Finnish Civil War: The Background

Logging in Finland, early 1900s.

Logging in Finland, early 1900s.

This is the first of a two-part series on the Finnish Civil War.

Once upon a time there was a country of vast boreal forests whose scattered inhabitants spoke a strange tongue more closely related to Hungarian than to Scandinavian languages.

Finland was easily dominated by its more powerful neighbors. Sweden controlled it for big swaths of time starting in the 13th century, but there were Russian occupations, and Finnish borders were repeatedly redrawn. Wealthy Swedish landowners maintained large estates worked by Finnish peasants. The upper classes and educated people spoke Swedish.

Russia took over from Sweden in a war fought 1808 – 1809 and established the Grand Duchy of Finland as an autonomous part of its empire.

Coat of arms, Grand Duchy of Finland.

Coat of arms, Grand Duchy of Finland.

Finnish-Russian relations proceeded harmoniously until 1899. During this time Finland underwent modernization in the areas of industry, culture, and education, much of it financed by the Russian state. The Fennoman movement encouraged Finnish nationalism, and the Finnish language shifted from a rough dialect spoken by illiterate peasants to a standardized mode of communication used in newspapers and books. Oddly enough, it was members of the Swedish-speaking elite who first championed this shift.

"A peasant woman and girl from Ruokolahti," 1882, by Sverin Falkman.

“A peasant woman and girl from Ruokolahti,” 1882, by Sverin Falkman.

With their growing sense of national pride, Finns saw themselves as only nominally belonging to the Russian Empire. But in 1899 the regime of Tsar Nikolas II imposed a policy of Russification that placed new military and administrative controls on the Grand Duchy. This lasted until 1905. The Finns called it “The First Period of Oppression.”

In 1905, Russia lost the Russo-Japanese War and experienced a wave of unrest that led to constitutional reform. Preoccupied by internal problems, the Empire loosened its grip.

Cartoon in Punch magazine of Tsar Nikolas after the Russo-Japanese War.

Cartoon in Punch magazine of Tsar Nikolas after the Russo-Japanese War.

Finland’s population had more than tripled over the 19th century, reaching 3,130,000 by 1917. A new class of industrial and agricultural workers emerged, and tensions grew between economic classes. The wealthy estate owners called for an autonomous Finnish state controlled by the elite, with the lower classes treated humanely but restricted to a nonpolitical role. The working class rejected this paternalism, demanding the rights of citizens and pressing for better conditions in a general strike, 1905.

General strike 1905, Tampere

General strike of 1905, Tampere, Finland.

With Russia largely out of the picture and with public opinion swayed by the strike, Finnish interests managed to find common ground. At the time, the moderate Social Democrats represented a larger percentage of the population than any other socialist movement in the world. In 1906 they adopted a parliamentary system and universal suffrage that included female citizens.

By 1908, the Tsar, recovered from his troubles, looked about and saw that the Finns were getting uppity. This new parliament of theirs, he decided, would play only an advisory role. He repeatedly dissolved it and forced new elections between 1908 and 1916, appointing his own people to the Finnish Senate, which did the actual running of the country. The Finns called this “The Second Period of Oppression.”

The problem of the Empire’s interference was magically solved by the Tsar’s removal March 15, 1917, as a result of the February Revolution. Finnish Parliament regained its autonomy. But at the same time, the collapse of the Russian administration led to widespread instability. Russian grain was no longer available for import, and food shortages led to fears of starvation. An economic boom related to Russia’s effort in World War I abruptly came to a halt, causing high unemployment and inflation.

Things began to spin out of control. With the disappearance of Russian police authority, groups with opposing ideologies formed armed groups. Conservatives feared that socialists would take control, and radicals of the labor movement could not allow an asymmetry to develop. Both sides rationalized their actions as a defensive measure, but the security groups took on a military aspect.

Within the framework of Parliament, Social Democrats fought for power against conservative nonsocialists. When the Social Democrats lost their majority in October elections, the radical Left looked to nonparliamentary methods. A general strike was called November 14 – 19.

Lenin’s October Revolution put an end to the Russian provisional government in Petrograd (later Leningrad). Germany had all along financed the Bolsheviks, hoping to undermine Russia and get out of the Eastern Front quagmire. With its Central Power allies, Germany began peace negotiations with Russia December 22 at Brest-Litovsk.

Vladimir Lenin, 1918

Vladimir Lenin, 1918.

Finland assumed strategic importance for Germany, which trained Finnish soldiers called Jaegers in Germany and shipped them back  to bolster the conservative Civil Guard forces—known as the White Guards. Weapons were also shipped to Finland, and the Jaegers began training the White Finns. Meanwhile Worker’s Guards—Red Guards, based in the industrial areas—prepared for combat as well.

The conservatives, formerly in favor of strong ties with Russia, now desperately wanted to sever any connection with the Bolsheviks. The Finnish Senate, functioning as a conservative-controlled cabinet, proposed a declaration of independence. The Social Democrats voted against it but offered their own declaration. It was essentially the same. The two sides each sent delegations to Petrograd to ask Lenin for sovereignty.

They caught Lenin at the right time. The Bolsheviks were negotiating their treaty with the Central Powers. War-weary Russian troops could not be expected to hold all corners of the former empire, and the Germans would never allow Russia to keep Finland, with its mineral and forest resources and its strategic location. On December 31, 1917—nine days after talks started at Brest-Litovsk—Lenin cut Finland loose.

The independence of Finland had no practical significance. German- and Russian-aligned interests were soon to begin armed conflict there, in the form of White Guards supported by German manpower and weapons against Red Guards supported similarly from Russia.

After four months of civil war, Finland would become part of the German Empire—for six months—until Germany lost the First World War.

Coming next—Part Two: A hellish conflict.

Forest in Finland.

Forest in Finland.

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About Jenny

I am an off-trail hiker, a student of history, and author of "Transvaal Citizen," "Murder at the Jumpoff," and "The Twelve Streams of LeConte."
This entry was posted in History, Labor History, Military History, World War I and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Finnish Civil War: The Background

  1. I can honestly say I know nothing about the Finnish Civil War (aside from what you’ve just told me). Looking forward to the second part and the conclusion…though I have a sinking suspicion I know the ending.

    • Jenny says:

      The conclusion of the Finnish Civil War would be very depressing except that, once the German Empire was broken up at the end of WWI, the Finns were able to actualize their independence. But first they had a long recovery ahead from this divisive conflict.

  2. Brian Reed says:

    Thanks for that explanation of the origins of Finland. In my uneven knowledge of European history it just seemed like it appeared out of nowhere. The “Finnizing” of the Swedish elites makes me think of the Anglicizing of the Francophone elites in Medieval England. I never heard of the Finnish Civil War, except I guess it would be the White Guards who arrest Jack Reed in the movie “Reds”.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m glad you found it interesting. It’s been so long since I saw “Reds” that I don’t remember the details. Reed’s arrest would have depended on when exactly he was in Finland.

  3. Pat H says:

    So glad to seen an entry on this topic (and so glad to see your blog has been launched, and so sorry I missed these earlier).

    This era of history if fascinating, and the story of those nations associated with Imperial Russia and its fall are not only fascinating in their own right, but highly topical as well, given current events.

    Well, can’t wait to read through the rest of these entries.

    • Jenny says:

      Without really planning to, I’ve gotten deeply involved with Russia. One of the fun things about this blog is that, well, one topic leads on to the next, and I enjoy writing about all of them.

      • Pat H says:

        It’s hard not to be fascinated by the history of Russia in this era. Tragic nearly beyond belief, but compelling our interest. And so familiar and so strange at the same time.

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