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The Darkest Moments in Finnish History


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By Gunnar Damström

Many new nations go through painful births and the Republic of Finland was no exception. Less than two months after the declaration of independence on December 6, 1917 civil war broke out. The casualties of the conflict were staggering: 34,277 dead. The Finnish National Archive has recently published a web site identifying the war dead by name, birth date, death date, where died, and political affiliation.1)


Social injustice and misery among crofters and landless farm workers provided a fertile ground for conflict. My late friend and neighbor Gunnar Sandberg was born to a family of Ingå crofters. The public school system of that time provided an opportunity for gifted children to get an education corresponding to their talent. Gunnar eventually became a prominent Helsinki lawyer. He described to me the inhumane oppression crofters and landless farm labor suffered under the landowners. I have every reason to believe Gunnar Sandberg. He was a staunch conservative.

The population growth in Finland was rapid in the 1800s and early 1900s3):

  • 1800: 832,700
  • 1850: 1,636,900
  • 1900: 2,655,900
  • 1920: 3,147,600

The part of the population occupied in farming trades dropped from 75% in 1890 to 67% in 1920. In 1900 only 35% of the people occupied with farming were landowners, 17% were crofters, and 48% were landless farm workers who lived on the farms at the mercy of the landowners. The crofters leased land from the landowners and paid the lease by providing labor to the farm. Crofters lacked social security and could be evicted at any time. If a landowner elected to incorporate the croft and evict the crofter family, he did not have to pay compensation to the crofter for the improvements made on the land.

This social injustice was addressed in a 1909 law regulating the crofter agreements. The law required that crofter agreements be made in writing. Crofter agreements were to be made for a minimum of 50 years. The law further provided that the crofters were to be compensated for improvements made to the property. In reality the law was inefficient -- it only regulated agreements made after 1909. Nevertheless, application of the law was put on hold, first in 1909, then again in 1915. After ten years of feet dragging, the civil war finally convinced the lawmakers of the necessity to approve the land laws. About 55,000 crofters used the opportunity to acquire their crofts. In 1922, the Lex Kallio law stipulated that landless farm workers were to be given land. A total of 110,000 new farms were created as a result of the land laws.4)

Nobody has better described the conditions in rural Finland during this time than Väinö Linna in his epic Here Under the Polar Star.2)

The Russian Revolution

The March 1917 revolution prompted the czar to abdicate, and a provisional government under the socialist Kerenski took power in Russia. The Finnish Parliament did not convene during the war, however, regular parliamentary elections were held in 1916. In those elections the socialists gained a majority. After the March revolution the Finnish Parliament convened. A cabinet (Senate) made up of six socialists and six conservatives was appointed. The socialist majority of the Parliament voted through major social reform legislation, most noticeably the law limiting workdays to eight hours and the law introducing local self-government.

However, the Finnish Parliament plotted to release Finland from Russian dominance, which prompted the Kerenski provisional government to dissolve the Finnish Parliament in July and call new elections. Russian gendarmes hindered the MP’s from entering the House of Parliament. The conservatives did not protest, hoping to wrench the majority from the socialists. To the great disappointment of the socialists they lost the majority in the Parliament in the ensuing elections. A new Senate with only conservative members under the leadership of Per Erik Svinhufvud was appointed.

The anarchy spreading in St. Petersburg during the fall of 1917 had a major influence on the Finnish society. The Bolsheviks took power in October. Atrocities and turmoil in November prompted the conservative Senate to propose the establishment of a militia to fill the vacuum left when the tsarist government collapsed. At first the Parliament was reluctant, but on January 12, 1918 it voted in favor of the Senate’s proposition to form a militia to maintain law and order. The decision was strongly criticized by the socialists, who accused the conservative Senate of establishing a force directed against the proletariat rather than solving the conflict by social reform.

Red brigades had been formed in 1917 in many parts of Finland. They were agitated and armed by the Bolshevik government in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) that was eager to trigger the revolution in Finland too. After the Parliament decided to authorize the Senate to establish a military force to maintain law and order, the influence of radical members of the social democratic party increased. The party moderates saw themselves swept aside as the inevitable confrontation approached.

