The time of war left its mark on Finnish families. Many fathers and young men returning from the front were traumatized, had nightmares, drunk heavily and were violent against their family members. Often, their ability to work and provide was not the same as before. Many mothers who took sole care of the home and farm work, on the other hand, were exhausted.
There was no room or opportunity to talk about the mental burden of war, and those with a shattered mental health were seen to be weak. Mental instability and mental illness were also considered shameful, which is why they were kept quiet outside the home.
“After the war, Finland was strongly focused reconstruction, and all eyes were set on the future. Life was materially scarce, and many families only had enough energy to survive everyday life. Mental well-being wasn’t really considered an issue of its own, and there was little social support for mental health at the time,” cultural researcher, Adjunct Professor Kirsi Laurén says.
Together with historian, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, PhD Antti Malinen, she has authored an article on children’s post-war experiences in Finnish families. The article examines the role of a culture of shame and silence in relation to difficult memories of insecurity and domestic violence. As material, the study used narratives gathered during the ‘Did the war continue in the home?’ campaign, which was organised by the University of Jyväskylä and the Archive of the Finnish Literature Society.
Staying silent no more
“Clearly, the time is now ripe for addressing difficult memories. The narratives gathered for the study showed that there still is a need to deal with traumatic experiences and memories. The underlying hope is to find closure and to stop the culture of silence from being passed on to generations to come.”
For many, the certain anonymity of writing may have made it easier to address difficult and even shameful issues, rather than to talk about them face to face.
“Here in Finland, public remembrance and history writing relating to the war and its consequences was, for a very long time, focused on the politics of war, and on the events of, and heroic stories from, the front. Over the past decades, however, research and public debate, as well as the narratives in our research material, have given a voice to children and women, i.e., today’s adult women and men.”
Laurén says that there has been an affective turn in studies addressing the war, i.e., researchers are now increasingly interested in experiences and emotions instead of, or alongside with, the history of military offences and action.
This is also reflected on popular culture: movies, theatre and literature are increasingly focused on what happened and what was experienced on the home front.
The microhistorical viewpoint of everyday life shapes, for its part, our society in a more tolerant direction, and it is safer to talk about emotions than before.
“A similar phenomenon in dealing with wartime experiences and trauma can also be seen in international research and cultural ways of publicly dealing with difficult memories.”