A Brief History of Finland

When looking through the main events in Finnish history, broadly speaking, it can be divided into three chapters: the Swedish period prior to 1809, the Russian period from 1809 to 1917, and the independent period from 1917 to the present day.

Finland was part of the Swedish Empire from 1150 to 1809. As we are focusing on the main events in Finnish history, we are going to begin from the 17th century. During the 17th century, while Finland was under Swedish Rule, it started to develop significantly. Between 1637–1640 and 1648–1654 Count Per Brahe functioned as general governor of Finland. During this time many towns were founded and many laws were reformed. In 1640, Finland’s first University was founded in Turku. It was called the Academy of Abo.

Count Per Brahe’s period of administration is generally considered very beneficial to the development of Finland. Despite the progress made during this time, the 17th century is generally considered as a gloomy time for the Fins. High taxation, continuing wars such as the northern wars, and the cold climate made it very difficult for the Fins. During the final years of the 17th century, a devastating famine caused by climate struck Finland, massacring 30% of the Finnish population.

The 18th century didn’t start off any better for Finnish people, with the great northern war (1700-1721) taking place and shaping Finland’s future significantly. During the Great Northern War, Finland was occupied by the Russians and the southeastern part, was seized by Russia after the Treaty of Nystad. During this war, Sweden’s status as a European great power was lost, and Russia was now the leading power in the North. Throughout the 18th century Finland was partly controlled by Russia and partly by Sweden and was subjected to a tug of war between the two countries.

The next significant event in Finland’s history was the period where Finland was an autonomous Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire. During the Finnish War between Sweden and Russia, Finland was again conquered by the armies of Tsar Alexander I. Following the Swedish defeat in the war and the signing of the Treaty of Fredrikshamn on September 17, 1809, Finland remained an autonomous Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire until the end of 1917. During this period, there was constant pressure from the government of Russia for the Russification of Finland. It was a government policy of the Russian Empire to limit the special status of the Grand Duchy of Finland and possibility the termination of it’s autonomy.

One of the policies bought into Finland included the February Manifesto of 1899, which was a decree by Emperor Nicholas II which asserted the imperial government’s right to rule Finland without the consent of local legislative bodies. This basically means that the head people in Russia could make decisions and create laws in Finland without consulting and asking the people in charge of Finland. Also, there was the Language Manifesto of 1900 which was a decree by Emperor Nicholas II which made Russian the language of administration of Finland. Finally there was the conscription law which was signed by Emperor Nicholas II in July 1901 and incorporated the Finnish army into the imperial army.

The Russification campaign resulted in Finnish resistance, starting with petitions, that then grew to strikes followed by active resistance and demonstrations. The worst resistance seen during the campaign was when the Russian governor-general Nikolai Bobrikov was assissinated by Eugen Schauman in June 1904. The efforts of Russia to employ the tactics of Russification in Finland was one of the major reasons that lead to resistance that ultimately resulted in Finland’s deceleration of independence in 1917.

Following the Russian Rule, Finland declared its independence on December 6th 1917. During the first world war and as the attempts by the Russian Empire were made to Russificate Finland, Finland’s population became split in its support of German or Russian forces, despite Finland forming a semi-autonomous part of the Russian Empire. Consequently only a few thousand Finnish citizens enlisted in the Russian cause. In the wake of the February Revolution of 1917 in Russia the Finnish National Assembly demanded independence in all but name. This was rejected by Russia’s Provisional Government which responded by dissolving Finland’s National Assembly in July 1917.

The ensuing elections did not produce the result the Russian government hoped for, with its production of a decidedly pro-German majority. Following this the October revolution took place which overturned the interim provisional government and established the Soviet Union. The Bolsheviks, who led this coup, were generally viewed as an extremist group and had very little popular support when they began serious efforts in April1917. By October, the Bolsheviks’ popular base was much larger as they had built up a majority of support within Petrograd and other urban centres.

The October Revolution turned Finnish politics upside down. Now, the new non-Socialist majority of the Parliament wanted total independence, and the Socialists came to view Soviet Russia as an example to follow. On November 15, 1917, the Bolsheviks declared a general right of self-determination, including the right of complete secession, “for the Peoples of Russia”. On the same day the Finnish Parliament issued a declaration by which it assumed all powers of the Sovereign in Finland. Worried by the development in Russia, and Finland, the non-Socialist Senate proposed that Parliament declare Finland’s independence, which was agreed on in the Parliament on December 6, 1917.

Following the deceleration of independence, civil war broke out in Finland. This civil war, that lasted from 27th January to 15th May 1918, was fought between the forces of the Social Democrats led by the People’s Deputation of Finland, commonly called the “Reds” (punaiset), and the forces of the non socialist, conservative-led Senate, commonly called the “Whites” (valkoiset). The Reds were supported by the Russian Soviet Republic, while the Whites received military assistance from the German Empire. As there were no generally accepted police and army forces to keep order in Finland after March 1917, the left and the right began building security groups of their own. Two paramilitary forces emerged: the White Guards and Red Guards. An atmosphere of political violence, fear, and mistrust became apparent in Finland during this terrible time. Fighting broke out between the Reds and the Whites during January 1918, and quickly escalated.

