The year 1918 was to be a litmus test for the newly-independent Finland. The country was faced with a civil war, which was to have deep and lasting impacts on the Finnish people and Finnish society. The national unification and commitment to democracy that followed the war were critical to Finland's development.
The project on the Year of Remembrance 1918 launched by the Prime Minister's Office tells about the events of a hundred years ago and recollections from the period in Finland.


Finland in 1918

Finland gained independence at the turn of 1917-1918. The first steps of the young nation were difficult and the initial situation was catastrophic. A Grand Duchy under the Russian Empire, Finland's independence process had been triggered by the Russian Revolution of February 1917. Social turmoil had followed the euphoria of revolution. The power struggle had divided the Finns into two camps, which had eventually grouped themselves into the White Guards and the Red Guards. At the same time, the golden years of the war economy of the World War I had been overshadowed by deep recession and the shortage of food had become critical.

The aspirations and sentiments of the revolution had turned into fear and hate. Independence in late 1917 was one of the only goals on which the Finns were still unanimous, although even here the most suitable approaches were a subject of dispute.

The Parliament of Finland adopted the Declaration of Independence on 6 December 1917. After different phases, the Bolshevik government that had assumed power in Russia recognised Finland's independence at the turn of 1917-1918 and was followed also by Sweden, France and Germany. It spoke volumes that when independence celebrations were held across Finland during the second week of January, the Finns could not even come together in celebration. The bourgeoisie and worker sections of the population each had their own celebrations. At the same time, the White Guards and Red Guards were already clashing in different parts of the country. The hatred sown ultimately led to the outbreak of civil war on the last day of January 1918.

The Finnish Civil War was very typical for the final stage of the world war, with the workers, who had attempted revolution, pitted against the bourgeoisie, who had supported the government. Finland was divided into Red Finland, with industrial centres in the south, and White Finland in the north of the country. The workers' Red Finland received political, armed and partly also military support from the Bolsheviks in Russia. The government's White Finland received support from Sweden, among others, but its most important ally was ultimately Germany, which despatched more than ten thousand soldiers to the country. The roots of Finland's civil war were in Finnish society, but at the same time were also part of the civil war in Russia and the geopolitical conflict of World War I.

The war that had begun at the end of January ended in victory by the Whites and Germans in early May. Even for a civil war, the war was comparatively cruel and brutal. Both factions faced extensive acts of terrorism by the other. These acts of terrorism claimed roughly as many lives as the actual fighting. The cruelties of war continued even after the fighting was over since more than 80,000 Red Guards were detained in prison camps. The government's attempt to convict all those on the Reds' side in separate trials resulted in a prison camp catastrophe lasting the entire summer of 1918 with more than 13,000 prisoners dying of starvation and diseases. All in all, the war and its aftermath claimed the lives of more than 36,600 people.

In summer 1918, Finland was a broken nation. Agreements on assistance made during the war tied Finland closely to an alliance with Germany. Immediately after the fighting had ceased, the polemics of Finland's form of government began. The winners' camp was split into monarchists and republicans. The former had a slight majority and after many phases the Parliament of Finland elected a German prince, Prince Frederick Charles of Hesse, to be installed as King of Finland. However, the tide in the fortunes of war had turned irrevocably for Germany and the main powers.

Following the end of World War I, Finland had to seek a new direction. The idea of a monarchy was abandoned and the government that had been supported by the Germans was replaced. The losing side in the civil war returned to decision-making in local government elections at the turn of the year and later in the general election in March 1919. The polemics of Finland's form of government ended in victory for the republicans in summer 1919, after which K. J. Ståhlberg was elected first president of the newly independent country. The endpoint in the independence process can be considered as being the Treaty of Tartu signed with Soviet Russia on 14 October 1920.