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|Finnish Civil War|
|Part of World War I|
Tampere's civilian buildings destroyed in the civil war.
|White Finland||Red Finland|
|Commanders and leaders|
| C.G.E. Mannerheim|
| Ali Aaltonen|
13,000 Imperial German Army soldiers
500–1,000 Swedish volunteers
1,737 Poles from the Polish Legion
7,000–10,000 soldiers of the former Russian Imperial Army
|Casualties and losses|
3,414 killed in action
4 dead in prison camps
450–500 killed in action
5,199 killed in action
11,000–13,500 dead in prison camps
900-1,000 killed in action
|Finnish Civil War|
|Part of World War I|
Tampere's civilian buildings destroyed in the civil war.
|White Finland||Red Finland|
|Commanders and leaders|
| C.G.E. Mannerheim|
| Ali Aaltonen|
13,000 Imperial German Army soldiers
500–1,000 Swedish volunteers
1,737 Poles from the Polish Legion
7,000–10,000 soldiers of the former Russian Imperial Army
|Casualties and losses|
3,414 killed in action
4 dead in prison camps
450–500 killed in action
5,199 killed in action
11,000–13,500 dead in prison camps
900-1,000 killed in action
The Finnish Civil War (Finnish: Suomen sisällissota; Swedish: Finska inbördeskriget) concerned control and leadership of Finland, during its transition phase from a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire to an independent state. The conflict, lasting from 27 January to 15 May 1918, formed a part of the national, political and social turmoil caused by World War I in Europe. The war was fought between the forces of the Social Democratic Party led by the People's Deputation of Finland, commonly called the "Reds", and the forces of the non-socialist, conservative-led Senate, commonly called the "Whites". The Reds—dominated by industrial and agrarian workers—were supported by the Russian Soviet Republic. The "Whites"—dominated by peasants and middle- and upper-class factions—received marked military assistance from the German Empire. The "Reds" were based in the towns and industrial centres of southern Finland, while the "Whites" controlled more rural central and northern Finland. The "Whites" won the war, in which about 37,000 people died out of a population of 3 million.
The Grand Duchy of Finland, ruled, since 1809, as a nominally autonomous part of the Russian Empire, was gradually developing into the realm's Finnish state, including a rise of the Fennoman movement standing for the Finnic majority of the population. By 1917 the Finnish people had experienced rapid population growth and industrialization, and the rise of a comprehensive labor movement. Economic, social, and political divisions were deepening while the Finnish political system was in an unstable phase of democratization and modernization.
The collapse of the Russian Empire following the February and October Revolutions of 1917 spurred the collapse of the Grand Duchy of Finland, and the resultant power vacuum led to bitter conflict between the left-leaning labor movement, led by the Social Democrats, and more conservative non-socialists. A breakdown of power and authority penetrated all levels of society. Finland's declaration of independence on the 6th of December 1917—though supported by most Finns and soon recognized by the Russian Bolshevist Council of People's Commissars—occurred in the context of the worsening power struggle, and failed to either unite or pacify the nation.
With the dissolution of regular police and military forces, both left and right began forming armed groups in the spring of 1917. Two rival paramilitary forces, the White Guards and Red Guards, emerged, both with around 85,000 men. The Reds carried out an unsuccessful general offensive in February 1918. Soviet Russia's main support to the Reds was the supply of weapons. A general offensive by the Whites began on 15 March and was bolstered by the attack of 13,000 soldiers from the Imperial German Army in April 1918. The battles of Tampere and Viipuri, won by the Whites, and the battles of Helsinki and Lahti, won by German troops, were the decisive military actions of the war. Both the Reds and Whites used political terror as a military weapon during the conflict.
In the aftermath of the civil war, Finland passed from Russian rule to the German Empire's sphere of power. The conservative Finnish Senate attempted to establish a Finnish monarchy ruled by the House of Hesse, but after the defeat of Germany in WWI, Finland emerged as an independent, democratic republic.
The civil war remains the most traumatic, controversial and emotionally charged event in the history of modern Finland, and there have even been disputes about how to designate it. Three-quarters of the war victims were Reds who died mainly in political terror campaigns and in prison camps. The turmoil created severe food shortages, disrupted the Finnish economy and the political apparatus, and divided the Finnish nation for many years. Finnish society was reunited through the social compromises based on long-term culture of moderate politics and religion, the outcome of World War I and the post-war economic recovery
The main factor behind the Finnish Civil War was World War I; the Russian Empire collapsed under pressure and defeats of the war, leading to the February and October Revolutions in 1917. These events led to the formation of a large power vacuum and subsequent power struggle in Eastern Europe. The autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland, as a part of the Russian Empire, became a part of the vacuum and the struggle for power. Although actual combat did not spread to Finland until early 1918, the war between the German Empire and Russia had a major impact on the Finns from its beginning in August 1914. Both the Russian and German empires had political, economic and military interests in the Finnish region. The military significance of the Grand Duchy of Finland had been increasing for the Russians from the mid-19th century with the rising tensions and competition among the major European powers. The northwestern territory was part of the gateway and buffer zone (with Estonia) to and from the Imperial Russian capital Petrograd (Saint Petersburg), via the Gulf of Finland towards the Kronstadt naval base and the Karelian Isthmus. The Grand Duchy had also become a vital source of raw materials, industrial products, food, and labour for the growing capital city of Russia.
The German Empire saw Eastern Europe—mainly Russia—as a major source of vital products and raw materials for sustaining the capacity of the nation, during the Great war and in the future. Her resources overstretched by the two-front war, Germany pursued a policy of breaking up Russia from inside by providing financial support both to revolutionary groups such as the Bolsheviks and Socialist Revolutionary Party (SRs), and separatist factions such as the Finnish activists leaning toward Germanism. A total of 30-40 million German Marks were spent on Russia. Controlling the Finnish area would allow the Imperial German Army to enter Russia at Saint Petersburg and to penetrate northeast, towards the Kola Peninsula, an area rich in raw materials for the mining industry. Finland itself had large ore reserves and a well-developed forest industry.
From 1809 to 1898, a period called Pax Russica, Finnish-Russian relations had been exceptionally peaceful and stable compared with other national and ethnic groups as parts of the Russian Empire. Russia's defeat in the Crimean war, in the 1850s, led to attempts to speed up the modernization of the country. This caused more than 50 years of positive economic, industrial, cultural and educational development in the Grand Duchy of Finland. The improvement in the status of the Finnish language was especially striking. These developments also encouraged Finnish nationalism and cultural unity through the birth of the Fennoman movement, which bound the Finns to the domestic governmental system and led to the idea that the Finnish Grand Duchy was an increasingly autonomous state of the Russian Empire.
In 1899, the Russian Empire initiated a policy of integration through Russification of Finland, aiming at an increase of military and administrative control over the Grand Duchy. The military and strategic situation of Russia had become more difficult due of the rise of Germany and Japan, and Russian central administration and the idea of Pan-Slavism had grown in Saint Petersburg; the Russian leadership planned to unite the large, heterogeneous Empire, described as a Russian multinational dynastic union. The Finns called the integration policy "the First Period of Oppression, 1899–1905", and plans for disengagement from Russia or sovereignty for Finland were drawn up for the first time. This led to the rise of a host of different political and economic groups in the country. The most radical one, the activist movement which included anarchistic groups both from the working class and the Swedish-speaking intelligentsia, engaged in terrorist attacks. During World War I and the rise of Germanism, the Svecomans began their covert collaboration with Imperial Germany, and from 1915–1917, a Finnish "Jäger" ("Jääkärit") battalion consisting of 1,900 Finnish volunteers were trained in Germany.
The major reasons for rising political tensions among the Finns were the autocratic rule of the Russian Czar and the undemocratic class system of the estates of the realm in the Grand Duchy. This system originated in the older Swedish Empire regime of the 17th Century, which effectively then had divided the Finnish people into two groups, separated economically, socially and politically. Finland's population grew rapidly in the 19th Century (from 860,000 in 1810 to 3,130,000 in 1917), and a class of industrial and agrarian workers and property-less peasants emerged. The Industrial Revolution and economic freedom arrived in Finland later than in the rest of Western Europe (1840–1870), owing to the autocratic rule of the Romanov family. Industrialization was organized and financed primarily by the state. This meant that some of the social problems associated with the industrial process (such as those seen in England) were diminished via control of the administration, but other problems arose due to the marked cultural differences between Russia and the Grand Duchy. The estates planned to build up an increasingly autonomous Finnish state, led by the elite and intelligentsia. The Fennomans in particular aimed to include the common people in a nonpolitical role in order to reduce unrest due to social problems; peasants and clergy had taken up the cause of the commoners, before the beginning of large-scale industrialization. The labor movement and many preceding movements, such as the youth associations and temperance movement were initially led "from above."
