Infectious Emotions: Panic, Trust, and National Cohesion in Finland, Summer 1944

Ville Kivimäki

In June 1944, after almost two and a half years of relative calm, the Soviet army launched a massive offensive against Finland. The defenses collapsed and a special phenomenon occurred: a mass-scale series of panic that spread among thousands of soldiers and radiated hundreds of kilometers all the way to the home front. In wildly circulating rumors, tens of thousands of Finnish soldiers were told to have either died or surrendered. In reality, too, over 10 000 men deserted from the Finnish Army in a matter of few weeks. Furthermore, a much higher number of soldiers had temporarily lost their unit, and several thousand ended up in military psychiatric treatment. The chaotic scenes at the front reminded of a “Finnish Caporetto,” which culminated in the catastrophic loss of Vyborg – the second largest Finnish city – on 20 June 1944. The state and army authorities responded with draconic measures: in July and August, almost 50 Finnish servicemen were court-martialed and executed for repeated desertions.

The “June panic” is a spectacular case of highly infectious emotions, which sparked off from very concrete events at the front but quickly grew to whole different, collective dimensions, affecting large groups of people far away from the battle zone. The sudden outburst of despair, distrust, and mutiny was in stark contrast to the state-controlled narrative of the nation at war; and it brought to surface many fears that had been repressed in the wartime publicity. These insecurities became apparent in fantastic rumors, which can be seen as an attempt to anticipate and control the radically changing horizon of expectations. Emotions had a key role in these reorientations: they prepared people’s minds for new, mostly unpleasant situations and reinforced the feeling of emergency, which in turn caused both disintegration and fatalistic bonding. Interestingly, and quite against the odds, the most panic phenomena came to a sudden end in early July. In a timespan of one month, both soldiers and civilians went through a chain reaction of emotions from shock and disbelief to regained trust and determination. Furthermore, the experiences of June 1944 remained a troubling source of shame and guilt, haunting the memory of war in various ways.

I’m a social and cultural historian of World War II and its aftermath. My postdoctoral project at the University of Tampere is titled “Trauma before Trauma: Finnish War Veterans and the Posttraumatic Stress, 1945–1955”. In my PhD thesis Battled Nerves (2013), I studied Finnish soldiers’ war experiences, trauma, and military psychiatry in 1941–44. Together with Prof. Tiina Kinnunen, I have co-edited a comprehensive anthology Finland in World War II: History, Memory, Interpretations (Brill: Leiden, 2012).