Finnish Civil War

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The Civil War in Finland was fought from January to May 1918, between the "Reds" (punaiset), i.e. Social Democrats together with Communists, and the "Whites" (valkoiset), i.e. forces commanded by the Conservative Senate that in the preceding autumn had succeeded a National Unity Senate, intending to maintain the status quo (i.e. retain independence and constitutional monarchy without parliamentarism).

Finns have many names for this conflict: vapaussota (War of Liberty), kansalaissota or sisällissota (Civil War), luokkasota (Class War), punakapina (Red Rebellion), torpparikapina (Crofters' Rebellion), veljessota (the war between brothers). Present-day historians point out that all of these different names have their merits, although their propagandist charges differ.

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 background of the Civil War can be traced to political polarization caused by the major conflict between Imperial Russia and the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland, which commenced in 1889 as an outcome of Russian Pan-Slavism, and was intensified in 1899 with the attempted Russification of Finland. As one consequence Finland's army was abolished.

Until then, Finland's Senate had successfully pursued a Conservative-Loyalist policy towards Russia, aiming at securing Finland's vital national interests through domestic autonomy. It was widely recognized, that "the people" must be diverted from radical outbursts, which could disturb the Imperial court in Saint Petersburg. As this policy collapsed, both the Left and the Right started to radicalize.

The Rightist radicalization was in response to attempts at Russian cultural and constitutional hegemony, and would ultimately lead to covert collaboration with Imperial Germany, which had emerged as a new Great Power in the Baltic region after its 1871 unification.

The Leftist radicalization was chiefly a reaction to the emergence and growth of a propertyless 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. It was a good time for trade, 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 General Strike (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. According to the Left wing point of view, this was chiefly due to secret resistance from the non-Socialists, and their collaboration with the revolutionary but "bourgeois" Provisional Government under Aleksandr Kerensky in Saint Petersburg.

The Senate's agreed view was that the personal 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, and most of the non-Socialists in the Parliament, 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 defence and foreign affairs. For the Russian Provisional Government this was, as expected, far too radical. The Parliament was dissolved, and new elections were announced.

Thus it turned out, that from the point of view of the poorest Finns, Oskari Tokoi's Senate's attempt was as much of a failure as was universal suffrage. Large numbers 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. It can be noted that general fear was widespread, but the relations between Reds and Whites were still reasonable in many places in Finland. White Guards were organized by leaders of the local societies, usually Conservative academics and industrialists, but the Reds were often collectively invited through their employers or their local labor union.

The October Revolution (1917)

The February Revolution, and even more so 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 increasingly 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.

The svoboda appeared for the Finns as merely the Russian military going out of control. They were frequently intoxicated, they often looted, they generally acted violently and they sometimes executed their own officers. In the virtual absence of police forces, and also of militarily trained Finnish troops, the svoboda prompted the revival and creation of numerous White Guards. These Guards were local units, set up by local initiative, sometimes with roots in the "Security Guards" established during the General Strike of 1905, but it was the svoboda of the Russian troops, which really prompted the establishment of most of them.

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 deteroriated 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. Ever since 1906, the parliamentary road had proved disappointing, and after the October Revolution the Russian revolutionary leadership pressed the Finnish Social Democrats to seize power. The Social Democratic party was accused of ineffectiveness both from within Finland and from Saint Petersburg.

On November 16, during the general strike, the newly formed Workers' Revolutionary Central Council voted to seize power by a narrow majority, but the supreme revolutionary organ, the executive committee, could not recruit qualified members, and the revolution had to be called off. However, the organization of Red Guards surged, although the enthusiasm soon waned when the general strike and the revolution came to nothing. The initiative was seized by the Revolutionary Central Council, which comprised the trade unions and the Social Democratic Party, and the party leadership had lost much of their credibility and authority — initially due to the party's failure to gain any political advantage from their majority in parliament.

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 legalise 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 programme 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 world warBéla Kun's revolt in Hungary, the Spartacists in Berlin, or the "Bavarian Soviet Republic" in southern Germany.


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, 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 final 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 judgement 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 (Jääkärit) that had been 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 launced 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.


Lives Lost
Reason Reds Whites Other Total
Killed in action 5 199 3 414 790 9 403
Executed, shot or murdered 7 370 1 424 926 9 720
Concentration Camp deaths 11 652 4 1 790 13 446
Died after release from camp 607 - 6 613
Missing 1 767 46 380 2 193
Other causes 443 291 531 1 265
Total 27 038 5 179 4 423 36 640

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 representatives of 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.

While the Whites celebrated the "War of Independence" against Russia and Bolshevism, the Left refused for many years to participate in commemorations of Finland's pre-Civil War independence. The Communist Party was outlawed in 1923 and 1930, while the Social Democrats remained in opposition for most of the inter-war period. Svinhufvud became president (1931-1937) on a platform of keeping the Social Democrats out of the Cabinet, no matter what.

Finland, the first Nordic (and European) country to adopt true universal suffrage, became the last to adopt parliamentarism.

The Civil War, and the pre-war polarization, did directly and indirectly lead to Finland developing a mentality more like 19th century Prussia, with the military forces and conservative ideologies having earned great prestige for their success, and less akin to her Scandinavian brethren where popular movements and liberal ideologies had won modern democracy.

The polarization would remain in Finland for a long time, and would put its clear mark on Finland's foreign policies. Consensus was established for the major goal, namely Finland's maximal independence, but Finland changed her foreign affiliations frequently: from Imperial Germany in 1918, to the victorious Entente, to Poland (1922), then more towards the League of Nations, then again more towards Germany (from 1931), then more towards Scandinavia (1934), demonstrably against Nazi Germany (1937), intense courting of Nazi Germany (in 1940), unwilling but necessary accommodation to the Soviet Union after 1944 balanced by intensified Scandinavian relations.

Another legacy of the Civil War was an anti-democratic and anti-parliamentarian current, which remained in public opinion, and particularly among academic youth, until the end of the Continuation War when such utterances became dangerous. An outcome was the Lapua Movement of the late 1920s, which was alarmed by the increased popularity and threatening influence of "Socialists" (reformist Social Democrats). However, after the Lapua Movement's failed coup d'état in 1932, the anti-parliamentarians lost much of their popularity and could no longer dominate: neither in any major political party, nor in the public debate.

Before the Civil War, the Scandinavian countries had been the first to recognize Finland's independence. After the Civil War relations cooled -- mutually. When Finland, in the mid-1930s, again oriented towards Scandinavia, the reception was less enthusiastic than the Finns had expected, and ultimately Finland had to fight the Winter War on her own. Bitter debate followed: Was this coolness typical for the Scandinavians, or was it an unfortunate consequence of the impression the Scandinavians had gained from Finland's Civil War and its aftermath?

See also

fi:Suomen sisällissota sv:Finska inbördeskriget


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