Social conditions, the standard of living, and the self-confidence of the workers gradually improved due to industrialization between 1870–1916, but, while the standard of living rose among the common people, the rift between rich and poor deepened markedly. The common people's rising awareness of the socio-economic and political questions interacted with the ideas of socialism, social liberalism and nationalism (fennomania). The commoners' responses and the corresponding counteracts of the dominating upper-factions steepened the social relations in Finland.
The Finnish labour movement, which emerged at the end of the 19th Century from folk, temperance, and religious movements, as well as fennomania, had a Finnish nationalist, working-class character. From 1899 to 1906 the labor movement became conclusively independent, shedding the patriarchal thinking of the "Fennoman" estates, and it was represented by the Finnish Social Democratic Party, established in 1899. Workers' activism had been directed both toward opposing "Russification" and to develop a domestic policy that tackled social problems and responded to the demand for democracy. This was a reaction to the domestic dispute, ongoing since the 1880s, between the Finnish nobility-burghers and the labor movement concerning voting rights for the common people. Besides their obligations as obedient, peaceful and nonpolitical inhabitants of the Grand Duchy, who had a few decades ago accepted the class system as the natural order of their life, the commoners had begun to ask for and then demand their civil rights and citizenship in Finnish society. The power struggle between the Finnish estates and the Russian administration had given them a concrete role model and space for the labor movement. On the other side, due to at least a century-long tradition and experience of administrative leadership, the Finnish elite saw itself as the inherent natural power in the Grand Duchy.
In the end, the political struggle for democracy was solved outside Finland, via international power politics; the Russian Empire's failed 1904-1905 war against Japan led to the 1905 Revolution in Russia and to a general strike in Finland. In an attempt to quell the general unrest, the system of estates was abolished in the Parliamentary Reform of 1906, which also introduced universal suffrage. The general strike increased support for the Social Democrats substantially; in 1906, as a proportion of the population, the party was the most powerful socialist movement in the world. In addition to the vital, primary support of urban workers, the socialists had also gained the support of agricultural workers. Because Finland was a country with relatively small towns with a small workforce, and many industrial centers were small "islands" surrounded by large rural areas, there was social integrity between the urban and rural workers.
The Reform of 1906 was a giant leap in the political and social liberalization of the common Finnish people. The Russian royal family had been the most autocratic and conservative rulers in Europe, and the Finnish people had experienced it by way of the four Finnish estates. While most of the nations of Western Europe had adopted bicameral parliaments by the end of the 19th Century, in 1906, the Finns adopted a unicameral parliamentary system, and female citizens were included in universal suffrage. All Finnish adults were given the right to vote, increasing the number of voters from 126,000 to 1,273,000. This soon produced around 50% turnouts for the Social Democrats. The Czar regained his authority after the revolutionary crisis of 1905, reclaimed his role as the Grand Duke of Finland and, during the second period of Russification between 1908 and 1917, neutralized the functions and powers of the new parliament. The Emperor saw the Parliament as having merely an advisory role. He alone determined the composition of the Finnish Senate, which did not correlate with the assembly of the Parliament, prohibiting true parliamentarism. The Czar dissolved the Parliament and ordered new parliamentary elections almost annually between 1908–1916.
The capacity of the Parliament to solve major social and economic problems was stymied by confrontations between the representatives of the largely uneducated common man and the representatives of the former estates, accustomed to autocratic rule and attitudes. At the same time, conflict grew between industrial employers and their workers as the industrialists denied collective bargaining and the right of the labour unions to represent working people; the employers essentially dictated contracts signed on the personal level. Although the parliamentary process had disappointed the labour movement, dominance in the Finnish Parliament and in legislation seemed to be the only true pathway to reach a more economically and socially balanced society. That is why the Finnish working man and woman identified themselves powerfully to the state. Altogether, these political developments led to conditions that encouraged a struggle for leadership of the Finnish state, during the ten years before the collapse of the Russian Empire.
The more severe programme of "Russification", called "the Second Period of Oppression, 1908–1917" by the Finns, was halted on 15 March 1917 by the removal of the Russian Czar Nicholas II. The immediate reason for the collapse of the Russian Empire was a domestic crisis precipitated by military defeats in the war against Imperial Germany and by war-weariness and exhaustion among the Russian people. The deeper causes of the revolution lay in the collision between the policies of the most conservative autocratic regime in Europe and the necessity for political and economic modernisation brought about by industrialisation. The Czar's power was transferred to the Russian Parliament, the Duma and the Provisional Government, which at that time had a right-wing majority.
Autonomous status was returned to the Finns in March 1917, and the revolt in Russia handed to the Finnish Parliament true political power for the first time. The political left, consisting mainly of Social Democrats, covered a wide spectrum from moderate to revolutionary socialists; the political right was even more diverse, ranging from social liberals and moderate conservatives to rightist conservative elements. Their four main parties were:
The Finns faced a detrimental interaction of power struggle and breakdown of society during 1917. The collapse of Russia induced a chain reaction of disintegration among the Finns starting from the government, military power and economy, and spreading downwards to all fields of the society such as local administration and workplaces, and finally to the level of individual citizens as changes and questions of freedom, responsibility and morality. The blow of World War I hit the Finnish people and the nation, which, at the beginning of the 20th Century, stood at the crossroads between the old regime of the estates and the evolution of a modern, democratic society. The direction and goal of this period of change now became a matter of accelerating political dispute. This eventually spilled over into armed conflict because of the weakness of the Finnish state, lack of basic controlling factors, and instinctive reactions of the individual Finns under most uncertain and fearful conditions. The Social Democrats aimed at retaining the political rights of the labour movement already achieved, and establishing influence over the people and society. The conservatives were fearful of losing their long-held social and economic power. Both groups collaborated with the corresponding political forces in Russia, deepening the split in the nation.
As a consequence of the unbalanced social development and the labour movement's continuous position in the political opposition, the Social Democratic Party had gained an absolute majority in the new Parliament of Finland, in the general parliamentary elections of 1916. The new Senate was formed in March 1917 by Social Democrat and trade union leader Oskari Tokoi. His cabinet did not reflect the assembly of the Finnish parliament, with the socialists' absolute majority. It comprised six representatives from the Social Democrats and six from non-socialist parties. In theory, the new Senate consisted of a broad national coalition, but in practice, with the main political groups unwilling to compromise and the most experienced politicians remaining outside it, the cabinet proved unable to solve any major local Finnish problems. After the First Russian Revolution of 1917 in February, real political power shifted to the street level in the form of mass meetings, strike organizations, and the street councils formed by workers and soldiers, and to active organizations of the employers, all of which served to undermine the authority of the state.
The rapid economic growth stimulated by World War I, which had raised the incomes of industrial workers and profits of the employers during 1915 and 1916, collapsed with the February Revolution. The consequent decrease in production and economy led to unemployment and high inflation. For those who had a job, the February revolution gave freedom to reach for resolving long-term problems of their laborious working life; the workers called for eight-hour-per-day working limits, better working conditions, and higher wages. The demands led to demonstrations and large-scale strikes in both industry and agriculture throughout Finland.
The food supply of the country depended on cereals produced in southern mainland Russia, while the Finns had specialized in milk and butter production. The cessation of the cereal imports from disintegrating Russia led to food shortages in the country. The government responded to this by introducing rationing and price controls. The farmers opposed the control of the government; a black market with sharply rising food prices formed and export to free market of the Petrograd area increased. Food supply, prices, and in the end the fear of starvation became emotional political issues between farmers and industrial workers, in particular the unemployed ones. The common people, their fears exploited by the politicians and the political media, took to the streets. Despite the food shortages, no large-scale starvation hit the Finns in southern Finland before the war. Economic factors remained a supporting factor in the crisis of 1917, but only a secondary part of the power struggle of the state.
The passing of the Tokoi Senate bill, called the "Power Act", in July 1917 became the first one of the three culminations of the power struggle between the Social Democrats and the conservatives during the political crisis from March 1917 to the end of January 1918. The fall of the Russian emperor opened the question of who would hold the highest political power in the former Grand Duchy. Although the Finns had accepted the liberating manifesto (from the period of 1908–1916) of March 1917 issued by the Russian Provisional Government, they planned at least an expansion of the former autonomy.
The February Revolution offered the Finnish Social Democrats momentum: they had the exceptional absolute majority in the Parliament and a narrow dominance in the Senate. After the decades of political disappointments, the Social Democrats had an opportunity to take power. Conservatives were alarmed by the continuous increase of the socialists' support during 1899–1916, which had climaxed in 1917 with their dominance in the Parliament and Senate, without the offsetting control of the Emperor and Russian administration; the socialists had to be halted before they were able to markedly alter the power structure of the country.
The "Power Act" incorporated a plan by the Social Democrats to substantially increase and concentrate the power of Parliament, as a reaction to the non-parliamentary and conservative leadership of the Finnish Senate between 1906–1916. The bill also furthered Finnish autonomy by restricting Russia's influence on domestic Finnish affairs: the Provisional Government of Russia would determine only the foreign and military policies of Finland. In Parliament, the bill was adopted with the support of the Social Democrats, the Agrarian League, and some rightist activists and other non-socialists eager for Finnish sovereignty. The conservatives opposed the bill and some of the most right-wing representatives resigned from Parliament.
