Finland: Civil War of 1918 remembered

When the Red and White forces battled for power

Civil War of 1918 remembered

Ninety years have passed since the workers and crofters of Finland suffered a disastrous defeat. Their attempt at revolution was too late and the defeat turned into terror. The White enemy went down in history falsely claiming to be “the liberators of Finland”.

The workers and small farmers of the Reds were fighting for liberation from a parasitic class of capital owners, for human dignity. On the White side, business people and factory owners fought to keep their economic and political power, even if they pretended to be fighting for the independence of Finland.

To allege that they were fighting against Russia was like saying they were fighting wind-mills. Just before the fighting broke out, Lenin’s Bolshevik government had done what the business partner of the Finnish bourgeoisie, the Czar, had refused to do and made Finland an independent nation – for the first time ever. Instead, the Whites fought the Finnish working class, and it was Finnish workers, not alleged Russian agents, who were murdered and persecuted, even when the war was over.

1917 – The year of radicalism

In November 1917, the Bolsheviks in Russia took power. 1917 was also a year of radicalism in Finland with major strikes and demonstrations. In one decisive aspect, Finland differed from Russia; they did not have a revolutionary party. It is true that they had Bolsheviks, just as in Russia, who saw the need to take political power – but they lacked roots among the workers and crofters in Finland. They were fighting on instinct and vague slogans as they lacked a political programme.

The leadership of the workers was instead in the Social-Democratic party, which had had its own majority in the Finnish parliament, but was deeply divided. It lacked both a revolutionary programme and the actual will to take full power.

In 1809, 600 years of Swedish dominance over Finland had come to an end. Instead, the country became an autonomous part of the Russian empire with its own parliament but with the Czar as the supreme ruler. The hatred against the old masters lived on and when a nationalist movement started to grow it was not directed against Russia, but against the Swedish-speaking minority, which still had power over the economy and higher education.

With increased economic wealth, the first “domestic” capitalist class developed in Finland, a bourgeois class which carefully nursed its relations with Russia where they had their most important trade connections.

The first Red Guard

Red guards

In 1905 strikes and demonstrations in Russia inspired the Finnish workers, who created their own Red Guard in order to defend themselves. In April, a workers´ demonstration for the right to vote marched through Helsinki. The rally at the end attracted 35,000 people and was the biggest demonstration in Finland up to that point.

After continued unrest and protests, the right to vote was introduced in Finland in 1906 – universal for women and men who were 24 years of age or older and had no debts.

The Finnish Social Democrats increased their support significantly during the years of revolt: from having just over 16,000 members in 1904, they had 85,000 by 1906. After the first election to parliament in 1907, the Social Democrats mainly directed themselves on the parliamentarian path. At the same time they also abolished the Red Guard. The parliamentarianism of the Social Democrats did not however reflect the feelings among the workers in Finland. In 1910, after three years in parliament, the membership figure had gone down to 52,000.

In 1914 Finland was pulled into the First World War. For ordinary people it meant a ban on strikes and cuts in wages, which increased unionisation. Two years later, the Social Democrats, for the first time, gained a majority in parliament.

In February 1917, Czarism was brought down by an uprising of the Russian working class. The events were watched with great interest by the Finnish working class and were to be mirrored in Finland both in the events and in the consciousness of the masses.

Finland, for example, was affected immediately by the government of Kerensky (the bourgeois government that came to power in Russia after the fall of Czarism), which cut the Czarist war budget and led to thousands of workers being made unemployed.

It was a hard time for Finland, in which there was widespread famine and riots when the people broke into food stores. The events in Russia radicalised the Finnish masses. In April, 40,000 workers went on strike for a shorter working day with no loss of pay. They imposed an eight-hour day by going home when those hours had been worked. During May, a Red Guard was organised to protect the gains won in struggle so far.

Reaction gains ground

As in Russia, reaction gained ground in the summer of 1917. A right-wing defence force was built in that period. During 1915, the Whites had sent students and others for military training in Germany.

In July 1917, the Social Democrats in Finland called for national independence. This was against the will of both Kerensky and the Finnish bourgeoisie. In the wake of the July reaction, which had been fighting the workers in Petrograd, the Finnish Whites urged Kerensky to dissolve the Finnish parliament and call a new election.

In the elections, the capitalist parties cooperated across party and language boundaries and the Social Democrats lost power, in spite of the fact that they gained an extra 70,000 votes compared to the previous election.

Shortly afterwards, the October revolution in Russia secured power in the hands of the Soviets.

The day after this victory, the Finnish Social Democrats put forward their ‘Me vaadime’ manifesto (‘we demand’ manifesto) that stressed all the important immediate demands of work, food and power to the people.

Lenin sent a message: “Stand up, stand up without delay and take power in the hands of the organised workers.” But the Finnish Social Democrats hesitated.

On 9 November (old style calendar), a Revolutionary Central Council was founded – a united leadership for the labour movement. Its members were from the LO (TUC) and the Social Democratic party. When their ‘We demand’ manifesto was voted down in parliament, the LO called for a major strike. The strike forced the bourgeois forces to retreat; the reactionary defence forces were disarmed everywhere where the Red Guards were strong and the workers showed that they had real power over all the functions of society.

