Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy by Jonathan Clements (2009. Haus. ISBN 978-907822-57-5)

As a non-Finn interested in Finns, I’m always looking to learn more about the history and culture of this fascinating people. When I was working on my second historical novel involving the Finns, Sukulaiset: The Kindred, Carl Gustav Mannerheim loomed large. That book is set during the most turbulent of times for Finland: the Winter War, the Continuation War, and the Lapland War (or, as those of us outside Finland know the period, WW II). Though Mannerheim was already a prominent figure in Finnish history by the time the U.S.S.R. attacked Finland in 1939, having led the White (conservative) forces to victory in the Finnish War of Independence against the Reds (communists) in 1918, and having served a lengthy career prior to that as a soldier and spy for the Russian Czar (Russia having political control of Finland until 1917, when the Finns threw off the mantle of occupation), it was his brilliant strategy in defending the tiny Finnish lion against the Soviet bear in 1939 that caught the world’s attention. I knew much of Mannerheim’s involvement in the later period from my research. What I didn’t know was the backstory, the details of his service in the Russian military, his herculean trip to China as a Russian agent, and his close personal ties to the doomed Nicholas II.

If you read the reviews of this book on Amazon or Goodreads, you’ll find a smattering of complaints that Clements spends too much time re-telling the early years, too many pages spent describing Mannerheim’s time as a Russian cavalry officer and Russian spy in the Orient. It’s true that the author devotes cursory time exploring the one-day president and field marshal’s exploits during the Finnish War of Independence and WW II. And not much more than that detailing the precarious position Mannerheim found his nation in during WW II as a “co-belligerent” of Nazi Germany. But these aren’t serious defects in my view. Rather, I read this book as it was written: as a very simple, straightforward introduction to a complex and brilliant man’s career in public service. Clement’s scholarship isn’t an exhaustive exploration of Mannerheim or his life and times. It is a Cliff Notes version of the man’s story and it’s one that serves as a valuable first read about the man voted the most honored and famous Finn in his nation’s young history.

The writing is crisp (there are a few typos, which, since when I find them in my books, I cringe, made me smile!) and the plotting is concise. I found the book, while not memorable, a steady, honest read.

4 stars out of 5. An invaluable first step in understanding Carl Gustav Mannerheim.



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