Finland’s Civil War II

White machine gun corps after the capture of Tampere’s Leinola district.

Left: Main frontline of the Finnish Civil War in 1918, the Civil War sites marked into the conflict site database in the YLE crowdsourcing, and the areas ceded to Soviet Union after Second World War; Right: 14-yearold Arvo Koivisto (4 April 1904-7 June 1918), a Red guard messenger, one of the child soldiers who took part in the Civil War. He retreated with the Reds from Tampere towards east but was caught by the Whites near Lahti on 1 May, a month after his 14th birthday. The local White Guard of his home village Tyrvää executed him in June 1918 (Vapriikki Photo archives, CC-BY).

The Svinhufvud government and its supporters dismissed the Red Guards as bandits or criminals, encouraged in their rampages by the Russian troops. As one parliamentary deputy remarked, “It is certainly not a question of a struggle between different social classes, as long as our socialist gentlemen do not wish to line up with criminals, but it is a question only of a struggle between society … and criminal gangs.” The Russian garrisons sometimes supplied the Red Guards with weapons, but the Petrograd Bolsheviks were reluctant to equip the Guards, which they did not themselves control. The Red Guards were not in fact composed of Russians, as some conservatives alleged, or of criminals, but mostly of native Finnish workers. It was the overheated Helsinki Red Guards that on January 8, 1918, the day Svinhufvud praised Russian generosity, took over the mansion of the former governor general. Rejecting the authority of the bourgeois government, they renamed the building Smolny, after Bolshevik headquarters in Petrograd. The Social Democrats accused them of “terrorism … against the party,” but did not try to stop them.

The Red Guards were, moreover, only one side of the increasingly marked split in Finnish society. The next day, the Svinhufvud government’s Military Commission decided to purchase arms and uniforms from the Germans and retrieve the Finnish Jäger Battalion, which had been fighting in the Prussian army. The parliament then voted by a narrow margin to authorize the creation of a security force to oppose the Red Guards. One socialist deputy protested that the “bourgeois government has created a class-war army which is directed against the Finnish working people.” The Social Democrats had been reluctant to launch this war, but were unable to keep their followers in check. Now they faced the consequences. The government security force was intended initially to replace the police, which had dissolved, and the militia, which was unable to perform its functions. It consisted of the existing Home Guards, bolstered by the returning Jägers, who provided training and leadership. Financed by Finnish businessmen, the Home Guards bought weapons on the Russian black market or purchased them in Petrograd and smuggled them back home. Later they bought arms from the Germans.

All this activity was ill-coordinated and amateurish. A skilled commander was needed. On January 2/15, 1918, after some hesitation, the Military Commission appointed General Baron Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim to lead the new force. In some respects, he seemed an unlikely candidate. Raised in an upper-class Swedish-speaking family, Mannerheim spoke Finnish poorly. Excluded by his background from a role in domestic politics, he made a career in the tsarist army, was fluent in Russian, and had spent many years outside Finland. Though not a democrat, as an officer in what had been an Allied army he favored the Entente over the Central Powers. After the Bolshevik takeover, he resigned his commission and returned to Helsinki. The Finns at this point knew little about him, but he proved an inspired choice. His evolution from imperial servant to national icon personified the tectonic shift in the region’s political life.

Mannerheim set up his military staff in Vaasa, two hundred miles north of Turku on the Gulf of Bothnia. From this point on, Finland backed into revolution and civil war, with the Germans and Soviet Russians in supporting roles. Other than Mannerheim, no charismatic figure emerged to lead the political charge on either side. The conflict escalated not as a result of foreign interference but as a byproduct of Bolshevik agitation among the Russian armed forces and in the Finnish factories. As the two sides—Finnish Reds versus Finnish Whites—tried to gain control over the exercise of armed force, the Germans tipped the balance.

Although the Russians, first as the Provisional Government and then as the Sovnarkom, had endorsed Finnish independence, Russian forces remained in place. As long as the peace talks at Brest-Litovsk were still in progress, the Germans were obliged to stay out. As Adolf Ioffe put it, “in practice the separation from Russia is not yet completed.” In theory, therefore, the Regional Committee continued to represent Russian authority in Finland. By this point, however, the Russian garrison was in the process of dissolution and could not be used as a fighting force.