In Petrograd, the Social Democrats' plan had the backing of Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who by July 1917 were plotting a revolt against the Provisional Government. In the end, the Government still had the support of the Russian military; Lenin was thwarted during the "July Days" and forced to flee to Finland. As the Russians' war against Germany came increasingly closer to total defeat, the significance of the Finnish area as a buffer zone protecting Petrograd was highlighted, the Provisional Government disapproved the "Power Act" and sent more Russian Provisional Government troops to Finland. There, with the support and co-operation of Finnish conservatives, the Finnish Parliament was dissolved and new elections announced. In the October 1917 elections, the Social Democrats lost their absolute majority, which radicalized the labor movement and decreased support for relying on parliamentary means of achieving its aims. The events of July 1917 did not bring about the Red Revolution in January 1918 on their own, but together with political development based on the labour movement's interpretation of the ideas of Fennomania and socialism since the 1880s, these events were decisive for the goals of a Finnish revolution. In order to win power, the socialists had to overcome the Finnish Parliament.
The collapse of Russia in the February Revolution resulted in a loss of institutional authority in Finland and the dissolution of the police force, creating fear and uncertainty. In response, groups on both the right and left began assembling independent security groups for their own protection. At first, these groups were local and largely unarmed. By Autumn 1917, in the power vacuum following the dissolution of Parliament and in the absence of a stable government or a Finnish army, such forces began assuming a more military character. The Civil Guards (later called the White Guards) were organized by local men of influence, usually conservative academics, industrialists and major landowners and activists and were armed by the Germans. The Workers' Security Guards and Red Guards (later called solely the Red Guards) were often recruited through their local party sections and the labour unions, and were armed by the Russians.
Vladimir Lenin's Bolshevik October/November Revolution on the 7th of November transferred political power in Petrograd to the radical, left-wing socialists, a turn of events which suited the German Empire, exhausted from fighting on two major fronts. The policy of German leaders had been to foment unrest or revolution in Russia in order to force the Russians to sue for peace. To that end, they had arranged for the safe conduct of Lenin and his comrades from exile in Switzerland to Petrograd in April 1917, and financed the Bolshevik party, believing Lenin to be the most powerful weapon they could use against Russia. The German policy was a success; an armistice between Germany and the Bolshevik regime came into force on 6 December and peace negotiations began on 22 December 1917 at Brest-Litovsk.
November 1917 saw the second turning point in the 1917–1918 rivalry for the leadership of Finland. After the dissolution of the Finnish Parliament, the polarization of the Social Democrats and conservatives increased dramatically. The parliamentary power vacuum, lasting several months, enhanced role of the Red and White paramilitary groups. After the Finnish non-socialists won the October 1917 Parliamentary elections, they established an informal truce with the Russian Provisional Government, but the situation was disrupted by the October Revolution. The non-socialist majority of the new Finnish Parliament took power on 15 November, on the model of the "Power Act" of the socialists, and promptly accepted the Social Democratic proposals from July 1917 for an eight-hour working day and universal suffrage in local elections.
Finally, on 27 November the conservatives tried to hold onto power with the appointment of a purely conservative cabinet, led by Pehr Evind Svinhufvud. The government decided to separate Finland from Russia and strengthen the military power of the Civil Guards. The first Finnish "Jägers" had arrived in Finland on 31 October on a ship called "Equity", carrying a large shipment of weapons from the German Army. Equity was followed by a German U-boat (SM UC-57), with more "Jägers" and weapons, on 17 November 1917; there were around 50 "Jägers" in Finland by the end of 1917. Finnish conservatives were concerned over Germany and Russia's intent to conduct armistice and peace negotiations, fearing this would restrict Germany's ability to provide assistance to the "White Finns". Germany, however, agreed to sell 70,000 rifles and artillery to the White Guards and arrange the safe return of the "Jäger" battalion to Finland. There were 149 Civil-White Guards in Finland (local units in towns and rural communes) on 31 August 1917, 251 on 30 September, 315 on 31 October, 380 on 30 November 1917 and 408 on 26 January 1918. The first attempt at serious military training among the Civil Guards was the establishment of a 200-strong "cavalry school" at the Saksanniemi estate, in the vicinity of the town of Porvoo, east of Helsinki, on 19 September 1917.
Following the political defeats in July and October 1917, on 1 November the Social Democrats put forward an uncompromising program called "We Demand" in order to push for political concessions. They demanded annulment of the result of the October Parliamentary elections and disbanding of the Civil Guards, which the right refused. Following the October Revolution, Finnish socialists planned to ask the Bolsheviks for acceptance of Finland's sovereignty in a manifesto on 10 November, but the uncertain situation in Petrograd stalled it. After the "We Demand" program had failed, the socialists initiated a general strike on 14–19 November 1917. The moderate left aimed to put political pressure on the non-socialists to include a large number of socialists in the new Finnish Senate.
Revolution had been the goal of the radical left since the loss of the political power in July and October 1917. The shooting of an agricultural worker during a local strike on 9 August at Ypäjä created widespread anger; November 1917 seemed to offer momentum for a revolt. At this phase, Lenin and Joseph Stalin among others, under threat in Petrograd, urged the Social Democrats to seize power in Finland, which was an important defensive area against the German threat and a vital backup zone for the Bolsheviks in and around Petrograd. The majority of Finnish socialists were moderate and preferred parliamentary methods, prompting Lenin to label them "reluctant revolutionaries." This reluctance diminished as the general strike appeared to take effect, and the "Workers' Revolutionary Council" voted by a narrow majority to seize power on 16 November, but the supreme revolutionary Executive Committee was unable to recruit enough members to carry out the decision, and had to call off the proposed revolution the same day.
The Social Democrats held a special party meeting on 25–27 November 1917. There, the moderate socialists won the repeated vote over revolutionary versus parliamentary means, but when they tried to pass a resolution to completely abandon the idea of a socialist revolution in Finland, the party representatives voted it down. The Finnish labor movement wanted thus to sustain a military force of its own and keep the revolutionary road open too. The Finnish Social Democrats lack of interest in revolutionary activity and primary interest in sovereignty was a disappointment to Lenin. He lost his faith in them finally in December 1917 and shifted his energies toward encouraging the Finnish Bolsheviks in Petrograd. These incidents effectively split the Social Democrats in two, a majority supporting parliamentary means and a minority demanding revolution. The most revolutionary workers were bitter about the labour movement's decision to give up the political power that it had easily gained during the general strike. The repercussions of these events had a lasting effect on the future of the movement, with several powerful leaders staking positions within the party, and losing support among the radical workers.
Among the labor movement, a more marked consequence of Autumn 1917 was the rise of the Workers' Guards. There were approximately 20–60 Guards of the Working class in Finland between 31 August and 30 September 1917, but on 20 October, after the defeat in the October Parliamentary elections, the Finnish Labor Union proclaimed the need to establish more Guards in the country. The announcement led to a rush of recruits to the Guards; on 31 October their number was 100–150, 342 on 30 November 1917 and 375 on 26th January 1918. There were two parts to the Workers' Guards since May 1917, most of them being Security Guards, the minority were Red Guards, partly secret groups formed in industrialized towns and industrial centres including Helsinki, Kotka, Tampere, Turku, Viipuri and the Kymenlaakso area, on the model of the domestic Red Guards built up during 1905–1906 in Finland.
The presence of the two opposing armed forces in Finland, the Red and the White Guards, imposed a state of dual power and multiple sovereignty on Finnish society, typically the prelude to a civil war. The decisive cleavage between the two guards broke out during the general strike, when the radical elements of the Red Guards and Workers' Security Guards executed several political opponents in the main cities of southern Finland, and the first armed clashes between White Guards and Workers' Guards broke out; in total 34 casualties were reported. In the end, the political rivalries of 1917 led to a race for weapons and an escalation towards civil war.
The disintegration of Russia offered the Finns a historic opportunity to gain independence, but after the October Revolution, the positions of the conservatives and the Social Democrats on the sovereignty issue became reversed. The right was now eager for independence because sovereignty would assist them in controlling the left and in minimizing the influence of revolutionary Russia. The Social Democrats had aimed to increase independence of the Finns since the spring of 1917, but now they could not use it for the direct political benefit of their party, and had either to adjust to the right's dominance or try to change everything via a revolution. Nationalism had become a "civic religion" among the Finns by the end of the 19th century, but their main goal, particularly during the first period of Russification and the general strike in 1905, was a return to the autonomy of 1809–1898, not independence. Since 1809, under the less uniform Russian rule, the domestic power of the Finns increased substantially, compared to the unitary Swedish regime. In economy the Grand Duchy benefited from an independent domestic state budget, its own currency (the markka, since 1860) and customs organization, and the industrial progress during 1860–1916. The economy of the Grand Duchy was dependent on the huge Russian market, and separation from Russia would create a risk of losing Finland's preferred position. The economic collapse of Russia and the political power struggle of the Finnish state during 1917 were among the key factors that brought sovereignty to the fore in Finland.
