This Wednesday Finland celebrates a hundred years as an independent state…
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, 100 votes to 88.
But the long road to independence that ended centuries of foreign rule from both Moscow and Stockholm did not end there; international recognition was not to arrive for at least another two years. Many Western nations waited for Russia, 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 would not arrive until a civil war had engulfed and threatened to destroy 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 finally boiled over on 27th January as communist sympathisers, led by the Social Democratic Party and supported with 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, were soon able to win back many areas in the south. Eventually, by 15th May that year, they were ready to declare victory, and to restart negotiations with Russia.
Red Army troops face fire from the Whites during Finland’s War of Independence (1917)
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 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 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 after the war ended. Plans for a German-led monarchy were abandoned after its defeat in the Great War, and a strong wartime economy went some way to uniting the polarised population.
Today those moderate policies prevail, and still offset what are potentially volatile circumstances: Finland has two official languages (though 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 location between West and East, increasingly apparent in light 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 their male colleagues in parliament.
Finns are known to be a modest, even silent people. I hope on Wednesday though, they will abandon this. They have so much to celebrate.