There’s an article published on the English pages of Finland’s Helsingin Sanomat newspaper (also known as Hesari) about Finnish shame. An interesting point was made about the way that Finns sometimes use drinking as an excuse for bad behaviour:
“In Finland it is possible to alter the boundaries of shame with alcohol. Someone who behaves badly while intoxicated can later write everything off by attributing it to being drunk.”
I was wondering whether Reetta Meriläinen, Editor in Chief of Helsingin Sanomat, will fall back on this excuse when she comes to explain how ‘Hesari’ took the decision to publish not just one, but two cartoons as part of the Fingerpori strip trying to make a joke about the Nazi Holocaust. I am not going to reproduce the cartoons here — I feel that however much exposure they’ve already had is enough. But for my readers outside Finland, I will try to summarise them. I apologise for the offence that this will cause anybody who happens to hold the view that there’s nothing funny about genocide.
The first cartoon (published on 4th May 2010) which had the caption “Berlin 1945” shows a German soldier looking at a packet of soap which has the label which I can best translate as “Free-range Jew”. The joke which might have evaded some readers is based on disputed reports that the corpses of the men, women and children who were gassed in extermination camps were used for making soap.
Of course whether the Nazis really did manufacture soap from the bodies of Jews, Roma and homosexuals is kind of beside the point here. Apparently the cartoon was some kind of comment on animal cruelty. But after a number of complaints to the newspaper, the cartoonist, Perti Jarla decided to delete the cartoon saying,
It was not my intention to ridicule the victims of the Nazis or of Hitler’s grotesque Germany itself, in hindsight I consider my strip unsuccessful.
One might be tempted to suggest that as an exercise in human-cruelty (i.e. cruelty to humans) the cartoon was a absolute success. It would certainly cause immense pain to Holocaust survivors and their partners and children.
But maybe, Helsingin Sanomat feels it is not their responsibility to place the feelings of 1,000 Finnish Jews and 10,000 Finnish Roma above more important things like…er…like… (someone help me out here, pliis!). However, since no one is claiming that the cartoon was published in order to make a point against Jewish or Roma or gay people, one might reasonably ask why they should be the brunt of the joke at all.
Jarla’s apology turned out to be rather like the sarcastic “sorry” said by a teenager who is forced to apologise to his little brother who he has just hit in the face. The second punch came last Saturday (22.5.10) with a three-panel strip which this time has remained on Helsingin Sanomat’s site. Personally, I find it almost as unfunny as the last but if you wish, you can make up your own mind by clicking here.
(My advice is don’t look if, understandably you are easily upset by this sort of thing.)
Here’s the English translation:
First Panel: We’ll be receiving Israeli guests soon…you can present your project.
Second Panel: I can give them a taste of this Bavarian beer concentrate.
Third Panel: (in English) — Now you get a taste of German concentration lager.
The use of lager is a pun, since lager is the German word for “camp”. Hence the Final panel shows apparently Jewish rather than Arab Israeli’s being offered a taste of ‘concentration camp’. Presumably Helsingin Sanomat decided that it was more polite to use Israeli rather than Jewish – rather like saying “excuse me” before kicking your victim in the teeth.
So why do I think that Helsingin Sanomat should have decided not to publish these cartoons? After all, Finland has a free press and artistic expression should know no bounds.
Well, for what it’s worth I don’t feel angry at Pertti Jarla, the creator of Fingerpori. After all artistic responsibility is something of a contradiction in terms. But editorial responsibility is not. The job of a newspaper editor is to ensure that her publication does not slander people, does not incite hatred and does not cause gratuitous suffering — either to those who have been starved and tortured or to those who mourn those who have died.
If anyone says that the cartoons are in bad taste or even down-right offensive I would agree with them but say that this is not the point. Sometimes writers and artists cause offence and sometimes for a good reason. Those who offended Hitler and Stalin were right to to do so. But I can see no justification for anyone ridiculing and humiliating the victims of massacre and genocide. It seems to me that if you do this, you side with the perpetrators.
Maybe I’m being a bit dense here, but looking at the cartoons, my first reaction was what a great day for Neo-Nazis everywhere. Goebbels well understood the power of cartoons. Berlin in the 1930’s was plastered with posters carrying grotesque caricatures of Jewish people as a way to encourage contempt and so as to justify the Nazi Party’s attacks on Jews. And surprise, surprise the Helsingin Sanomat cartoons have already popped-up on right-wing, anti-immigration blogs.
And this is the main point. From where I write, on a small island off the North-West coast of Europe, we have just seen off an electoral bid by the far-right British National Party. They hoped to take control of the council in Barking and Dagenham but the good people of East London sent them packing, and they lost all twelve of the council seats they held.
My friends in England can’t make any sense of my telling them that a “respectable” Finnish newspaper — enjoying a near-monopoly position as Finland’s only national Finnish-language broadsheet newspaper — has printed cartoons ridiculing holocaust victims. To explain Helsingin Sanomat’s position and its claim to be objective, I describe it as being thought of as like the Times, Telegraph and the BBC rolled into one. The sad fact is that what is acceptable in Helsingin Sanomat is acceptable in Finland. And maybe this explains the bizarre fact that there has been so little public outcry about this from decent Finnish people.
Helsingin Sanomat is not (despite what many Finnish people might say) a fascist newspaper. Nor do I think that Finland is a racist country. But there is one stereotype about the Finns which does contain a grain of truth. Finnish people don’t say much.
There’s a joke about two Finnish men in a bar. After two hours of silence one of them says, “Kippis!” (cheers!)
His friend looks him in the eye and says, “Hey. Did we come here to talk or to drink?”
Maybe now’s the time for Finns to talk a bit louder. I think it would be appropriate for people who oppose the Helsingin Sanomat line to speak up. After all being able to speak up is a real privilege, and one that we might not have tomorrow.
The letters to the editor of Helsingin Sanomat should be addressed to: email@example.com
Or, the Editor-in-Chief: firstname.lastname@example.org