The revolutionary central council was torn between calling the strike off and forming a coalition government with the right wing, or continuing the strike towards revolution and taking power. In spite of the fact that feelings among the workers were quite clearly revolutionary, the LO came out on 18 November with the strange statement that “the strike is over but the revolution goes on”.

Many workers felt betrayed and the confidence of the majority was with the Red Guard.

The left Social Democrat, Lauri Leetonmäki, noted that the movement to the left by the masses was mainly instinctive, but clearly influenced by the events in Russia. The Social Democratic leadership did not get influenced in the same way and that put them in a strange position; they themselves did not want a revolution but they were still appointed to lead revolutionaries. So they waited and the Whites gained time to build up its army.

Lenin gives Finland its freedom

On the 4 January, 1918, the Soviet government gave Finland its independence.

The Red Guard, which was tired of the party leadership holding them back, declared themselves independent from the Social Democratic party. Scared of the revolutionary sentiments, the bourgeois government declared the reactionary Defence Forces as Finland’s national army. Mannerheim, once officer in the Czar´s army, was appointed commander of the White army.

The Red Guards now put pressure on the Social Democrats to gather the forces of the workers for defence. As early as 19 January, a fight broke out between Red and White forces in Vyborg.

The party committee of the Social Democrats discussed whether the workers should act defensively or offensively. Finally, the revolutionary line got a majority in the committee.

Late in the evening of 27 January, a red lantern was raised outside the workers´ community hall in Helsinki and the Red Guards of the workers started to take control over important functions in Helsinki and in the other big towns.

At the same time, Mannerheim mobilised his troops in Vasa. On the night of 28 January, he attacked the Russian garrison in the southern part of the county of Österbotten in order to get weapons and strengthen the impression of a “war of independence” from Russia, from which Finland had already gained independence.

The Swedish brigade

Around 160,000 soldiers took part in the Finnish Civil, roughly the same number on both sides. The Whites conscripted people, which meant that they forced even crofters and farmers who sympathised with the Reds, and who had not managed to hide in the forests during the fighting, to fight for the Whites. Furthermore they got help from Germany and Sweden.

Sweden was, officially and according to ‘custom’, neutral in the war but large amounts of weapons passed over the border at Haparanda in the north without the authorities taking any action.

Swedish workers´ protests

The Swedish workers took action instead. In Haparanda, they actively, and in an organised fashion, tried to stop the deliveries, and in Västerås, 5,000 workers demonstrated under the slogan: “Upper classes, don’t play with fire!”.

At the same time, many of Sweden’s liberals and rich were as scared as their Finnish partners of the events in Finland. Among the well-known people who gave their support for the Whites were authors Selma Lagerlöf and Ellen Key.

Formally, it was illegal for Swedish citizens to take part in a war abroad, which even the Social Democrats and the Liberals in the Swedish government started to point out since the workers´ press started a good “information campaign”. The same government allowed through, after repeated pressure, smaller deliveries of weapons to the Finnish Whites, and were in no way on the side of the Reds.

The big daily papers worked as advertising columns for the Whites. Svenska Dagbladet went furthest by urging Swedish men to voluntarily enrol for the Whites and legally or not, a total of 1,169 Swedish men joined the Whites.

Around 200 of them were officers. The Swedish brigade had big problems with its recruitment, though.

Rainer Andersson says in his book, What did you do in Finland, father?, that Swedish soldiers in many parts of Finland had the reputation of being jailbirds, boozers and other “scoundrels”. At the battle of Messukylä, the Swedish soldiers were so badly coordinated with the White troops that a great many of those who died were shot with White bullets!

The fighters on the Red side were recruited on a voluntary basis. They only started forced recruitment towards the end of the war.

Four fifths of the Red Guards consisted of workers who were recruited through labour organisations and they were divided according to towns, occupation or workplaces. All officers were elected into power from below and could be removed in the same way. These decisions were taken democratically. Normally, they never fought in bigger units than a company and, within the company decisions were taken by a general meeting.

Afterwards, in the cold light of the defeat, the Red Guards were derided for their internal democracy, which was equated to a lack of fighting spirit. The Red Guards lacked discipline but hardly lacked fighting spirit, which the German soldiers meeting workers retreating from Helsinki verified.

The problem was in the hands of a leadership that could not motivate and keep its troops together. They had not sufficient military training but they could have been successful if they just had used the trigger that motivated most of the Red Guard, i.e. the socialist dream of a fair and equal society, which recently had become a reality in Russia.

On the Red side, even women fought. They seem to have done their best to fit the male soldier stereotype; in places they even cut their hair and chose male nicknames. Probably, they were often made fun of, but in many of the commemorative accounts of the male Red Guards there is a reluctant admiration for the female Red Guards.

Execution of reds

Women were also met with great ruthlessness by White soldiers, a possible explanation being that the phenomenon of fighting for your cause with weapons in your hand was such a big step away from the female sexual role that it was seen as threatening.