P.E. Svinhufvud's Senate proposed Finland's declaration of independence, which the Parliament adopted on 6 December 1917. The Social Democrats voted against the Svinhufvud proposal while presenting an alternative declaration of independence containing no substantial differences. The socialists feared a further loss of support (as in the October elections) among nationalistic commoners and hoped to gain a political majority in the future. They sent two delegations during December 1917 to Petrograd to ask Lenin to approve Finnish independence. Both political groups, therefore, agreed on the need for Finnish sovereignty, despite strong disagreement on the selection of its leadership.
The establishment of sovereignty was not a foregone conclusion; for a small nation like Finland, recognition by Russia and the major European powers was essential. Three weeks after the declaration of independence, Svinhufvud's cabinet concluded, under pressure from Germany, that it would have to negotiate with Lenin for Russian recognition. In December 1917 the Bolsheviks were themselves under intense pressure from the Germans to conclude peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk, and Russia Bolshevism was in deep crisis, with a demoralized army and the fate of the October Revolution in doubt. Lenin calculated that the Bolsheviks could perhaps hold central parts of Russia but would have to give up some territories on its periphery, including Finland in the geopolitically less important north-western corner. As a result, Svinhufvud and his senate delegation won Lenin's concession of sovereignty on 31 December 1917.
By the beginning of the Civil War, Austria-Hungary, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland had recognized Finnish independence. The United Kingdom and United States did not approve it; they were standing by and following political and military relations between Finland and the German empire the main enemy of The Allies, which hoped to override Lenin's regime, and get Russia back into the war against Germany. As to Finland's separation from Russia, Germany had hastened it, in order to get Finland within the German sphere of power. France broke off diplomatic relations to the White government later, during the war of 1918, as a consequence of White Finland's co-operation with Germany.
In hindsight the events of 1917 have been seen as precursors of inevitable civil war, but the opposing political factions tried to create a new order, composed on their own, long-standing basis. By late 1917 the attempts at peaceful resolution had failed, and the power vacuum began to be filled by the paramilitary troops of the right and left. Suspicion and mistrust deepened in the society and put the possibility of compromise out of reach. The conservatives saw the radical workers as a threat to the dominance and security of the former estates and the political right, and resolved to use all means necessary to defend themselves, including armed force. The revolutionary workers considered removing the conservative regime by military force rather than allowing the achievements of the workers' movement to be reversed or implementation of new reforms to be hampered. The result of this hardening of positions was that in early 1918 moderate, peaceful men and women were forced to stand aside while the men with rifles stepped forward to take charge.
The final escalation towards war began in early January 1918, as each military or political act of the Reds or the Whites resulted in a corresponding counteraction by their opponents. Both sides justified these acts as defensive measures, particularly to their own supporters. On the left, the vanguard of the war of 1918 was the most radical urban Red Guards and Workers' Security Guards from Helsinki, Kotka and Turku; they led the rural Reds, and convinced those leaders of the Social Democrats who wavered between peace and war to support revolution. Since December 1917, the Red Guards had been under the command of Ali Aaltonen. On the right, the vanguard of the war was the Jägers who had been moved to Finland by the end of 1917, and the most active volunteer White Guards of Viipuri province in the southeastern corner of Finland, southwestern Finland, and southern Ostrobothnia.
The Svinhufvud Senate and the Parliament decided on 12 January 1918 to create a strong police authority, an initiative which the Red Guards saw as a step towards legalizing the White Guards. On 15 January, Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, a former, competent, general of the Imperial Russian Army, was appointed supreme commander of the White Guards, and on 25 January the Senate renamed the White Guards the Finnish White Army. The Red Guards refused to recognise the title, and decided to establish a military authority of their own. General Mannerheim located his headquarters in Vaasa, while Aaltonen located his in Helsinki. The third and final culmination of the power struggle between the Finns and the disintegration of Finnish society had begun.
The first serious local battles were fought during 9–21 January in southern and southeastern Finland, mainly to win the race for weapons and for control of the vital southeastern town of Viipuri. The White order to engage was issued on 25 January, and the Red Order of Revolution was issued on 26 January 1918. On the same day all the Workers' Guards united to form the Red Guard of Finland and a red lantern, a symbolic indicator of the coup d'état, was lit in the tower of the Helsinki Workers' Hall. In order to gain weapons and to secure a major power base in the Vaasa-Seinäjoki area the Whites continued disarmament of Russian garrisons, initiated locally in western and eastern Finland during 21–23 January, followed by a major operation in Ostrobothnia during the early hours of 28 January. The large scale mobilization of the Red Guards began in the late evening of 27 January. The Helsinki Guard, the strongest Red unit with its crucial strategic position in the capital of Finland had already become active on 23–25 January, aiming to secure a major power base for the Reds. In order to gain weaponry, some of the Red Guards located along the Viipuri-Tampere railway had been alerted beforehand, on 23–26 January, to safeguard Russian trains carrying a heavy shipment of weapons to the Finnish Reds, as agreed between Ali Aaltonen and V.I. Lenin on 13 January. A 250-strong Finnish Red unit escorted the trains from Petrograd to Viipuri. White troops in the Viipuri area tried to capture the trains; 20–30 Finns, Red and White, died in the "Battle of the Rahja Trains" in the Karelian Isthmus on 27 January 1918.
The official starting date of the Finnish Civil War remains a matter of debate.
At the beginning of the war, a discontinuous front line ran through southern Finland from west to east, dividing the country into White Finland and Red Finland. The Red Guards controlled the area to the south, including nearly all the major industrial centres, and the largest estates and farms with high numbers of crofters and tenant farmers. The White Army controlled the area to the north, which was predominantly agrarian with small or medium-sized farms and tenant farmers, and where crofters were few, or held a better social position than in the south. Enclaves of the opposing forces existed on both sides of the front line: within the White area lay the industrial towns of Varkaus, Kuopio, Oulu, Raahe, Kemi and Tornio; within the Red area lay Porvoo, Kirkkonummi and Uusikaupunki. The elimination of these strongholds was a priority for both armies in February 1918.
Red Finland, named also the Finnish Socialist Workers' Republic, was led by the People's Delegation, established on 28 January, in Helsinki. Kullervo Manner was the chairman and other delegates included Edvard Gylling, Eero Haapalainen, Anna Karhinen, Otto Ville Kuusinen, Hilja Pärssinen, Yrjö Sirola and Oskari Tokoi. Otto Ville Kuusinen formulated a proposal for a new constitution, influenced by those of Switzerland and the United States, among others.
The People's Delegation sought socialism based on the Finnish Social Democratic ethos; their vision of democratic socialism for the country differed sharply from Lenin's dictatorship of the proletariat. Political power was to be concentrated in Parliament, with a lesser role for the Senate. The proposal included a multi-party system, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and the press, and the use of referenda for, as an example, dissolving the Parliament. In order to ensure the power of the labour movement, the common people would have a right to "continuous revolution". The Reds' plans concerning private property rights were in conflict with their plans for an "ultrademocratic" and free society; only the state and local administration of municipalities would have had true property rights. In agriculture the crofters were liberated from the control of the landowners at the beginning of the war, but they were allowed only a right of containment of the farms under the plans of a later general socialization in the country. All these plans, including the new constitution, remained unfulfilled, as the Reds lost the war.
In foreign policy Red Finland leaned on Bolshevist Russia, which declared its support for the Finnish revolution. A treaty and peace agreement—the world's first between two socialist governments—was signed on 1 March 1918. The negotiations for the treaty revealed, that, as in World War I in general, nationalism was more important for both sides than the principles of international socialism. The Red Finns did not accept total alliance with the Bolsheviks; major disputes continued over demarcation of the border between Red Finland and Soviet Russia, and over the civil rights of Russian citizens in Finland. The bargaining sides agreed to an exchange of land areas; an artillery base, Ino, located in the Karelian Isthmus, was transferred to Russia, while Finland received Petsamo in north-eastern Lapland. The significance of the Finnish-Russian Red treaty evaporated almost immediately, due to the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk between the Bolsheviks and the German Empire on 3 March 1918.
Lenin's policy of the right of nations to self-determination was aimed at preventing the disintegration of Russia during its period of military weakness. He hoped to utilize the power vacuums and political rivalries commonly formed inside fledgling nations as they separated from major, splintering countries. He expected that in the political circumstances of Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century, the proletariat of free nations would carry out socialist revolutions, and unite with Soviet Russia later. The majority of the Finnish labour movement supported Finland's independence. The most radical Guards and the Finnish Bolsheviks—influential though few in number—favoured annexation of Finland by Russia. The question of annexation was resolved by the defeat of Red Finland.
