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The Establishment of Finnish Democracy


Väinö Tanner, a leader of the Finnish Social Democratic Party and prime minister, 1926-27
Courtesy Embassy of Finland, Washington

The end of the civil war in May 1918 found the government of Prime Minister Svinhufvud seated again in Helsinki. Many Finns, however, now questioned establishing the republic mentioned in the declaration of independence of December 6, 1917. Monarchist sentiment was widespread among middle-class Finns after the civil war for two reasons: monarchist Germany had helped the Whites to defeat the Reds, and a monarchy seemed capable of providing strong government and, thus, of better protecting the country. Owing to the absence from parliament of most of the socialists, rightists held the majority, through which they sought to establish a monarchal form of government. On May 18, 1918, that is, two days after General Mannerheim's triumphal entry into Helsinki, Svinhufvud was elected the "possessor of supreme authority," and the search for a suitable monarch began. The new prime minister was a prominent White politician, Juho Kusti Paasikivi. Its strongly pro-German mood led the government to offer the crown to a German nobleman, Friedrich Karl, Prince of Hesse, in October 1918. The sudden defeat of Germany in November 1918, however, discredited Svinhufvud's overtly pro-German and monarchal policy and led to his replacement by Mannerheim.

Meanwhile, the SDP was reorganized under Vainö Tanner, a Social Democrat who had not joined in the Red uprising, and this newly formed SDP repudiated the extremism and violence that had led to civil war. In the general parliamentary election of March 1919, the SDP again became the largest single party, winning 80 of 200 parliamentary seats. In conjunction with Finnish liberals, the SDP ensured that Finland would be a republic. On July 17, 1919, the parliament adopted a constitution that established a republican form of government, safeguarded the basic rights of citizens, and created a strong presidency with extensive powers and a six-year term of office. This Constitution was still in effect in 1988. Also in July 1919, the first president of Finland was elected. He was a moderate liberal named Kaarlo Juho StAhlberg, who had been the primary author of the Constitution. White Finland's main leaders, Svinhufvud, Mannerheim, and Paasikivi, retired from public life in 1918 and 1919, but each of the three would later be recalled to serve as president at a crucial moment in Finland's development--in 1931, 1944, and 1946, respectively. It is a tribute to the strength of the democratic tradition in Finland that the country was able to undergo a bloody and bitter civil war and almost immediately afterward recommence the practices of parliamentary democracy.

The achievement of independence and the experience of the civil war helped to bring about a major realignment of the political parties. The Old Finn Party and the Young Finn Party were disbanded, and Finnish speakers were divided into two new parties: conservatives and monarchists formed the National Coalition Party (Kansallinen Kokoomuspuolue--KOK); and liberals and republicans formed the National Progressive Party (Kansallinen Edistyspuolue--ED), the ranks of which included President StAhlberg. The Agrarian Party (Maalaisliitto--ML) took on the interests of farmers, and the Swedish People's Party (Svenska Folkpartiet--SFP), which had been founded in 1906, continued to represent the interests of Swedish speakers. The process of rehabilitating the SDP proceeded so far that in 1926 it was entrusted briefly with forming a government, with Vainö Tanner as prime minister. Of the twenty governments formed from 1919 to 1939, one was headed by the SDP; five by the KOK; six by the ML; and eight by the ED. On the average, there was thus one government a year, but this apparent parliamentary instability was balanced somewhat by the continuity provided by the office of president--in twenty years there were only four presidents.

Another major political party was the Communist Party of Finland (Suomen Kommunistinen Puolue--SKP), which was founded in August 1918 in Moscow by Finnish Reds who had fled to the Soviet Union at the close of the civil war. During the interwar period, the party was headed by Otto Kuusinen, a former minister in the Finnish Red government. Like much of the SKP leadership, he remained in exile in the Soviet Union, from where he directed the party's clandestine activities in Finland. The SKP attracted mainly left-wing militants and embittered survivors of the civil war. In the 1922 election, the SKP, acting under the front organization of the Finnish Socialist Workers' Party (Suomen Sosialistinen Työvaenpuolue--SSTP), received 14.8 percent of the total vote and twenty-seven seats in parliament. The following year the SSTP was declared treasonous and was outlawed. As a result, the communists formed another front organization, and in 1929 they won 13.5 percent of the vote before being outlawed in 1930. Deprived of political access, the communists tried to use strikes to disrupt the country's economic life. They had so far infiltrated the SAJ by 1930 that politically moderate trade unionists formed an entirely new organization, the Confederation of Finnish Trade Unions (Suomen Ammattiyhdistysten Keskusliitto-- SAK), which established itself solidly in the coming years.

