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«Reds» vs. «Whites»: The Finnish Civil War (January- May 1918)

Shortly after the proclamation of Finland’s independence (December 6, 1917) and the recognition of the new state by Soviet Russia, France, Sweden and the German Empire (January 4, 1918), the Finnish diet proclaimed the country’s neutrality (January 8). However, Finland could not avoid a military conflict on its territory, the new state slipping rapidly into a civil war, a bloody conflict between the “Reds” (left-wing forces grouped around the Social Democrats) and the “Whites” (right-wing forces, conservatives and nationalists, who had control over the Senate). The civil war tore through Finnish society between the months of January and May 1918.

Since 1917, in the absence of Finnish armed forces and police, a number of paramilitary groups had been formed. Until the beginning of 1918, the Civil Guards (Whites), under the control of conservative political forces, numbered 40.000 recruits, while the Red Guards, originally under the leadership of the Social Democrats, amounted to about 30.000 of people.

On January 12, the Helsinki authorities initiated the formation of a police force, a task entrusted to Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, a former general of the Imperial Russian Army that had recently returned from the Romanian front. He immediately reorganized the Civil Guards, which were declared government troops. The new forces had the task of restoring order and disarming and expelling Russian troops from Finnish territory. Mannerheim changed the names of civilian guards to the “Finnish White Army”. The Red Guards, headed by Ali Aaltonen, refused to recognize this decision and set up their own military authority.

The Finnish Civil War began as a result of independent incidents that took place in three different areas of the country. the Red Guards in Helsinki received the order to mobilize and start the Revolution (January 26) at Viipuri (in south-eastern Finland). The Reds and Whites began fighting for the control of the city on the Russian border. On January 28, Mannerheim’s troops disarmed 5.000 Russian soldiers in Ostrobothnia (western Finland). At the beginning of February, the two camps were clearly outlined: farmers and civil servants supported the Finnish White Army, while artisans and industrial and agricultural workers were on the side of the Red Guards.

The Reds take control of Helsinki

On January 28, the Reds set up a revolutionary government called the “People’s Delegation” in Helsinki to lead the Finnish Socialist Workers’ Republic. The Red Guards occupied the government institutions in the capital, part of the Senate and the White Government, retreating to the city of Vaasa in the West. Led by Kullervo Manner, the People’s Delegation proclaimed that the Senate lost its attributions and, in its place, established a General Council of Workers. Senate President Pehr Evind Svinhufvud managed to flee to Tallinn and then to Berlin.

Immediately after taking over power in the capital, the Socialist Government pledged to promote a series of social reforms and Otto Ville Kuusinen, Education Commissioner in the People’s Delegation, drafted a constitution based on the Swiss model and the United States Declaration of Independence. According to this project, Finland’s highest political forum was to be a Parliament elected by universal suffrage for a three-year term. The Parliament also appointed the Government (the People’s Delegation) for a three-year term. This project provided for a multi-party system, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and expression, the use of a referendum to approve and amend the Constitution, and the right of legislative initiative for citizens who collected 10.000 signatures for a proposal.

On the basis of such documents, historians Osmo Jussila, Seppo Hentila and Jukka Nevakivi say that the Finnish Reds did not aspire to a proletarian dictatorship of Leninist inspiration, but rather to a parliamentary democracy. The Finnish revolutionaries were not Bolsheviks but Social Democrats.

German intervention tilted the balance in favour of the Whites

In the first part of February, the Reds controlled southern Finland, from the Botnic Bay to Lake Ladoga, the front line being north of the cities of Pori, Tampere, Kouvola and Viipuri. According to estimates, the numbers of soldiers on both sides rose to about 70.000 to 90.000 men.

The Finnish Senate requested help from Sweden and Germany. The Swedes offered help to the Whites, but took advantage of the situation and sent troops to the Åland Islands, under the pretext of “protecting them from the Russians”. The Russians withdrew from the archipelago, but the Swedes proceeded to disarm the Finnish. Swedish actions have prompted protests by both parties involved in the Finnish Civil War. At the beginning of March, German troops debarked on the island and the Swedes withdrew in May.

In return, Germany withheld from helping the Whites. The Central Powers had an armistice with Russia and negotiated for peace in Brest-Litovsk. It was only after the Russians withdrew from the negotiating table (10 February) that Germany decided to send a military expedition to Finland. The decision was also hurried by the Swedish action in Åland, with fears that the Swedes intend to annex the islands. Under these circumstances, the Germans organized a division, called Ostsee (Baltic Sea), with the aim of landing in Finland to fight against the Reds. By mid-February, the Red offensive was stopped all over the front line. At the end of the same month, about 1.000 jägers, light infantry soldiers trained in Germany and with combat experience, reinforced the Whites.

Mannerheim launched a general counterattack in mid-March. Benefiting from the leadership of professional, experienced combat officers, the Whites managed to occupy the city of Tampere on April 6, after the fiercest battle of the conflict. The German Ostsee Division landed in southern Finland on April 3 under the command of Major General Rüdiger Graf von der Goltz. As Mannerheim’s troops managed to take Tampere, three days later, the Germans were given the task of chasing the Reds away from Helsinki. The troops of von der Goltz managed to occupy the capital of Finland on April 14 after fierce fighting. In parallel, a German brigade led by Colonel Otto von Brandenstein landed in Loviisa, east of Helsinki, to cut off the rail link with Russia.

On April 19, von der Goltz resumed the attack to the north to connect with the White troops, and the Finns led by lieutenant-general Ernst Löfström occupied Viipuri. Once reunited, the Whites, together with the German troops won the final victory on May 2. On May 4, the Senate returned to Helsinki, but the city remained under the control of the German army. Finland had become a protectorate of the German Empire. At the end of the conflict there were no peace talks and no truce between the Whites and the Reds. The Finnish Civil War was a real catastrophe for the country. About 37.000 people lost their lives, most of them after the end of the battles, in the camps where the approximately 80.000 prisoners, Finnish and Russian, were captured by the Whites and by German troops during the conflict.

Bibliography:

Elena Dragomir, Silviu Miloiu, Istoria Finlandei [The history of Finland], Cetatea de Scaun Publishing House, Târgovişte, 2010-2011.

Osmo Jussila, Seppo Hentila, Jukka Nevakivi, From Grand Duchy to Modern State: A Political History of Finland since 1809, Hurst and Co. Publishing House, London, 1999.

Jason Lavery, The History of Finland, Greenwood Press Publishing House, Westport, 2006.

Translated by Laurențiu Dumitru Dologa