The political situation in Finland
1905 to 1920
The General Strike of 1905
Tensions during Russia’s failed war against Japan led, among other things, to a general strike in 1905, during which “Red” (Socialist) “Protection Guards of Workers” were organized, but also “White” (anti-Socialist) Protection Guards (Suojeluskunnat). The White Guards, and also the Red Guards, were typically disguised as fire-brigades, which suddenly became a matter of great national concern in Finland.
In an attempt to quell the general unrest in Finland, universal suffrage was introduced. This soon led to near 50% turnouts for the Social Democrats, but no improvements for their voters, as legislation was “shared” between the Parliament and the Russian Tsar (in his role as Grand Duke of Finland). The legacy of the 19th century was the widespread belief that Finland’s interests were best served by the status quo.
The February Revolution (1917)
Though the first violent clash between Red and White Guards had begun in July 1906 in Helsinki, renewed Russian oppression had a unifying effect on the Finns, and delayed more serious conflict until after the February Revolution in Russia 1917.
After the general elections of 1916, when the Social Democrats had gained an absolute majority in the Parliament of Finland, the Finland’s Senate was a broad coalition-cabinet led by Oskari Tokoi, Social Democrat and trade Union leader. His cabinet’s attempt to gain increased autonomy failed however.
The Senate’s agreed view was that the union with Russia ended when the Tsar was dethroned. They expected the Tsar’s authority to be transferred to Finland’s Parliament, which the Provisional Government of Russia could not accept.
However, the non-Socialists in the Senate were confident. They were less than enthusiastic about the Senate’s bill (the so-called “Power Act”) enacted by the Parliament in July 1917, (particularly with regard to its content on Parliamentarism, on which the Social Democrats had insisted), deeming it both too far-reaching and provocative for Saint Petersburg, but also too radical and dangerous for Finland. The bill restricted Russia’s influence on domestic Finnish matters, but didn’t touch the Russian government’s power on matters of defense and foreign affairs. For the Russian Provisional Government this was, as expected, far too radical. The Parliament was dissolved, and new elections were announced.
Large numbers of people starved, and unemployment was bad and getting worse. Democracy didn’t seem to offer a solution to these problems. Political violence increased during the following election campaign conducted by what their adversaries labeled “Rogue Reds” and “White Butchers” respectively. Subsequently the Left lost their absolute majority in the Parliament.
Finland’s autonomy had been restored by the Provisional Government of Russia, but in the process the police force in Finland was virtually abolished. In this situation some of the old “fire-brigades” were revived, simply as an answer to insecurity and lawlessness.
The October Revolution (1917)
The February Revolution and Lenin’s Bolshevist October Revolution ignited hopes also in the Grand Duchy. The polarization and mutual fear between the Left wing and the Right wing had increased dramatically. About 30 political assassinations were reported. After the general elections a purely non-Socialist cabinet was appointed, which after the Bolshevists had seized power in Russia felt squeezed between revolutionary Socialists at home and aggressive Bolshevists in Saint Petersburg, close to Finland’s border in the southeast. Numerous Russian troops stationed in Finland made a bad situation worse, as they too were excited by the revolutionary frenzy, which they called their “svoboda” – their freedom. Aggravating of all this was another general strike in Finland.
After the October Revolution the political position in Finland was reversed. Now it was the non-Socialists who are eager for maximal autonomy and even independence from Russia, and the Social Democrats who believed the Bolshevists to be possible allies against the “capitalist oppressors”. The Senate, led by the Finnish national hero Pehr Evind Svinhufvud, proposed a Declaration of Independence, which the Parliament adopted on December 6th, 1917.
The Social Democrats and the revolution
The strained political situation deteriorated step by step during 1917, with agricultural strikes, skirmishes over food and inflation, local strikes intended to support or influence local government, and in November a general strike. The leadership of the Social Democratic Party could not control this increasingly violent mass movement, and popular support swung between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary action.
The Social Democratic party was accused of ineffectiveness both from within Finland and from Saint Petersburg.
White Guards had been organized throughout the year of 1917, and in December numbered nearly 40,000. In response, the organization of Red Guards, was stepped up in November, and numbered at the end of the year nearly 30,000. After Finland’s declaration of independence, the parliament empowered the Senate on January 12, 1918, to create a “strong police authority”. Soon it became obvious that it was intended to legalize the White Guards in this way, excluding the Red Guards and others that sympathized with the Social Democrats, who now constituted the opposition in parliament, with almost 50% of the votes and seats.
On January 25, the Senate decreed the White Guards to be troops of Finland’s government, and the point of no return was passed. Many leading Social Democrats joined in when the war broke out independently in three different towns, but formally the rebellion was not supported by the executive organs of the party.
Revolutionary Finland’s program and draft constitution, written by Otto Ville Kuusinen, was however heavily influenced by the Social Democrats; by the generally liberal ideas of the United States Declaration of Independence, and by the Swiss cantonal system. The main goal was social reform, and the declared means to achieve this was parliamentary democracy based on the principle of sovereignty of the people and of national self-determination. Bolshevist thoughts such as proletarian dictatorship and massive socialization were no parts of their program. The rebellion in Finland thus differed from the October Revolution and from the various uprisings on the European Continent that followed the great war(1914-1919)
The Reds were alarmed by the government’s decision to employ the White Guards as the nucleus of a national army and to use “the Butchers”—as the Left described them—to disarm the 40,000 Russian troops that remained in Finland, since the Left believed that Red Finns would also be targeted.
