The Tragedy of Finland

By Herman Montagu Donner

[The Outlook; May 15, 1918]

Even amid the stupendous shock of arms on the western front Finland engages the world's attention with a poignant interest of its own; for here, framed in miniature, unfolds the whole gigantic drama of the world's future; here we see a self-governing little people, democratic to the core, the first of the hitherto small subject nations to achieve independence during the world war, assailed treacherously from within as well as from without, fighting a desperate battle, not only for liberty, but for very life.

To an adequate understanding of events a certain amount of knowledge of antecedent political conditions is necessary. In the very first place, the population of Finland is not entirely homogeneous. A Swedish element, one-eleventh of the total inhabitants, furnished the ruling class for many generations. It is through this element that Finland first came into contact with Western culture and liberalism, and through its Swedish literature and Swedish intellectual and merchant classes was made known to the world at large. Nevertheless the racial division constituted a certain weakness; for in later years the Russian bureaucracy availed itself of this division to tear Finland's Constitution to tatters.

When the world war broke out, in August, 1914, it might have been thought that Russia, fighting for once on the side of right against might, would have minimized, or even abandoned, her Finnish policy of duplicity and oppression. So far, however, was this from being the case that, under the pretext of martial law, she proceeded to intensify her persecution of Finland till the commonest every-day rights of a free people were trampled upon, including those of public and even private meeting, a free; press, free speech, and just trial by law. Under these circumstances, many of the Finnish youth determined to join the ranks of Russia's enemies in order to aid, if possible, in the downfall of the loathed tyranny. Some hundreds of Finnish youth succeeded in escaping over the border into Sweden, thence making their way into Germany, and there, after a further course of training, forming a battalion known as the "Finnische Jaeger." They stipulated, however, that they were to be used exclusively" to fight the Russians; and not to be sent against the French or British, with neither of whom had they any quarrel, and with whom, moreover, many of their countrymen proceeded to take service. Immediately on the fall of the Czar's despotism these Finnish soldiers petitioned to be returned to Finland, as their cause was won; but the German military authorities, while publicly feigning to accede to their request, kept them interned in camp on the outskirts of Riga for some months, until the latest trend of events in the new republic across the gulf made it to the Prussian interest to comply with their demand.

With the fall of the Czar and his iniquitous bureaucratic tyranny, Finlanders were surely justified in thinking that the end of the reign of oppression had finally dawned, since the Russian people were known to be in full accord with the aspiration for the restoration of Finland to her ancient constitutional liberties. But events were only too quickly to dispel this optimistic view. The promising Lvoff-Milyukoff Government machine enjoyed but a brief tenure of office, and the latest Finnish Diet elected during the Czarist regime was, on the very day of its assembling in June of 1917, forcibly dissolved at the point of Muscovite bayonets at the behest of Kerensky, in the face of his recognition of the right of a people to choose its own form of government.

The Kerensky Government fell in its turn. The Finlanders then declared themselves for unconditional independence in the form of a republic. The next step, therefore, was the election of another Diet to take the place of the one forcibly prorogued. All classes of Finlanders took part in this latest election, based on universal suffrage, including that of women, with the result that the former Socialist majority of 103 votes out of 200 in the June Diet was turned into a minority of 92, despite the fact that the party polled 75,000 more votes than before.

This result was due to the excesses committed throughout the country by the Socialists. Unable to bend the Senate to their will, they had organized a governing body of their own in Broholm, a suburb of Helsingfors, and thence had sent out orders for a general strike to enforce their demands on the country at large. Their proclamation was of the kind familiar to all who have been made acquainted with the doctrine of class hatred promulgated by the extreme Socialists ever since the days of Marx. It read: "The bourgeoisie must now understand that Finland's working class has uttered its final say, and has risen in order with all its might to secure full guarantees for the protection of its living conditions and for popular government. Furthermore, it intends to pursue its interrupted fight to the bitter end."

