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Immortal Meals 5#: Mannerheim and the Cigar July 12, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

Halcyon hours this birthday evening with the flash of kingfisher wings: excellent presents, visits from friends and, best of all, the food… Strict health diet suspended for one glorious twelve-hour period. Beach has just finished a litre and a half of coca cola: if God exists then he tastes like cane sugar.

In tribute to this wonderful, wonderful celebration – all down to the genius of Mrs B – Beachcombing thought that he would continue his Immortal Meals series and flicking through his card index he has fished out a birthday dinner from almost sixty years ago: 4 June 1942 to be precise.

The meal in question took place on a railway carriage in a siding in southern Finland. It had been organised to celebrate the seventy-fifth birthday of perhaps the most fascinating European leader of the twentieth century: Carl Gustav Mannerheim.

Mannerheim for those who don’t know him – Beachcombing swoons when he hears the name – was one of those rare individuals who manages to pack twenty lives into his four score years (sic) and ten. Dragoon, gambler, spy (whose contacts included the Dalai Lama), aristocrat, big game hunter (who killed tigers in Nepal), explorer, royalist, politician, general, field marshal (who humbled Stalin) and founding father, CGM began his adult life as a Russian officer and ended it as the saviour of an independent Finland.

Now if Mannerheim had enjoyed his meal alone or with a number of fellow officers or even with Ryti the Finnish president (pictured in the background above) then there would be nothing to record or at least nothing for the purposes of this blog. But at the last minute Mannerheim was given the news that a surprise guest had come to honour him. Adolf Hitler had flown in for in 1942 democratic Finland was fighting with Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union in its Continuation War. Hitler saw the birthday bash as a chance to lecture his northern ally and perhaps to win some concessions: German control over the northern front, not to mention Finnish help in properly laying siege to Leningrad.

This was a meeting, however, of potentates but not of minds.

Mannerheim, who came from the Swedish-Finnish aristocracy, and who spoke Finnish (badly) with a Swedish accent, was a throwback to a better and more decent world: one where officers danced with Tsarina at balls in St Petersburg and where corporals led men not mobs. But he was being met by AH, an ally of ghastly convenience, much as the Soviet Union was for the western democracies: the Second World War, after all, was fought by devils and those who fought with devils.

The news reels of Mannerheim’s meeting with Hitler shows his proper contempt for the little German, the stiff Scandinavian aristocrat doesn’t waste a second kow-towing to the world-destroyer, his salute is lazy, his demeanour cold. Hitler, on the other hand, is deferential and has the kind of smile that some stroke victims carry permanently as a mark of their ordeal: the relevant scenes come about half way through the video.

This dinner was notable for two things. First, after the dinner, the Finnish authorities managed to (secretly) record Hitler in conversation with Mannerheim (English transcript): this conversation is sometimes said to be the only one of Hitler speaking in private. Certainly it is another Hitler from the podium Führer with a curiously tired, hoarse voice. It sounds very much as if Hitler had not found a receptive audience in Finland. (Thanks to Umbriel for sending this recording in. It was new to Beachcombing.) There was, in any case, none of the normal rubbish about becoming an artist and wandering incognito through Tuscany or the brilliance of the British Empire or Hitler’s unhinged anti-semitism.

Second, there is a beautiful story about Mannerheim and a cigar. Hitler despised tobacco generally and if you really wanted to get on Adolf’s nerves there was nothing more likely to provoke him than to blow tobacco smoke in his general direction. Yet, this is, allegedly, what Mannerheim proceeded to do when the brandy came out after the meal.

Why? Perhaps in part for the sheer pleasure of doing it. But also to test Hitler’s limits. After all, Mannerheim needed to know just how strong a position Hitler was really in. If the smoke being blown in Hitler’s direction led to an outburst then Germany was strong. If Hitler continued his rictus smile then Germany was weak. Hitler, of course, said nothing and Mannerheim drew his own conclusions.

Is the cigar story true? It is often referred to as ‘apocryphal’: i.e. it represents a truth about the meeting but probably did not happen – drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com for other views. Beachcombing is particularly suspicious because there is a second story told of a German military aide who asked Mannerheim or Mannerheim’s assistant whether he could smoke a cigar in Mannerheim’s presence and the reply came: ‘I don’t know, no one has ever tried before’ (cultural lone wolf 165). Hitler and the cigar seems like a natural extension of this.

But Beachcombing doesn’t care, he is going to keep the plume of tobacco as his own birthday present, one of his wibt (wish I’d been there moments) the great Finn leaning across the table and exhaling and AH’s moustache twitching but that ghastly fixed smile, death for so many millions, remaining. Adolf, in Beachcombing’s fantasy, is thinking piano wire, but talking compromise.

Beach will finish with a link to that fabulous Finnish film, perhaps the only ‘Axis’ film about the Second War that is worth watching, Tuntematon Sotilas. The opening scene shows the exhausted Finns in full retreat in 1944 as the Red Army wreaks its terrible revenge. The burial scene is brought in with Sibelius and is ruined in the most curious fashion by the corpse’s eye twitching.

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13 July 2011: JEC writes in with some thoughts on the transcript linked above: ‘I’m uncertain how closely the recording and transcripts correspond. I can’t say the transcripts are incorrect because I don’t have the German. My study of the language was limited to two introductory semesters some 40 years ago, and although I was instructed by the formidable Mrs Ursula Hendon (who as a teenager had lived in her native Berlin throughout the war, and whose stories of survival during her attempt to reach the Elbe after the collapse of German resistance left her classroom of American youngsters awestruck at the horrors she encountered), I can recognize perhaps one in every 6-8 spoken words here, if that much. But professionally I’ve handled a good many tapes and transcripts, and have gained a certain feel for taped conversations and how they look and feel when reduced to words. At the risk of sounding ridiculous to those who are fluent German speakers/readers/listeners, it seems to me that the last person we hear on the tape 1) is not Hitler, and 2) is Mannerheim. The voices just sound different (but the last speaker’s remarks don’t appear in the transcripts). I hear some rich and very fruity ‘eu’s’ in the last speaker’s words, which bring to mind the land of lutefisk and reindeer jerky. So it’s my guess it is Mannerheim, responding to the endless Hitlerian pontification which precedes. Otherwise, there is a good deal more talk on the tapes than is reflected in transcripts. Also, here is another somewhat different transcript that seems a little longer, and a tad easier to read, at least for me. How could it be that the same one or two transcripts could be as wrong/incomplete as I allege? Well, I admit it’s pretty hard, except that the internet does have a way of perpetuating more errors, longer than any other method yet devised by man. So maybe no one with the ability has taken the time to compare the tape with the transcript(s). Or maybe I’m just completely full of it. I know which way the smart money is betting….‘ Ha! Thanks, as always, JEC!