213: Finnish Civil War Pt. 1


When the Tsar was removed from power nationalist movements all over the Empire were emboldened in their quest for independence, and one of these movements was in Finland.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 213. This week a thank you goes out to David, Marcin, Daniel, and JR for choosing to support this podcast on Patreon, where they get access to special ad free versions of all of the episodes as well as special Patreon only episodes once a month. The most recent series of Patreon episodes is a deep dive into the Anglo-German Naval arms race before 1914, an event that many consider to be a major contributing factor to the British entry into the war. If that sounds interesting to you, head on over to patreon.com/historyofthegreatwar to find out more. This will be our first episode in a series of five episodes where we discuss the civil wars and revolutions that would occur in the Baltic States, and Finland, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolutions. In each of the four states that we will be discussing, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and Finland the revolutionary energies of socialism and Bolshevism would mix together with the nationalist feelings that had, in many cases, been growing in the countries for generations. Today we will start with Finland. Finland, since it had been taken from Sweden by Russia in 1809 had been somewhat apart from the rest of the Tsar’s domains. It was, in some ways, special, and when the February revolution occurred in 1917 it would be at the top of the list in trying to assert its autonomy from the Provisional Government. The two groups would come to an understanding during the summer of 1917, an understanding that was then disrupted by the October Revolution that brought to Bolsheviks to power. This change in leadership in Petrograd would cause tensions in Finland, which had been building throughout the summer months to explode. The Social Democrats on the left and the bourgeoisie on the right would begin to clash, first politically and then military as they both tried to shape the future of Finland. These clashes would turn to violence in the final weeks of 1917 and in the early weeks of 1918 until finally erupting into the start of the civil war, which many date to January 27th 1918. The two sides in the Civil War were categorized, much like in Russia, as the Reds and the Whites, although the specific hues of Red and White were quite different in Finland. To simplify it quite a bit, in Finland, as opposed to Russia, the Reds were generally far more moderate, seeking a Democratic Socialist government more reminiscent of the Provisional Government than the communist government that had been erected by the Bolsheviks. On the other side the Whites were generally more monarchist, and had a higher percentage of rural members, than in Russia. The two sides would build up their support in their own areas of Finland, with the Whites in the West and the Reds centered around the capital of Helsinki. After they had gathered their forces the two sides would fight for the next three months throughout Finland, including a clash at the city of Tampere which would be the largest battle in any of the Nordic countries up to that point in history. During those three months of fighting tens of thousands would be killed, and the war would be end not with the Finnish White Army marching into the capital, but instead a German one. It would be those Germans, under the command of General von der Goltz that would enter the capital on April 13th, forcing the Red leaders to flee to Russia. While the Civil War was brief, especially in comparison to many of the other conflicts during this period, it was still brutal, as almost all Civil Wars are. Much like in Russia there would be both Red and White terrors with several thousand people killed on both sides during their campaigns of terror. Then in an odd twist, after the war was over, a war that the Reds and the Social Democrats lost, the Social Democrats were soon in a better position than they had originally started in before any fighting had occurred. This odd twist of fate will be covered in the next episode. We have to start our story not in 1917, but instead over a century before, when Russia took over the area that would later become Finland, in 1809.

The area that we know today as Finland had been a part of Sweden for centuries when it was taken over by the Russian Empire in 1809. At that point there had not been an independent Finland, well, every, with the area never really having been formally unified. That did not prevent the nationalist sentiment that was present all over the world from also taking root in Finland. The rise of Finnish nationalism would grow only slowly after it became apart of the Russian Empire, but it would steadily increase until about the 1860s, at which point its growth would accelerate. One of the mottos of the movement, which I have the Finnish here for, but I am not even going to attempt it, translates to “Swedes we are no more, Russians we cannot become, therefore Finns we must be.” For over a century this nationalist movement would exist, but it would not lead to any true confrontations with Russia. The reasons for this lack of confrontation was due to the fact that Finland was always treated as a separate and semi-autonomous unit with Russian territory. It had its own government and its own representative bodies. This meant that the nationalist movements, instead of fighting for rights and autonomy, had a legitimate method of continuing to push for greater independence. It would be in the 15 years before the start of the First World War that Russia would begin to seriously attempt to reduce this autonomy, which would lead to conflict. These efforts were partially in response to changes in the Finnish economy.

During the 50 years before the First World War the Finnish economy would rapidly expand. At this same time the area was growing closer to the rest of Europe and away from Russia, especially after the events of the Crimean War. Much of this change was fueled by an industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism. This resulted in many of the old economic structures breaking down, but in ways that were unique to Finland. The primary Finnish industry was forestry, and it would drive much of the growth in the economy. However, the peasants owned most of the really good forestry land and this meant that, in contrast to many areas of Europe, the economic improvements were felt very strongly among the rural peasants. Eventually a rural class structure would develop, with some large land owners and other wage workers, but the prosperous rural class would be a far greater influencer on political events than in other countries. At this same time, in the cities, the same kind of industrial revolution was happening that was occurring in many cities around the world. This meant that unlike in Russia and other Eastern European countries, where the poor urban proletariat would often find common cause with the rural peasants, at least initially, in Finland the urban workers did not have much in common with the relatively wealthy rural Finn. Any conflict between the two groups was far in the future though, and during the last decade of the 19th century Finland as a whole would take advantage of its location between Russia and Europe by trading with both.