The competition between Finnish speakers and Swedish speakers was defused by the Language Act of 1922, which declared both Finnish and Swedish to be official national languages. This law enabled the Swedish speaking minority to survive in Finland, although in the course of the twentieth century the Swedish- speakers have been gradually Finnicized, declining from 11 percent of the population in the 1920s to about 6 percent in the 1980s. The unanimity with which both language groups fought together in World War II attested to the success of the national integration.

The enduring domestic political turmoil generated by the civil war led to the rise not only of a large communist party, but also to that of a large radical right-wing movement. The right wing consisted mainly of Finnish nationalists who were unhappy with the 1920 Treaty of Dorpat (Tartu) that had formally ended the conflict between the Soviet Union and Finland and recognized Soviet sovereignty over Eastern Karelia. The more extreme Finnish nationalists hoped for the establishment of a Greater Finland (Suur-Suomi) that would unite the Finnic peoples of Northern Europe within boundaries, running from the Gulf of Bothnia to the White Sea and from Estonia to the Arctic Ocean, that included Eastern Karelia. Eastern Karelia was the area, located roughly between Finland and the White Sea, that was inhabited by Finnic-speaking people who, centuries before, had been brought under Russian rule and had been converted to Eastern Orthodoxy (see The Era of Swedish Rule , this ch.) Since the nineteenth century, romantic Finnish nationalists had sought to reunite the Karelians with Finland.

The most prominent organization advancing the Greater Finland idea was the Academic Karelia Society (Akateeminen Karjala-Seura- -AKS), which was founded in 1922 by Finnish students who had fought in Eastern Karelia against Soviet rule during the winter of 1921 to 1922. In the 1920s, the AKS became the dominant group among Finnish university students. Its members often retained their membership after their student days, and the AKS was strongly represented among civil servants, teachers, lawyers, physicians, and clergymen. Most Lutheran clergymen had been strongly pro-White during the civil war, and many of them were also active in the AKS and in the even more radical anti- communist Lapua movement. Thus the AKS created a worldview among an entire generation of educated Finns that was relentlessly anti-Soviet and expansionistic. (The Eastern Karelians were eventually assimilated into Russian culture through a deliberate Soviet policy of denationalization, aimed at removing any possibility of their being attracted to Finland.)

The military muscle for the right wing was provided by the Civil Guard. In the 1920s, the Civil Guard had a strength of about 100,000, and it received arms by parliamentary appropriation; however, Social Democrats, branded as leftists, were not welcome as members. Finally during World War II, the Civil Guard was integrated into the regular army, and peace was made with the Social Democrats. The Civil Guard included a women's auxiliary called Lotta Svard after a female hero of the war of 1808 to 1809. This organization performed important support work, behind the lines during the civil war and later during World War II, thereby releasing many men for service on the front.

The apogee of right-wing nationalism was reached in the Lapua movement, from 1929 to 1932. The emergence of the SKP in the 1920s had contributed to a rightward trend in politics that became evident as early as 1925 when Lauri Kristian Relander, a right-wing Agrarian, was elected president. In November 1929, a rightist mob broke up a communist rally at Lapua, a conservative town in northern Finland. That event inspired a movement dedicated to extirpating communism from Finland by any means, legal or illegal, an imperative that was termed the "Law of Lapua."

Under pressure from the Lapua movement, parliament outlawed communism through a series of laws passed in 1930. Not content, however, the Lapuans embarked on a campaign of terror against communists and others that included beatings, kidnappings, and murders. The Lapuans overreached themselves in 1930, however, when they kidnapped former president StAhlberg, whom they disliked for his alleged softness toward communism. Public revulsion against that act ensured the eventual decline of the Lapua movement.