The Revolution

At 11 p.m. Sunday night, January 27, 1918, a red lantern was hoisted on the roof of the social democratic party headquarters in Helsinki to signify the start of the revolution. The revolution was planned and coordinated jointly with revolutionary-minded soldiers in the Russian garrisons in Finland and their Bolshevik leaders in St. Petersburg. It did not take off to a good start due to the lackluster socialist leadership and the lack of skilled military officers. All the members of the Senate managed to slip away from Helsinki and head north to the territory controlled by the Senate forces.

The Senate had made preparations for a possible confrontation. On January 16, 1918, Svinhufvud appointed lieutenant general Gustaf Mannerheim to consolidate the existing conservative paramilitary forces to form the Senate military corps. On January 25, Mannerheim issued an order to the troops to disarm the Russian garrisons in Ostrobotnia on the night of January 27. Strangely, the moment of action coincided almost to the hour with the start of the socialist revolution in Helsinki. The operation was dangerous since the Russian soldiers were well-armed and had a numeral advantage. However Mannerheim and his staff had correctly predicted that the morale among the Russian soldiers was low. Little resistance was met and many Russian officers actually were cooperative. Over the next three days, 5,000 Russian soldiers were taken prisoner and a large quantity of weapons fell into the hands of the Senate troops without many shots being fired.

The Senate took up residency in Vasa. The frontier lines were drawn through mid-Finland, with the Reds controlling the South and the major cities. The red military offensive against the North got bogged down on all frontiers almost from the start. Throughout the conflict, resistance pockets prevailed on both sides in the territories controlled by the warring parties. Atrocities against prisoners took place on both sides.

Eventually the availability of skilled professional military officers turned out to be the pawn that tipped the scale in favor of the Whites. The Senate persuaded the German Kaiser to intervene on the White Side. After a division of the German Army under colonel van der Goltz landed in Hanko and Lovisa, they marched on Helsinki without meeting much resistance, and the war soon came to an end.

If criminal elements within the ranks of the Reds, against strict orders from the Red high command, had committed atrocities against civilians before and during the war, the Whites took a terrible revenge after the Red surrender. Military tribunals were established that condemned war prisoners to death in summary trials. After the fall of the last major Red stronghold of Tampere, the Whites lined up Red prisoners at the sides of newly dug mass graves and executed them without trial.

Other Red prisoners were ushered into crowded concentration camps. One of the camps was in Ekenäs. Gunnar Sandberg, who was an 18-year-old law student at the time, was employed as “seventh priest” at the Ekenäs concentration camp. One of his chores was to maintain records of prisoners who died at the camp. He told me he was directed to write, “cause of death: typhoid fever, tuberculosis, etc.” in the journal, even though it was known that the prisoner had been shot. 21,389 persons with affiliation to the Red side were shot, executed, murdered, perished in prison camps, or disappeared during and after the conflict. The corresponding number on the White side was 1,369.

The civil war could probably have been avoided had the conservative Senate been more flexible and far-sighted. A majority of the Social Democratic Party leaders were against revolution in early January 1918. However, after the Parliament approved the Senate proposition to form a Senate military corps on January 12, the party moderates were swept aside. The demanded social reforms were not unreasonable judging from the fact that they were expediently implemented soon after the conflict.

What can we learn from this Finnish tragedy? Parliamentarianism brings solutions -- wars seldom do. The lesson that the young Finnish nation learned was: military tribunals, summary executions, and detention without due trial are not consistent with the way civilized nations conduct business. The general amnesty of 1918 and 1919 came too late to save the thousands who perished in the concentration camps. The war forwarded no agenda. It left the country deeper divided than before the conflict.

Twenty years after the civil war, the socialists and the conservatives put aside their differences and fought side-by-side containing the Soviet attack of 1939. If the war dead on both sides of the civil war could be returned to life and witness the Finnish society of today, they would probably come to identical conclusions: “how about that, our side obviously prevailed in the end.”

  1. Webpage - "sotasurmasivu" in English
  2. Väinö Linna: Here Under the Polar Star
  3. Walter von Koskull, Folke Nyberg: Finlands Historia
  4. Henrik Meinander: Finlands Historia

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