A Cautionary Tale of the Finnish Civil War

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You have likely never heard of the Finnish Civil War. A brief war–in some ways a simple war–it lasted only three months, from late January to late April 1918, but killed around 1 percent of the population. It was started by the left, the Reds, and ended by the rest of Finnish society, the Whites, who crushed the Reds and preserved Finland from the fate of Bolshevik Russia. This war is an object lesson in how even a homogenous, largely united country can quickly end up in civil war when part of the population becomes gripped with leftist ideology, and it is also an object lesson in what to do in response.

“Whites” and “Reds” are the usual terms used for the opposing sides, the former being the legitimate elected government, the latter the revolutionary left. The Reds, although there were variations within their ranks, in practice all acted under the umbrella of the Social Democratic Party, the SDP, which was a revolutionary Marxist party. The Whites were all the other elements of Finnish society.

To an outside observer, Finland seems like it should have been an unlikely candidate for civil war. Ethnically homogenous, Finland prospered during the 19th century. Part of the Russian Empire since 1809, Finland occupied an advantageous position, viewed as loyal to the tsar and largely left to govern itself internally. Class divisions in Finland were not nearly as extreme as in some other European countries. Industrial activity, and thus the number of industrial workers, increased toward the end of the century. A large middle class included many smaller farmers who owned enough land to live comfortably. At the other end of the rural scale were landless laborers; in between was a sizable group of crofters, who held long-term leases on land.

What bound the Finns together was nationalism. Despite loyalty in practice to the tsar, Finns regarded the Russians as beneath them. All classes idealized Finnish independence as part of a century-long national recapture of Finnish culture. The Russians made little effort to tamp down Finnish thought and speech about independence, but refused to even confirm the specifics of what the Finns saw as a special constitutional status, much less grant formal independence.

The SDP was formed in 1903, unopposed by the other classes, who (mostly incorrectly, as it turned out) thought that organized workers would be educated, and therefore responsible, workers. It was, as typical for such parties, a hard Marxist party, not what we think of as “social democracy” today. The SDP was explicitly revolutionary from the start. They contemplated that the triumph of communism was inevitable, and their job was to manage the inevitable. This encouraged an attitude of passivity, sometimes fatalism, among the Finnish left.

In 1905, when unrest in Russia led to unrest in Finland, the SDP created the Red Guards, a revolutionary left militia used in an abortive attempt to impose the SDP’s will. The violence of the Red Guards led other elements of Finnish society to create the opposing Home Guards. This powder keg was defused by the tsar, and the nascent Red Guards and Home Guards were disbanded. For a time the SDP instead focused on electoral politics, building an efficient machine. But the power of parliament was, for the most part, an illusion, since the tsar was now taking a far more active role in Finnish matters. In practice, what parliament did was advisory, and the tsar mostly rejected the advice, which meant he rejected most of what the SDP wanted. Rather than cooperating with the other elements of society to increase pressure on the tsar, the SDP chose to view every non-left group ideologically, and concluded they were the problem, not the solution. They fed this false and divisive view to the workers using the popular press. (This is only one parallel of the Civil War to America’s present situation; you get points for noticing others to come.)

Nonetheless, at the beginning of World War I, Finland was quite peaceful. Nor did Finland suffer much in the war—the biggest problem was food insecurity, because Finland depended on grain imports from Russia, which became unreliable. In 1916, the SDP won a slim absolute majority in parliament—although the tsar refused to allow parliament to meet, given that it was prone (in his view) to agitation, which he could ill afford at that time. He also made clear that if Russia won the war, Finland would not gain more independence, displeasing all sectors of Finnish society.

New unrest in Russia during February 1917 led to uncertainty in Finland. Order was difficult to maintain because a major focus of the left was disbanding the police, such that the left, through its militias, would be the only group able to exercise force. Radical revolutionary elements engaged in mass demonstrations in Helsinki and other towns. A key demand was to seize food from imaginary hidden stocks of the non-left classes; fear of starvation was a major problem by this point, and a nonstop propaganda topic of the SDP was supposed hoarding by the non-left, endlessly repeated to whip up hatred and unify the left, although without any evidence provided.