Conflict escalated, as a result not of policy decisions but of the confrontation between volunteer armed groups, not yet constituting armies. On January 19 in Vyborg, site of the main Russian garrison, Russian soldiers together with local Red Guards took control of a factory that had been used to store Home Guard weapons. Skirmishes between Red Guards and Home Guards occurred in a number of other places as well. The Reds had held Vyborg only for three days, however, when the Home Guards chased them out. By now Lenin had decided to help arm the Red Guards. Fearing the Home Guards might seize the expected shipment from Petrograd, the Helsinki Red Guard leadership called for a general strike throughout southern Finland, a decision the Social Democrats did not endorse, but could not avert.

Russian leaders in Finland were no more in control than the Finnish comrades. When Svinhufvud went to talk with the Tsentrobalt sailors on January 11/24, they briefly detained him. The move was condemned by Ivar Smigla, the Latvian-Russian head of Tsentrobalt and of the Regional Committee. He had no control over his own men, however, and no hand in the decision of the Finnish Red Guards the next day to arrest Svinhufvud’s government and take power into their own hands. Smigla promised to send arms but pledged otherwise to stand aside. Having so far tried to avoid open conflict, Svinhufvud warned that any attack on the Home Guards, renamed the White Guards, would constitute an attack on the legal government—which, of course, is exactly what the Finnish Reds intended. Mannerheim, for his part, decided it was time to disarm the Russian garrison, the remnant of the Imperial Army that the Bolsheviks by now had thoroughly secured, which he correctly judged too weak to resist.

On January 13/26, fearing the impending Red Guard attack, the ministers hurriedly abandoned Helsinki. The next day, the Red Guards declared their intention of creating a “Social Democratic revolutionary government” to replace them. The Regional Committee prepared to support the Red Guards, who were dragging their own reluctant Social Democratic leaders after them, but Trotsky assured Svinhufvud that “the violent intervention of Russian military units in Finland’s internal affairs is not allowed.” The Regional Committee ordered the garrison not to get involved; for its part, the government ordered the White Guards to hold back. While leaders on all sides—Svinhufvud, the Finnish Social Democrats, the Bolshevik Smigla—were retreating, the Red Guards managed easily to seize the government buildings in Helsinki. By January 15/28, they were in control of the capital. The following day, Mannerheim, on his side, had captured Vaasa and disarmed the Russian garrison there. Red versus White—not Finn versus Russian, but Finn versus Finn—were in position.

Before the ministers closed shop in Helsinki (some going into hiding, a few making it up north), the parliament issued a final statement, urging the population to give their allegiance to General Mannerheim. “Part of the Finnish people,” it declared, “relying on foreign forces and foreign bayonets, has risen in revolt against Finland’s parliament and Finland’s government.” By early February (NS), Mannerheim had secured northeast Finland and part of Karelia, the easternmost part of the country, extending north from Petrograd (and today part of Russia), for the White—that is, anti-socialist (anti-Bolshevik, all the more so) Finnish nationalist—cause. The Finnish nation had acquired its general.

In Helsinki, meanwhile, the newly established government, having ousted the parliament, declared itself the Finnish People’s Deputation and adopted a vague program of gradual social transformation—not at all Leninist in spirit. Because there was no military opposition, the ragtag Red Guards on which it relied easily took control of the key cities of Vyborg, Tampere, and Turku. The Sovnarkom sent them some weapons, and some Red Guards came over from Petrograd to fight on their side. When, however, the Regional Committee ordered the garrison troops to fight on behalf of their Finnish comrades, they refused to obey. The most the Sovnarkom could deliver was rhetorical endorsement. On January 17/30, it recognized the People’s Deputation as the “new socialist government of Finland.” Trotsky in Brest-Litovsk said, “We greet the working class of Finland which has seized power from the hands of the bourgeoisie.” Belittling the fact that the comrades had not only ousted the so-called bourgeoisie but broken away from the Russian motherland, Lenin predicted that “more and more diverse confederations of free nations will group themselves around revolutionary Russia.” In principle, at least, the Russian Bolsheviks saw their Finnish counterparts as taking the first steps toward pan-European revolution. On March 1, 1918, Soviet Russia signed a peace treaty with allegedly socialist and independent Finland that emphasized Russia’s continuing relationship of dominance.