At the start the movement had been fairly orderly and temperate, beyond the forcible closing of non-Socialist printing offices. But later, when stores had been looted of spirituous liquors and weapons seized and distributed, serious disorders broke out, and it was not long before the situation had got entirely beyond the control of the moderate element and degenerated into a series of deliberate acts of sabotage and murder throughout the rural districts, in which the Russian soldiery, scattered through the country, and since the wholesale assassination of their officers loosed from all the bonds of discipline, took an active and ever-increasing part. One of the most flagrant examples of this flood, of anarchy was the forcible seizure of half a million Finnish marks (i. e., about a hundred thousand dollars) by the Red Guard, as the armed adherents of the Socialists had come to be universally known, from the municipal treasury of Abo on November 20, under threats to burn the city, and the subsequent pillage and partial wrecking of many of the principal stores and warehouses, largely through pure lust of destruction and unreasoning vengefulness.

The new Diet, with its non-Socialist majority, was elected on October 2, and immediately formed a government under the premiership of ex-Judge Svinhufvud, the president of many previous Diets in the days of the Czarist despotism, a man widely known beyond the boundaries of the country and universally respected and loved. In this governing body the discontented Socialists refused to take any part, but, preferring to place the class interests of the proletariat above those of the nation as a whole, withdrew with loud threats of dire happenings to come. And here one striking fact should never be allowed to drop out of mind. In Finland there were no such extremes, of poverty and wealth as confront the sociologist in other and more populous and well-endowed communities. On the contrary, people for many decades enjoyed a form of autonomous rule more thoroughly and genuinely democratic than that possessed perhaps by any other country whatsoever, and all the oppression under which they had cause to groan had been imposed upon them by a foreign despot against the unceasing protests of their own representatives. The movement which these Finnish Socialists embodied and pressed with such indiscriminate savagery upon their countrymen was therefore essentially a foreign one, extraneous to any real needs of Finland.

In the meanwhile Lenine and Trotsky, at the head of the new Bolshevik Government in Petrograd, formally acknowledged Finnish national independence and ordered the Russian military forces to withdraw from the occupied territory. This act was promptly followed by official recognition of the new Republic on The part of the Governments of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Germany, Switzerland, and France, and, in the case of England, as a government de facto, if not de jure.

The Socialists of Finland, seeing the reins of power slipping from their grasp for good, and only too well aware of the fact that public opinion was turning more and more emphatically from them, now determined that the time had come to fulfill their threats. Knowing themselves to be too weak to carry out their programme of violence and intimidation unaided, and seeing in the undisciplined Russian military, with whom they had established a policy of fraternization, a powerful instrument at hand, they appealed to them not to leave the country, but to come to the aid of the Red Guard in overturning the Government and replacing it by one of their own. To this petition the Bolsheviki turned a ready ear, and Lenine and Trotsky, in their turn, instead of abiding by their pledge to Finland only gave active countenance to the insurrectionary movement, but, what was tantamount to a declaration of war, sent fourteen thousand fresh troops into Finland, plentifully supplied with cannon, machine guns, mortars, armored cars, and rifles, on the pretext that as the new Finnish Government was not a proletarian one after the model of that set up in Petrograd, it must be replaced with one more to the liking of the Bolsheviki. The old example of Russian interference in Finnish affairs was too strong and too recent to be abandoned, no matter what lofty principles might conflict with its resumption!

Accordingly the Socialist revolution was soon in full swing, opening in Viborg, the town closest to the Russian border, on January 26, and marked, by a series of unspeakable atrocities committed by the Red Guard throughout Finland, with the active support of the Bolshevist troops.

