The story of a man who gave his life to his ideals
Stories of war heroes and the bravery of the Finnish troops during the Winter War in Finland are common and the courage shown by an outnumbered and badly equipped army against the Russian machinery of war is one that is rightly saluted. Think what you may of war and the military, but all the men who gave their lives during the ghastly happenings between 1939 and 1941 deserve to be honoured.
But a story that was silenced for many long years is the story of one of the bravest men in the history of Finland. A story of a man who refused to surrender his ideals even in the face of certain death. The story of Arndt Pekurinen.
Arndt Juho Pekurinen was born in 1905 to a poor family i Juva. From an early age he had an interest in politics and society, which in turn led to an aversion to war and violence. According to legend, he witnessed an execution during the Finnish Civil War, although this is unlikely, since the fighting never reached Juva. Other sources state that his family, which was hiding Reds, was searched by the Whites and that during an argument between his father and a member of the White Guard, a gun accidently went off, and that this would have made a strong impact on him. According to the author Erno Paasilinna, who wrote a book about Pekurinen’s life in 1998, the choice to become a pacifist and conscientious objector was a result of a long process.
His long and severe process began in 1926, when he refused to join the army during the mandatory conscription. At this time a person could be excused from the army because of religious reasons. But although Pekurinen was a religious man, his motives for refusal were not religious. He made a point of this by signing himself out from the church. This way the military could not pardon him on religious grounds. He was also accused of being a communist, but said he had no interest in politics.
Arndt Pekurinen was on a mission to force the young Finnish nation to adopt a law which gave conscientious objectors the right to refuse to bear arms on moral and ethical basis, other than religion. Pekurinen was an absolute pacifist and objected violence in all its forms. He had a strong resentment towards war and a deep hatred of the army. He was inspired by the writings of Russian pacifist and author Lev Tolstoi, as well as the biblical Mountain Sermon, and his motto “As people are not eaten, butchering them is of no use” is said to have been inspired by Irish satirist, activist and cleric Jonathan Swift.
After several refusals to bear arms, Pekurinen was left alone for nearly three years. He didn’t run away, but even reported himself to the police at several times. Finally in November 1929 he was apprehended by the authorities and forced to the conscription in Helsinki. After his refusal to undress for the medical test, he was stripped naked by force. The medical test proved him physically and mentally fit for the army and he was shipped off to the Uusimaa Brigade in Santahamina. Here his medical test was renewed, after he once again had been forcefully stripped, and it showed the same result as the last one. He was ordered to engage in the unarmed military service, but refused. For Pekurinen, the point was not only that he did not wish to bear arms, but he refused to do any kind of service that would aid the Finnish army. He also refused to put on the army uniform. After this he was put in detention for three days. The detention proved useless as he still would not wear a uniform or perform his military service. This resulted in Pekurinen being sent first to the soldiers’ hospital Tilkka, where he remained under strict guard for 4 days, until being sent to Lapinlahti mental hospital. In the mental hospital he was put in the closed and highly guarded area along with deeply disturbed and violent madmen. But his psychological evaluation proved him fully sane, once again.
He was then sent to the disciplinary outfit at Gustavsvärd, along with criminals that were partitioned off from the rest of the brigade. Here he still refused to wear a uniform or do work for the army. The commander ordered him to be dressed in the uniform by force. This was followed by a fierce struggle and it took three soldiers nearly two hours to wrangle the uniform on him. To no avail, since Pekurinen undressed again as soon as he got the chance. He also informed his officer that he would go on a hunger strike until he was allowed to wear his civilian clothes. As a result he was convicted to ten days in detention.
This was December, but despite the cold Pekurinen wore nothing but his army boots and trousers in the detention cell. The news of his hunger strike leaked to the public after four days, which sparked both national and international debate, followed by several international petitions in favour of Arndt Pekurinen. At Christmas Eve, the seventh day of his hunger strike, Pekurinen was finally allowed to dress as a civilian and he ended his strike. The detention, however, continued until the end of the year.
On the 30th of December 1929 he was offered to do his service at Suomenlinna, an island outside Helsinki, with a company that aided the army fire brigade. He would be allowed to wear his civilian clothes, although serving with a military company. This offer Pekurinen seriously considered, but asked for a few days to think about it, which he was granted. But due to either misinfomation or simple ill will, he awoke the next morning to a command telling him to dress in a uniform. He was then ordered to work at the docks unloading coal from a military ship, an order that he also refused to carry out. For the army this was the final straw, and on December 31 Arndt Pekurinen was court marshalled and convicted to three months in prison.
During his time in Prison Pekurinen was a matter of debate all over Europe, and many dignitaries wrote Finnish officials pleading for the release of him. One of those was famed scientist Albert Einstein, who wrote a letter to Defence Minister Juho Niukonen. In his answer to Einstein Niukanen falsely wrote that Pekurinen had been offered to do civilian work and refused. After Pekurinen learned of this he wrote a personal letter to Albert Einstein, explaining his situation, whereafter Einstein sent a short letter to Niukanen calling the punishment of Pekurinen “disgraceful”. The international debate culminated in a petition to Niukonen signed by 60 members of the British Parlament, and other notables such as Albert Einstein, Henri Barbusse and H. G. Wells.
