Finnish Civil War

The Finnish Civil War (Finnish: Suomen sisällissota, kansalaissota; Swedish: Finska inbördeskriget) was a part of the national, political and social turmoil caused by World War I (1914–1918) in Europe. The Civil War concerned control and leadership of the Grand Duchy of Finland after it had become sovereign in 1917. The war was fought from 27 January to 15 May 1918 between the forces of the Social Democrats led by the People's Deputation of Finland, commonly called the "Reds" (Finnish: punaiset, Swedish: röda), and the forces of the non-socialist, conservative-led Senate, commonly called the "Whites" (Finnish: valkoiset, Swedish: vita). The Reds—dominated by industrial and agrarian workers—were supported by the Russian Soviet Republic. The Whites—dominated by peasants and middle- and upper-class factions, in particular upper-class Swedish speakers—received marked military assistance from the German Empire. The Reds were based in the towns and industrial centres of southern Finland, while the Whites controlled more rural central and northern Finland. The Whites won the war, in which about 37,000 people died out of a population of 3 million.

Following the Diet of Porvoo in 1809, Finland, previously part of the Kingdom of Sweden, had been ruled as a nominally autonomous part of the Russian Empire, known as the Grand Duchy of Finland. It was gradually developing into what would become the Finnish state, including a marked rise of the Fennoman movement representing the Finnic part of the nation. Long divided culturally between majority Finnish speakers and minority Swedish speakers, Finns found common ground in opposition to the policy of Russian integration begun in 1899.

By 1917 Finland had experienced rapid population growth, industrialization, improvements in the economy and standard of living, and the rise of a comprehensive labor movement; economic, social, and political divisions were deepening while the Finnish political system was in an unstable phase of democratization and modernization.

The collapse of the Russian Empire following the February and October Revolutions of 1917 spurred the collapse of the Grand Duchy of Finland, and the resultant power vacuum led to bitter conflict between the left-leaning labor movement, led by the Social Democrats, and more conservative non-socialists. A breakdown of power and authority penetrated all levels of society as both sides, aiming to gain supremacy for their own faction, refused to make political compromises. Finland's declaration of independence on 6 December 1917 - though supported by most Finns and soon recognized by the Russian Bolshevist Council of People's Commissars - occurred in the context of the worsening power struggle, and therefore failed to either unite or pacify the nation.

With the dissolution of regular police and military forces, both left and right began forming armed groups in the spring of 1917. Two rival paramilitary forces, the White Guards and Red Guards, emerged. An atmosphere of political violence, fear and mistrust reigned over the country. Fighting broke out between the Reds and the Whites in January 1918 and quickly escalated. The fate of the Finns during 1917–1918 was much like that of the peoples of minor nations separating from (disintegrating) large ones.

The Reds (whose Guards' total force was approximately 85,000 troops) carried out a general offensive from mid-February to early March; it ended in failure. Soviet Russia's main support to the Reds was the supply of weapons; the majority of the 80,000 demoralized and war-weary Russian soldiers which remained stationed in Finland retreated to Russia by the end of March 1918. A general offensive by the Whites (whose Guards' total force the same as that of the Reds) began on 15 March 1918, bolstered by the intervention of 13,000-strong military consortium of the German army, at the beginning of April 1918. The battles of Tampere and Viipuri, won by the Whites, and the Battle of Helsinki, won by German troops, were the decisive military actions of the war. Both the Reds and Whites used political terror as a military weapon during the conflict.

In the aftermath of the 1917–18 crisis and civil war, Finland passed from Russian rule to the German Empire's sphere of power. The conservative Finnish Senate attempted to establish a Finnish monarchy ruled by the House of Hesse; after the defeat of Germany in World War I, however, the Finnish interregnum of 1917-1919 ceased and Finland emerged as an independent, democratic republic, with a modernizing civil society.

The civil war remains the most traumatic, controversial and emotionally charged event in the history of modern Finland, and there have even been disputes about how to designate it. Most of the victims of the war died off the battlefields. Three-quarters of the dead were Red combatants and sympathizers. Most of the deaths were caused by political terror campaigns and high prison camp mortality rates. The turmoil caused a severe food shortage, disrupted the Finnish economy and the political apparatus, and divided the Finnish nation for many years. The Finnish society was slowly reunited through the policy of compromises led by moderate political groups, and the shift to peaceful development in Finland was facilitated by the outcome of World War I, the marked post-war economic progress and recovery, and by the pre-1918 cultural and national unity of the majority of the nation.

Read more about Finnish Civil War:  Background, Aftermath, In Popular Culture

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