The hatred is rising around me. The number of friends becomes still smaller”[1]

–   Allan Wallenius, a witness to his nation divided.

On December 6th 1917 the Grand Duchy of Finland declared independence, becoming the first nation to independently secede from the corpse of the Russian Empire and the embryo that was to become the Soviet Union. Just fifty-three days later on the night of January 27th 1918, Finland erupted into a brutal civil war. Two opposing movements had polarized the Finnish people to the breaking point. For the next three and a half months, the Finnish people tore their nation apart in a conflict that would claim the lives of 36,000 people, out of a total population of just 3 million.

The Finnish Civil War was fought between the Finnish Reds and the Finnish Whites. At their most basic, the Reds represented the lower classes fighting to establish a socialist Finland. The Whites, who would prove the victors, consisted of the traditional Finnish elite and middle class, seeking to maintain their economic and political status quo within Finland. However, this is far from a sufficient explanation. The terms Red and White are blanket terms, and overgeneralize an extremely nuanced and complicated conflict wherein there were many factions and actors fighting for power within either side.  Even in victory, the Whites would splinter due to political squabbling and differing ideas on Finnish national identity.

The Finnish Civil War is one of the darkest and bloodiest periods in the history of Finland. As the centenary of Finland’s independence and of the Civil War approaches, the Finnish Civil War should not be forgotten simply because the topic is too controversial or depressing. The Finnish Civil War presents not just an opportunity to study the history of the Finland, but gives insight into the maelstrom of competing interests, ideologies, and concepts of national identity that was influencing not just Finland, but the entire world in 1918.

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[1] Pekka Kalevi Hamalainen, In Time of Storm: Revolution, Civil War, and the Ethnolinguistic Issue in Finland (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984), 52.

Banner photo – The victorious White Army marches through Helsinki. Credit: J. O. Hannula.