in Finnish history as the ‘years of oppression’ (1899–1905, 1908–1917).

Between 1898 and 1920 Sibelius wrote some two dozen pieces in which he addressed the nation either directly or through allegory, expressing the common sorrow and hope under the difficult political circumstances that all Finns felt. This had the result of making Sibelius a symbol of the awakening of Finland. It was a role that sometimes frustrated him, as he felt that he was unable to break free of it.

Nevertheless, in 1917 he stepped up once more and ‘in a patriotic fervour’ wrote the March of the Finnish Jaeger Battalion in 1917 for the volunteer soldiers who were secretly training in Libau, Germany (now Liepaja, Latvia), to liberate Finland from the Russian Empire. Finland having declared independence in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Jaegers, as they were known, principally saw action as leaders of the newly formed army of the right-wing government (the ‘Whites’) against the Russian-backed left-wing militias (the ‘Reds’) in the Civil War that followed almost immediately. After the Civil War, Sibelius met some German officers and the Commander of the German troops, Count von der Goltz, and was enthusiastic about the discussions he had with them.

As Sibelius had always admired German culture and music, he had been a member of a German copyright society since 1907. His principal publishers were also German, and it is scarcely surprising that it was easy for him to identify with the values and the political system of old Germany. He was a monarchist and did not really like democracy and parliament.


Icon of White Finland

Sibelius later looked favourably on the Lapua Movement (1929–1932), a right-wing political movement modelled on Mussolini’s Blackshirts that plotted to overthrow the government. Sibelius even wrote a piece of music in honour of the movement in 1930, called Karjalan osa (The Fate of Karelia), the lyrics of which expounded the ideology of Greater Finland (which was seen by birthright to include vast tracts of land in Karelia, within the Soviet Union) and Finland’s ‘Western brothers’. Sibelius became the icon of White Finland, and he was connected to the Finnish Civil Guards or right-wing militias, for which he wrote Skyddgårs March (March of the Civil Guards, 1925). He was also friends with prominent cultural figures who famously had right-wing sympathies: poet Bertel Gripenberg, composer Yrjö Kilpinen and poet and professor V.A. Koskenniemi, among others.

It was only logical because of his political views and the spectre of Bolshevism, which intimidated the majority of Finns in the 1930s, that Sibelius remained loyal to the Finnish Government and was prepared to serve when called upon. In an interview in 1939, he said that he was “ready for PR work for Finland”. A prominent example of this was the statement published in several American newspapers in July 1941, entitled “Sibelius Appeals to U.S. To Understand Finn Case”. In it, he extolled Finland’s role in fighting against the Bolshevisation of Europe. (We should remember that the USA had not yet entered the war.) He also expressed his support for the German-Finnish alliance – born out of necessity, it must be said – and Finland’s German ‘comrades-in-arms’ in several interviews for the German press. However, this should not be taken to mean that he admired the policies of the Third Reich or praised any individual German leaders as other Finns in high places did.


Patriotic manifestations

In recent years, accusations of Nazism and anti-Semitism have been levelled at Sibelius, because he was one of very few foreign composers to be promoted in Nazi Germany. In 1934 Richard Strauss chose him as one of the three Vice-Presidents of the Ständiger Rat für die internationale Zusammenarbeit der Komponisten [Permanent committee for international cooperation among composers]. Sibelius received the Goethe Medal from Adolf Hitler himself in 1935 and was awarded the honorary title of Professor by Heidelberg University in 1936. A Sibelius Society was founded in Germany in 1942 and actively promoted performances of his music in Germany, describing him as a “blood and soil” composer.

Yet Sibelius never visited Germany again after 1931, and he did not endorse the Nazi ideology. He had had several Jewish friends since the beginning of the century. After the war, he confessed: “Dictatorship and war disgust me. The bare thought of tyranny and suppression, slavery and persecution of people, destruction and mass murders, make me spiritually and bodily ill. This is one of the reasons why I have not for more than twenty years created anything that I could have delivered to the public with a calm heart.”

Sibelius’s commitment to his fatherland was his deliberate choice, and he remained loyal to Finland and its leaders. In the 1930s, and especially during the Continuation War (1941–1944), this meant supporting relations between Finland and Germany, as well as a manifestation of his patriotism for Finland. Nevertheless, we may ask whether he might have acted differently.


To act or not to act

It is extremely challenging to evaluate the actions and non-actions and the verbal and written utterances of historical persons, since the researcher may all too easily compromise himself or herself with anachronistic errors and interpretations. Eminent Finnish historian Matti Klinge has said: “The biggest challenge for understanding history is trying to get settled in the preconditions of the time under scrutiny and remembering that in that era people did not know what posterity knows.”

It is virtually impossible for a single person, however intelligent, to act entirely individually: a person always belongs to a class or group of citizens, and this determines his or her outlook on life to a great extent.

It has sometimes been said that artists, philosophers and scientists should be held to a much higher moral standard than political leaders and that the intelligentsia should be more human than the society of which they are members. There may be some merit in this, and there have been great personalities who have condemned actions or crimes against humanity: Émile Zola, Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, and so on. However, “radical political movements have always attracted intellectuals and artists”, as Tarmo Kunnas put it.