The Finnish comrades were not, however, Bolshevik-style Social Democrats. The Finnish party leaders tried to bring the People’s Deputation under control, to impose some restraint on the Red Guards, which had not reformed their headstrong ways. They warned that “revolution is not the same thing as criminal violence.” Essentially in the Menshevik mold, these Social Democrats defined their goal as a democratic parliamentary republic, with a mixed capitalist-socialist economy. This late in the game, with Petrograd in Bolshevik hands, they behaved as though it were still March 1917, while the Red Guards behaved as though it was January 1918, which indeed it was.

The die was cast. On both sides of the Finnish civil divide, the challenge was to create a more or less reliable fighting force motivated by political goals. The Whites represented what remained of the former parliamentary government, recognized by certain Western powers, and initially by the Sovnarkom as well. They defined their cause not in ideological terms but as the defense of law and order against “criminals and traitors,” whether Russians or Finnish Reds. “The struggle which is now in progress in Finland is not a class war,” they declared, “but is a collision between, on the one side a legal social order … and on the other side plain terrorist activity.” Mannerheim denounced “the mutilated bodies of murdered citizens and the ruins of burned villages,” demanding “revenge on the country’s traitors.” The aim was to liberate the south from the “terrorist regime” that was “murdering, plundering, imprisoning and torturing the peaceful and law-abiding inhabitants.” Some lurid details were embroidered, as in all atrocity propaganda, but the essentials were correct—for both sides. Here was the same logic as the Bolshevik Terror—again, coming from both sides.

The Red Guards were volunteers; they supplied themselves by what they called requisitioning, sometimes offering compensation but often resorting to outright plunder. They were egalitarian and bucked all authority. There were few officers to lead them in any case. Before the onset of the German offensive on February 18, 1918, the Sovnarkom continued to promise support, but when it came to accepting the German peace conditions, Lenin said, “Let them take revolutionary Finland. The revolution will not be lost if we give up Finland.” Pro-Bolshevik Russian officers did fight for the Reds, mostly in Karelia, but the Finns resented them, while the ordinary Russian soldiers hurried to board the trains leaving for Russia. They were harassed and robbed by the Finnish Red Guards, trying to stop them from taking provisions and equipment along with them. By contrast, the People’s Deputation was relatively staid. It inherited the old government institutions and the civil servants, who only briefly struck in protest. Without an armed force or police, it was unable to curtail the looting, intimidation, and bloody settling of scores perpetrated by the Finnish Red Guard, which between January and March 1918 committed some 1,650 murders. Most victims could reasonably be identified as supporters of the White cause; some were prisoners or hostages. Unlike the Red Terror in Russia, which had almost immediately acquired an organized form, these reprisals were spontaneous. The Deputation opposed them. The tactics, though brutal, were largely ineffective. The government ministers survived in hiding in Helsinki, Svinhufvud was smuggled out to the north, Mannerheim managed by subterfuge to dismantle the Russian artillery on the Sveaborg Fortress in Helsinki harbor, White propaganda circulated unobstructed. The Sovnarkom insisted the telegraph service remain in Russian control; the staff feigned allegiance and reported back to the Whites.

The White forces countenanced political terror of their own. They shot prisoners taken in combat; they shot and otherwise executed civilians thought to belong to or support the Red Guards. While condemning such excesses, Mannerheim did little to stop them and encouraged the attitudes that justified them. He told a German journalist, “The revolutionaries have made themselves guilty of high treason and insurrection and the punishment for that is death.” Saboteurs and spies behind the lines, he ordered, should be “shot on the spot.” The Finnish Red Terror was not institutionalized; the Deputation had no political police. The Finnish White Terror combined spontaneous social warfare with official policy. Better organized and led, the Whites emerged victorious, and as a consequence the toll they eventually exacted was higher.

