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The Finnish Civil War


Victory parade by German and Finnish White Guard troops, Helsinki, May 1918
Courtesy Embassy of Finland, Washington

The Revolution that was underway in Russia by March 8, 1917, spread to Helsinki on March 16, when the Russian fleet in Helsinki mutinied. The Provisional Government promulgated the so- called March Manifesto, which cancelled all previous unconstitutional legislation of the tsarist government regarding Finland. The Finns overwhelmingly favored independence, but the Provisional Government granted them neither independence nor any real political power, except in the realm of administration. As during the Revolution of 1905, most actual power in Finland was wielded by the local strike committees, of which there were usually two: one, middle-class; the other, working-class. Also as before, each of the two factions in Finnish society had its own private army: the middle-class, the Civil Guard; and the workers, the Red Guard. The disintegration of the normal organs of administration and order, especially the police, and their replacement by local strike committees and militias unsettled society and led to a growing sense of unease.

Contention among political factions grew. The SDP first sought to use its parliamentary majority to increase its power at the expense of the Provisional Government. In July 1917, it passed the so-called Power Act, which made the legislature supreme in Finland, and which reserved only matters of foreign affairs and defense for the Provisional Government. The latter thereupon dissolved the Finnish parliament and called for new elections. The campaign for these new elections was bitterly fought between the socialists and the nonsocialists. Violence between elements of the middle class and the working class escalated at this time, and murders were committed by both sides. The nonsocialists won in the election, reducing the socialist contingent in the parliament to 92 of 200 seats, below the threshold of an absolute majority.

Meanwhile, the socialists were becoming disillusioned with parliamentary politics. Their general failure to accomplish anything, using parliamentary action, from 1907 to 1917 contrasted strongly with their successes in the 1905 to 1906 period, using direct action. By autumn 1917, the trend in the SDP was for the rejection of parliamentary means in favor of revolutionary action. The high unemployment and the serious food shortages suffered, in particular, by the Finnish urban workers accelerated the growth of revolutionary fervor. The SDP proposed a comprehensive program of social reform, known as the We Demand (Me vaadimme) in late October 1917, but it was rejected by parliament, now controlled by the middle class. Acts of political violence then became more frequent. Finnish society was gradually dividing into two camps, both armed, and both intent on total victory.

The Bolshevik takeover in Russia in November 1917 heightened emotions in Finland. For the middle classes, the Bolsheviks aroused the specter of living under revolutionary socialism. Workers, however, were inspired by the apparent efficacy of revolutionary action. The success of the Bolsheviks emboldened the Finnish workers to begin a general strike on November 14, 1917, and within forty-eight hours they controlled most of the country. The most radical workers wanted to convert the general strike into a full seizure of power, but they were dissuaded by the SDP leaders, who were still committed to democratic procedures and who helped to bring an end to the strike by November 20. Already there were armed clashes between the Red Guards and the White Guards; during and after the general strike, a number of people were killed.

Following the general strike, the middle and the upper classes were in no mood for compromise, particularly because arms shipments and the return of some jaegers from Germany were transforming the White Guard into a credible fighting force. In November a middle-class government was established under the tough and uncompromising Pehr Evind Svinhufvud, and on December 6, 1917, it declared Finland independent. Since then, December 6 has been celebrated in Finland as Independence Day. True to his April Theses that called for the self-determination of nations, Lenin's Bolshevik government recognized Finland's independence on December 31.

Throughout December 1917 and January 1918, the Svinhufvud government demonstrated that it would make no concessions to the socialists and that it would rule without them. The point of no return probably was passed on January 9, 1918, when the government authorized the White Guard to act as a state security force and to establish law and order in Finland. That decision in turn encouraged the workers to make a preemptive strike, and in the succeeding days, revolutionary elements took over the socialist movement and called for a general uprising to begin on the night of January 27-28, 1918. Meanwhile, the government had appointed a Swedish-speaking Finn and former tsarist general, Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim (1867-1951), as the commander of its military forces, soon to be called the Whites. Independently of the Reds, Mannerheim also called for military action to begin on the night of January 27-28. Whether or not the civil war was avoidable has been debated ever since, but both sides must share in the responsibility for its outbreak because of their unwillingness to compromise.

Within a few days of the outbreak of the civil war, the front lines had stabilized. The Whites, whose troops were mostly farmers, controlled the northern and more rural part of the country. The Reds, who drew most of their support from the urban working class, controlled the southern part of the country, as well as the major cities and industrial centers and about one- half of the population. The Red forces numbered 100,000 to 140,000 during the course of the war, whereas the Whites mustered at most about 70,000.