Under these circumstances the Finnish Government found itself powerless. As long ago as 1902 the Finnish army had been abolished by the Czar, and consequently, lacking means of effective resistance, the legally elected government could do nothing except take to flight and leave the capital to the armed Red Guard and their Russian accomplices, recruited by numbers of criminals who had been previously released from prison by orders from Broholm in order to take part in the work of terrorization. Most of the Government officials left Helsingfors, the capital, during the night of January 26-27, for the north. The few remaining Ministers, together with several of their Parliamentary supporters, who were arrested by the Red Guard when the latter seized the Government buildings the next day and kept in confinement from a week to ten days. One of the members of the Diet, Mikkola by name, was murdered in his cell. At the same time the banks were rifled of such funds and securities as had not been removed to a place of safety. Of course the loyal Diet could hold no session. The Red Guard proceeded to set up a "People's Commissariat" after the Petrograd model. A veritable Reign of Terror was inaugurated. The wild excesses that followed were of such a nature, as to shock the more moderate Socialists themselves. In this tragic farce one of the most notorious released criminals, a man who had committed more than one murder, named Savinainen, played a leading part, bringing in a bill of his own! Disillusionment, discontent, and, as the funds gave out, actual want, began to work among the followers of the Red Guard, and a serious split occurred in the Socialist ranks.

Meanwhile the Constitutional Government had established itself at Vasa, the capital of the province of Oesterbotten (East Bothnia), on the west coast, whence it issued, on February 1, a proclamation addressed to the people of Finland.

It declared that Finland's "newly won independence has been exposed, through a comprehensive act of high treason, to the most threatening danger," and appealed to all Finlanders to rally to the support of the Constitutional Government, and in particular of "our national volunteer defense organization," known as the White Guard, "to insure and consolidate our people's liberty, to protect our homes, and to re-establish lawful order and the supremacy of the Diet."

The response of the people was enthusiastic and prompt. From all parts of the country the loyal inhabitants came pouring in—men of all classes, nobleman and peasant, merchant and farmer, clerk and fisherman—with any and all kinds of weapons, and all burning with zeal to blot out the stain with which the Red Guard had besmirched the honor and fair name of Finland.

The opportunity to prove their mettle was immediately forthcoming.

At the time of the issuance of the manifesto the 42d Russian Army Corps was stationed in Oesterbotten, and immediately issued orders to the Finns—in the most flagrant contempt of the fact that the independence of Finland had been formally recognized by their own Soviet in Petrograd, to say nothing of other foreign governments—to the effect that the White Guard should immediately disband and their followers and supporters disarm, under penalty of the destruction of the city of Vasa. The response was as instantaneous as it must have been unexpected. The Finnish forces immediately gave battle, and disarmament soon thereafter took place—but of the Russian troops, who suffered an ignominious defeat. The news spread like wildfire, and all over the country the natives flocked to the White Guard standards, with the result that the Russian garrisons were beaten and disarmed at Toby, Laihela, Ylistaro, Lappo, Seinäjoki, Ilmola, and Lillkyro.

But ever-increasing armed forces came pouring into Finland from across the Russian border in response to the appeals of the Red Guard, and it became necessary for the White Guard to find weapons of warfare for its thousands of eager but unarmed adherents if they were to avert the final ruin of their cause and their country's liberties. In these sore straits they turned to Sweden, but, although some hundreds of Swedes, officers and men alike, responded with alacrity as private individuals, the Swedish Government, afraid apparently of the Socialists within its own gates, contented itself with platonic phrases of sympathy.

Deprived of the expected help in this quarter and desperate at the threatened loss of everything that lent life itself any value, the Finnish Constitutional Government found itself compelled to seek the necessaries of warfare in the only quarter that remained, viz., Germany. Complying with the request, Germany promptly shipped artillery, arms, and ammunition by sea from Libau to Vasa, and from Riga transported the remaining Finnische Jaeger to their native shores to swell the forces of the White Guards. Undoubtedly Germany saw her profit in the transaction—she does nothing without an ulterior motive—and exacted an adequate recompense, which it was not in the power of the hard-pressed Finnish Government to decline; but the fact remains that Germany helped the Constitutional Government of Finland to defend itself against the rebel Red Guard and alien Bolshevist troops and defy the otherwise triumphant forces of anarchy and high treason on its soil.