The senate of White Finland came to be known as the Vaasa Senate after its relocation to the west-coast city of Vaasa, which acted as the capital of White Finland from 29 January to 3 May. The Senate consisted of P.E. Svinhufvud, Juhani Arajärvi, J. Castren, Alexander Frey, E.Y. Pehkonen and Heikki Renvall. In domestic policy the main goal of the White Senate was to return the right to power in Finland. The conservatives planned a monarchist political system, with a lesser role for Parliament. A section of the conservatives had always been against democracy; others had approved parliamentarianism since the revolutionary reform of 1906, but after the crisis of 1917 and the outbreak of the 1918 war, had concluded that empowering the common people would not work. Social liberals and reformist, moderate non-socialists, however, opposed any restriction of parliamentarianism. They initially resisted German military help, but the prolonged warfare changed their stance.
In foreign policy, the Vaasa Senate leaned on the German Empire for military and political aid, in order to defeat the Finnish Red Guards, end the influence of Bolshevist Russia in Finland, and expand Finnish territory to Russian Karelia, which held geopolitical significance, and was home to people speaking Finno-Ugric languages (Heimosodat). The weakness of Russia induced an idea of "Grand Finland" among the expansive factions of both the right and left; the Reds had claims concerning the same areas. General Mannerheim agreed on the need to take over eastern Karelia and for German weapons, but opposed German intervention in Finland. Mannerheim recognized the lack of combat skills of the Finnish Red Guards, and he leaned on the high military skills of the Finnish Jägers. As a former Russian army officer, Mannerheim was well aware of the demoralization of the Russian army. He co-operated with White Russian officers in Finland and Russia.
The competing parties' war propaganda aimed to prove their support of democracy and liberty and their ability to represent the whole Finnish nation. Both failed by allowing the political crisis to end up in the bloody Civil War and a comprehensive terror, instead of reaching a compromise to accomplish a peaceful political settlement.
The number of Finnish troops on each side varied from 50,000 to 90,000. While the Red Guards consisted mostly of volunteers (who, at the beginning of the war, were paid wages), the White Army contained only 11,000–15,000 volunteers, the remainder being conscripts. The main motives for volunteering were economic factors (salary, food), idealism, and peer pressure. The Red Guards included 2,000 female troops, mostly girls recruited from the industrial centres of southern Finland. Urban and agricultural workers constituted the majority of the Red Guards, whereas land-owning farmers and well-educated people formed the backbone of the White Army.
Both armies used child soldiers, mainly between 14 and 17 years of age. The usage of juvenile soldiers was not rare in World War I; children of that time were under the absolute authority of adults and generally were not shielded against exploitation. In the Finnish case, chaotic conditions, particularly at the beginning of the war, provided an additional reason to recruit child soldiers; military leaders took whoever they could get their hands on, and in the Red Guards there was also the chance of a salary.
The Finnish Civil War was fought primarily along the railways, the vital means of transporting troops and supplies. One of the most important objectives for both Guards was the seizure of Haapamäki, a railway junction northeast of Tampere which connected both western-eastern and southern-northern Finland. The Whites captured the junction at the end of January 1918, leading to fierce battles at Vilppula. The Whites' bridgehead south of the River Vuoksi at Antrea on the Karelian Isthmus threatened the railway connection Viipuri-Petrograd also. The other vital railway junctions during the war were Kouvola, Riihimäki, Tampere and Toijala. The significance of the railways to the Civil War of the Finns is well symbolized by the most modern and frightening weapon used in the turmoil: armoured train, carrying light cannons and heavy machine guns.
The Red Guards seized the early initiative in the war, taking control of Helsinki, the capital, in the early hours of 28 January, and gaining first advantage with an "attack phase" that lasted till early March 1918. The Reds were relatively well armed, but a chronic shortage of skilled leaders, both at command level and in the field, left them unable to capitalize on their initial momentum, and most of the offensives finally came to nothing. For the Red Guards, the military hierarchy and implementation of orders functioned effectively only at company and platoon level; even there, leadership and authority were weak, as most company and platoon commanders were chosen by the vote of the troopers. The Red troopers were not professional soldiers but armed civilians, whose military training, discipline and combat morale were mostly both inadequate and low; some defeated units, including their commanders, simply left the battlefield and travelled home, regardless of orders.
Ali Aaltonen found himself rapidly replaced in command of the Red troops by Eero Haapalainen, who in turn was replaced by the triumvirate of Eino Rahja, Adolf Taimi and Evert Eloranta. The last commander of the Red Guards was Kullervo Manner, who led the final retreat into Russia. Some talented men with a high sense of responsibility such as Hugo Salmela rose up to take the lead, but in the end they could not change the course of the war, and the fate of the Red troops. The Finnish Red Guards achieved their only victories as they retreated from southern Finland towards Russia. In the fierce battles against German troops on 28–29 April 1918 at Hauho and Tuulos, Syrjäntaka, female Red Guard platoons played a marked role. These combats had only local importance.
Although some 60,000 to 80,000 Russian soldiers of the former Tsar's army remained stationed in Finland at the start of the Civil War, the Russian contribution to the Red Guards' cause was to prove negligible. When the conflict began, Lenin tried to commit the army on behalf of Red Finland, but the troops were demoralized, war-weary and home-sick after years of World War I. The majority of the soldiers had returned to Russia by the end of March 1918. As a result, only 7,000 to 10,000 troops participated in the Finnish Civil War, of which no more than 4,000, in separate smaller units of 100–1,000 men, could be persuaded to fight in the front line. The Russian revolutions had split the Russian army officers politically and their attitude toward the Finnish civil war varied. Some of them, such as Mikhail Svetšnikov, led Red troops in western Finland throughout February 1918, while other officers were mistrustful of their revolutionary underlings and co-operated with their former colleague General Mannerheim, assisting the Whites in the disarmament of the Russian garrisons in Finland. On 30 January 1918 General Mannerheim proclaimed to Russian soldiers in Finland that the White army did not fight against Russia: the goal of the White campaign was to beat the Finnish Red rebels and the Russian troops supporting them.
The number of Russian soldiers active in the Civil War declined markedly once Germany attacked Russia on 18 February 1918. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed between Russia and Germany on 3 March, effectively restricted the Bolsheviks' ability to support the Finnish Red Guards with anything more than weapons and supplies. The Russians remained active on the south-eastern front, however, defending the approaches to Petrograd.
While the conflict has been called by some "The War of the Amateurs", the White Army had two major advantages over the Red Guards in the war: the professional military leadership of General Mannerheim and his staff—which included 84 Swedish volunteer officers and former Finnish officers of the Tsar's army—and 1,450 soldiers of the 1,900-strong, elite "Jäger" (Jääkärit) battalion. This battalion was trained in Germany during 1915–1917, and battle-hardened on the Eastern Front. The main part of the battalion arrived at Vaasa on 25 February 1918. On the battlefield the Jägers provided strong leadership that made disciplined action by the common White soldiers possible; the Jägers were allowed extensive latitude to lead the fighting. The White troopers were similar to those of the Red Guards: most of them had brief and inadequate training. At the beginning of the war, the leadership of the White Guards had little authority over volunteer White Guard platoons and companies, which obeyed only their dominant, local leaders. In the end of February, the Jägers started rapid training of six new Jäger Regiments, with conscripts.
Even the Jäger battalion was divided in the same way that the rest of the country was: 450 mostly socialist soldiers of the unit remained stationed in Germany as they could have chosen the Red side in the conflict. The leaders of the White Guards faced a similar problem with drafting young men to the army in February 1918: 30,000 obvious supporters of the Finnish labour movement never showed up. The White Guard leadership was also uncertain whether common troopers drafted from the small-sized and poor farms of central and northern Finland had strong enough motivation to fight the Finnish Reds. Accordingly, the propaganda of the Whites promoted a nationalist war against the Red, Bolshevist Russians, and belittled the significance of the Red Finns. Social divisions did appear both between southern and northern Finland and within rural Finland. The economy and society of the north had modernized more slowly than those of the south, there was a more pronounced conflict between Christianity and socialism in the north, and farmland had a major social status; ownership of even a small parcel of land created a motivation to fight against the Reds.
In February 1918 General Mannerheim weighed the question of where to focus the general offensive of the Whites, between two strategically vital enemy strongholds: Tampere, Finland's major industrial town in the south-west, and Viipuri, Karelia's main city. Although seizing Viipuri offered major advantages, the lack of combat skills of his army and potential for a major counterattack by the enemy in the area or in the south-west made it too risky.
Mannerheim decided to strike first at Tampere. He launched the attack on 16 March at Längelmäki, 65 km north-east of the town. At the same time, the White Army began advancing along a northern and north-western frontline, through Vilppula–Kuru–Kyröskoski–Suodenniemi. Many Red Guard units collapsed under the weight of the assault and several detachments retreated in panic, while some units defended their posts relentlessly, and were able to slow the advance of the White Guards, who were unaccustomed to offensive warfare. Eventually, the Whites cut off the Red troops' connection to the area south of Tampere, arriving in Lempäälä from the east, via Kangasala, on 24 March, and in Siuro (Nokia, Finland) and Ylöjärvi, in the west, on 25 March. They lay siege to Tampere, entering the town three days later.