By the end of April 1917, the Red Guards began to openly engage in violence against the non-left, such as freelance raids for food and arms, extortion, and other forms of politically oriented criminality, openly and with complete immunity from legal sanctions. (This was because they could not be arrested, since there was no opposing force in the cities to arrest them–not because the judicial system had been taken over by the Reds, as ours has today in many American urban areas.) The left militias became, in many cities and towns, the ultimate authority. The non-left parties therefore began, by June, to discuss setting up their own paramilitaries, but unwisely failed to follow through. The SDP’s organs used these discussions anyway to whip up more hatred and fear among the rank-and-file left. Violent propaganda was the stock-in-trade of the SDP; the standard term for any non-left opponents, from long before the Civil War, was “butchers.” Seeing the writing on the wall, in the countryside the farmers began to organize mostly unarmed “fire brigades” that were not yet formal militias, since they lacked arms and government help, but were meant to form the kernel of such forces if needed.

* * *

When Kerensky beat down the premature Bolshevik revolt in July, the Provisional Government, as sovereign in Finland, dissolved the Finnish parliament and scheduled new elections for the beginning of October. The SDP was not happy but, assuming they would win the election, grudgingly accepted this dissolution. Violence by the left increased rapidly, including more riots in the major cities; in response, the non-left elements of society finally started forming armed private security forces in the cities. These security forces blended into the Home Guard forces that began to be formally organized and armed in the countryside. Both the Red Guards and the Home Guards made strenuous efforts to acquire weapons, which were rare and hard to get (something Americans of today find difficult to comprehend), and managed to accumulate a modest quantity and variety of light weapons.

Shockingly to them, amidst large turnout the SDP lost the parliamentary election. The surprised SDP immediately started threatening violent revolution, and issued a long list of non-negotiable demands, including confiscation of any non-left weapons (always the core demand of leftists as soon as they have any power). Most of all, they denied the legitimacy of the election, demanding an immediate new election with a lowered voting age. They falsely claimed, with zero evidence, that the results of the election were fraudulent. If their demands were refused, the SDP broadcast they would not be responsible for the violent revolution sure to result.

In October, the Bolsheviks took power in Russia. Lenin encouraged the SDP to also “rise and take power.” The leaders of the SDP were not Lenin, though; they lacked his virtues, and were always prone to half-measures combined with threats they could not, or did not, follow through on, to Lenin’s annoyance and disgust. Still, on November 14 the SDP announced a general strike, which in those days was an overt attempt to take power through extralegal means, short of full rebellion but with full intent to use violence, under the guidance of a “Revolutionary Council.” But the SDP leadership called off the strike after a few days. To cover their incompetence, they ramped up talk of violence yet more, blaming their opponents for murders by Reds (27 by November 26) and generally endorsing violence, a move not calculated to calm the situation. When parliament convened, a non-Socialist government was formed. The SDP had gotten the opposite of what they wanted, and the opposite of what they had promised their constituents.

The Red Guards continued to expand and engage in ever-greater violence. Among other things, in Turku, the second city of Finland, the Red Guard led three days of riots on December 15, looting shops and burning buildings, and setting the entire country on edge. The SDP leadership publicly frowned on the violence and blamed their enemies for it, claiming the Turku riots were organized as a provocation, not conducted by the Red Guards—although this was an obvious and blatant lie.

In reaction, the privately funded and organized Home Guard unsurprisingly grew rapidly. Unlike the Red Guards, the Home Guard focused not on looting but on training. The Finnish government, after some dithering, did establish a military command (not previously having had any army), recruiting a Finnish aristocrat who had fought for the tsar, now the most famous Finn ever but then unknown: Baron Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim. He was a man of overwhelming self-confidence and competence. On January 9, parliament authorized the creation of an army directed at the Russians if they would not leave, and an internal security force directed at countering the Red Guards. Mannerheim immediately began to implement these directives, while the SDP shrieked hysterically in parliament that the “butchers” were starting a war, waving on the floor of parliament poisoned dum-dum bullets that the government was supposedly issuing to the Home Guard to use on the workers. Meanwhile, the SDP asked for, and received, large shipments of weapons from the Bolsheviks.

