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Historisk tidskrift 131:3 • 2011

Innehåll (Contents) 2011:3

Döden i militära minnen och myter i Östersjöområdet, efter det stora kriget fram till 1939

Fredrik Erikson, Piotr Wawrzeniuk & Johan Eellend

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Death in the military memory and mythology in the Baltic Sea area after the Great War

Death has always been an integral part of armies and navies, both as casualties and as a mythological source of honour and glory. The cult of the fallen has been worked into education and rituals with the purpose of creating a sense of belonging and resolution. The purpose of this article is to investigate how death was portrayed in military mythology in the European periphery. The Baltic Sea area saw many new states emerge from the disintegrating empires in the wake of the First World War.

A comparison is made between Estonia, Poland and Sweden. Both Estonia and Latvia are considered new states according to the typology proposed by Ernest Gellner. Estonia had neither coherent history nor historical continuity, although a language and Estonian culture existed. Poland on the other hand had a coherent national history, but the historical continuity had been dissolved through the nation’s partitions. Poland is therefore considered as a Mittelstand state. Sweden is considered an old state, with a continuous history and preserved territorial integrity. The comparison concentrates on the role of death in military mythology, and also on how the rituals surrounding the memory of the fallen, was scrutinized by military attachés. The visual and emotional effect of the rituals is also studied.

The article shows that the military rituals in Sweden differed somewhat from those of the other countries, being more historically oriented as Sweden had not been at war since 1814. The Swedish fallen were therefore anonymous forefathers, while military death in Poland and Estonia, was individualized. The rituals in Poland included the recitation of names followed by bugle calls and official ceremony. A further finding is that the military attachés analyzed the rituals, and through them judged the military capacity of the nation in question. The visual military rituals became pantheons for celebrating the nation, particularly in the new states in the Baltic. But the most striking fact about the comparison is the similarities. Because the military concept of honour is universal the tomb of the Unknown Soldier is used in the same way.

The findings of the article are also linked to previous research on the memory of the Great War in Western Europe, particularly France. Compared to the memory of the war in France, the horrendous losses became a burden, the memory in the Baltic States was intrinsically linked to independence. The fallen had paid the ultimate price, but through this had ensured national independence. Hence their sacrifices were seen as having a purpose. Especially in Poland, the rituals and ceremonies served to keep the Polish nation ready, mobilised and vigilant.


Military history – 20th Century, Baltic States, Sweden, Military relations – Revolution 1917–1921, Poland 1918, World War II, Commemoriation – 1920–1930 Military Cemeteries and Funerals