The Finnish Civil War, 1917-18

The Finnish Civil War is a large and still somewhat controversial topic. I'll try to stick to the facts here, hopefully this writeup will someday breed more detailed content.


After the Bolsheviks' October Revolution in Russia, Finland had declared its independence on December 6, 1917. However, while the newly formed "bourgeois" (porvari) government wanted to develop the country on capitalist/democratic lines, a large part of the "proletarian" (työväki) Finnish populace wanted a communist state. In November 1917, the country had been wracked by a communist-led general strike, which nearly ignited into open rebellion. During all this, World War I was raging, and since the Soviets obviously wanted Finland to be communist, the Germans opposed this and thus supported the government. The stage was set for war: on January 16, 1918, a red lamp was lit in the tower of the Workers' Hall in Helsinki and the capital was occupied by the Red Guards. A People's Commissariat was established under the leadership of Otto Wille Kuusinen.

The Sides

The Proletarian "Red" Rebels:
30000 men, 15000 rifles
The Tsarist Russian Army:
20000 men, 10000 rifles, some heavy weaponry


The Bourgeois "White" Government:
38000 men, 7800 rifles
The Two German Battalions:
12000 men

(at the start of the war, both forces ballooned after forced conscription)

Drawing the Battle Lines

The White government had been expecting the Red assault on Helsinki and had already set up a government in exile in Vaasa, an important city in their western stronghold of Pohjanmaa. General C.G.E. Mannerheim assumed leadership of the White forces and his first order, executed early in the morning of January 28, 1918, was to occupy the Russian military bases and confiscate all their weaponry. There was little resistance, as these were Tsarist forces that were slowly withdrawing anyway, and at a stroke the White forces gained some 8000 rifles and other weaponry, equalizing the former imbalance with the Reds. For most part, the Russians stayed out of the conflict, with only 1000-1500 men actively fighting on the Red side.

The battle lines were drawn between the Whites in the north and the Red in the south, splitting the country more or less along the line Pori-Tampere-Heinola-Wyborg. Of course, there were pockets of resistance on both sides, notably Oulu, Tornio, Kuopio and Varkaus on the White side, and Uusikaupunki and many of the coastal islands on the Red side.

Most troops on both sides were volunteers, leading to a number of problems. The battle lines were far from contiguous, but basically involved villages choosing one allegiance or another; especially on the Red side, units defending one village were reluctant to go to the aid of another. The power of central command was weak, with local commanders often doing as they wished, and there were sporadic lynchings, especially Reds going after landowners. The White side sought to improve their position by starting a compulsory draft on February 18; the Reds followed suit in April. At their peak, the Red forces numbered almost 100,000 men while the Whites mustered 70,000.

The War

The Reds assaulted White positions on February 21, aiming for the small city of Haapamäki to the north of Tampere, but their attacks were repulsed and in some places the Whites even made gains. The White counterattack started in March 15, and after some fast gains White forces managed to besiege the Reds within Tampere. The Battle of Tampere, the largest military operation ever in Fennoscandia, lasted from March 22 until the Red surrender on April 6. Much of the city was destroyed, and the back of the Red forces was now broken.

Meanwhile, Germany had offered to send two battalions to aid Finland, and while Mannerheim opposed this, the Parliament-in-exile accepted the offer. A division of 9500 men led by General Rüdiger von der Goltz landed in Hanko on April 3 and conquered Helsinki by April 14, while a brigade of 2500 Germans landed at Loviisa and took Lahti April 19. By now, it was clear that the Reds had been decisively routed; those who could started to flee east, but the White and German troops moved to cut off that escape route as well. The Red provisional government fled to Wyborg but was soon surrounded there as well; Kouvola fell on May 3, Kotka on May 4, and the last Red Guards surrended at Ahvenkoski on May 5. The last Russians left the fortress of Ino on May 14, and two days later Mannerheim was treated to a victory parade in Helsinki.

The Retribution

All Red soldiers and prisoners of war were rounded up into concentration camps housing a total of some 74,000 people. (These were, incidentally, the first concentration camps on European soil, although the idea was first developed and used by the British in the Boer War.) Quickly investigated by special military tribunals, some 67,800 of these were found guilty of either "assistance to betraying the state" or outright treason. 8,360 Reds were executed, and another 12,500 died of starvation or disease in the concentration camps. This was not purely out of sadism, mind you, since WW1 was still going on -- the food situation was pretty grim in all of Finland and the Reds weren't on the top of the list.

Death Toll

              White     Red   Total
In battle      3100    3600    7700
Civilians      1650    ~800    2450
Executions        -    8380    8380
Starvation        -   12500   12500
TOTAL          4750   25280   30000
Or approximately 1% of Finland's total population. The figures do not include (comparatively low) Russian or German casualties.

What If...?

The two sides have traditionally viewed the events of the Civil War through very different lenses.

According to the Whites, the war was a fight for freedom (vapaussota), and their propaganda (during and after the war) claimed that a Red victory would have meant being swallowed up by the Soviet Union. The independence of 1917 and the ensuing battle are often conflated into one, so as to make it appear that the Whites defended Finland's independence against the Russian Red stooges, but since the Russians stayed on the sidelines this view isn't really correct.

The Reds, for their part, like to cast the war as a Marxist class war, where the Red working class fought against the White capitalists. Given the composition of the two sides' armies this is largely (but not entirely) true, but it still oversimplifies the conflict too much: the Whites were not merely putting down a proletarian rebellion, they were fighting to throw off the threat of the Russian yoke.

The most neutral assessment is that the war was fought between two groups with differing opinions of their country's future, who were both willing to accept aid from wherever they could get it. This is why Finns most often use the term kansalaissota (The Citizens' War), reflecting the Finn-against-Finn nature of the war -- but this is also the definition of a civil war, and that's how the conflict is usually rendered in English.

National reconcialiation took place during the Finnish Winter War, when the two sides joined together to battle a common enemy, the Soviet Red Army. After World War II, the Civil War was largely swept under the carpet in order not to antagonize the Soviets, until the publication of Väinö Linna's epic trilogy Under the North Star (Täällä Pohjantähden alla) and, to a lesser extent, Lauri Virta's Moreeni brought it back to public consciousness.

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