Although only a minority of the SDP leadership actually wanted war, they all believed fervently that the “triumph of the workers” was inevitable. Naturally, they continued to claim that any violence was due to their opponents, who were opposing history. Thus on January 27, the SDP’s Executive Council declared, “It has been decided to take all state power into the trustworthy hands of the nation’s workers.” The Civil War was on.

* * *

The government immediately handed over supreme White military power to Mannerheim, who in his high-handed way interpreted this as all power, causing tension with the civilian government, which would ultimately, had the war lasted longer, have needed to be resolved. As it turned out, though, the government’s ministers fled southern Finland, stronghold of the Reds, barely escaping. They were initially dispersed in northern Finland, so Mannerheim in practice functioned as the ruler of White Finland during the Civil War.

He initially focused on cementing control in the north, and by mid-February, controlled all of north Finland. In retrospect, the best chance the Reds had was a massive initial push, since when the war began only they had organized fighters and weapons. They lacked the training and the will, however, and their decision structure was not nimble. The White armies coalesced during the month of February. Soon enough, both sides turned their focus to the rail network, which had main east-west and north-south trunks. For both sides, preventing the other side from attacking along the three north-south trunks became critical.

As always under communism, the Reds immediately unleashed a Red Terror in the areas they controlled. But, by comparative historical standards, it was a fairly restrained Red Terror. Except in Helsinki, which saw a more traditional left terror of both random and targeted killings, the usual “Revolutionary Courts” mostly handed out fines and imprisonment, not executions, and in a rare departure from revolutionary left orthodoxy, focused not on class membership, but specific proven actions deemed to be harmful to the working class. Perhaps this was some quirk of the Finns themselves, slow to rage, or maybe the Reds would have unleashed a greater terror over time. Later events suggest the latter.

Many more Reds than Whites died in the Civil War. The total was about 37,000, in a nation of 3.2 million people. But 27,000 were Reds and 5,000 were Whites (with 5,000 “other,” presumably Russians or those impossible to determine); 7,500 Reds were executed or murdered; only 1,500 Whites. The disparity wasn’t because of the more merciful character of the Reds, but because the Reds captured few prisoners in battle and captured no towns or cities they did not initially hold. The Whites weren’t merciful either. Often they killed prisoners out of hand on the grounds they were not legitimate wartime opponents but traitors and murderers. Mannerheim waffled on what treatment should be meted out to captured Reds, sometimes calling for courts martial after the war, sometimes implying they should be shot immediately. In effect, he was responsible for much of the killing of prisoners.

Red training was nominal at best, since they had the loyalty of few men with experience of military command, and almost zero NCOs or professional officers. The negative impact of poor training was exacerbated because pseudo-democracy was the order of the day. Taking orders wasn’t the forte of the Red Guards, who often preferred simply to pillage rather than frontally assault enemy positions. Panic among the Red Guards after any battlefield reverse was very common, and discipline for such failures–and worse ones, such as outright cowardice or looting–was none.

When battle was fully joined in various locations at the end of February, it centered around thrusts along the rail lines, aiming to take control of crucial chokepoints. The Reds initially held most of these points, and they also had several armored trains supplied by the Russians. The Whites had superior organization and training. Fighting was concentrated in three areas along the north-south lines. The Reds attacked north on March 9. If they had been successful, they could have severed Mannerheim’s hold on the northern east-west rail line, splitting his forces in two and likely defeating the Whites. But they failed.

On March 15, with inferior numbers, Mannerheim then attacked south. He isolated the major industrial center of Tampere, but was unable to quickly capture the city. Mannerheim retrenched. By April 4, using artillery and street-by-street fighting, he had ground down the Red defenses, and captured Tampere on April 5. This probably decided the Civil War. By this point Mannerheim had destroyed one of the two major Red armies, killed 2,000 Reds (as against 600 White dead), and captured 11,000 Reds. Moreover, Mannerheim’s troops had made significant inroads in other areas of conflict. In other areas the Reds tried to push forward, and failed, although in several areas the fighting was bitter and resulted in hundreds dead.

