Finland 100 years after the Civil War: reconciliation at last?

28.May 2018

By Tuure-Eerik Niemi

In the months following the declaration of Finland’s independence on 6 December 1917, the country descended into political, economic and institutional chaos that eventually escalated into one of Europe’s bloodiest civil conflicts. The country was divided into the ‘whites’, represented by the republicans and the royalists, backed by Germany, and the ‘reds’, socialists and communists, supported by the newly-established Soviet Union. The five months of fighting that followed in early 1918 eventually ended with a ‘white’ victory, and together with the ensuing ‘white terror’, the conflict cost the lives of some 40,000 people. Further, more than 100 000 ‘reds’ were temporarily incarcerated at internment camps.

A hundred years later, Finland still struggles with the memory of the Civil War. Its commemoration has been heavily politicised since the end of the conflict. After the war, the segregation between the ‘whites’ and the ‘reds’ persisted as the two sides established different social, cultural and political organisations. These divisions were reflected in the controversies regarding the name that should have been given to the conflict. Until the 1960s, the war was often called vapaussota or ‘war of liberation’, as preferred by the ‘whites’. Now, the neutral term sisällissota, ‘civil war’ is the standard and schoolbooks often tend to emphasise the brutality of the war and the terror that was inflicted on the civilian population.

As recent as 2008, at the 90th anniversary of the war’s end, President Tarja Halonen (Social Democrats) caused controversy when she delivered a speech at a remembrance ceremony for the ‘reds’ perished at the prison camps but did not participate in the celebrations organised by the associations related to the ‘whites’. At this occasion, Professor Päiviö Tommila demanded that sectarian remembrance activities should be replaced by shared reconciliation ceremonies. Some polls suggest too that the country is still internally divided due to the Civil War, and the “resentment lingers.” For example, a recent study commissioned by the Finnish Government finds that party affiliation is still strongly hereditary amongst Finnish youth.

But now, it seems that something has changed. On 1 January 2018, in the traditional presidential television address to celebrate the New Year, the incumbent President Sauli Niinistö (National Coalition Party) said that it is “time to make peace with the past.” In a keynote address at a seminar organised by Finland’s famous peace mediation agency, Crisis Management Initiative, Niinistö argued that reconciliation has been achieved due to the development of inclusive and participatory forms of government. At another occasion, speaking to the diplomatic community in Helsinki, the president proclaimed again that it was “our institutions, based on democracy and the rule of law [that] were an important factor in the healing process.” According to the Office of the President, Niinistö is only partaking in common or shared commemorative ceremonies this year. The same approach has been promoted by the Prime Minister’s Office, which has launched a website named the ‘Year of Remembrance’, meant to raise awareness of the events of 1918.

In comparison to 2008, Finland is now commemorating 1918 with shared reconciliation activities, also symbolically including the nation’s youth. A national ceremony was organised on the National Commemoration Day of Fallen Soldiers (20 May) hosted by Archbishop Kari Mäkinen of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church and attended by Niinistö and Prime Minister Juha Sipilä. As part of the ceremony, the country’s leadership and representatives of youth party organisations laid wreaths on monuments commemorating both ‘white’ and ‘red’ soldiers.

In his opening address, Archbishop Mäkinen emphasised how it is time to bring together all those with “white legacy, red legacy and those with legacy that has no colour,” and to ensure that “there is more justice than cruelty, more reconciliation than conflict, and more hope than fear in the future.” The Finnish broadcaster, YLE, also interviewed Finnish youth on their perspectives on the conflict. While some underlined how the war had influenced their families, others pointed out how it was almost unimaginable for them to think how the country had once had “almost like concentration camps” and that “both sides used child soldiers”.

Different activities are organised outside of the country as well. For example, the Finnish Cultural Institute for the Benelux is joining other institutes based in Brussels to produce a series of seminars and cultural activities to present the European geopolitical context of the time – the end of the First World War and the disintegration of the old empires – which helps one to understand the conditions that gave rise to civil conflict in Finland.

The emphasis of the crucial role that institutions, the rule of law and good governance have played in the restoration of national unity is perhaps not surprising. These themes have long been leading principles of Finnish foreign and development policies and approaches to conflict management and prevention, for example in the 2009 Comprehensive Crisis Management Strategy or the more recent 2018 National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security. Indeed, despite tensions, the period immediately following the Civil War saw crucial legal improvements, including the land and education reforms and the implementation of the eight hours working day, paving the way for reconciliation. Perhaps due to these efforts, the nation also stood united against an external enemy in 1939, when the Soviet Union unsuccessfully attacked Finland. The post-war reconstruction process and the establishment of the welfare state with policies aimed at the promotion of social mobility have also contributed to complete the conciliation process. Now, a hundred years later, the country does not only appear to come together to commemorate the civil conflict but paradoxically, it also has the vision to translate its experience of its own internal reconciliation into a narrative that guides its external affairs. As peace and reconciliation have eventually been achieved in Finland, why not promote it elsewhere?