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Civil War in Finland

The Finnish Civil War was fought from January to May 1918, between the "Reds" (punaiset), Communists together with Social Democrats, and the "Whites" (valkoiset), forces of the Conservative Senate intending to maintain status quo (retained independence and constitutional monarchy without parliamentarism).

Finns have many names for this conflict: vapaussota (Liberation War), kansalaissota (Civil War), and punakapina (Red Rebellion). All names are true in one way or another.

The Civil War and the Continuation War have been the two most controversial and emotion-loaded events in the history of modern Finland, often seen as the hinges or pivots of Finland's fate.

Thus the Civil War has had a great influence also on the foreign relations of Finland.


The background of the Civil War can be traced to political polarization due to a 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 hindered from radical outbursts, which could disturb the imperial court in Saint Petersburg. As this politics had collapsed, both the Left and the Right started to radicalize.

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

The Leftist radicalization was chiefly a reaction on the emerge and growth of a propertyless peasantry, i.e. without land of their own to cultivate, which the Finns had no traditional experience of, being used to be 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 good times for trade, and the rift between rich and poor widened.

The Public Opinion was, naturally, dominated by the educated classes, and had during the 19th century got used to seeing Finland's problems in the terms of: Culture, Language, Education and 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) "Security Guards". 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 quench the general unrest in Finland, universal suffrage was introduced. This soon led to close-to 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 status quo.

The February Revolution (1917)

The first violent clash between Red and White Guards was already in July 1906 in Helsinki, but the renewed Russian oppression ment a common enemy, why serious conflicts would wait until after the February Revolution in Russia 1917. Since the general elections of 1916, when the Social Democrats had gained absolute majority in the Parliament of Finland, 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 Leftist points of view chiefly due to secret resistence 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, basically, that the personal union with Russia was finished after 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 for the Senate's bill, the so-called "Power Act" enacted by the Parliament in July 1917, (particular 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 particularly 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 equally much a failure, as the universal suffrage. Large groups starved, and unemployment was bad and worsening. Democracy didn't seem as the solution on the problems. Political violence increased during the campaign for the new elections, conducted by what the adversaries labeled as "Rouge 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 in Finland was virtually abolished. In this situation some of the old fire-brigades were revived, simply as an answer on the insecurity and lawlessness. It can be noted that the general fear was widespread, but the relations between Reds and Whites were still reasonable manywhere in Finland. Suojeluskunnat 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 Leftists and Rightists had increased dramatically. About 30 political assassinations were reported. After the general elections a pure non-Socialist cabinet was appointed, which after the Bolshevists had seized power in Russia felt squezed between increasingly revolutionary Socialists at home and aggressive Bolshevists in Saint Petersburg, proximate to Finland's border in South-East. Numerous Russian troops stationed in Finland made bad things worse, as they too were enthusiasmed by the revolutionary frenzy, which they called their "svoboda" - their freedom. And on top of all this: another general strike in Finland.

The svoboda appeared for the Finns as the Russian military going off control. They were intoxicated, they looted, they acted violently and they executed their officers. In the virtual absence of police-forces, and also of military trained Finnish troops, the svoboda promted the revival and new-organization of numerous Suojeluskunnat (Protection Guards). These Guards were local units, set up on local initiatives, sometimes with roots in "Security Guards" established during the General Strike of 1905, but it was the svoboda of the Russian troops, which really got most of them established.

After the October Revolution the political positions in Finland are reversed. Now it's the non-Socialists who are eager for maximal autonomy, and even independence of Russia, and the Social Democrats who belive the Bolshevists to be possible allies against the "Capitalist oppressors". The Senate, led by the national hero Pehr Evind Svinhufvud, proposed a Declaration of Independence, which the Parliament adopted on December 6th, 1917.


The Reds were alarmed by the government's decision to employ the White-oriented Protection Guards as the nucleus of a national army and to use them, "the Butchers" according to Leftist lingo, to disarm the 40,000 Russian troops that remained in Finland, understanding that Red Finns would also be targeted.

The first serious battles were in the night of January 19th, a week later followed by the Senate's declaration on January 25th transforming the White Guards into the Army of Finland, and on January 26th 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's often pointed out, that leaders for the White and the Red sides acted independent of each other's actions in these final days, and that it in a way was coincidential that the White Army was formally established in the very same days as the Red rebellion was commenced. It's also obvious that the leaders acted without any formal democratic authorization, but on the other hand, their judgement was generally respected and met with no articulated opposition. In other words: the process leading to the Civil War was more of a general distrust between Reds and Whites, and less dependent of the very events in the end of January 1918.

The last stages of World War I were still being fought in central Europe at the time, and both Russia and Germany had their own interests in Finland:

Many Whites feared the Russian troops taking 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, wanting 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, too close contact with communist Russia was tantamount to forfeiting the recently won independence. They were also influenced by German interests, because Germany had secretly given assistance, including the volunteer "Jaeger" troops (Jääkärit) that covertly had been trained in Germany during the World War.

The Whites regrouped in the north and centre of the country, under the political leadership of (the initially absent) Senate-president Pehr Evind Svinhufvud and the military command of Carl Gustaf Mannerheim.

The Reds' situation in the south worsened by the arrival of White Jaeger 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 counter attack 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 the Civil War going towards victory for the Whites, as it ment a strategically important bridge-head was taken.

On April 3, German troops landed at Hangö 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
Source: [1]WhitesRedsOther
Killed in action:3 2795 324484
Executed, shot or murdered:1 3217 207392
Concentration Camp deaths:611 785500
Capital punishment:-125-
Died after release:-5972
Missing:421 818116
Other causes:173695536
Total:4 82127 4262 030

The civil war had ended, but it left the Finnish society divided in 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 of 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 to foster homes and institutions, as their parents were either interned (as most 75,000 Red internees) or deemed unfit to raise patriotic children for the independent Finland.

Many Red children suffered from the social stigma of being representatives of the defeated treacherous proletarians, but in particular those children who were separated from their parents.

A lot of Finnish Reds fled to Russia in the end of the Civil War, and in the following years. 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 out-lawed in 1923 and 1930, while the Social Democrats remained in opposition for most of the inter-war period. Svinhufvud became president (1931-1937) on the program to keep the Social Democrats out of the Cabinet, no matter what.

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

The Civil War, and the pre-war polarization, did directly and indirectly lead to Finland mentally-wise becoming more like 19th century Prussia, with the Military forces and Conservative ideologies having earned great prestige for its success, and less akin to her Scandinavian brethren where popular movements and Liberal ideologies had won that prestigious position.

The polarization would remain in Finland for long time, and would put its clear mark on Finland's foreign politics. 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), demonstratively 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.

To the legacy of the Civil War belongs also an anti-democratic and anti-parliamentarian current, which remained in the public opinion, and particularly among the 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'etat in 1932, the anti-parliamentarians lost much of their popularity and couldn't 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 the relations cooled - mutually. When Finland later, in the mid-1930s, again orientated 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 treacherous Scandinavians, or was it an unfortunate consequence of the impression the Scandinavians had got of Finland's Civil War and its aftermath?

See also