The first serious battles were on the night of January 19, 1918 followed by the Senate’s declaration on January 25 transforming the White Guards into the Army of Finland, and on January 26 the order of rebellion was issued. The Soviet Union had already declared its intention to support the Revolution. The Reds seized control of the capital, Helsinki, in the early hours of January 28, and members of the Senate of Finland went underground.
It is often pointed out that leaders of the White and the Red sides acted independently of each other in these days, and that, in a way, it was coincidental that the White Army was formally established on the very same day that the Red rebellion commenced. It is also obvious that the leaders acted without any formal democratic authorization, but on the other hand, their judgment was generally respected within their respective factions and met with no articulated opposition from within them. In other words, the process leading to the Civil War was more of a general distrust between Reds and Whites, and less dependent on the particular events at the end of January 1918.
The last stages of World War I were still being fought in central Europe at the time, and both Bolshevist Russia and Imperial Germany had their own interests in Finland.
Many Whites feared that the Russian troops would take the side of the Reds. The Russian Bolshevik government now also expressed support for the Reds, despite their official recognition of Finland’s independence only three weeks before, because they wanted the Communist World Revolution to continue in Finland.
The White side was dominated by middle class “activists” — members of Finland’s pro-German independence movement. As far as they were concerned, over close contact with communist Russia was tantamount to forfeiture of the recently won independence. They were also influenced by German interests, because Germany had secretly given assistance, including the volunteer “Jäger” troops secretly trained in Germany during the Great War.
The Whites regrouped in the north and centre of the country, under the political leadership of the initially absent president of the Senate Pehr Evind Svinhufvud and the military command of Mannerheim.
The Reds’ situation in the south worsened after the arrival of White Jäger troops on February 25, and the subsequent withdrawal of Russian forces according to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 3, 1918).
White forces launched a counterattack in “The Tampere Operation” on March 15, lasting until April 6 when they captured Tampere seizing 10,000 Red prisoners. This was a determining factor indicating that the Civil War might be won by the Whites, as it meant a strategically important bridge-head was taken.
On April 3, German troops landed at Hanko in support of the Whites, advanced rapidly eastward and took Helsinki on April 13. After another Red defeat at Viipuri on April 28-29, the last Red strongholds fell by May 7.
The Civil War and the Continuation War have been the two most controversial and emotionally loaded events in the history of modern Finland. They are often seen as the hinges or pivots of Finland’s fate; and both have had a great influence also on the foreign relations of Finland.
The Leftist radicalization was chiefly a reaction to the emergence and growth of a property less peasantry, without land of their own to cultivate, which the Finns had no traditional experience of, being used to being a people of poor but independent farmers, with no other lords than the king and his civil servants. In addition the Industrial Revolution had started to affect southern Finland, and the rift between rich and poor widened.
Public opinion was, naturally, dominated by the educated classes, and had during the 19th century become used to seeing Finland’s problems in terms of Culture, Language, Education and the Constitution. The threat from the common enemy, Russia, veiled the deepening rift between the classes, but when the Russian oppression was mitigated, a frightening conflict surfaced.
The civil war had ended, but it left Finnish society divided into two groups. A “Red terror” campaign against the right wing was followed by a “White terror” against supporters of the revolutionary movement. Disease, hunger, and maltreatment killed thousands detained in the concentration camps. The conflict and its immediate aftermath are considered to have killed more than 30,000 out of a population of three million.
In addition, an unknown number of Red children were orphaned or sent into foster care, as their parents were either interned (there were as many as 75,000 Red internees) or deemed unfit to raise patriotic children for an independent Finland.
Many Red children suffered from the social stigma of being the defeated treacherous proletariat. Such feelings were especially strong in the children that were separated from their parents.
A large number of Finnish Reds fled to Russia at the end of the Civil War, and in the years shortly afterwards. Most of them were lost in Stalin’s Great Purges. Their number is unknown.
From 1914 to 1922 apocalyptic riders trampled everything underfoot in Russia, killing over 12 million people.
Finland alone implemented a relatively successful democracy. Emerging from the former Grand Duchy of Finland was Carl Gustav Mannerheim, an able general who served as Finland's regent in 1918 to 1919.
The Finns eventually legislated language guarantees for the Swedish minority as well as land reforms that doubled the percentage of families owning farms.
When the Treaty of Versailles went into effect, officially ending the Great War (First World War) forty eight nations signed the League Covenant by December 1920.
The League of Nations
A group of opponents to the First World War founded a society called "The League of Nations" in London in 1915. Simultaneously, a League to Enforce the Peace surfaced in the United States. In 1917, Pope Benedict XV called for an international system of arbitration and punishment of violators. President Woodrow Wilson joined the antiwar chorus in January 1918 with his seminal Fourteen Point address to Congress. He now became the “spiritus rector” of the League cause.
America was not able to join the League as it was not approved by Congress.
During the League's first year in existence (1920), Finland took the Aaland islands from Sweden, League member Poland assaulted the Soviet Union and seized Vilnius from Lithuania, and league member Greece went on land-grabbing expedition in Asia Minor, Britain held it's hand over Greece to weaken Turkey's position in the region, the Red Army marched into Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Armenia and Georgia.
Still, protected by the League of Nations, the islands of Aaland became a safe haven, a place where no military equipment was allowed, no navy ships of any nation could approach. This was probably one of the safest places in Europe at the time.