Not unlike Lenin, Mannerheim had no objection to the use of force, but he wanted to be in control. Like the Red Guards, the White Guards were volunteers; they too resisted discipline and hierarchy, and there were too few of them to build a real army. Conscription was therefore introduced, with the fiction of reactivating the 1878 imperial law, suspended since 1900, a gesture at legality that only underscored its reverse. Not everyone drafted, moreover, could be trusted, since a large share of the population had voted socialist. Finding commanders also raised issues of allegiance. Since there were few native Finns with professional military training, Mannerheim drew on colleagues from the Russian Imperial Army, on officers from Sweden, and finally on the Germans, dispersing the handful of well-trained Jägers throughout the army to drill the recruits. The Finnish foot soldiers, however, disliked the Russian officers Mannerheim recruited, because they were Russian. They disliked Mannerheim himself and other officers, like Ernst Berthold Löfström (Ernest Levstrem), who also had Swedish names. The language of command in the Finnish White army was Swedish! Since Swedish was used by the Finnish upper classes, there was a social dimension to the soldiers’ resentment.

The Reds were ensconced in the south, in possession of the capital, Helsinki, enjoying Soviet Russian support. Fearing they would not be able to dislodge them, Svinhufvud’s deposed government urged the Germans, still negotiating at Brest-Litovsk, to insist on Russian withdrawal and provide the Whites with direct military backing. Mannerheim, for his part, did not believe the Germans would win the war and insisted that Finland must liberate itself from Russian domination and the Red threat by its own native efforts. He nevertheless realized that he needed the Jägers and, in the short run, German help. The Finnish appeal was indeed self-abasing. On February 14, 1918, the government requested the dispatch of German troops to Finland. This would be “the most effective way of saving the country: may we therefore be permitted to propose this form of intervention.” The Germans of course had their own reasons for including in the March 3, 1918, Brest-Litovsk treaty the complete withdrawal of Russian troops, warships, and Red Guards from Finland. A treaty then signed on March 7, 1918, between Germany and the independent nation of Finland named the price. Germany would have privileged access to Finnish resources, control over foreign trade and foreign relations, and the right to maintain a military presence. Finland, as Mannerheim had feared, emerged a German client.

Mannerheim remained first in command of Finnish forces, but the German general Count Rüdiger von der Goltz called the shots. The Germans declared: “we come as friends to help you, so that order, justice and liberty will again rule in your country. … We do not come as conquerors.” Svinhufvud affirmed that the Germans intended “to fight together with us against the plague from the east and to destroy the Red terror.” On April 3, 1918 von der Goltz’s nine-thousand-man Baltic Division landed in Hanko, a port eighty miles west of Helsinki. On April 6, the Deputation decided to relocate to Vyborg; some of its members even wanted to capitulate. That same day, Mannerheim’s army had captured Tampere, a hundred miles north of Helsinki, without German help. It was a moral as well as military victory. Over two thousand Red fighters were killed, another eleven thousand captured.

Both the fighting and the retribution were bloody. Mannerheim ordered that prisoners were not to be “shot out of hand,” as was the expectation and largely the practice, but brought before tribunals. During the battle, however, his forces showed no restraint, lobbing hand grenades into windows at the slightest movement, on the excuse that snipers might be lurking. At the end, those captured were massed in warehouses at the train station, then taken out to be shot, despite the General’s order. Special care was taken to execute all the Russians. A witness described the scene near the station as a “slaughter,” which left “a heap of bleeding bodies lying on the ground.” The massacres, in which Russians were summarily executed, tarnished Mannerheim’s reputation at the time, but did him no lasting harm. By contrast, when von der Goltz entered Helsinki on April 14, he encountered no organized defense but only sporadic Red Guard action. The hidden ministers emerged to form a government, and the bourgeois Finns rejoiced. In its ease and symbolic significance, von der Goltz’s success overshadowed Mannerheim’s achievement and emphasized the importance of the Germans’ role.

