Independence Day – Finland 99 years as an independent state! – Part Three: The first decades of independence
In my previous post I started a series of blogs to celebrate the 99th Independence Day of Finland. The first post gave a brief overview of the time before independence and the second post discussed the process of nation-building and of making Finnish language a national language. In the third post I will try to give an overview on the struggle for independence and on the first decades of independence with the multitude of experiences made by the young nation.
The periods of oppression and resistance (1900 – 1916)
As I have mentioned in my previous posts, Finland had got a special status as an autonomous Grand Duchy under the Russian rule. This was topped up with the reforms that gave Finland its own currency (the Finnish Mark) and its own language rule (recognition of Finnish and Swedish as equal domestic languages). In the beginning the of the 20th century the new Czar Nikolai II was pushed by the pan-slavist movement of Russia to try to to abolish this autonomous status and the specific legislation inherited from Swedish era. These attempts are known in the Finnish history as the first and the second period of oppression (led by the General governors Bobrikoff and Seyn). The interventions of the Czar and the General governors met massive protests – petitions, demonstrations and campaigns for solidarity in Europe. Finally, the bigger events worked in favour of the small nation. In 1905 Russia lost the war against Japan and this led to a turmoil. As a concession, Czar Nikolai had to give up. Russia got its parliament – the Duma – and Finland got its own one-chambered parliament with equal voting rights for men and women (irrespective of social status).
Finland – with its newly elected parliament – was being consolidated as a nation state but the panslavists pushing the Czar did not give up. New attempts were made to withdraw the concessions and to stop the parliament working by dissolving it time and again. However, the times had changes. Already during the years of turmoil (1905-1906) bourgeois parties and the labour movement had started to set up their own armed forces to protect themselves from Russian police forces. And when the World War I broke out, many things changed. Firstly, Russia brought into Finland its own soldiers and refrained from calling Finns to military service. Secondly, part of the protest movement took steps towards armed resistance and sought cooperation with Germany. Thus, nearly 2000 young Finns travelled illegally to Germany to get military training there – and subsequently fought against Russia during the war.
The declaration of independence in 1917 and the civil war in 1918
The collapse of the czarist regime in 1917 led to a new situation. The Finnish (socialist-led) parliament took the course towards independence. The provisional government in Russia (led by Kerenski) blocked this and dissolved the parliament – once again (and this was supported by some bourgeois parties in Finland). When the new parliament was elected and constituted, the Bolshevik revolution in Russia changed the situation once more. Now, all parties were ready to take the step to full independence. The declaration of independence was approved in the Finnish parliament on the 6th of December 1917.
However, the newly declared independence did not remove the tensions. In January 1918 a civil war broke out between the armed forces of the bourgeois parties (the White guard) and of the radical labour movement (the Red guard). The young nation was divided – socially and geographically. A bitter civil war with atrocities on both sides was fought and finally, the White guard was winning. At that time the returners from military training in Germany came back with contingents of German troops and gave their ‘helping hand’ in conquering Helsinki from the Reds.
So, in the beginning of the period of independence the country was split – part of the elected parliament was either jailed or exiled. The bourgeois majority took initiative to set up a kingdom with a German royal house. But then Germany lost the war and the German troops left Finland. So, the time was ripe to start as a republic with a democratic constitution (originally drafted by the first president Ståhlberg) and to to try to bring the nation together again.
The years of reconstruction, unrest and recovery (the 1920s and 1930s)
The first years of the young republic were characterised by post-war reconstruction and by rebuilding the nation with its own institutions and modes of governance. Education, healthcare and public transport were reorganised. The economy started to recover and foreign trade started to boom – the forestry sector was in the lead. A major factor in good and bad was the struggle with the prohibition law – smuggle and distribution of illegal alcohol created powerful commercial networks. But – the end of the prohibition law led them to legal business rather than criminal networks.
In politics the country remained divided. When the economic development turned towards depression, the political life was polarised. The country was shaken by a fascist-like mass movement that terrorised left-wing politicians and bourgeois liberals and was about to start a military coup d’état. The bold measures of the conservative president Svinhufvud (one of the leaders of the earlier independence movement) stopped these attempts and paved the way for years of appeasement. Thus, the latter half of the 1930s was characterised by economic recovery, political cooperation between the social democrats and the agrarian party (the centre party). And these years are also remembered because of long and hot summers.