The battle for Tampere was fought between 16,000 White and 14,000 Red soldiers. It was Finland's first large scale urban battle, and, along with the battles of Helsinki and Viipuri, one of the three decisive military engagements of the 1918 war. The fight for the Tampere town area began on 28 March, on the eve of Easter 1918 (later called the "bloody Maundy Thursday"), in the Kalevankangas graveyard. After this fierce combat, with more than 50% losses in some of the attacking units, the Whites re-organized their troops and their plans, and resumed the attack in the early hours of 3 April. After a heavy, concentrated artillery barrage, the White Guards began advancing from house to house and street to street, as the Red Guards retreated. In the late evening of 3 April the Whites reached the eastern river banks of Tammerkoski. The Reds' major attempts to break the siege of Tampere from outside, along the Helsinki-Tampere railway, failed. The Red Guards lost the western parts of the town between 4 and 5 April. The Tampere City Hall was among the last strongholds of the Red troops. The battle ended 6 April 1918 with the surrender of Red forces in the Pyynikki and Pispala sections of Tampere.
In the battle, the Reds, now on the defensive, had shown markedly increased motivation to fight. General Mannerheim had been compelled to deploy parts of his best trained detachments, the new Jäger regiments, which he had initially hoped to conserve for later use in the Viipuri area. The fighting in Tampere was purely a civil war—Finn against Finn, "brother rising against brother"—as most of the Russian army had retreated to Russia in March and the German troops had yet to arrive in Finland. The Battle of Tampere was the bloodiest action of the Civil War. The White Army lost 700–900 men, including 50 Jägers, the highest number of deaths the former Jäger battalion suffered in a single battle of the 1918 war. The Red Guards lost 1,000–1,500 soldiers, with a further 11,000–12,000 captured. 71 civilians, died mainly due to artillery fire. The eastern parts of the city, consisting mostly of wooden buildings, were destroyed completely.
After their defeat in Tampere, the Red Guards began a slow retreat eastwards. As the German army seized Helsinki, the White Army shifted its military focus to Viipuri, taking it on 29 April 1918 with a major attack of 18,500 men, against 15,000 Red troopers. 500–800 Reds died, and 12,000–15,000 were imprisoned.
The German Empire intervened in the Finnish Civil War on the side of the White Army in March 1918. Finnish nationalists leaning on Germanism had been seeking German aid in freeing Finland from Russian hegemony since Autumn 1917, but the Germans did not want to prejudice their armistice and peace negotiations with Russia because of the pressure they were facing at the Western front. The German stance was altered radically after 10 February when Leon Trotsky, despite the weakness of the Bolsheviks' position, broke off negotiations, hoping revolutions would break out in the German Empire and change everything. The German government promptly decided to teach Russia a lesson and, as a pretext for aggression, invited "requests for help" from the smaller countries west of Russia. Representatives of White Finland in Berlin duly requested help on 14 February; on 13 February the German Imperial Military Council had made the decision to send troops to Finland.
The Germans attacked Russia on 18 February; the offensive led to a rapid collapse and retreat of the Russian troops and to signature of the first Treaty of Brest-Litovsk by the Bolsheviks on 3 March 1918. Finland, the Baltic countries, Poland and Ukraine were transferred to the German power sphere. In the end, the economic and political investments that Germany had made in Russian communist leader Vladimir Lenin had paid off. The German army did not alter its military plans concerning Finland after the peace treaty with the Bolsheviks because the Civil War of the Finns had opened an easy access with low costs to Fennoscandia, and because troops of a British Naval squadron had invaded the harbour of Murmansk on the northwestern coast of Russia by the Arctic Ocean on 9 March 1918.
On 5 March a German naval squadron landed in the southwestern archipelago of Finland, on the Åland Islands, which the Swedish military expedition had taken over in mid-February. On 3 April 1918, the 10,000-strong Baltic Sea Division, led by Rüdiger von der Goltz, launched the main attack, west of Helsinki at Hanko, followed on 7 April by the 3,000-strong Detachment Brandenstein taking the town of Loviisa on the south-eastern coast. The main German formations advanced rapidly eastwards from Hanko and took Helsinki on 12–13 April. The Brigade Brandenstein overran the town of Lahti on 19 April, cutting the connection between the western and eastern Red Guards. The main German detachment advanced northwards from Helsinki and took Hyvinkää and Riihimäki on 21–22 April, followed by Hämeenlinna on 26 April. The efficient performance of the German top detachments in the civil war contrasted strikingly with that of the demoralized Russian troops. The final blow to the cause of the Finnish Reds was dealt when the Bolsheviks broke off the peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk, leading to the German eastern offensive in February 1918.
After peace talks between the Germans and the Finnish Reds were broken off on 11 April, the true battle for the capital of Finland began. At 5 a.m. on the foggy morning of 12 April 2,000–3,000 German soldiers from the Brigade von Tshirsky attacked the city from the north-west, supported via the Helsinki-Turku railway. The Germans broke through the area between Munkkiniemi and Pasila, and advanced on the central-western parts of the town. The German naval squadron Meurer blocked the city harbour, bombarded the southern town area, and landed naval troops at Katajanokka. Around 8,000–9,000 Finnish Reds defended Helsinki; their best troops, however, were located in the more northern main front of the 1918 war. The main strongholds of the Red defence were the Workers Hall, the Railway station, the Red Headquarters of "Smolna" (the former palace of the Russian governor-general, in southern Esplanade), the Senate-University area, and the former Russian garrisons in Helsinki. By the late evening of 12 April most of the major southern parts and all the western area of the city had been occupied by the Germans, who cleared the city house by house, street by street. Local Helsinki White Guards, hidden in the city during the war, joined the battle as the Germans advanced through the town. On 13 April German troops took over the Market Square, "Smolna", the Presidential Palace, and the Senate-Ritarihuone area. Toward the end, the Brigade Wolff with 2,000–3,000 soldiers joined the battle. The units rushed from north to the eastern parts of Helsinki, pushing into the working-class neighborhoods of Hermanni, Kallio and Sörnäinen. German artillery bombarded and destroyed the Helsinki Workers' Hall, and put out the Red lantern of the Finnish revolution. The eastern parts of the town surrendered at midday of 13 April; a white flag was raised in the tower of the Kallio church. Sporadic fighting lasted until the evening, and snipers continued their activities for several days. In total, 100–200 Germans, 300 Reds and 20 White Guard troopers were killed in the battle. Around 8,000 Reds were captured. The German army celebrated the victory and demonstrated its might with a major military parade in the centre of Helsinki on 14 April 1918.
Sweden protected its national interests by declaring neutrality during World War I and the Finnish Civil War. The general opinion, in particular among the Swedish elite was divided between supporters of the Allies and the Central powers, Germanism being somewhat more popular. Three war-time priorities determined pragmatic policy of the Swedish liberal-social democratic government; sound economics (through successful export of e.g iron-ore and foodstuff to Germany), sustaining tranquility of the Swedish society and geopolitics. The government accepted participation of Swedish volunteer officers and soldiers in the Finnish Civil War, on the White side, in order to block expansion of revolutionary unrest to Scandinavia. A 800-1, 000-strong "Swedish Brigade", led by Hjalmar Frisell, took part in the battles of Tampere and those fought in the area south of the town. In February 1918, the Swedish Navy escorted the German naval squadron, transporting Finnish Jägers and German weapons, and allowed the squadron to pass through Swedish territorial waters. The Swedish socialists did not provide support to the Finnish Reds but tried to open peace negotiations between the Finnish Whites and Reds. The weakness of Finland gave Sweden a chance to take-over geopolitically vital Finnish Åland islands, east of Stockholm, but the German army's Finland-operation stalled the plan.
During the civil war, the White Army and the Red Guards both perpetrated acts of terror, called the Red terror and White terror. The threshold of political violence had been crossed in the primarily peaceful Grand Duchy of Finland during the first period of Russification 1899–1905 when Finnish nationalists murdered a Russian governor-general, police officers and a Finnish civil servant. World War I enhanced the potential of terror as it was widespread between the Allies and the Central Powers during the conflict. The February Revolution in 1917 initiated a comprehensive terror in Finland; the Russian common army soldiers murdered several Russian army officers in March 1917. The first victim of non-war violence between the Finns, an agricultural worker, died at the beginning of August 1917 at Ypäjä, during a local strike. In the end, the general strike in November 1917 led to a marked Finnish political terror; the Worker's Guards murdered 27 Finns.
