The Finnish Civil War

During World War One, the German Empire undertook various schemes to weaken Tsarist Russia by any means possible. One of these schemes was the recruitment of so called 'Jager' troops (light infantry) from those Finns who were chafing under the imperial rule of the Tsar. This recruitment was done in secret, as Finland was still a part of Russia at the time. Recruits were transported over the border via Sweden to Germany, where they were formed into the 27th Jager Battalion. This unit fought in many battles of the Great War on the side of the Central Powers on the Eastern Front.

The end of the Great War caused great turmoil throughout the world and Finland was no exception. Russia fell into chaos and civil war, and while Germany forced Finnish independence out of Russia in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (see bb 17/22) Finland was dragged down with it, fighting a civil war of its own in 1918, between the communist 'Reds' led by the People's Delegation of Finland, and the anticommunist 'whites' led by the Senate of Finland formed by the Finnish political right. The Jagers returned to their home to fight on the side of the Whites and their contribution proved to be a major factor in the eventual White victory.

The Finnish Civil War, while short, was one of the bloodiest in European history, and even today remains a controversial and emotionally charged event in Finland. The Finnish labour movement, represented by the 'reds', grew rapidly in the latter 19th century and opposed russification as well as promoting domestic policy which would tackle social problems and addressthe need for democracy in the Grand Duchy. They were opposed by the anticommunist 'whites', which, although equally opposed to the russification program were more interested in Finnish independence than any Marxist philosophy.

The collapse of Russia at the end of World War 1 led to Finland being left more or less ungoverned and so the whites and reds mobilised for their own protection. The Civil Guards, later called the White Guards, were organised by local men of influence, usually conservative academics, industrialists and landowners, while the Workers Security Guards, later called the Red Guards, were recruited by the local Party or labour union. Both sides were eager for independence, both sides made separate declarations of independence in 1917, but the battle was on to decide how an independent Finland would be run.

The first serious battles were fought in January 1918. The Reds controlled the relatively industrial south, while the Whites controlled the agricultural area to the north. Enclaves of the opposing forces existed on both sides of the front line. Bolshevik Russia declared its support for Red Finland even though the Finnish Reds version of democratic socialism did not resemble Lenin's dictatorship of the proletariat (the Finns were much more moderate), and in fact Lenin wanted to ultimately annex Finland. But the Whites had their Jagers with German and Swedish training, and the leadership of the professional General Mannerheim. Both sides resorted to acts of terror, with units best described as death squads targeting those of opposing political views. Mass executions were common on both sides, in what became known as the Red Terror, which executed around 1500 Whites, and the White Terror, which claimed 8000 or so Reds.

Ultimately the Whites, with German assistance, prevailed. The civil war, while short, was nevertheless a catastrophe for the Finnish nation. It created a legacy of bitterness, fear, hatred and a desire for revenge, which the White victory did little to mitigate. Ultimately, a compromise was formed, more because of the defeat of the Central Powers in 1918 than because of the efforts of the Reds or Whites of Finland. Elections based on universal suffrage were held, and the new independent state of Finland was recognised by the United Kingdom and the United States on 7th May, 1919. A broad parliamentary democracy was created, based on the defeat of Red Finland, and the fact that the goal of the Whites - reunion with the Russian Tsar, and a desire for monarchy - was no longer possible. The Finns realised that neither Red nor White could be rejected completely from the new independent Finnish order, but that didn't mean that either side had to like it - at least, not initially.

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