Reviews Imagining the Åland Islands. A sea of peace

Deborah Paci, L’archipelago della pace: Le isole Åland e il Baltico (XIX-XXI secolo) [The Archipelago of Peace: The Åland Islands and the Baltic Sea (19th-21st centuries)], Milan: Unicopli, 2016; 236 pages.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2017: 1-2, pp 117-119
Published on on June 19, 2017

No Comments on Imagining the Åland Islands. Share
  • Facebook
  • Pusha
  • TwitThis
  • Google
  • LinkedIn
  • Digg
  • Maila artikeln!
  • Skriv ut artikeln!

The Åland Islands have often inspired visions of peace. In a speech given in Åland’s capital Mariehamn in 1967, the Finnish president Urho Kekkonen praised the demilitarized status of the archipelago; he considered that it should have been taken as a model for the creation of more such disarmament zones in Europe. Troubled watershed with Soviet Union during the Cold War, the Baltic Sea was at the same time a space for both fears of war and expectations of a durable peace. Åland played a pivotal role in imagining the Baltic: in other words, it was the model of reference for the many — failed — late Cold War projects which proposed to establish a Nordic nuclear-weapon-free zone.
Nevertheless, Åland retained its role as a model even after the end of the world-scale confrontation, since its example is “more a way of thinking than a model”: with these words, former Finnish prime minister Harry Holkeri described the case of Åland Islands at the 55th session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, pointing to it as an example of peaceful governance. This peaceful governance1 is constituted by a number of international agreements which provide the Islands with a demilitarized, autonomous and neutral status,
and with rules on respecting the cultural
and linguistic rights of its population. This is how Deborah Paci’s most recent monograph assesses the Åland Islands: The Archipelago of Peace.

Deborah Paci is a postdoctoral researcher at Ca’ Foscari University, Venice. The Archipelago of Peace is her contribution to the international project “Spaces of Expectations: Mental Mapping and Historical Imagination in the Baltic Sea and Mediterranean Region”, directed by Norbert Götz (Södertörns University) and Rolf Petri (Ca’ Foscari University Venice) and financed by The Foundation for Baltic and East European Studies (Östersjöstiftelsen). The book is published in Italy by Unicopli Publishing in collaboration with the C. M. Lerici Foundation in the series Library of Contemporary History (directed by Bruna Bianchi, Bruno Bongiovanni, and Giovanna Procacci). It presents an overview of the 19th to 21st-century history of Åland, narrating the destiny of the archipelago as it passed from Sweden to Russia and from Russia to Finland. The study focuses mainly on the timespan from the 19th century to the Paris treaty of 1947, but also provides an outline of Åland’s history between the 16th and 21st centuries.
Paci’s contribution elucidates how the islands’ image has been historically constructed, shaped and modified in successive stages by the international context that has conditioned both Åland’s political status and its self-perception. The monograph is in fact focused on the four main concepts by which the archipelago’s identity has been built during the last few centuries: Åland as a maritime, autonomous, demilitarized and neutral archipelago (chapter 1).

Åland’s insular geography has been the determinant in originating its maritime commerce and the consequent development of successful local naval entrepreneurship. Local cultural institutions like the Navigation Museum and the Åland Nautical Club have contributed to supporting the maritime character of Ålandish identity with several exhibitions, publications and public events since the mid-19th century. Paci is an expert on questions of insularity and maritime identities, having previously published a monograph demonstrating that two Mediterranean islands, Corsica and Malta, remained indifferent to the annexation propaganda of fascist Italy because of their strong insular cultures.2 In a similar way to the insular discourses of Malta and Corsica, Åland’s insular identity discourse has also been constructed in defense of the population’s rights as a consequence of foreign domination and of the international status of the archipelago.
For centuries, the Åland people, culturally and linguistically Swedish, represented themselves as victims of a cruel destiny which had given the archipelago to foreign powers. In 1921, once Åland had obtained autonomy after a League of Nations resolution, the self-representation changed: the former Swedish minority started to imagine itself as a specific group distinct from the Swedes, the Finns, and the other Swedish-speaking communities present in Finland. Åland’s self-representation in the 20th century includes trust in its ability to obtain rights by democratic and pacific means.
In the last decade of the Cold War, local politicians and intellectuals started to propose the idea that the defense of autonomy implied the conservation of the demilitarised and neutral status of Åland. “The spirit of Åland” was an expression coined in the eighties to indicate that the local community’s struggle towards regional peace with respect for minority rights was part of the local insular identity. With the coining of the expression “the island of peace” by the local social democrats in the mid-eighties, the local identity was successfully cleansed of any nuance of nationalism and irredentism, which remain as a historical memory of the post-First-World-War period (chapter 4) and of the years preceding the Second World War, a time in which the neutral status of the islands and the rights of their inhabitants were temporarily overturned by the compulsory military conscription instituted in Finland in 1938 and by the installation of an antiaircraft battery (in June 1940) that violated the demilitarized status of the archipelago.
Paci’s monograph offers a useful guide to Åland’s political history and identity, and is provided with a formidable Scandinavian and international bibliography comprising publications in English, French, and Italian. In her study visits to Åland, Paci has in fact retrieved an impressive number of volumes published from the 19th century up to the present day and conserved in the library of Mariehamn and in the library and archives of the parliament. Paci was assisted by the most recent research on Åland, published by the Åland Peace Research Centre, and by the guidance of one of the most active makers of the local “peaceful” identity, Barbro Sundback.