The final major political success of the Lapuans came in the election to the presidency in 1931 of the former White leader, Svinhufvud, who was sympathetic to them. In February 1932, the Lapuans began calling for a "Finnish Hitler," and in March 1932, they used armed force to take over the town of Mantsala, not far from Helsinki, in what appeared to be the first step toward a rightist coup. Members of the Civil Guard were prominent in this coup attempt. The Lapuans had, however, underestimated President Svinhufvud, who used the Finnish army to isolate the rebellion and to suppress it without bloodshed. The leaders of the Mantsala revolt were tried and were convicted, and, although they were given only nominal sentences, the Lapua movement was outlawed.

The last flowering of right-wing nationalism began the month after the Mantsala revolt, when a number of ex-Lapuans formed the Patriotic People's Movement (Isanmaallinen Kansanliike--IKL). Ideologically, the IKL, calling for a new system to replace parliamentary democracy, picked up where the Lapua movement had left off. Much more than had the Lapua movement, the IKL styled itself a fascist organization, and it borrowed the ideas and trappings of Italian fascism and of German Nazism. Unlike the Lapua movement, the IKL achieved scant respectability among middle-class Finns. A future president of Finland, Urho Kekkonen, who in 1938 was minister of interior, banned the IKL. Like the communists, however, the IKL demanded the protection of the Constitution that it sought to destroy, and the IKL persuaded the Finnish courts to lift the ban.

By the late 1930s, Finland appeared to have surmounted the threat from the extreme right and to have upheld parliamentary democracy. The White hero of the civil war, General Mannerheim, speaking in 1933 at the May 16 parade, called for national reconciliation with the words; "We need no longer ask where the other fellow was fifteen years ago [that is, during the civil war]." In 1937 President Svinhufvud was replaced by a more politically moderate Agrarian Party leader, Kyösti Kallio, who promoted national integration by helping to form a so-called Red- Earth government coalition that included Social Democrats, National Progressives, and Agrarians.

A final factor promoting political integration during the interwar years was the steady growth of material prosperity. The agricultural sector continued to be the backbone of the economy throughout this period; in 1938 well over half of the population was engaged in farming. The main problem with agriculture before 1918 had been tenancy: about three-quarters of the rural families cultivated land under lease arrangements. In order to integrate these tenant farmers more firmly into society, several laws were passed between 1918 and 1922. The most notable was the so-called Lex Kallio (Kallio Law, named after its main proponent, Kyösti Kallio) in 1922; by it, loans and other forms of assistance were provided to help landless farmers obtain farmland. As a result, about 150,000 new independent holdings were created between the wars, so that by 1937 almost 90 percent of the farms were held by independent owners and the problem of tenancy was largely solved. Agriculture was also modernized by the great expansion of a cooperative movement, in which farmers pooled their resources in order to provide such basic services as credit and marketing at reasonable cost. The growth of dairy farming provided Finland with valuable export products. In summary, the agricultural sector of the Finnish economy showed notable progress between the wars.

In addition, Finnish industry recovered quickly from the devastation caused by the civil war, and by 1922 the lumber, paper, pulp, and cellulose industries had returned to their prewar level of production. As before the war, the lumber industry still led the economy, and its success fueled progress in other sectors. By the Treaty of Dorpat in 1920, Finland had gained nickel deposits near the Arctic port of Petsamo. These deposits were the largest in Europe, and production began there in 1939. The success of Finnish products on the world market was indicated by the general rise in exports and by the surplus in the balance of payments. Finnish governments protected economic prosperity by following generally conservative fiscal policies and by avoiding the creation of large domestic deficits or foreign indebtedness.

In the 1920s and the 1930s, Finnish society moved toward greater social integration and progress, mirroring developments in the Nordic region as a whole. Social legislation included protection of child workers; protection of laborers against the dangers of the workplace; compulsory social insurance for accidents, disability, and old age; aid for mothers and young children; aid for the poor, the crippled, the alcoholic, and the mentally deficient; and housing aid. Finland reflected European trends also in the emancipation of women, who gained voting rights in 1906 and full legal equality under the Constitution in 1919. The 1920s and the 1930s witnessed a great increase in the number of women in the work force, including the professions and politics.

Although in many ways Finland was predominantly nationalist and introspective in spirit, it participated increasingly in the outside world, both economically and culturally, a trend that contributed to its gradual integration into the international community.

Data as of December 1988


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