The soldiers of both armies displayed great heroism on the battlefield; nevertheless, the Whites had a number of telling advantages--probably the most important of which was professional leadership--that made them the superior force. Mannerheim, the Whites' military leader, was a professional soldier who was experienced in conducting large-scale operations, and his strategic judgment guided the White cause almost flawlessly. He was aided by the influx of jaegers from Germany, most of whom were allowed to return to Finland in February 1918. The White side also had a number of professional Swedish military officers, who brought military professionalism even to the small-unit level. In addition, beginning in February, the Whites had better equipment, most of which was supplied by Germany. Finally, the Whites had the benefit of more effective foreign intervention on their side. The approximately 40,000 Russian troops remaining in Finland in January 1918 helped the Finnish Reds to a small extent, especially in such technical areas as artillery, but these troops were withdrawn after the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918, and thus were gone before fighting reached the crucial stage. On the White side, however, the Germans sent not only the jaegers and military equipment but also a reinforced division of first-rate troops, the Baltic Division, which proved superior to the Reds.

The Red Guards suffered from several major disadvantages: poor leadership, training, and equipment; food shortages; the practice of electing officers democratically, which made discipline lax; and the general unwillingness of the Red troops to go on offensive operations or even to operate outside their local areas. Ultimately, the Reds suffered most from a lack of dynamic leadership. There was no Finnish Lenin to direct the revolution, and there was no Finnish Trotsky to vitalize the Red armed forces. These Red disadvantages became apparent in late March and early April 1918, when the Whites won a decisive victory by reducing the Red stronghold of Tampere, the major inland industrial center. At about the same time, German forces landed along the southern coast, quickly driving all before them, securing Helsinki on April 13 and, in the process, destroying about half of the remaining effective strength of the Red Guards. The last Red strongholds in southeastern Finland were cleared out in late April and early May 1918, and thousands of Finnish Reds, including the Red leadership, escaped into the Soviet Union. On May 16, 1918, General Mannerheim entered Helsinki, formally marking the end of the conflict. Each year thereafter, until World War II, May 16 was celebrated by the Whites as a kind of second independence day.

The tragedy of the civil war was compounded by a reign of terror that was unleashed by each side. In Red-dominated areas, 1,649 people, mostly businessmen, independent farmers, and other members of the middle class were murdered for political reasons. This Red Terror appears not to have been a systematic effort to liquidate class enemies, but rather to have been generally random. The Red Terror was disavowed by the Red leadership and illustrated the extent to which the Red Guard evaded the control of the leadership. More than anything else, the Red Terror helped to alienate the populace from the Red cause; it also harmed the morale of the Reds.

The Red Terror confirmed the belief of the Whites that the Reds were criminals and traitors and were therefore not entitled to the protection of the rules of war. As a consequence, the Whites embarked on their own reign of terror, the White Terror, which proved much more ferocious than the Red Terror. First, there were reprisals against defeated Reds, in the form of mass executions of Red prisoners. These killings were carried on by local White commanders over the opposition of White leadership. At least 8,380 Reds were killed, more than half after the Whites' final victory. Another component of the White Terror was the suffering of the Reds imprisoned after the war. The Whites considered these Reds to be criminals and feared that they might start another insurrection. By May 1918, they had captured about 80,000 Red troops, whom they could neither house nor feed. Placed in a number of detention camps, the prisoners suffered from malnutrition and general neglect, and within a few months an estimated 12,000 of them had died. The third aspect of the White Terror was legal repression. As a result of mass trials, approximately 67,000 Reds were convicted of participating in the war, and of these 265 were executed; the remainder lost their rights of citizenship, although many sentences were later suspended or commuted.

The civil war was a catastrophe for Finland. In only a few months, about 30,000 Finns perished, less than a quarter of them on the battlefield, the rest in summary executions and in detention camps. These deaths amounted to about 1 percent of the total population of Finland. By comparison, the bloodiest war in the history of the United States, the Civil War, cost the lives of about 2 percent of the population, but that loss was spread out over four years.

The memory of the injuries perpetrated during the war divided the society into two camps; victors and vanquished. The working class had suffered the deaths of about 25,000 from battle, execution, or prison, and thousands of others had been imprisoned or had lost their political rights. Almost every working-class family had a direct experience of suffering or death at the hands of the Whites, and perhaps as much as 40 percent of the population was thereby alienated from the system. As a result, for several generations thereafter, a large number of Finns expressed their displeasure with the system by voting communist; and until the 1960s, the communists often won a fifth or more of the vote in Finland's national elections, a higher percentage than they did in most Western democracies.

The divisions in society that resulted from the conflict were so intense that the two sides could not even agree on what it ought to be called. The right gave it the name "War of Independence," thereby stressing the struggle against Russian rule, for they had feared that a Red victory could well lead to the country's becoming a Soviet satellite. Leftists emphasized the domestic dimensions of the conflict, referring to it by the term "Civil War." Their feelings about the course of the hostilities were so intense that, until the late 1930s, Social Democrats refused to march in the Independence Day parade. Today, with the passing of decades, historians have generally come to define the clash as a civil war.

Data as of December 1988


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