Pekurinen appealed to higher military courts, with the only result of a prolonged sentenced, although in the spring of 1930 he was moved to a labour detention in Ilmajoki, where he could shovel turf in free air, which suited him fine. This he did until he had served his sentence and was released in September 1930. Unfortunately, Ilmajoki was a stronghold for the extreme right nationalist Lapua Movement, that held objectors in no high regard. On his way from prison to the train station he was ambushed and severely beaten and humiliated by members of the movement.
But this was not the end of it. The day after his arrival in Helsinki, he was once again ordered to work at the army fire brigade at Suomenlinna, since his time in prison was not counted as military service. Again he refused. This time he was sentenced to six months in prison. And now he wasn’t allowed to shuffle dirt outside, but was put in a high security prison, since it was his second conviction for the same crime. Another reason was the fear of him getting mangled by the Lapua Movement again. After his release he was once again ordered to engage service at Suomenlinna, and once again he refused. The verdict: another three months in prison. He tried to overturn the verdict with the same result as before, his sentence was prolonged to four months.
While he awaited his third prison term he still tried to convince the court with a fiery defense speach, in which he spoke of the futility of war. He spoke of the new weapons of mass destruction meant to eradicate whole civilian societies, such as toxic gases and the atom bomb. He explained his unwillingness to support this kind of warfare and even suggested to do a civilian service for a much longer period of time as long as he did not have to perform the military service. The speach had some impact: His sentence was prolonged to nine months.
But during his time in prison, the case of Pekurinen had reached the Finnish Parliament. The parliament now discussed the draft of Finland’s first civilian service law. In truth, a reform of the military service had been prepared for a long time, but the case of Pekurinen played a large role in its formation and the speed with which it was brought up. So on the 14 of April 1931 the new law was adopted. It stated that anyone with strong religious or other ethical convictions against performing their armed service were allowed to perform a civilian service either as a nurse or other unarmed personnel within the army, or within another institution for the benefit of the state. This law, popularly named Lex Pekurinen, was Finland’s first civilian service law.
Pekurinen was then released from jail and his time in imprisonment (totally 14 months) was now counted as time served as a civilian servant. For eight years he lived in peace, married a woman named Alexandra and had two children, Säde and Juhani. He was active in both the peace movement and the temperence movement, the latter for which he worked as a superintendant during summers. In the winter he worked as a car driver in Helsinki.
Unfortunately, the civilian service law only applied during peace time. And with the outbreak of the Winter war between Russia and Finland in 1939, Arndt Pekurinen was drafted to the army in December. He duly reported and said he would be happy to serve in any civilian task he was appointed to, such as civil defense. Once again he was court marshalled and convicted to nine months in prison. He appealed again, but this time he was sentenced to a whole three years in prison.
In October 1941 he was allowed a parole. But since the Continuation War was in full steam, he was once again ordered to the army. On the way from prison to the brigade he managed to convince a young corpral to let him stop by his house. His daughter hardly recognized him because of the weight loss he had experienced in prison. The family had no money, the house had been broken in to and most of the property stolen or destroyed. Everyone his wife Alexandra could ask for help where either dead or bankrupt. In this desperate hour Arndt Pekurinen for once doubted his conviction and asked his wife not to make peace activists out of their children.
But Pekurinen nevertheless refused to bear arms at court. As the army did not want to turn Pekurinen into and ideological hero by prolonging his protest in jail, it decided to ship him off to war against his will. Arndt Pekurinen had not had a day of military training, but was still commanded to take up his post in the front line of the war. This was an act of wilful vengeance, it wanted to make clear that no longer would the army dance to the tune of this troublemaker.
His wife Alexandra had no news of his whereabouts until weeks later, when she recieved a short letter, which stated:
Many greetings. Do not grieve, for grief does no good in this world. I am alive, although I don’t know for how long. Try to find out where I am every now and then. In rememberance, A.
On November 5 1941 Pekurinen arrived at the front. As his guardians were ordered 25 year old Sergeant Kivelä and 23 year old Private Kinnunen. They, as well as the three other soldiers around were aware of Pekurinen’s history and immediately tried to do their best to protect him. They treated him well, offered him food and cigarrettes and especially Kinnunen did his best to try to lift his spirits. Later they described Pekurinen as calm and withdrawn. He would speak only if spoken to and did not react even to granades hitting near their tent. Their attempts to convince him to take up arms came only after they heard that he was ordered to be executed.
By Finnish marshal law all deserters caught were to be returned to their units. If they refused to engage in warfare, they had to be put in order by any means necessary. At the front Pekurinen still refused to wear a uniform or bear arms. Following an order issued by Captain Pentti Valkonen, he was ordered to be executed without trial. The order the shoot Pekurinen first went to his guards, Sergeant Kivelä and Private Kinnunen. They both refused. Only the third soldier, Corporal Asikainen, obeyed Valkonen’s direct order. And on the 5 November 1941 Arndt Pekurinen was shot dead by his own army in Suomussalmi.
After the war, an investigation of Pekurinen’s death was begun but never completed. He remained effectively forgotten for over fifty years, until the publication in 1998 of the book Courage: The life and execution of Arndt Pekurinen by Erno Paasilinna. The city of Helsinki named a park Arndt Pekurisen puisto (The park of Arndt Pekurinen) in his memory. It is conveniently situated next to the so-called Peace Station, the headquarters of Finland’s organization for conscientious objectors.