Martin Heidegger, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Louis-Férdinand Céline, Luigi Pirandello and Ezra Pound were, to some extent, followers of Fascism and Nazism. Overtly left-wing artists have numbered among their ranks André Breton, Louis Aragon, Pablo Picasso and Jean-Paul Sartre. We may justly ask whether the supporters of the extreme right or left are equally ‘bad’ or whether there is a distinction between the followers of ‘conservative’ Fascism and Nazism and of ‘progressive’ Socialism or Communism; perhaps the degree of perceived ‘good’ or ‘evil’ depends on the thinking and actions of the individual doing the appraising than on the inherent qualities of the ideology itself.

Despicable utterances may be found on both (extreme) ends of the political spectrum. It is not at all difficult to find racist or pro-Nazi statements made by members of the Finnish cultural and scientific elite in the 1930s and 1940s. On the other hand, philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said in 1952 that “any anti-Communist is a dog”.

Two scholars who have studied Swedish Nazism, Lars M. Andersson and Mattias Tydén, assert that “it can be legitimate for a researcher to take an active stand vis-à-vis a moral problem of the past, trying to evaluate what was ‘wrong’ or ‘right’, ‘harmful’ or ‘good’. However, in order for these judgments to have any significance, they must be based on an understanding of the phenomenon, an awareness of why the people in history acted as they did. ‘Wrong’ is not the same as ‘bad’, and a person who from our perspective acted in a questionable or harmful way does not necessarily deserve our condemnation.”

But what about action vs. inaction – participating in something that is considered bad, evil or criminal vs. remaining a bystander? Is the latter passive stance also to be condemned? Another Swedish scholar, Klas Åmark, says: “In the language of the historians, ‘participating’ means that an agent actively contributes to causing something. Also, a shared responsibility requires active measures, and just remaining passive is not the same. I do mean that non-action does not lead to a shared responsibility. It is those who actually commit the crimes who are responsible for them, not those who just stand by and watch. Later, of course, it is possible to criticise the passive bystanders.”


Pro-German, not pro-Nazi

Jean Sibelius was a bystander who watched what happened in international politics, and he was well informed about the situation in Germany. Sibelius was passive, as he did not criticise or condemn what was happening in Germany and countries occupied by it. However, he did try to help German-Jewish composer Günther Raphael and consulted Finnish officials to find out about possibilities for him to work in Finland. Sibelius could also see that criticising Germany was futile and would only result in career suicide in Germany, which is what happened to Finnish authors Olavi Paavolainen and F.E. Sillanpää in 1936 and 1938 respectively.

Sibelius’s behaviour may cause indignation in people who believe that dealing with Nazi organisations to collect royalties – even if it was money that was rightfully his – was morally wrong. He obviously benefited from his status as the leading Nordic composer in the Third Reich and remained silent in the face of atrocities such as the book-burnings of 1933 or the exhibitions of ‘degenerate art’, Entartete Kunst (1937) and Entartete Musik (1938). In this sense, Sibelius may be seen as an opportunist who cared more about his own success and profit than about the sufferings of thousands and millions of people.

However, many of Sibelius’s colleagues all over Scandinavia and central Europe also benefited from their status in the Third Reich. Moreover, in 1936 the atrocities of Hitler’s Germany had largely not yet happened and were certainly not known about. It was still the “good Nazi era”, as philologist Victor Klemperer put it. Sibelius not only remained friends with Germany and some of its representatives but also had hundreds of British and American friends. He was certainly pro-German but not pro-Nazi, being also favourably disposed towards Britain and the USA.

Had Sibelius voiced strong negative opinions about Germany, he would certainly have harmed not only himself but Finland as a whole too. Even if we consider Finnish political leaders to have made the wrong decisions, Sibelius cannot be implicated for anything other than supporting his country. “I am ready to give my all for the Fatherland” was his unconditional creed, regardless of whatever he did or did not do.



Lars M. Andersson & Mattias Tydén (eds.): Sverige och Nazityskland. Skuldfrågor och moraldebatt; Stéphanie Courtois et al.: The Black Book of Communism. Crimes, Terror, Repression; Fabian Dahlström (ed.): Jean Sibelius Dagbok 1909–1944; Dahlström, Fabian (ed.): Högtärade Maestro! Högtärade Herr Baron! Korrespondensen mellan Axel Carpelan och Jean Sibelius 1900–1919; Ruth-Maria Gleißner: Der unpolitische Komponist als Politikum. Die Rezeption von Jean Sibelius im NS-Staat; Victor Klemperer: LTI. Notizbuch eines Philologen; Matti Klinge: Nainen kävi parvekkeella. Päiväkirjastani 2007–2008; Tarmo Kunnas: Knut Hamsun, modernisti ja anarkisti; Michael E. Salzer: “Letzter Besuch bei Sibelius”, Frankfurter Allgemeine (Zeitung); “Sibelius Appeals to U. S. To Understand Finn Case”, July 13, 1941, New York Times; Vesa Sirén: Aina poltti sikaria. Jean Sibelius aikalaisten silmin; Erik Tawaststjerna: Jean Sibelius. Åren 1920–1957; Klas Åmark: Att bo granne med ondskan. Sveriges förhållande till nazismen, Nazityskland och Förintelsen.