Hyvää itsenäisyyspäivää, Suomi! / Glad Självständighetsdagen, Finland! This Wednesday Finland celebrates 100 years as an independent state. We look back at how independence came about, and how Finns have so much to celebrate in their country’s achievements today
This Wednesday Finns across the world will unite to celebrate their country’s 100th birthday. On 6th December 1917 the Parliament of Finland declared the country officially independent from Russia, adopting the Declaration of Independence proposed by Pehr Evind Svinhufvud (later Finland’s third president) the previous week in a specially formed Senate by 100 votes to 88.
The long road to independence, following centuries of foreign rule from Moscow and Stockholm and many attempts of bringing power home, did not end there, however, as international recognition was not to arrive for at least another two years. Many Western nations waited for Russia, as the former ruler, to give its consent to the declaration. Despite pressure from the German government in particular for Svinhufvud to meet with Lenin, his approval was not to come before a civil war engulfed the new nation.
Starvation and famine prevailed in many industrial and rural areas when the declaration was passed, and a lack of interest from a preoccupied new government meant mass polarisation.
Tensions boiled over on 27th January as Communist sympathisers, led by the Social Democratic Party and supported by arms from the Soviet Union, declared war on the “Whites”, conducted by the conservative led Senate and reinforced by members of the German Army. While the communist “Reds” controlled most industrial centres and major cities, the Whites were strongest in the rural north, and, thanks to German support, they were soon able to win back many areas in the south during battles at Tampere, Viipuri, Lahti and Helsinki, crushing an earlier advance by the Reds in February. Eventually, by 15th May that year, they were ready to declare victory, and to restart negotiations with Russia.
While the war, it is fair to say, is little known internationally, I doubt there will be many Finns who on Wednesday will not spare a thought for it. The conflict undoubtedly made independence bitter-sweet for many years; around 36,000 Finns were killed, both sides engaged in political terror, and a huge number of Red prisoners of war perished from malnutrition.
But it did put a rubber stamp on the Declaration of Independence, with virtually every nation formally recognising Finland’s new status within a year. Furthermore, plans for a German-led monarchy were abandoned after its defeat in the Great War, and a strong wartime economy, combined with a long-term establishment of moderate politics following the first presidential election in 1919, went some way to uniting the polarised population and moving it away from the war’s devestation.
Today those moderate policies prevail, and still offset what are potentially volatile circumstances: Finland has two official languages (although Swedish is spoken as a first language only in some areas, and by less than 10 per cent of the total population), its religions are diverse, and it continues to occupy a perilous place between West and East, all the more apparent in a time of Putin’s expansionism.
Finland is rightly considered a pioneering liberal nation, leading the way for social democracy and an egalitarian state alongside its Nordic neighbours; it gave women the vote as early as 1906 and females now outnumber males in parliament. But while the concept of “sisu” (strength and determination) may dominate the lives of its 5.3 million inhabitants in winter, Finns are known to be a modest, even silent people. I hope on Wednesday they will abandon this. They have so much to celebrate.