The Reds carried out a general offensive from mid-February to early March, which failed. The general offensive of the Whites began on 15 March 1918. A large number of Russian soldiers remained stationed in Finland at the beginning 1918, but the majority of these troops were unwilling to fight, and were withdrawn from Finland by the end of March. Soviet Russia’s main support to the Reds was the supply of weapons. The White offensive was bolstered by the intervention of the Baltic Sea Division of the German army in southern Finland on 3 April. The battles of Tampere and Viipuri won by the Whites and the Battle of Helsinki won by the German troops for the white side were the decisive military actions of the war, which was eventually won by the Whites.

The Civil War is recognised as the most serious disaster in Finnish History. Almost 37,000 people died, 5,900 of whom were between 14 and 20 years old.. Only about 10,000 of the overall casualties happened on the battlefields; most of the deaths resulted from the terror campaigns and from the appalling conditions in the prison camps. Below are the offical figures of deaths from the civil war:

After the 1917–18 crisis and civil war, Finland passed from Russian rule to the sphere of influence of the German Empire. The conservative Finnish senate attempted to establish a Finnish monarchy ruled by a German king, but after the defeat of Germany in World War I, Finland emerged as an independent, democratic republic which it remains until this day today.

Around the time of the second world war, there were three crucial wars that define Finnish war history. These were the winter war 1939-1940, the continuation war 1941-1944 and the Lapland war 1944-1945.

They fought the winter war alone against the soviet union. The Soviet Union had by far the greater amount of troops with much better equipment, and were expected to beat the Finnish easily. The war however unfolded very differently. The Finnish army were fighting on their home turf in winter conditions with which they were very familiar. The high morale of Finnish troops, creative tactics, the difficult terrain and harsh weather caused significant problems for the Red Army. The Soviets were routed in several key battles, th Battle of Suomussalmi.

The war lasted for months rather than weeks, casualties mounted and the worldwide reputation of the Soviet Union suffered. By March 1940, exhaustion led to the situation where both parties were willing to negotiate for a peace treaty. The Finnish Army was running out of even the most basic material, and the Soviet Union wanted to end the costly war that had become an international embarrassment. Nevertheless, Finland was the loser and in the Moscow Peace Treaty, the Finns had to make significant territorial concessions. The total area lost was 35,000 km² (approximately 9% of the Finnish territory).

During the summer and autumn of 1941 the Finnish Army went on the attack trying to retake the territories lost in the Winter War. The Finnish army also advanced further, especially in the direction of Lake Onega, leading to the occupation of Russian East Karelia. This caused Great Britain to declare war on Finland on December 6. The German and Finnish troops in Northern Finland were less successful, failing to take the Russian port city of Murmansk.

On 31 July 1941 the United Kingdom launched raids on Kirkenes and Petsamo to show support for the Soviet Union. These raids failed. In December 1941, the Finnish army took defensive positions. This led to a long period of relative calm in the front line, lasting until 1944.

On June 9, 1944, the Red Army launched a massive attack against Finland. The fact that the Red Army had much greater numbers and had managed to surprise the Finnish army, led to a retreat approximately to the same positions as the Finns were holding at the end of the Winter War.

The dire situation in 1944 had led to Finnish president Risto Ryti giving Germany his personal guarantee that Finland would not negotiate peace with the Soviet Union for as long as he was the president. In exchange Germany delivered weapons to the Finns. After the Soviet invasion was halted, however, Ryti resigned. Due to the war, elections could not be held, and therefore the Parliament selected General Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, the Finnish commander-in-chief, as president and charged him with negotiating a peace.

The Finnish battle had slipped down the list of priorities for the Soviet leadership, as they were in a race to reach Berlin before the Western Allies. This, and the heavy casualties inflicted on the Red Army by the Finns, led to the withdrawal of most troops from the Finnish front. On September 4, 1944 a ceasefire was agreed, and the Moscow armistice was signed on September 19. In the armistice agreement Finland was obliged to expel German troops from the country. This led to the Lapland War.

The Lapland War was fought between Finland and Nazi Germany in Lapland, the northernmost part of Finland. The main strategic interest of Germany in the region were the nickel mines in the Petsamo area.

Initially the warfare was cautious on both sides, reflecting the previous cooperation of the two countries against their common enemy, but by the end of 1944 the fighting intensified. Finland and Germany had made an informal agreement and schedule for German troops to withdraw from Lapland to Norway. The Soviet Union did not accept this “friendliness” and forced Finland to take a more active role in pushing the Germans out of Lapland, leading to the fighting becoming worse.

The Germans proceeded to lay waste to the entire northern half of the country as they retreated. Some 100,000 people lost their homes, adding to the burden of post-war reconstruction. The actual loss of life, however, was not catastrophic. Finland lost some 1,000 troops and Germany about 2,000. The Finnish army expelled the last of the foreign troops from their soil in April 1945.

Major events in recent history include Finland joining the EU and the euro becoming the national currency. Before the parliamentary decision to join the EU, a official vote was held on April 16, 1994 in which 56.9% of the votes were in favour of joining. The process of accession was completed on January 1, 1995, when Finland joined the European Union along with Austria and Sweden. After the development of the Euro, Finland adopted it as the national currency in 2002. Currently, Tarja Halonen is the president of Finland and she represents the Social Democrat party.