While the Finns had enjoyed a good amount of autonomy during the 19th century, around 1900 that began to change as the Russian leaders in St. Petersburg began a concerted campaign to bring Finland, and other outlying areas of the Russian empire, closer to Russia. For Finland that would result in the first of several Russification campaigns. The two most noticeable changes that were made was in the Finnish Diet and the usage of the Finnish Language. In 1898 and 1904 the Finnish Diet was reduced from a representative body with power in Finland to be more of just a body that the Russian leaders could, if they wanted to, maybe, get some advice. At the same time a law was put in place that Russian had to be used for all official communication, instead of Finnish which had been used throughout the country previously. both of these actions would bring together both the upper classes and the workers, with both groups using the Russian actions to stoke anti-Russian feelings throughout the country. This coalition would prove to be very damaging to Russian power in the area, which would be proven in 1905. In that year, along with disturbances all over Russia, a wave of strikes spread across Finland. They were strong enough to force the Russian authorities to negotiate, negotiations that resulted in the inclusion of Finnish representatives in the Russian Duma and the overall relaxation of the Russification efforts.

At around the same time that the Russification efforts began, in 1899 the Social Democratic Party in Finland would be founded. Over the next six years, leading up to the 1905 strikes which they helped organize, the party would see a meteoric rise in membership and support. The strike was just one part of their efforts to organize and advocate for the workers in Finland with another emphasis being on the creation of strong trade unions. These unions would help organize the workers, and unlike in many areas they were not initially strongly opposed by the industrial leaders. The hope among these leaders was that unions would actually ease tensions with the workers, instead of exacerbating them. At this early point there was strong support for the Social Democrats in all areas of Finland, including in the rural populations which would make up roughly 2/3rds of the party’s members in 1906. Over the following decade, the party would progressively become more and more focused on the urban workers.

When the First World War started the Finnish army operated as a separate entity from the Russian Army. They were financed by the Finnish Diet, but still took orders from Russian leaders, a system that was roughly equivalent to the setup in Germany between the various state armies. In general the Finnish soldiers, who received their supplies and food from the Finnish leaders, were better equipped and fed than the average Russian soldier. In August 1914, in an attempt to keep the Finns onside during the conflict, 50 known Finnish nationalists were arrested and sent to Siberia. This would cause the Finnish leaders to reach out to Sweden for help in resisting, and making breaking away from, Russia. The Swedes were not up for helping, and so the Finnish leaders turned to Germany. Of course the Germans were more than willing to help a part of the Russian Empire resist Russian rule and they would agree to train, equip, and support units of Finnish soldiers. These volunteers would be known as Jagers. The agreement was that they would be a part of the German Army, but they could only be used to fight the Russians. This movement of Finnish volunteers to Germany was well known within the Russian leadership, and it resulted in a belief that the Finns were not reliable, especially if they were called upon to fight Germany. As a result, conscription was never extended into Finnish territory, which I guess was kind of a nice side effect of the strong nationalist movement. The soldiers that went to Germany, the Jagers, would end up playing a crucial role in the Finnish Civil War, as they would instantly become the best trained and equipped soldiers in the Finnish Army.

As with everything else in Russia, after the February 1917 revolution the relations between Finland and Russian quickly changed. After things had settled down in the Russian capital, and the Provisional government had been established, the Finns rapidly received a guarantee that they could expect all of the rights that they had been given after 1905 to be maintained. However, the Finnish leaders, led by the Social Democrat party, were no longer happy with those concessions, they wanted more, all the way up to full autonomy. Throughout the spring and early summer nothing serious happened, the Social democrat leaders pushed for more autonomy, but did so through official political channels. However, by June Finnish leaders began to become more and more adamant in their requests, and then demands, for more autonomy. There was only so far that the Provisional Government was willing to go in this direction, and the Finnish Social Democrats took the political path as far as they could but were not willing to resort to violence in their quest for a kind of Russian oriented independence. This reluctance allowed the right wing parties to become the champions for the Finnish independence movement. This shift would occur during the summer, and it would see the bourgeois parties championing a German oriented independence, even if it required violence. By mid-July the two different groups were at a breaking point, and when a law was brought up to the Finnish Diet that proclaimed full autonomy for Finland with all foreign policy and military affairs still handled by the Russians the parliament would reject it, and then dissolve. This dissolution then led to new elections in October 1917. key to the positions of both the left and the right in these new elections was that the other side were simply foreign puppets, either of the Russians from the left or the Germans from the right. Overall the election campaigns just caused the various fears and insecurities of the Finnish people to be inflamed, deepening the divide between the left and the right. The results of the elections would see the Social democrats lose the majority that they had won during the 1916 elections. This would prove to be the decisive breaking point between the left and the right in Finland, and when the new government was created the socialist leaders were not invited to join in the new government, with the cabinet instead being filled with representatives from the various right wing parties. This new government would move quickly to declare their preferred form of anti-Russian independence. The socialists could not do anything to stop these movies, which moved them into a position which was destined to be untenable.

