Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, November 9, 2018

How Finland Gained Its Independence

From "The Baltic States from 1914 to 1923: The First World War and the Wars of Independence,"  Lt. Col. Andrew Parrott, Baltic Defense Review, No. 8, 2002

The Eduskunta, Finland's Parliament, Was Weakened
During the Civil War

In the aftermath of the First World War five new states were created out of what had been Tsarist Russia on the shores of the Baltic Sea. In the north, the Republic of Finland emerged as an independent state after just over a century as the Grand Duchy of Finland.

Fundamentally, Russia [by 1917] was weak. The collapse of the tsarist regime and the rise of the Bolsheviks provided a narrow window of opportunity for those wishing to escape from Russian domination. In the context of Eastern Europe at the time, Russia was weak but Germany was militarily strong. In a wider context, though, Germany was politically, militarily, and economically weak and the Allies were strong. At the end of the First World War, the Allies had no wish to allow the Germans, defeated in the west, to profit from their success in the east.

German weakness offered opportunities to the Baltic states. The growth of national identity in the Baltic states might be seen not so much as a strength but as a source of determination for exploiting the weaknesses and opportunities that arose. There is no doubt that the intervention of the Allies gave strength to the Baltic states, but this was essentially a by-product of other concerns. The Allies had no wish either to see the Russian Bolsheviks or Germany prosper. Generally it can be said that, exhausted after the First World War, the Allies had no wish to fight the Bolsheviks. They did, however, support the White Russians and others opposed to the Bolsheviks and in this circuitous way gave strength to the Baltic states.

As a Grand Duchy and not part of Russia proper, Finland enjoyed considerable autonomy, including the maintenance of its own military units, although as Finnish nationalism developed, the tsar sought to increasingly weaken Finnish autonomy and assert Russian control. The territory of the Grand Duchy of Finland was not directly involved in fighting during the First World War, and the impact of the war was mainly an economic one. 

Of course, Finland had no option but to follow Russia into the war, and while some areas of the economy suffered badly, others prospered. The forestry industry with export markets in the United Kingdom and western Europe was badly hit, but the metalworking, chemical, and textile industries all prospered in satisfying the demands of the Russian war effort. Thousands of Finns too were in the Russian armies, involved in the defense of Finland as well as more distant operations.

The February 1917 revolution in Russia caused the collapse of the Russian war effort, leading to economic hardship for many in Finland, and fueled the process of progress towards independence. The Russian Provisional Government believed they assumed the tsar’'s rights with respect to Finland, but a majority in Finland believed that with the abdication of the tsar the Russian Provisional Government could make no claim to being the supreme authority in Finland.

On 20 March 1917 the Russian Provisional Government proclaimed the restoration of Finland’'s constitutional rights, rights that over a long period of years had been increasingly ignored by an ever more authoritarian tsarist regime. The more liberal Mikhail Stakhovich replaced von Seyn, the much-disliked Russian Governor General, and many political exiles were allowed to return. Elections for the Finnish parliament, the Eduskunta, had taken place in 1916, but parliament was not allowed to meet until March 1917, when a new Social Democrat government was formed and took office on 27 March 1917. The new government was immediately confronted with both internal law and order problems and external problems regarding its relationship with the Russian Provisional Government. With regard to the internal problems in a number of towns, worker’s militias had formed and these sometimes found themselves confronted by civil guards recruited from among the bourgeoisie, often supported from Germany. In 1914 some in Finland had looked to Germany for support in the struggle for independence, and significant numbers of Finns had received military training in Germany during the course of the war.

On 18 July 1917 the Eduskunta approved an act making Finland independent in all respects except foreign affairs and defense. The Finnish cabinet was evenly divided on the issue but—controversially—Stakhovich, on the instructions of Kerensky, head of the Russian Provisional Government, voted against the measure, dissolved the Eduskunta and called new elections for October. The Social Democrats lost their overall majority in the October elections but did not accept the validity of the elections, regarding the Russian Provisional Government as having no right to dissolve the parliament. In the turmoil, exacerbated by the events of the October Revolution in Russia, a Central Revolutionary Council was formed on 8 November 1917 and called a general strike for 14 November 1917.