The battles of the civil war were spread out. It was only in Karelia that there was a continuous front. In the west and central parts of Finland, the battles were around roads and railways.

Tampere in ruins

Tampere in ruins

The fall of Tampere gives a good picture of what happened in the towns during the fighting. There, they fought street by street. Tampere was surrounded by White troops at the end of March. After that, the Whites tried to take over the eastern outer parts of the town but were beaten back by the Reds organised by Hugo Salmela, a saw-mill worker with great military talent. They were now forced into street fighting that took place up to 6 April, when Tampere fell and 10,000 Red Guards were captured.

Both Swedish and Finnish historians have talked much about “the Red Terror.” The Red Guards banned bourgeois counter-revolutionary papers, but did not take any steps against the bourgeois side in Helsinki that ran their own telegraphic system and spread underground papers. Many hated landowners, rich farmers and other White prisoners were shot, but always against the orders of the leadership.

White terror

Execution of reds

Execution of reds

If the Red terror was unplanned, the White terror was thought through and sanctioned from above. In order to destroy the labour movement in Finland, the Whites consistently executed captured men, but also shop stewards who had not taken part in the fighting.

The White terror became even more far-reaching after the end of the civil war when, for instance, some of the first concentration camps in the world were opened.

Helsinki fell shortly after Tampere. While the best troops of the Reds were still in Tampere, the Whites got help from the Germans. The Red troops in Helsinki did not stand a chance and lost the city on 14 April. Then the surrenders followed one after the other: Turku surrendered on 15 April without a fight. On 29 April, Vyborg fell, after that the Red troops between Tavstehus and Lahtis were surrounded. On 3 May, Kouvola fell, 4 May Kotka and Fredrikshamn. On the same day, Mannerheim marched through Helsinki, a march of triumph that inspired a statue that stands outside the museum of modern arts in Helsinki today.

Dissidents were exterminated

It was after this that the worst terror started. A fanatical witch-hunt was carried out of everybody who had belonged to, or had connections to, the Reds.

In a country with three million inhabitants, 67,788 people were put on trial. The prosecutions were proof that the civil war was political. The Whites wanted to exterminate all dissidents.

The Finnish senator, Heikki Renvall, told Dagens Nyheter (the Swedish liberal paper) on 14 February 1918: “They must be sentenced for high treason. Possibly some can get an amnesty later but under the precondition that their constitutional rights are withdrawn and that they in the future are not allowed to take part in the political life of the country. They are to be made into a pariah sect.”

The courts sentenced 555 people to death, but a total of between 8,400 and 14,600 Red Guards were executed during and after the war. The exact number of dead has been very difficult to determine. According to a study carried out on behalf of the Finnish state in 2006, more than 6,000 Red Guards were killed, 3,450 White Guards and 1,000 Russians and Germans. The total death toll of the war, based on the names in a data base, is much higher at 36,640.

Even for those who were freed straight away or after a short period in prison, life was hard. It was hard in the ‘independent’ Finland to have fought for the Reds.

A female veteran told how she could not return to her home village where everybody knew that she was a Red. When she instead looked for employment as a servant girl, she was not accepted by bourgeois employers. The fact that her hair was not long showed that she not only sympathised with the Reds but also had actively fought for them.

The extent of the persecution was clearly visible even in parliament. When it was reconvened after the war just one out of 92 Social Democrats was present. The others had been killed, were in prison or were on the run.

The biggest mockery was that the death toll and persecution were turned against the Reds. To form Red Guards, to fight for its cause, to rise up at all, were all mistakes; “This is what your adventure of a rebellion brought about,” the remaining Finnish Social Democrats, already dominated by the right wing, said.

However, Yrjö Sirola, who had been editor of the labour paper, Työmies, and had belonged to the left wing, wrote from his exile in Russia in 1919: “The cruelty of the White terror, the prison camps, the death horrors of the prison camps and the reaction that followed – what have they meant? – they have meant that The Red Guards have fully proven their right to exist.”

Power all-important

In Finland, once again the majority was forced back onto its knees by the capitalists. Workers losing this battle in the class war not only paved the way for the terror in Finland but also for the terror that later started in Russia.

The defeat of the Reds in Finland shows that they who have the power do not relinquish it voluntarily and also that workers in order to take power must seize the moment and be strong and coordinated.

The question of power is all-important. He who has economic power can decide over others the question of bread and consequently over their lives. That means that the only reasonable solution is that the majority – the working class and the poor – must organise, rule and distribute the profits from production that today they only carry out. A fair society can be a reality only on the basis of public ownership and a democratic socialist society.

Special financial appeal to all readers of

Support building alternative socialist media provides a unique analysis and perspective of world events. also plays a crucial role in building the struggle for socialism across all continents. Capitalism has failed! Assist us to build the fight-back and prepare for the stormy period of class struggles ahead.
Please make a donation to help us reach more readers and to widen our socialist campaigning work across the world.

Donate via Paypal

Liked this article? We need your support to improve our work. Please become a Patron! and support our work
Become a patron at Patreon!

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


February 2008