During the war of 1918 there were two kinds of Red and White political violence: (i) a calculated part of the general warfare, and (ii) more local, personal murders and corresponding acts of revenge. In the former, the highest staffs of both sides planned and organized these actions and gave orders to the lower level. At least a third of the Red terror and perhaps most of the White terror was centrally led. At the beginning of the war the governments of White Finland and Red Finland officially opposed acts of terror, but such operational decisions were made at the military level. The main purpose of the Red and White terror was to destroy the power structure of the opponent, clear and secure the areas governed by the armies since the beginning of the war and the areas seized and occupied by the common units during the conflict. Another goal of the terror was to create shock and fear among the civil population and the opposing soldiers. The lack of combat skills of the common soldiers in the both armies created the opportunity to use terror as a military weapon. Terror achieved some of the intended military objectives, but also gave additional motivation to each side to fight against an enemy perceived to be inhuman and cruel. The propaganda of the Reds and Whites utilized the terror acts of the opponent effectively, which increased the local political violence and the spiral of revenge.
The number of casualties and the timing of the terror differed markedly between the Reds and Whites.
|Months||Deaths from Red Violence||Deaths from White Violence|
The level of killings by the Red Guards varied over the months because the Reds could never seize and occupy new areas outside Red Finland, and they had to focus their efforts on the industrialized southern Finland, where they faced the establishment of Finland, and because in the end the Reds retreated from southern Finland. The Red Guards were less organized than the White army in respect to the political terror. The level of killings by the Whites varied over the months of the war because they occupied southern Finland, and initially did not encounter marked resistance from the area of White Finland. The comprehensive White terror started with the general offensive of the Whites in March 1918, increased constantly, culminated in the end of the war, and ceased soon after the enemy had been sent to the prison camps.
Most of the terror was undertaken by "flying detachments" deployed by the both armies. These were cavalry units, usually consisting of 10 to 80 soldiers aged 15 to 20, under the absolute authority of an experienced adult leader. The detachments, specialising in search-and-destroy operations behind the front lines and during and after battles, have been described as death squads. They resembled German Sturmbattalions and Russian Assault units organized during World War I.
The Red Guards executed the representatives of economic and/or social power in Finland, including politicians, major landowners, industrialists, police officers, civil servants, teachers, and leaders and members of the White Guards. Servants of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland (ten priests) and the labour movement members (90 obviously moderate socialists) were executed also, but they were not the main targets of the terror. The two major sites of the Red terror were Toijala and Kouvola. There 300–350 Whites were executed between February and April 1918.
The White Guards executed Red Guard and party leaders, Social Democratic representatives of the Finnish parliament and local Red administrations, members of the Red tribunals and police, and common troopers of the Red Guards, and those who had participated in a way or another to the Red Terror. During the peak of the White terror, between the end of April and the beginning of May, 200 Reds were shot per day. The White terror hit particularly strong against the Russian soldiers who fought with the Red Guards.
In total, 1,400–1,650 Whites died in the Red terror, and 7,000–10,000 Reds perished in the White terror. The White victims have been recorded quite exactly, but there are questions and permanent uncertainty about the Red victims of the terror. It is unclear which of the victims died in the battles and which of them were executed immediately after the battles. Together with the prison camp experiences of the Reds later in 1918, the terror caused the deepest mental wounds and scars of the Civil War among the majority of the Finns regardless of their political allegiance. It is also known that a part of those who carried out the terror were seriously traumatized, a phenomenon that was later to become well-documented.
After the defeat in Tampere and under the threat of invasion by the German division on the south coast, the People's Delegation retreated from Helsinki to Viipuri on 8 April. After the loss of Helsinki, most of them, only Edvard Gylling standing by his warriors, moved to Petrograd on 25 April 1918. The escape of the Red leadership made the ranks of the Red soldiers bitter and resentful. At the end of April, thousands of them, without true leadership, tried to flee to Petrograd from Red Finland, but the majority of the refugees were besieged by the White and the German troops. The Reds surrendered on 1–2 May in the Lahti area. The long caravans of the Reds included women and children, who experienced a desperate, chaotic escape with several human losses due to the attacks of the enemy. It was "a road of tears" for the Reds, but for the Whites the long enemy caravans heading east was a victorious scene. The Red Guards' last stronghold in south-east Finland, the area between Kouvola and Kotka, fell by 5 May. The war of 1918 ended on 15 May, when the Whites took over Ino, a Russian coastal artillery base on the Karelian Isthmus, from the Russian troops. White Finland and General Mannerheim celebrated the victory with a large military parade in Helsinki on 16 May 1918.
The Red Guards had been defeated. The initially pacifist Finnish labour movement had lost the Civil War, several of its military leaders committed suicide and a majority of the Reds were sent to prison camps. The Vaasa Senate returned to Helsinki on 4 May 1918, but the capital was under the control of the German army. White Finland had become a protectorate of the German Empire. General Rüdiger von der Goltz was called "the true Regent of Finland." No armistice or peace negotiations were carried out between White Finland and Red Finland, and an official peace treaty in order to end the Finnish Civil War was never signed.
|Cause of death||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|
|Prison camp deaths||11,652||4||1,790||13,446|
|Died after release from camp||607||-||6||613|
|Source: National Archive|
The Civil War was a catastrophe for the Finnish nation. Almost 37,000 people perished, 5,900 of whom (16 percent of the total) were between 14 and 20 years old, the youngest victims of the battles and the terror being between 8 and 10 years. Only about 10,000 of these casualties occurred on the battlefields; most of the deaths resulted from the terror campaigns and from the appalling conditions in the prison camps. In addition, the war left about 20,000 children orphaned. More than 1 percent of the nation's total population perished. Many Red Finland supporters fled to Russia at the end of the war and during the period that followed. The traumatic civil war created a legacy of bitterness, fear, hatred and desire for revenge, and deepened the divisions within Finnish society, a part of the Finns identifying themselves as "citizens of two nations."
The war of 1918 led also to disintegration within both socialist and the non-socialist factions. The power political shift toward the right caused a dispute between conservatives and liberals on the best system of government for Finland to adopt: the former demanded monarchy and restricted parliamentarianism, the latter demanded a Finnish republic with full-scale democracy and social reforms. In the conflict both sides justified their views both via political and legal grounds. The monarchists claimed that the law of 1772 from the Swedish period constituting monarchy was still in effect, the declaration of independence on 6 December 1917 determining only "a principle of republic," and that the constitution must be altered via the law of 1772. They proposed a modernized monarchist constitution for Finland. The republicans argued that the law of 1772 had lost its status in the February Revolution, the power and authority of the Russian Tsar had been assumed by the Finnish parliament through the proclamation of 15 November 1917 and Finnish republic had been accepted in the declaration of independence. The republicans were able to postpone processing of the monarchists' proposal in the parliament, and in the end a new monarchist constitution was not accepted in Finland. Therefore, the monarchists applied directly the law of 1772 to select a new monarch for the country.
A major consequence of the 1918 conflict was the breakup of the Finnish labour movement into three parts: moderate Social Democrats and left-wing socialists in Finland, and communists acting in Soviet Russia with the support of the Bolsheviks. The Social Democratic Party had its first official party meeting after the civil war on 25 December 1918, and the party proclaimed its commitment to parliamentary means and a moderate political program was composed, The Social Democrats disclaimed Bolshevism and communism. The leaders of Red Finland who had fled to Russia, on the other hand, established the Communist Party of Finland in Moscow on 29 August 1918. After the power struggle of 1917 and the bloody civil war, the former Fennomans and Social Democrats, who had supported "ultrademocratic" means in Red Finland, declared now to have committed to revolutionary Bolshevism-communism and to dictatorship of proletariat, under the control of V.I. Lenin.
A new conservative Senate, with a monarchist majority, was formed by JK Paasikivi in May 1918. All members of parliament who had taken part in the revolt were removed from office. This left only one Social Democrat later to be joined by two more. Accordingly the parliament was named a "rump parliament." At the end of May 1918, the Senate asked the German troops to remain in the country. Overall, the 3 March Treaty of Brest-Litovsk had placed White Finland in the sphere of influence of the German Empire and the agreements signed with the Germans on 7 March 1918 in return for the military intervention had bound Finland politically, economically and militarily to Germany. In summer 1918 Germany proposed a further military pact, as a part of the plan to secure food products for the Germans and raw materials for their industry from eastern Europe and tighten their control over Russia. General Mannerheim resigned his post on 25 May after disagreements with the Senate about German hegemony over the country, and about his planned attacks on Petrograd to repulse the Bolsheviks, and to Russian Karelia. The Germans opposed these attacks under the peace treaties they had signed with Russia.
On 9 October, under pressure from Germany, the monarchist Senate and the rump parliament chose a German prince, Friedrich Karl, brother-in-law of German Emperor William II, to become the King of Finland. In the end, General Rüdiger von der Goltz had been able to utilize the power vacuum and the dual power formed within the Finns during 1917–1918, for the power political benefit of the German Empire. All of these measures diminished Finnish sovereignty. The Finns, both right and left, had achieved independence on 6 December 1917 without a gunshot, but then compromised that independence by allowing the Germans to enter the country without difficulty during the Civil War.