By April 1918, Mannerheim had fashioned a working army and prepared to take Vyborg. The Deputation appointed a military dictator to organize its defense. It ordered those Red Guards no longer needed in the west to retreat eastward and leave their families behind. The Guards indeed began moving east from Turku, but took their families with them, clogging the railroads, plundering and murdering hundreds of civilians as they went. The Deputation met for the last time in Vyborg on April 21, 1918. It decided that the core leaders should take refuge in Russia, to prepare for a return engagement. The Red Guards in Vyborg nevertheless did put up a fight, against both the White Army and von der Goltz’s Baltic Division. The Finnish General Löfström declared: “Red leaders and Russian soldiers who fight are outside the law and can be treated accordingly.” The Baltic Division had taken as many as twenty thousand prisoners. On May 1, Mannerheim held a victory parade. The Reds had executed a hundred White prisoners; the Whites executed the members of the Vyborg Soviet and another fifty prisoners. it was rumored that two hundred civilians had been slaughtered. By May 15, 1918, the fighting was over.

The moderate socialists now cooperated with the Germans, issuing a Proclamation to the Workers of Finland (April 16, 1918), denouncing the revolution as a mistake instigated by the Bolsheviks. “So down with the weapons everywhere and let us return to Western, social-democratic methods of struggle, let us return to constructive parliamentary work and unarmed organizational activity.” The socialists attempted to participate in Svinhufvud’s restored parliamentary regime, but it was only after the government’s fall in December 1918 that they were able to return to political life. For their part, those who had supported the failed Bolshevik attempt at revolution in Finland gathered in Moscow, where they formed the kernel of the Finnish Communist Party.

The Finnish Deputation, composed of non-Bolshevik socialists, countenanced the fanaticism of the Red Guards, though they were uneasy with its random, explosive character. They were in any case unable to stop it. The White leadership, by contrast, like the Bolsheviks, adopted terror as a weapon. Between January and mid-May, the Whites executed over eight thousand Red fighters, including over three hundred women, whom they claimed belonged to the Red Guards, as some may well have done. A letter to a respectable newspaper complained: “In spite of the commander in chief’s prohibitions, the shootings continue uninterrupted. The Red madness has been followed by the White terror.” At the end of May, spontaneous executions were indeed replaced by tribunals, which convicted 67,000 people and executed 265. The remaining eighty thousand prisoners were kept in harsh conditions and treated as criminals; almost twelve thousand of them died of hunger and disease.

In May Svinhufvud invited the German troops to remain. Mannerheim would have preferred to join the aristocratic Russian Whites in toppling the Bolshevik government in Moscow, but the Svinhufvud government had no use for this plan and rejected Mannerheim’s authoritarian manner. Mannerheim, for his part, refused to submit to German command, resigned his post, and left for Sweden as a private citizen. On December 12, 1918, a month after the Armistice, Svinhufvud’s regime fell and Mannerheim returned to replace him as the head of state of independent Finland. Though Mannerheim was now in charge, Finland was still occupied by von der Goltz’s Baltic Division. As a defense against the spread of Bolshevism and the descent into chaos, the Military Inter-Allied Commission of Control, formed in Paris in the wake of the Armistice, had authorized the continued presence of German troops in Finland and the Baltic states. The Armistice required German forces on formerly Russian territory not to leave until “the Allies shall think the moment suitable, having regard to the internal situation of these territories.” In Finland, however, Russian-style Bolshevism had decisively failed to spread. Finland had been saved from the threat of Soviet conquest by the German occupation and General Mannerheim’s leadership. It was saved from Bolshevism by its own tradition of democratic socialism. As the Finnish Communist Otto Wilhelm Kuusinen complained in October 1918, paying his non-Bolshevik comrades a backhanded compliment, “Finnish Social Democracy did not want to go beyond the representative political system. On the contrary, it wanted to perfect this system, as a genuinely democratic form of government.” That ideal had been compromised in the polarized context of the Finns’ own civil war, in which the radicalized Red Guards drew the moderates into the bloody combat. After the German defeat, Finland emerged as a conservative republic, avoiding extremes of both right and left. The new country’s most important accomplishment was to have escaped imperial Russian borders.