Crisis researcher helps people understand themselves

Antero Holmila, 38, is the newest addition to the University of Jyväskylä’s CRISES profiling area. As the name suggests, the profiling area studies crises, but also historical continuity and societal change.

“My research topics have mainly been about the phenomena and consequences of war,” Holmila explains. “In addition, I am interested in sports history, especially the Olympic movement. I am also a board member of the Finnish Society for Sport History.”

At the beginning of his research career, Holmila studied Holocaust-related issues. In his doctoral thesis, he examined how the Holocaust was handled in the Finnish, Swedish and British press right after the Second World War. His research has also covered the Third Reich, extremist movements and other related phenomena. In recent years, Holmila has mainly studied the crisis of establishing peace after war, which is his central approach to the CRISES profiling area.

“During wartime, society functions under the current conditions and the elements of crisis remain suppressed,” Holmila says. “But once the war ends things start to burst out and the different elements of a peacetime crisis begin to surface. Such issues include moral panic concerning the sexual behaviour of young women, shifting a wartime economy back to normal and the treatment of disabled veterans, orphans and widows. All these things arise in quick succession.”

Another of Holmila’s premises for his research is the change of a crisis, phenomenally and conceptually, since the end of the 19th century. According to Holmila, a crisis has traditionally referred to war, politics and economics. From the 1960s, environmental and climate-related topics started being added to the concept of a crisis. Today, talk of crises has become mundane, as the term crisis is often applied to less critical issues than it used to be.

“Now it is an ‘Olympic crisis’ if we don’t win a gold medal,” Holmila says.

Extreme conditions bring out human nature

Holmila says he has been interested in military history since childhood, on which his social environment has undoubtedly had an effect.

Antero Holmila.jpg

“Throughout my childhood, war was always present in some way at my grandparents’ place,” Holmila explains. “My grandfather took part in the war. Unlike in many other Finnish families, we discussed things about the war with our family. We also have a history teacher in our family, so military history and societal issues were obviously topics of discussion.”

Holmila has read many war novels, but with age, his perspectives and interests regarding war-related topics have changed slightly. He has seen several things from a new perspective thanks to his own research.

“I have an optimistic nature,” Holmila says, “but investigating people’s actions and motives really broadens one’s perspective. We like to create good stories to make sense of things, but the stories simplify why people act the way they do.”

In extreme conditions, the close environment and social pressure often surpass great ideals and ideologies as motives for people’s actions. Holmila admits he would think very carefully before saying what he would or would not do in certain situations:

“If you are thrown to Germany’s eastern front in 1941, it is likely that you commit the same cruelties as the others. The people who have acted differently are especially interesting. However, the majority of people act in a certain way in a given situation.”

When it comes to genocide, people often say that it will never happen again. They say that there must be democracy and equality to negate such atrocities.

Holmila sees it differently:

“These comments add up to nothing, unless we accept the fact that it is easy to turn someone into a murderer.”

Understanding and accepting are two different things

By researching history, Holmila would like to help people understand themselves in their time and living environment. He wants to offer tools and understanding of the idea that people are susceptible to all kinds of influences. There are many aspects to every one of us and the same applies to every historical actor. Holmila states that we should not evaluate or judge anyone too hastily:

“It is also important to distinguish accepting and understanding from each other. The ability to understand or dismantle societal phenomena and psychological mechanisms does not mean that one accepts them. If life has a meaning, it is to avoid cognitive dissonance. We attempt to keep our personality in balance by any means necessary. This can be seen in historical and modern actors alike.”

Antero Holmila

  • Began a five year tenure track 1 January 2018
  • Born in 1979
  • Bachelor’s degree from the University of Kent and master’s degree from the University of Exeter. Doctorate at the age of 28 from Royal Holloway, University of London.
  • His hobbies are downhill skiing and speed skiing, in which his goal is to reach 200km/h. Previous hobbies include climbing and alpine skiing, in which he used to compete at junior level. He is also interested in photography.
  • Guiding principle: Usually no one will come and ask you somewhere. You must dare to try, go and do it yourself.