While the monograph is certainly worth translating into English for its richness and clarity — aspects which also make the book accessible to the general public — a specific reason why Scandinavian and Baltic scholars should make use of this publication is the impressive number of archival sources that Paci has used to corroborate her narrative. Those sources, conserved at the Diplomatic Historical Archive (Archivio Storico Diplomatico) in Rome, report the vision of Åland by the diplomats of liberal and fascist Italy in Stockholm and Helsinki, and contribute to the presentation of the complex picture that the archipelago had in the most troubled times of contemporary history. Among the narrators of Åland’s image that Paci refers to is, for example, Francesco Tommasini, the Italian envoy in Stockholm who in 1918 informed the foreign minister about the Åland population’s separatist aspirations, and referred to the consequent request made by the Swedish government that Italy support the separatist cause at the League of Nations in the name of the principle of self-determination. Tommasini instead suggested that Rome request the Swedish government to cease its support for the separatist cause, in order not to put Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, the regent of Finland, in a difficult position. According to Tommasini, Sweden hoped for the fall of Mannerheim and the subsequent takeover of a “radical-socialist government” that would have made annexation by Sweden possible; but the envoy suggested that Rome should state loud and clear that no plan for Åland and for the Baltic Sea was possible without agreement with the Entente (87—90).
Another narrator of the Åland Islands’ vicissitudes in the troubled second half of the thirties was Armando Ottaviano Koch, the Italian envoy in Helsinki. Åland once more became the focus of international attention after 1936 because of the feared expansionism of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Koch reported the tension that emerged between Finland and the Soviet Union when in 1936, the Finnish government considered a new air route between Western Europe and Leningrad with a stopover in Helsinki; the Soviet Union, not informed of the news, read this as a possible attempt to build a military airport on Åland. Once Sweden and Finland had signed the 1939 Protocol of Stockholm on the defense of Åland in case of military attack, the Western regional powers agreed; Koch considered that the concept of Nordic defense was a qualitative jump from the “ocalized neutrality” (p. 153) prescribed by the League of Nations. Once the maps of the future war started to be drawn in the spring of 1939, the neutrality of the Baltic was considered positive by Germany and Italy, but the Soviet Union objected because of the presence of some fortifications.
After the war, the autonomy of Åland in democratic Finland allowed the start of a process of nation-building and identity-making. In this regard, one of the figures recalled in The Archipelago of Peace is the Estonian archaeologist Matts Dreijer, who considered the local laws and international law to be the unique supports of Åland’s vital interests in the face of larger nations. Considering Åland as a small nation, he invested much energy in providing the islands with an autonomous law (which he wrote and which was approved by the Finnish parliament in 1951) and on the building of Åland as a cultural hembygd (Heimat) which he embedded in children’s fairy-tales. The Cold War era was reflected to some extent in Dreijer’s work of nation-building: he was convinced that the battle against the East was one of the historical missions of the people of Åland. As in every nation-building process worthy of respect, the archipelago was redefined as the easternmost part of the Vikings’ territories and Saltvik (in Åland) was found to be the center of the Vikings’ activities (in opposition to the traditional account which considers the Vikings’ capital to be the island of Björkö in Lake Mälaren). Local institutions and associations invested financially in Dreijer’s project. From the mid-eighties to the present day, in no less troublesome times, local institutions expend considerable effort in presenting Åland as an archipelago of peace — since peace is considered to be the only solution that can guarantee rights to its population.

To conclude, Paci’s work does not indulge in Åland’s nation or identity-building as Dreijer did: her monograph is a valuable historical analysis that faithfully presents the many voices which, directly or indirectly, helped to indicate autonomy, demilitarization, and neutrality as the only significant instruments to defend Åland’s insularity.≈


1 Harri Holkeri, “Autonomy – An Alternative to Secession? A Seminar on the Åland Islands as an Example for Peaceful Governance”, 55th session of the United Nations General Assembly, 15 March 2001,
2 Deborah Paci, Corsica Fatal, Malta baluardo di romanità: L’irredentismo fascista nel mare nostrum (1922—1942) (Florence and Milan: Le Monnier-Mondadori Education, 2015).

  • by Francesco Zavatti

    PhD, is presently a researcher at the Centre for Baltic and East European Studies and at the Institute of Contemporary History, Södertörn University, Sweden. He is a historian of contemporary European history, specialized in the history of East-Central Europe and of Romania in particular, and interested in transnational history and memory studies. His most recent research article on the memory politics of the Romanian far-right was published in Memory Studies in early 2021.

  • all contributors

Deborah Paci, L’archipelago della pace: Le isole Åland e il Baltico (XIX-XXI secolo) [The Archipelago of Peace: The Åland Islands and the Baltic Sea (19th-21st centuries)], Milan: Unicopli, 2016; 236 pages.