The economic condition of the country had deteriorated so drastically that recovery to pre-conflict levels was not achieved until 1925. The most acute crisis was in the food supply, already deficient in 1917, though starvation had at that time been avoided in southern Finland. The Civil War, according to the leaders of Red Finland and White Finland, would solve all past problems; instead it led to starvation in southern Finland too. Late in 1918, Finnish politician Rudolf Holsti appealed for relief to Herbert Hoover, the American chairman of the Committee for Relief in Belgium: Hoover arranged for food shipments and persuaded the Allies to relax their blockade of the Baltic Sea, which had obstructed food supplies to Finland, to allow the food in.
The White Army and the German troops captured in total around 80,000 Red war prisoners, including 5,000 women, 1,500 children and 8,000 Russians. The largest prison camps were Suomenlinna, an island facing Helsinki, Hämeenlinna, Lahti, Riihimäki, Tammisaari (Ekenäs), Tampere and Viipuri. The Senate decided to keep the prisoners detained until each person's guilt could be examined; a law for a Tribunal of Treason was enacted on 29 May 1918. The Tribunal did not meet all the standards of neutral justice, due to the mental atmosphere of White Finland after the war. Approximately 75,000 Reds were convicted, mainly for complicity to treason. Most of the sentences were lenient and many got out on parole. Some 555 people were sentenced to death, of which 113 were executed. The trials revealed that also some innocent adults had been imprisoned.
Combined with the severe food shortage, the mass imprisonment led to high mortality rates in the camps, and the catastrophe was compounded by a mentality of punishment, anger and indifference on the part of the victors. Many prisoners felt that they were abandoned by their own leaders, who had fled to Russia. The physical and mental condition of the prisoners declined rapidly in May as food supplies had disrupted during the Red Guards' chaotic retreat in April, and a high number of Red prisoners had been sent to the less organized prison camps already during the first half of April in Tampere and Helsinki. As a consequence, 2,900 starved to death or died in June as a result of diseases caused by malnutrition and Spanish flu, 5,000 in July, 2,200 in August, and 1,000 in September. The mortality rate was highest in the Tammisaari camp at 34 percent, while in the others the rate varied between 5 percent and 20 percent. In total around 13,500 Finns perished. The dead were buried in mass graves near the camps.
The majority of the prisoners were paroled or pardoned by the end of 1918, after the change in the political situation. There were 6,100 Red prisoners left at the end of the year, 4,000 at the end of 1919 (3,000 pardoned in January 1920, at the same time civil rights were given back to 40,000 prisoners), 500 in 1923, and in 1927 the last 50 prisoners were pardoned by the Social Democratic government led by Väinö Tanner. In 1973, the Finnish government paid reparations to 11,600 persons imprisoned in the camps after the civil war. Several reasons for the long-term and relatively high support of communism in Finland can be found; for the civil war generation of the left, the traumatic hardships of the prison camps were decisive.
Just as the fate of the Finns was decided outside Finland in Saint Petersburg on 15 March 1917, so it was decided outside Finland again on 11 November 1918, this time in Berlin, as Germany accepted defeat in World War I. The grand plans of the German Empire had come to nothing, and revolution had spread among the German people due to lack of food, war-weariness, and defeat in the battles on the Western Front. General Rüdiger von der Goltz and the German troops left Helsinki on 16 December, and Prince Friedrich Karl, who had not yet been crowned, left his post on 20 December. Finland's status altered from a monarchist protectorate of the German Empire to an independent democratic republic, with a modernizing civil society. The system of government, the primary Constitution of Finland, was confirmed on 17 July 1919.
The first local elections based on universal suffrage in the history of Finland were held during 17–28 December 1918, and the first parliamentary election after the Civil War on 3 March 1919. The United States and the United Kingdom recognised Finnish sovereignty on 6–7 May 1919. The Western powers demanded establishment of democratic republics in post-war Europe in order to calm down the widespread revolutionary movements in Europe. The Finnish-Russian Treaty of Tartu (Russian-Finnish) signed on 14 October 1920 aimed to stabilize the political relations and settle the border line between the former Grand Duchy and its mainland.
After the Civil War, at the beginning of 1919 a moderate Social Democrat, Väinö Voionmaa, wrote: "Those who still trust in the future of this nation must have an exceptionally strong faith. This young independent country has lost almost everything due to the war...." He was a vital companion for the leader of the reformed Social Democratic Party, Väinö Tanner. In April 1918, a social liberal, non-socialist, the eventual first president of Finland, K.J. Ståhlberg, elected 25 July 1919, wrote: "It is urgent to get the life and development in this country back on the path that we had already reached in 1906 and which the turmoil of war turned us away from." He was supported by Santeri Alkio, the leader of the Agrarian League. Alkio's party colleague Kyösti Kallio gave his Nivala address on 5 May 1918 saying: "We must rebuild a Finnish nation, which is not divided into the Reds and Whites....We must establish a democratic Finnish republic, where all the Finns can feel that we are true citizens and members of this society." In the end, many of the moderate Finnish conservatives followed the thinking of Lauri Ingman, who wrote in spring 1918: "A political turn more to the right will not help us now, instead it would strengthen the support of socialism in this country."
Together with the other broader-minded Finns, the new partnership constructed a Finnish compromise which eventually delivered stable and broad parliamentary democracy. This compromise was based both on the defeat of Red Finland in the Civil War and the fact that most of the political goals of White Finland had not been achieved. After the foreign forces left Finland, the militant factions of the Red and the White lost their backup, while the pre-1918 cultural and national integrity, and the legacy of Fennomania, stood out among the Finns. The weakness of both Germany and Russia after World War I empowered Finland and made a peaceful, domestic Finnish social and political settlement possible. The reconciliation led to a slow and painful, but steady, national unification. In the end, the power vacuum and interregnum of 1917–1919 gave way to the Finnish compromise. From 1919 to 1991, the democracy and sovereignty of the Finns withstood challenges from right-wing and left-wing political radicalism, the crisis of World War II, and pressure from the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Between 1918 and 1950s the mainstream of literature and poetry presented the 1918 war from the point of view of the White victors; e.g. "Psalm of the Cannons" (Finnish: Tykkien virsi) by Arvi Järventaus in 1918. In poetry, Bertel Gripenberg, who had volunteered for the White army, celebrated its cause in "The Great Age" (Swedish: Den stora tiden) in 1928 and V.A. Koskenniemi in "Young Anthony" (Finnish: Nuori Anssi) in 1918. The war tales of the Red side were kept in silence or hidden at home or inside spheres of the workers. The first neutral-critical books were written soon after the war: "Devout Misery" (Finnish: Hurskas kurjuus) written by the Nobel Laureate in Literature Frans Emil Sillanpää in 1919, "Dead Apple trees" (Finnish: Kuolleet omenapuut) by Joel Lehtonen in 1918 and "Home coming" (Swedish: Hemkomsten) by Runar Schildt in 1919. They were followed by Jarl Hemmer in 1931 with the book "A man and his conscience" (Swedish: En man och hans samvete) and Oiva Paloheimo in 1942 with "Restless childhood" (Finnish: Levoton lapsuus). Lauri Viita's book "Scrambled ground" (Finnish: Moreeni) from 1950, presented life and experiences of a worker family in Tampere in 1918, including a point of view of outsiders in the Civil War.
Between 1959 and 1962, Väinö Linna, in his trilogy "Under the North Star" (Finnish: Täällä Pohjantähden alla), described the Civil War and World war II from the point of view of the common people. Part II of Linna's work markedly opened the larger view and the tales of the Reds in the 1918 war, and it had a significant mental effect in Finland. At the same time, a new point of view for the war was opened by the books of Paavo Haavikko "Private matters"(Finnish: Yksityisiä asioita), by Veijo Meri "The events of 1918" (Finnish: Vuoden 1918 tapahtumat) and Paavo Rintala "My grandmother and Mannerheim" (Finnish: Mummoni ja Mannerheim), all published in 1960. In poetry Viljo Kajava, who had experienced the horrors of the Battle of Tampere at the age of nine, presented a pacifist view of the civil war in his "Poems of Tampere 1918" (Finnish: Tampereen runot) in 1966. The similar point of view, in the same battle, is emphasized in the novel "Corpse bearer" (Finnish: Kylmien kyytimies) by Antti Tuuri from 2007. Väinö Linna's trilogy turned the general tide, and several books were written mainly from the point of view of the Red side in 1918: e.g. Tampere-trilogy by Erkki Lepokorpi in 1977, "John" (Finnish: Juho) by Juhani Syrjä in 1998 and "The Command" (Finnish: Käsky) by Leena Lander in 2003. Kjell Westö's epic novel "Where We Once Went" (Swedish: Där vi en gång gått) published in 2006 deals with the Finnish civil war, following individuals and families from both the Red and the White sides of the spectrum, before, during and after the war period. Kjell Westö's book "Mirage 38" (Swedish: Hägring 38) from 2013 describes Finnish pre-World war II mental atmosphere and post-war traumas of the 1918 war. F.E. Sillanpää's, Väinö Linna's, Lauri Viita's, Jarl Hemmer's, Paavo Rintala's, Leena Lander's and Kjell Westö's stories have been utilized in motion picture and in theatre.
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