Finland’s year zero
In 1918, the young democracy descended into civil war, floundering for a long time until finally finding its place.
The story of an independent Finland began splendidly. No longer satisfied with its autonomous status, the small nation wanted to separate from Russia – and got its chance when Russia’s imperial rule toppled in 1917.
A month after the Bolshevik Revolution, in the middle of the World War, Finland declared independence on 6 December 1917.
In late December, Bolshevik leaders Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky recognised Finland’s independence regardless of the fact that the recognition was sought by the leaders of a bourgeois Finland. Immediately after Russia’s recognition, Finland’s independence was also recognised by Sweden, Germany and France.
Then everything went awry. A civil war broke out between the Whites and the Reds in late January 1918 and lasted three months. The Whites won the war with support from Germany. The Reds, who had been encouraged to fight by Russia’s Bolshevik government, suffered a defeat.
The war and its aftermath (prison camps, death sentences, disease) claimed the lives of almost 30,000 Finns.
It is entirely fair to say that after the war, in the summer of 1918, Finland as a nation was at point zero. How did this happen? This has been deliberated for a hundred years now. Three generations of the country’s most eminent researchers of history and social life have already searched for an answer to this question, but an undisputed explanation has failed to emerge. Dozens of studies on the reasons for the Civil War and its events and repercussions are due to be published this year alone.
The most puzzling aspect is that, at the beginning of 1918, Finland was a young but sound democracy. The first Parliamentary elections based on universal suffrage had already been held in 1907, and the Finnish Parliament had retained its institutional status despite the fact that the Russian Emperor had dissolved it and ordered new elections several times.
The relative strengths of bourgeois parties and the Social Democrats had been more or less equal in Parliament from 1907 to 1917, but cooperation had worked across the party lines up until late 1917.
When Parliament reconvened after the Civil War, just over half of the Members of Parliament were present. Having lost the war, the Left had been defeated. Its MPs had either died in the war or fled to Russia, or they were held in prison camps or otherwise on the sidelines. At first, only one left-wing MP was present alongside about a hundred of his centrist and right-wing counterparts.
There was some disagreement on the form of government between the Centre and the Right: the Centre supported a republic, whereas the Right favoured monarchy. The Right wanted to approach Germany and reckoned that a German king would help Finland in the years to come. After all, there were still German troops in Finland.
As the German military command also recommended a monarchy for Finland, it was agreed, albeit reluctantly. Prince Frederick Charles of Hesse was elected as King of Finland in early October 1918. The King’s election led to major discord in Parliament, and the decision was finally reached with a vote of 64 to 41, with 95 MPs absent for a variety of reasons.
As doubts about the whole endeavour also emerged in Germany, Frederick Charles refused kingship in late December 1918. Another bond between Finland and Germany was broken when German troops left the country.
Finland’s internal and external status began to improve in early 1919, when new Parliamentary elections were held. The Left won 80 seats out of the 200 and returned to the democratic decision-making system. As the Centre also gained strength, the new Parliament had a solid republican majority.
In the summer of 1919, Parliament made two significant decisions: it adopted a new republican Constitution and elected the first President for the Republic of Finland.
The election was won by Kaarlo Juho Ståhlberg, a legal scholar who had authored the new Constitution, with support from the Left and the Centre. The losing candidate was General Gustaf Mannerheim, Commander-in-Chief of the winners of the 1918 Civil War, who was supported by the Right.
Finland’s internal changes also increased trust in the country among foreign powers. The most salient demonstration of this came when Great Britain and the United States also recognised Finland’s independence after drawn-out negotiations in the summer of 1919.
The next thorny issue was establishing relations with the Bolshevik-led Russia. Forging relations was difficult.
Finland was home to many so-called White emigrants who had fled the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. The White emigrants wanted to use Finland’s territory for revolutionary undertakings, aiming to oust the Bolsheviks from leadership in Russia.
The leadership of Soviet Russia, in turn, threatened Finland with war, should Finland allow the White emigrants to use its territory.
Negotiations between the two countries started in June 1920, ending with a peace treaty signed in Tartu in October the same year, which also laid down the border between the states.
With a couple of minor exceptions, the border between Finland and Soviet Russia remained the same as during the period of autonomy (1809–1917). The treaty was considered to be favourable to Finland.
In December that same year, Finland was accepted as a member of the League of Nations. A couple of years later, Finland, backed by the League of Nations, gained a significant foreign-policy triumph over Sweden, which had sought to seize the Åland Islands for itself. By decision of the League of Nations, the Åland Islands were expressly declared to belong to Finland.
In the early 1920s, Finland was still searching for its place in Europe. The peace treaty with Soviet Russia was not enough for Finland, which was afraid of its eastern neighbour.
In 1922, the Finnish Government agreed on cooperation with Poland, Estonia and Latvia. This agreement between the ‘fringe states’ aimed to build up joint forces against both Soviet Russia and Germany. However, the agreement fell through, as the Finnish Parliament rejected it. Parliament deemed that an agreement with the fringe states would have been a risk for Finland.
In internal terms, too, Finland was still badly fragmented, reeling from the aftermath of the Civil War. The country was governed by short-lived coalition governments of centrist and right-wing parties. The Social Democratic Party was by far the largest party in Parliament, but it was kept in opposition for years on end. The situation changed in 1926, when the Social Democrats were offered premiership and government responsibility – on their own.
As the Social Democratic Party decided to accept the challenge, the country got a minority government led by Väinö Tanner and stacked exclusively with Social Democratic ministers.
Prime Minister Väinö Tanner was a strong politician, who had stood completely aside from the fight between the Reds and the Whites during the Civil War. While his Government was only able to govern for less than a year, it did manage to pass a law to grant amnesty to the Red Civil War soldiers.
The Government also brought off a significant trade agreement with Sweden, which improved the relations between Finland and Sweden.
The writer is a retired political journalist specialising in Finland’s political history.