War trance: Collective attachment and the Winter War, 1939–40

Tuomas Tepora

The concept of the “Spirit of the Winter War” originated after the short Russo-Finnish conflict in the beginning of the Second World War. Today, its popular usage refers to an emotional and political norm that denotes unification, or a sense of collective attachment in the face of hardship, and altruistic work for a common purpose. Concentrating on the war-time emotional descriptions before the post-war publicity had coined the concept, in this paper I trace the history of emotions of the Winter War from three intertwined perspectives.

First, I take a top-down viewpoint and look at the emotionally-invested propaganda and the politics of emotions during the war. Second, I expand my scope to explore the emotional norms and regimes in war-time society from a grass-roots level. Third, I look at the contemporary descriptions of the “Spirit” as a collective experience reflecting trance-like state and its war-time counterimages, such as suspicion and scapegoating of perceived deviants from the norm.

Top-down perspective on the origins of the war-time emotional norms and regimes is inadequate, as the exceptional circumstances opened up unusual paths to a bottom-up design of emotional landscapes of the society. Archetypal, mythic language and less verbal symbolism rose to prominence at the height of the war experience. This practice increased the sense of exceptionality and otherwordliness in many a contemporary’s understanding of the events.

In conclusion, I discuss the historicity of collective emotions, or emotional communities, in crises. The boundaries between various and overlapping emotional communities within the wider society turned permeable for influence from other emotional communities, for instance between social classes, yet at the same time the repertoire of emotional expression became restricted and highly controlled. However,  shortly after the war ended, the shared feeling of oneness in “war trance” evaporated. Instead came uncanny nostalgia, a sense of losing something impossible to replicate and even individually felt shame of earlier being absorbed into a collective “trance”. This is how the still today voiced emotional norm and a hollow slogan of the “Spirit of the Winter War” began.

Dr Tuomas Tepora is a research fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. Among his publications are two single-authored monographs and one co-edited volume on the topics dealing with the cultural history of war and the history of emotions of the Finnish early 20th-century nationalism, the Finnish Civil War and the Second World War. His current project addresses the history of emotions of the personality cults in democratic societies with a special focus on C. G. E. Mannerheim.