The three wars during the World War II (1939 – 1945)
Once again, bigger events intervened into the destiny of the small country. By the end of the 1930s the expansive and aggressive policies of Nazi-Germany gave clear signs of the coming war. But the crucial strike for Finland was the Hitler-Stalin agreement and their secret agreements on zones of interest (regarding countries between Germany and Soviet Union. Accordingly, Soviet Union made a proposal that Finland should give away an area at the Karelian isthmus and get as compensation another area from the Soviet Karelia (further north). Finland did not accept the proposal and a war broke out. In this “Winter war” 1939-1940 Finland was fighting alone against Soviet army. However, the Finns had a powerful ally – the coldest winter of the century. The Finnish troops were better used to the climate whilst the Soviet troops were badly equipped and were not prepared for hard resistance. After 100 days of fighting and major losses on both sides a ceasefire was agreed and the peace treaty of Moscow was negotiated. Although Finland had been able to defend its territory, the defense had reached its limits and therefore the terms were hard – the Karelian isthmus and the municipalities around the Ladoga lake, the Petsamo (Petshenga) mining area in Lapland and some smaller areas were given away. In addition, the Soviet Union got the the right to have a military base in Hanko (near Helsinki, opposite Tallinn) as a ‘tenant’.
The following period (1940-1941) was already at that time called the ‘interim peace’ and the the bigger picture moved to that direction. When Nazi-Germany with its allies attached the Soviet Union, it declared Finland as one of the allies. Although there was no written agreement between the governments, preparations had already been made for a second war – counting on being on the same side as the Germans. I would like to emphasise that Finland was not ruled by Nazi-minded puppet government (like Quisling in Norway) but by coalitions that would have preferred to side with Western allies. But that was not on the cards. So, when the Germans attacked, war broke out between Finland and Soviet Union as well. This time the Soviet army was retreating and the Finnish army was conquering back old Finnish territory – and continued to those parts of Karealia that was never part of Finland. Then, for quite a while the fronts were stable. But in 1944 there was a massive offensive of the Soviet forces – and the Finns had to retreat. The final defense battles were fought on the ‘old’ and ‘newer’ borderlines – and the defense held. At that time the Soviets were more keen to get rid of this minor battlefield and move their troops further – to reach Germany and Berlin before their Western allies. So, in summer a separate interim peace was reached between Finland and Soviet Union and the new borders were drawn (on the basis of the 1940 peace treaty). And now, instead of Hanko, the Soviets wanted a military base from Porkkala (closer to Helsinki and Tallinn), again as a ‘tenant’. This was the end of the ‘Continuation war’ (1941 – 1944) as the Finns call it.
Once again, the lost areas from Karelia were to be emptied from Finnish inhabitants (if they had not already been evacuated) and other terms of the interim peace had to be respected (see more in the next post). But the most important obligation led to the third war in which the Finns fought during the World War II – the War of Lapland (1944 – 1945).
The background of this war dates back to the years 1940-1941. At that time Germany had occupied Norway and had agreed transit rights for German troops (going on holidays and returning) via Finnish territory to the Northern part of Norway. In 1941 when Germany attacked Soviet Union, it sent several contingents of such ‘transiters’ to Northern Finland. And in a short while a mutual agreement was reached that these contingents will be based in Lapland and they will be in charge of the Northern fronts (next to the Petsamo/Petshenga mining area). Now, when Finland got its separate peace agreement, the Finnish government got a strict deadline to chase the German troops out of its territory – peacefully or with arms. The Germans had no intent to go quickly nor quietly, so another period of war was fought – and the retreating Germans burned down all towns and villages before they left. By April 1945 the last German contingents had left Finland. The mission was completed – and the Soviet troops had entered the Finnish territory – ‘to give a helping hand’. Finland had fulfilled its obligations and was trying to return to the new normality.
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I think this is enough of the first decades of the Finnish independence and the hard ride of the young nation alongside the European turmoils. As the musical theme I add “Evakon laulu” – the song of a family evacuated from Karelia. The pictures of that period give a clear impression on, what kind of story the lyrics tell.
In my final post I will continue the story of Finnish independence with the post-war decades.
More blogs to come ...