Finland 1917-1919: Three Conflicts, One Country

By Lavery, Jason | Scandinavian Review, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Finland 1917-1919: Three Conflicts, One Country


Lavery, Jason, Scandinavian Review


An American historian traces the tumultuous years following Finland's achievement of independence 90 years ago.

CELEBRATIONS OF NATIONAL INDEPENDENCE OFTEN consist of reaffirmations of collective unity. I first experienced such a reaffirmation in Finland on Independence Day in 1988.1 joined my friends in the students' torchlight march through central Helsinki to Senate Square. There the crowd listened to a short speech by then Mayor Raimo Ilaskivi. The mayor compared Finland's fortune to that of its neighbor, Estonia, still under Soviet rule. The event concluded with the singing of the national anthem. The torches in the crowd holding back the winter darkness illustrated the precariousness of a small country's independence.

These expressions of unity often contrast greatly with the chaos and division that can come with the achievement of national independence. In this respect, Finland is no exception. During the years 1917-1919, Finns conducted among themselves three conflicts whose possible outcomes could have taken Finland far from the path it has traveled since as an independent nation.

Conflict One: The Relationship with Russia

The possibility of an independent Finland arose with the collapse of the Russian monarchy under the weight of World War I in March 1917. Since 1809, Finland had been an autonomous grand duchy within the Russian Empire. Since the 1890s, Russian officials worked to reduce Finland's autonomy. The new Russian Provisional Government restored much of Finland's autonomy, but at the same time aimed to keep Finland in the Russian Empire pending the outcome of a constitutional convention.

After the collapse of the monarchy, all of Finland's political parties wanted at least greater autonomy for Finland. Across the political spectrum, a minority wanted immediate independence from Russia. At the time, Europe did not comprise solely independent nation-states as it does today. Rather, much of the continent consisted of multinational monarchies, such as the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Many Finns doubted that their country had the necessary economic and political resources for independence. Most non-socialist representatives in Finland's parliament wanted to negotiate any new autonomy or independence with Russia's new rulers. This desire for a negotiated settlement rested on the understanding that the Provisional Government was the legal successor to the monarchy. For their part, the largest party in parliament, the country's socialist party, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), as well as some non-socialists, argued that the end of the monarchy ended the bond between Finland and Russia. Finland was free to determine its own future, either as an independent state or as a part of a new Russia.

In July 1917, the Social Democrats proposed in Finland's parliament an Enabling Act making parliament the Finnish state's supreme body. Parliament would have the final word on all matters except foreign and defense policy, which would be left to Russian authorities. This was not a proposal for complete national independence. Parliament passed the measure by a wide margin of 136-66. The Provisional Government, using the powers of the deposed monarchy, responded by dissolving parliament and calling new elections. The October elections resulted in the SDP losing its majority in Parliament. The non-socialist parties won a majority by convincing voters that the socialists bore the responsibility for the growing unrest in the country. The Russian threat had dissipated in the minds of many voters, while the threat of violent domestic revolution had risen.

Despite the shift in power, events in Russia would keep a parliamentary majority for unilateral action. On November 7, 1917, the Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, overthrew the Provisional Government. The Bolshevik takeover transformed attitudes in Finland toward national independence. The non-socialist parties immediately wanted out of a Russia run by radical socialists. …

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