Why you should care
Because he survived playing cat and mouse with Hitler.
Cigar smoke filled the mahogany coach, clinging to the reddish curtains and maroon upholstery. It was June 4, 1942, and Finland’s top commander was celebrating his 75th birthday. But rather than partying at a palace or posh hotel, Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim and his colleagues had reason to meet in a secret railway siding: Adolf Hitler had arrived unannounced, and Mannerheim wanted to avoid any indication that this was a formal state visit. Using the diplomacy and discretion for which he’s now famed, Mannerheim charmed the führer for the good of his nation.
His only way to save Finland from Stalin’s tyranny was to ally himself with the Nazis, so Mannerheim played a delicate balancing game of keeping his troops strong while cordially courting Hitler’s favor without a formal alliance. “Mannerheim was extremely wary of the Germans, as he had been in 1918,” Jonathan Clements, author of Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy, tells OZY. “He was no friend of the Nazis,” Clements says, but rather created the intricately worded “co-belligerency pact” that specified how Germany and Finland, while not allies, were militarily cooperating to fight the same enemy. Luckily for posterity, a tape was surreptitiously made of the men’s birthday conversation. It’s the only known recording of Hitler speaking privately and echoes a strangely intimate tone for a leader better known for feverish public speeches.
The Finns can’t get enough of Mannerheim.
Finland remained a unique case throughout the war, thanks largely to Mannerheim’s efforts. It was the only European country bordering the Soviet Union in 1939 that remained unoccupied in 1945, thanks in part to Stalin’s admiration of the marshal for refusing to attack Leningrad. The Finns also managed to side with Germany while being spared the persecution of their native Jews and nearly all their refugees, according to Hannu Rautkallio’s book Finland and the Holocaust. Above all, it was Mannerheim’s chummy relations with Hitler that kept the Nazis at bay. He hid his embarrassment at the führer’s surprise birthday visit, sneaking him into his private saloon, and even when Hitler gifted him a Mercedes-Benz for choosing to ally with him in 1941, Mannerheim accepted his token graciously, and discreetly. But in August 1944, when Mannerheim was elected president, he arrived at his inauguration in his Sedan V12 Packard, not the Mercedes, according to Mannerheim Museum archives.
The cat-and-mouse game Mannerheim played with Hitler was just the culmination of a spectacular career for the 6-foot-4 war hero who hunted man-eating tigers, squared up to Stalin, spoke six languages and rode horseback through thousands of miles of unchartered Central Asia as a secret agent. On his 75th birthday, the government granted Mannerheim his official title, “Marshal of Finland,” and 53 years after his death, he was voted the greatest Finn ever by his countrymen. “The Finns can’t get enough of Mannerheim,” says Clements.
The Marshal of Finland was born to Swedish-speaking aristocrats. His father ran off with his mistress, leaving the family bankrupt. But Mannerheim persevered, making his career in the imperial Russian army and serving the last of the czars. He traveled as a secret agent from St. Petersburg to China to spy for the Russians, crossing China on horseback and notably teaching the 13th Dalai Lama how to shoot a pistol. Mannerheim also led Finland’s defenses in its darkest hour at the ripe old age of 72, against the impossible odds of the 1939–1940 Winter War, when the country was up against Stalin’s heavily armed men. Finland’s 346,000-strong army went up against almost three times as many Russians and resisted longer than expected. The battle saw Mannerheim hailed a champion of Finnish liberty, and four years later, at age 77, he would accept the presidency to begin easing Finland from war to peace.
Today his reputation has taken on mythic proportions, reflected in everything from comics and merchandise to the Kenyan film Black Mannerheim, in which all of the characters, including Mannerheim, are portrayed as Black. Yet Mannerheim’s personality remains obscure. Although his godmother arranged his marriage to a wealthy Russian-Serbian noble who bore him two children, the union ended in divorce, resulting in Mannerheim’s depression. But little else is known about the man’s personal life. “He didn’t appear to have many close friends,” says Eric Enno Tamm, whose book The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds documents how he retraced Mannerheim’s epic Asian trek.
Mannerheim’s intricately primed relations with Nazi Germany saved Finland from both Stalin and Hitler — no mean feat. So while he may have struggled with marriage and friendships, he’ll forever be remembered by a grateful nation for his shrewd leadership and untiring dedication.