Red morale collapsed. The Red leaders peddled lies to their followers while making plans to escape themselves. They could have fought on; they still had many men, as well as geographic links to Russia, and they still held the capital, Helsinki. However, their cause took another hit when on April 3 the Germans, in alliance with the Whites, landed 10,000 troops in extreme southern Finland, on the Hanko Peninsula. The Germans took Turku, and the Red civilian leadership promptly fled Helsinki, the obvious next target for the Germans, while lying they had not, leaving their leaderless troops behind to defend the city. Those troops lost quickly to the Germans, and the capital fell to the Whites.

The Red military leadership ordered all remaining troops and Red Guards to fall back eastwards toward Russia. The Reds fled east, killing and looting along the way, making this the month with the highest body count for the Red Terror. This suggests that the extreme Red Terror common to all revolutionary left regimes was mostly just delayed by circumstance, and that had the Reds won they would have killed much larger numbers of people. The SDP leadership, on April 14, simply abandoned the fight, fleeing to Russia (from whence those who survived the purges would return, in 1939, to again attempt to subjugate the Finns to communism) while exhorting their followers to keep fighting to cover their escape—an orthodox Marxist option, but not one that earned them any honor among their followers, or Finns generally. The Red rank-and-file, surrounded, gave up by May 2, which marked the end of large-scale fighting.

So the Whites won, saving the nation and ensuring its independence. They had 80,000 prisoners whose crimes had to be dealt with. What followed was the so-called White Terror. To call right-wing restoration of the rule of law “terror” at all is mostly a misnomer—a very deliberate one, designed to conceal the essential fact that terror is a standard tool of the left, but rarely used by the right. No argument can be made that postwar trials in Finland by the Whites were “terror.” They followed the entire structure of the rule of law, including appeals. Even though many trials were held, very few people were executed after the war—30, to be precise (although several thousand captives had been summarily killed during the war, to be sure). In the usual right-wing way, quite a few prison sentences of short duration were handed out, which were quickly commuted or amnestied in almost all instances by the end of 1918.

The biggest failure that can be laid at the feet of the Whites is the death of 13,000 prisoners between May and August in prison camps, of disease exacerbated by malnutrition. Of course, this was the height of the Spanish flu, and food was short in the camps because food was short everywhere, not due to deliberate starvation. Perhaps there was little way to avoid these deaths. Still, it is a strike against the Whites.

So ended the Civil War. Mannerheim, hero of the hour, was soon enough sidelined by the White civilian leadership, tired of his high-handed ways. Twenty years later, in the Winter War, Mannerheim helped save his country again—but that is another story. As is how immediately the Finnish peasants were rewarded for their loyalty to the Whites with extensive land reform, and how within a very few years, the Finnish left were fully readmitted to politics, though they failed to achieve working-class political unity, and they suffered social debilities for another 20 years. Still, Finnish society knit itself together again, no doubt because the winning side did not have an ideology and was happy to simply return to the days of parliamentary rule and very happy that Finland had, at last, achieved independence.

What does all this tell an American of today? Quite a bit. First, that the revolutionary left will never stop voluntarily. They cannot; to do so contradicts the basic premises of their world view, most of all that human perfectibility is achievable and that any price, especially a price paid by those who would deny others heaven on earth, is worth paying. Second, for the left, whenever power is not handed to them, those who do hold power are necessarily illegitimate, and any action to strip them of power justified. Third, they can be stopped, because in their nature their reach exceeds their grasp, but stopping them cannot be done with words, since to the left, words are meaningless. It will always and ever, until their hold on the human imagination is broken, be only possible to stop them by force. This is our future, whether we like it or not. We can hope it will be through the current institutions of order, to the extent those are not yet wholly subverted by the left. If not, it must be by some other mechanism, as the Finns found to their sorrow.

Charles Haywood is editor of The Worthy House.