The elections that would see the Social Democrats lose their majority would coincide with the October Revolution in Russia in which the Bolsheviks would come to power. This action would lead the Finnish left to become far more militant and organized. A group of left wing radicals, well radical on the Finnish scale, would create the Finnish Red Guards in Helsinki. The Social Democratic leaders would then find themselves in the tight spot. In general the Socialist leaders in Finland were quite moderate. They believed that violent actions were not only not the best path forward but were actively harmful to their goals of creating a socialist state. This put them at odds with the radicals within the Finnish Socialist movement, who wanted action, and violent action if necessary, to occur as soon as possible. To try and control and contain this sentiment the Workers’ Revolutionary Central Council would be created with the goal of recreating the socialist controlled parliament. This was only one of the actions taken by the moderate Socialists to try and control the more radical groups on the left, but it would only delay and not prevent the eventual slide to Civil War.

The creation of the Revolutionary Council would be followed by an organized strike that would spread across the country in November 1917. Depending on how you define the Civil War this could be the point that the Civil War began, although a definitive date is up for discussion. As the strikes grew in strength the leaders on the left made it clear that they did not support the strikes becoming a revolution. They did not want to seize power through violence, they only wanted to enter negotiations to bring about changes. The organized protests from the workers were initially met with confusion and disorganization from the Finnish government, made up of the leaders from the right. After taking control of the government the previous month they had not been able to consolidate and organize their new power. however, the strikes caused the various groups on the right to quickly coalesce to meet what they saw as a real threat to their position. After only five days though, and out of concern that the strikes were getting out of hand, the Socialist leaders would call them off, having achieved none of their goals and instead unifying the right against any further actions.

With the strikes over, but the right far more unified than before, the leaders in the Finnish government moved onto their next task, independence. After Lenin declared that the nationalities of the Russian Empire could declare independence the Finns would jump at the chance. Lenin and the other Bolshevik leaders believed that such independence movements would encourage the workers within the new countries to begin their own revolutions and then after that revolution they would bring themselves back under Russian Communist leadership. This belief would allow the Finnish Diet to introduce independence legislation on December 6th, which would pass with a vote of 100 to 88. The declaration was then sent to the Russian leaders who accepted it on December 28th. The new of this acceptance would arrive in Helsinki, and official recognition of Finland would arrive from both Sweden and France the next day. The French were very eager to be the first outside power to recognize Finnish independence, and they tried to get the British and Americans to join them in the hopes that this would keep the Finns away from the Germans, a move that did not work. With all of the official paperwork out of the way, in the first week of 1918 Finland was an independent country, but a deeply divided one.

Speaking of the views of the Russian Communists, I do want to mention the role of Russia in the coming Civil War. After the war was over the Whites would play up the role of Russia in the Civil War but really, they would not contribute much to the Finnish Red cause. Even from the earliest days of the Finnish and Russian Social Democratic movements, the Finnish Socialists had been very focused strictly on Finnish affairs. This prevented a feeling of cooperation from forming between the two groups. When the Bolsheviks came to power the drastic differences in socialists ideology prevented strong cooperation once again. The ideological conflict between the Bolsheviks on one side and the Finnish Socialists on the other would come to a head after the independence of Finland. This resulted in an official declaration of support from Moscow for the Red forces in Finland, but almost no real military support. There were two major factors that prevented this support. The first was that, unlike revolutions and civil wars in other areas of the former Russian Empire, the Finnish civil war simply happened too soon, before the Bolsheviks were able to solidify their power. The second was that, as I mentioned, the Finnish Social Democrats were incredibly hesitant to resort to violence. Their entire strategy was based around this quote from one of its members, Juho Wuoristo, “the revolution should go on step by step in any case so that we gain something that cannot be taken away.” For those with very long memories, back in the Russian Revolution episodes, when discussing the fall of the Provisional Government, I attributed much of the failure of the Provisional Government to their overcautious nature, and I will do so once again here when discussing the Finnish Socialists. The leaders were very cautious, and this let the more radical and aggressive parts of the party lead the way. The Red Guard would push events forward, while the leaders of the Social Democrats drug their feet, meaning that they were unprepared for the fighting that the Red Guards would lead them into. They would begin to lash out at the Finnish governments for what they saw as egregious violations of workers rights, and in these actions they would, in combination with those violations from the Whites, lead the country to war.