The Finnish Civil War, 1917-18
The Finnish Civil War
is a large and still somewhat controversial
topic. I'll try to stick to the facts here, hopefully this writeup
will someday breed more detailed content.
After the Bolsheviks' October Revolution in Russia,
Finland had declared its independence on December 6, 1917.
However, while the newly formed "bourgeois" (porvari)
government wanted to develop
the country on capitalist/democratic lines, a large part of
the "proletarian" (työväki) Finnish populace wanted
a communist state. In November 1917, the country had been
wracked by a communist-led general strike, which nearly ignited
into open rebellion. During all this, World War I was raging,
and since the Soviets obviously wanted Finland to be communist,
the Germans opposed this and thus supported the government.
The stage was set for war: on January 16, 1918, a red lamp was
lit in the tower of the Workers' Hall in Helsinki and the capital
was occupied by the Red Guards. A People's Commissariat was
established under the leadership of Otto Wille Kuusinen.
The Proletarian "Red" Rebels:
30000 men, 15000 rifles
The Tsarist Russian Army:
20000 men, 10000 rifles, some heavy weaponry
The Bourgeois "White" Government:
38000 men, 7800 rifles
The Two German Battalions:
(at the start of the war, both forces ballooned
after forced conscription)
Drawing the Battle Lines
The White government had been expecting the Red assault on Helsinki
and had already set up a government in exile in Vaasa, an important
city in their western stronghold of Pohjanmaa. General C.G.E. Mannerheim
assumed leadership of the White forces and his first order, executed
early in the morning of January 28, 1918, was to occupy the
Russian military bases and confiscate all their weaponry.
There was little resistance, as these were Tsarist forces that were
slowly withdrawing anyway, and at a stroke the White forces gained
some 8000 rifles and other weaponry, equalizing the former imbalance
with the Reds. For most part, the Russians stayed out of the conflict,
with only 1000-1500 men actively fighting on the Red side.
The battle lines were drawn between the Whites in the north and the
Red in the south, splitting the country more or less along the line
Pori-Tampere-Heinola-Wyborg. Of course, there were pockets
of resistance on both sides, notably Oulu, Tornio, Kuopio
and Varkaus on the White side, and Uusikaupunki and many of
the coastal islands on the Red side.
Most troops on both sides were volunteers, leading to a number of
problems. The battle lines were far from contiguous, but basically
involved villages choosing one allegiance or another; especially on
the Red side, units defending one village were reluctant to go to
the aid of another. The power of central command was weak, with local
commanders often doing as they wished, and there were
sporadic lynchings, especially Reds going after
landowners. The White side sought to improve their
position by starting a compulsory draft on February 18; the Reds followed
suit in April. At their peak, the Red forces numbered almost 100,000 men
while the Whites mustered 70,000.
The Reds assaulted White positions on February 21, aiming for the
small city of Haapamäki to the north of Tampere, but their attacks
were repulsed and in some places the Whites even made gains.
The White counterattack started in March 15, and after some fast gains
White forces managed to besiege the Reds within Tampere.
The Battle of Tampere, the largest military operation ever in
Fennoscandia, lasted from March 22 until the Red surrender on
April 6. Much of the city was destroyed, and the back of the Red
forces was now broken.
Meanwhile, Germany had offered to send two battalions to aid Finland,
and while Mannerheim opposed this, the Parliament-in-exile accepted
the offer. A division of 9500 men
led by General Rüdiger von der Goltz landed in Hanko on April 3
and conquered Helsinki by April 14, while a brigade of 2500 Germans
landed at Loviisa and took Lahti April 19. By now, it was clear
that the Reds had been decisively routed; those who could started
to flee east, but the White and German troops moved to cut off
that escape route as well. The Red provisional government fled to
Wyborg but was soon surrounded there as well; Kouvola fell on
May 3, Kotka on May 4, and the last Red Guards surrended at
Ahvenkoski on May 5. The last Russians left the fortress of Ino
on May 14, and two days later Mannerheim was treated to a victory parade
All Red soldiers and prisoners of war were rounded up into
concentration camps housing a total of some 74,000 people.
(These were, incidentally, the first concentration camps on European
soil, although the idea was first developed and used by the
British in the Boer War.)
Quickly investigated by special military tribunals, some
67,800 of these were found guilty of either "assistance to betraying
the state" or outright treason. 8,360 Reds were
executed, and another 12,500 died of starvation or disease
in the concentration camps. This was not purely out of sadism,
mind you, since WW1 was still going on -- the food situation was pretty
grim in all of Finland and the Reds weren't on the top of the list.
White Red Total
In battle 3100 3600 7700
Civilians 1650 ~800 2450
Executions - 8380 8380
Starvation - 12500 12500
TOTAL 4750 25280 30000
Or approximately 1% of Finland's total population. The figures do not
include (comparatively low) Russian or German casualties.
The two sides have traditionally viewed the events of the Civil War
through very different lenses.
According to the Whites, the war
was a fight for freedom (vapaussota), and their propaganda
(during and after the war) claimed that a Red victory would have
meant being swallowed up by the Soviet Union. The independence
of 1917 and the ensuing battle are often conflated into one, so as
to make it appear that the Whites defended Finland's independence
against the Russian Red stooges, but since the Russians stayed on
the sidelines this view isn't really correct.
The Reds, for their part, like to cast the war as a Marxist
class war, where the Red working class fought against the
White capitalists. Given the composition of the two sides' armies
this is largely (but not entirely) true, but it still oversimplifies
the conflict too much: the Whites were not merely putting down a
proletarian rebellion, they were fighting to throw off the threat
of the Russian yoke.
The most neutral assessment is that the war was fought between two
groups with differing opinions of their country's future, who were
both willing to accept aid from wherever they could get it.
This is why Finns most often use the term kansalaissota
(The Citizens' War), reflecting the Finn-against-Finn nature of the
war -- but this is also the definition of a civil war, and that's
how the conflict is usually rendered in English.
National reconcialiation took place during the Finnish Winter War,
when the two sides joined together to battle a common enemy,
the Soviet Red Army. After World War II, the Civil War was
largely swept under the carpet in order not to antagonize the
Soviets, until the publication of Väinö Linna's epic trilogy
Under the North Star (Täällä Pohjantähden alla) and,
to a lesser extent, Lauri Virta's Moreeni brought it
back to public consciousness.