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Virpi Kivioja received her Master of Social Science degree in Contemporary History in July 2015 from the University of Turku, where she is currently a doctoral student in the Department of Philosophy, Political Science and Contemporary History. Her thesis focuses on the image of Finland in German textbooks of the Cold War era and the corresponding image of the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic in Finnish textbooks of the same period. Virpi Kivioja’s research interests include national identity construction and national stereotypes, image research, Finnish and German history, and the history of international relations.
In May 2016, I had the opportunity to spend four fruitful weeks at the Georg Eckert Institute on a fellowship programme collecting material for my doctoral thesis, which explores the image of Finland in West and East German textbooks, and the image of both German states in Finnish textbooks, during and in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War era. I am seeking to establish what facts, statements and ideas textbooks presented on the above-mentioned countries over the decades of the Cold War, and what overall image of these countries these facts and ideas helped create. During the Cold War, Finland aspired to balance its view between the two sides of the Iron Curtain and retain its status as a neutral country, while both the FRG and the GDR wished to see Finland at least lean in their own direction. Therefore my research also examines descriptions in textbooks of relations between Finland and the FRG and between Finland and the GDR: for example, did trade dominate depictions of relations between Finland and the FRG, and cultural exchange those between the GDR and Finland? My primary research material consists in geography and history textbooks from Finland, the FRG, and the GDR which were published between 1945 and 2000. My fundamental aim is to understand the nature of the elementary knowledge and impressions of Finland and Germany in the other country; these depictions continue to this day to influence the ways in which contemporary Finns and Germans perceive one another.
While scanning through West German geography textbooks, what caught my attention was the more or less changeless and, at the same time, somewhat random selection of photographs that were supposed to give the readers a realistic glimpse of Finland. The visual image of Finland during the Cold War appears to consist of scenes of endless forests and lakes — a national cliché that is more than a hundred years old. Finland’s image also seems old and old-fashioned in other ways. While the text in a chapter in the textbook Mensch und Raum. Geographie 7 (for Bavaria), published in 1992, describes how Finnish forestry relies these days on machines like “big forest harvesters” and even aircraft, and “most modern technology” including computers, there is a photograph from Central Finland which shows potatoes still being harvested by hand — even though in reality, fully mechanised potato harvesters had become common in Finland the 1970s. One wonders if German textbook authors were lacking an adequate assortment of up-to-date photographs or even interest in selecting the most accurate pictures for the books. On the other hand, it is probable that advances in agriculture had been overshadowed by news from the forest and paper industries in Finland’s information and advertising campaigns abroad. Exploration of Finnish textbooks is highly likely to uncover inconsistencies between texts and pictures as well as those between images and reality.
During my stay at the GEI, I made extensive use of the GEI library’s collection of German textbooks as well as administrative documents concerning textbooks. As I will be using a range of research methods from what is known as the digital humanities in my research project, I eagerly took the opportunity to scan and digitise the textbook material in the library right away. All in all, I was able to collect half of my German textbook material during my four-week stay. I also had several delightful chances to discuss my research ideas with various researchers and textbook experts from the GEI, and these discussions encouraged me finally to also include books from the GDR in my research; my original plan had involved only books from the FRG. Studying both West and East German images of Finland and vice versa gives my thesis a new and interesting angle — a ‘triangular’ international perspective.