Now, for the first time, adequately equipped for the internecine warfare forced upon it, the Finnish White Guard, infinitely superior to its opponent in intelligence and discipline, and capably officered by tried leaders who have won their reputations against the Germans on the eastern front, is making headway, and at present writing controls not only the whole of the north and center, but nearly all the southern and eastern part of the country.

The spirit of the whole native White Guard movement is epitomized in the following ringing proclamation of General Mannerheim, the White Guard's commander-in-chief:

I swear in the name of the Finnish peasants' army, whose leader I have the honor to be, not to sheathe my sword in its scabbard again until lawful order has been restored in the land, all fortresses are in our hands, and the last soldier of Lenine, together with the last hooligan, is finally driven out of Russian Karelia as well as Finland. Relying upon our high cause, our brave men and devoted women, we look forward to creating a great and powerful Finland.

With eighty thousand troops now either in thorough battle trim or actively training, the loyalist White Guard has every prospect of a speedy victory over the combined forces of the Red Guard and their Bolshevist allies, in which event Finland will be able to proceed to the prompt restoration of that order and tranquility for which she has always hitherto been famous and to the development of her social and political well-being.

Unfortunately, however, another and even more sinister influence, if at present more innocent-seeming, looms upon the horizon of Finland's future, further to bedevil the already complex situation which, if left to itself as between the native factions would speedily find its own solution. The shadow of the insatiate and crafty Prussian colossus lies athwart the land, and already the discredited Red Guard are making capital out of it, and not least here in America, to befog the fundamental issue and envelop their opponents in a mist of foul aspersions. In view of this, Americans must be doubly on their guard against the supposition that there is any desire on the part of the Finnish Government or their White Guard supporters to come under the sway, whether open or secret, of Germany, or even to entertain any sympathy with the aims or ambitions of the Teutonic Power. The extent of their feeling in that direction consists solely in a certain degree of gratitude, natural and legitimate in the exceptional circumstances, for the help extended in Finland's hour of direst need, which help, however, would much sooner have been owed to the Allies, had this been possible, and which was actually in the first place sought from Sweden.

Had Sweden, casting all other considerations of opportunism or, shall we say, downright timidity, to the winds, come promptly to her distressed neighbor's assistance, she would have solved the difficult situation to the ultimate advantage of herself no less than of Finland, and by cutting the ground from under the feet of further Prussian intrigue would have served the whole Allied cause and won for herself a place of high honor. She, however, let the great opportunity slip, and now finds herself rewarded by the more or less openly expressed contempt of the Teutonic military power, culminating in the high-handed seizure of the Aland Islands, commanding the entrance to both the Gulf of Finland and the Gulf of Bothnia, and therefore possessed of an immense strategical value. This act on the part of Germany was all the grosser an infraction of international comity since the future of the islands was even then the subject of discussion between Finland and Sweden, the former of which had actually landed a small force to drive out the marauding Bolshevist invaders. And now latest despatches bring the news of the landing of German troops in Helsingfors for the declared purpose of capturing the Russian fleet there lying unofficered and futile, and of the participation of German forces in the capture of Viborg by the White Guard, as well as in what appears to have been a decisive battle near Tavastchus, ending in the loss by the Red Guard of most of their army, artillery, and supplies. In the presence of such evidence of new and unwelcome German power in the young Republic, the Finlanders may well look their gift-horse in the mouth with sinking hearts and pray secretly for the triumph on the western front of the sore-pressed Allies, in whom they are perfectly aware, in the sanctuary of their breasts, lies the only real hope for the eventual assurance and preservation of not only their own but any democracy and liberty on the face of the earth henceforth.

Finland is thus overshadowed from converging directions by the black pinions of the Bolshevist vulture and of the Prussian eagle. Will the shadow fall, or will it lift? That is what every sincere American must ask himself as he watches the unfoldment of the present tragedy of Finland.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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