The strike and the violence that accompanied this strike alienated many Social Democrats. In the absence of any clear lead from Russia, the Eduskunta voted in a government headed by the champion of Finnish rights P. Svinhufvud, who presented to the Eduskunta a declaration of Finnish independence on 6 December 1917. Svinhufvud met Lenin in Petrograd on 31 December, and was told that Russia would recognize Finnish independence and the right-wing government in Helsinki. Finland slid toward civil war in January 1919.

In Finland the war of independence was more of a civil war than in the other states. The Russian Bolsheviks recognized Finnish independence at an early stage and did not openly play an active role in events in Finland. It was therefore left to Finnish Bolsheviks, who might or might not have sought a renewal of union with Russia, to dispute the style of government of Finland with the White Finns. Without doubt, the Germans contributed in large measure to the victory of the White Finns. Since the civil war in Finland took place before the end of the First World War, the Western Allies played, essentially, no role in the independence of Finland. The Finnish Civil War was fought between the socialist Reds and the non-socialist Whites, supported by Germany, in the newly sovereign state. The conflict lasted from late January until mid-May 1918 and resulted in a White victory. The war began as an offshoot of the October Revolution.

A Finnish aristocrat, Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim served as
cavalry commander in the Imperial Russian Army during the
First World War. After the Russian Revolution, he commanded
Finnish White forces in the Finnish Civil War of 1918.
He served as the head of state of independent Finland in 1918–1919

On 18 January, General Mannerheim, charged by the government with establishing a military headquarters, left Helsinki for Vaasa to establish such a headquarters, since both Helsinki and Tampere were largely under the control of the Red Guards, as the worker’s militias had become. On 19 January the government asked Germany to return to Finland the Finnish Jaeger battalion that had been fighting for Germany. Five days later they demanded the removal of the 40,000 Russian troops on Finnish territory and requested help from those countries that had recognized Finland. The next day the government formally constituted the Civil Guards as the state force responsible for law and order. 

The civil war started on the night of 27 January when Red Guards formally took control of Helsinki and established a revolutionary government. By the beginning of February a front line ran north of Pori, Tampere, Lahti, and Lappeenranta with the Red Guards in control of all the major urban centers. The Whites, however, were better organized and equipped and more united.The Whites received significant reinforcement when the Finnish Jaeger battalion arrived back in Finland on 25 February 1918. The Germans also provided very significant assistance to the Whites. In March German naval units landed on and occupied the Aaland Islands. 

On 3 April a German expeditionary force commanded by General Count von der Goltz landed at Hanko on the southwest coast and started to advance on Helsinki. A few days later another German force landed at Loviisa and advanced north toward Lahti to cut the railway line between Helsinki and Petrograd. At around the same time, White forces advancing from the north captured Tampere. Helsinki fell to the German forces of General von der Goltz on 13 April 1918, and two weeks later prominent members of the Red Guards and leaders of the Revolutionary Government fled to Russia. On 16 May Mannerheim led a victory parade through Helsinki. On 18 May the Eduskunta met and appointed Svinhufvud as regent with the same powers as those previously vested in the tsar. Still expecting a German victory, Svinhufvud sought to create a monarchy for Finland from within Germany. These plans came to nought with the collapse of Germany and the withdrawal of German troops from Finland, and Svinhufvud resigned being replaced by Mannheim as regent in late 1918. Mannerheim had resigned in May in protest at the degree of influence being allowed to the Germans, and on being appointed regent had to be recalled from London where he had been engaged on an unofficial mission to improve relations between Finland and the Western Allies.

Execution of Finnish Reds, Losers in the Civil War

New elections to the Eduskunta were held in March 1919, and the Eduskunta elected Professor K. Stahlberg as first president of the Republic of Finland on 25 July 1919. In July 1920, Finland started peace negotiations with the Bolsheviks, once it was clear that the White Russians, who were opposed to Finnish independence, had been defeated. Agreement was reached at the Treaty of Tartu signed on 14 October 1920, and by the terms of this treaty the Petsamo district, giving Finland access to the Arctic Ocean, was ceded to Finland. Tsar Alexander II had promised this area to Finland in 1864, in exchange for two districts in the Karelian Isthmus that Finland had ceded to Russia. The tsar had not kept his word, though, and it was left to the Bolsheviks to honor the promise made by the tsar over half a century later.

1 comment:

  1. Such a brutal conflict. Every other Finn I know has strong opinions on it now, 100 years later.