History Of Finland
Posted on 25 July 2017
History of Finland
This article has been written by my amazing brother Aki, who is enthusiastic about history and knows much more about it than I do. It's a short story about how Finland came to her 100 year independence which we are celebrating this year. All reference materials are highlighted for easy access. Hope you will enjoy it!
Finland is located in the Northern Europe and has fifth of its territory above the Polar circle. One might be suprised by the fact that Poland is west of Finland. There are four very distinct seasons – a very green summer, a very white winter and everything between. The location also gives rise to midsummer nights with no night – even in the capital Helsinki some 600 km south of the Polar circle. Up north the winters may be long but with all the snow one ends up with a kind of gloomy twilight where occasional aurora borealis can light the skies. In any case, during the winter solstice Helsinki has about 5 hours of daylight. The long winter might also be a reason why Finland has more heavy metal bands per capita than any other country.
After the ice age the early Finns followed receiding glaciers and found a gently rolling terrain in the East while the Western coastal area is mostly flat. Funnily the land is still rising from the weight of those long gone glaciers to the effect of several square kms gained a year. Even today close to three quarters of the land is covered with woods while a tenth is lakes, ponds and rivers. Depending on how one defines a lake one can find tens if not close to two hundred thousand lakes in Finland. Still another tenth is different kinds of swamps. As the first part of the word Suomi (Finland in Finnish) means swamp one can simplify the early Finns as a kind of swamp people.
The early and widely scattered population enjoyed hunting and fishing in small villages in the Southern Finland while reindeer hearding Sami people populated the more
northern areas. Both hunting and fishing require quiet working attitude. One can presume there's that Darwinian selection at work as the Finns even today have a reputation for being quiet people. Obviously harsh environment has sculputered the Finnish mentality – one finishes what one sets to do. As early population was scarce one could not always count on the help of others but one could always count on sisu.
The word sisu does have epic connotations. The images of the heroes of Kalevala and other folklore tales come to mind. Heroes or heroines toiling in a waist deep snow or wading through a swamp come rain or sunshine brawling wolves, bears or whatnot – obstacles with Homerian proportions, you know. Usual English translation of the word is something like ”having will, guts and determination to do, overcome and finish whatever one faces”. This no-nonsense attitude is probably why Finnish warriors and soldiers through the ages have quite a reputation.
The history of Finland as a country isn't very long one but the idea of frontier between the East and the West goes a long way. In the West there are Scandinavian countries (Sweden, Norway and Denmark) with their Viking traditions while Russia pops up in the East. Finland wasn't located on any major trading route per se but little by little trading and agriculture took root. However, population remained quite low for centuries.
Religion-wise Finns and the Scandinavians in general were the last Europeans to give up their ancient beliefs. The price for the Catholic Church was quite something as Christmas was moved next to winter solstice to challenge and supress the pagan traditions. However, juhannus (summer solstice) celebration could never really be uprooted as even today everything in Finland grinds to a halt on that special weekend in June.
As Viking kingdoms skirmished with Russian ones Finland was the battleground for centuries. Finally in 1323 the Southwestern Finland was officially taken under the Swedish crown. A few centuries of wars and negotiations later (around 1600) practically all of modern Finland ended up under the Swedish control. During that time Finland provided lots of soldiers for the crown as Sweden rampaged all over the Central Europe. For centuries Finnish hakkapeliitat and their ”relatives” had fearsome reputation with their warcries telling pretty much everything one needs to know about the lot - ”hakkaa päälle” or ”hack 'em (to pieces)!”
Napoleonic wars changed everything for Sweden as the war of 1808-09 resulted in annexation of Finland to Russia. As Sweden soon declared neutrality one might argue that Sweden lost its guts for warfare with the loss of Finns. In any case, Russia granted Finland the status of grand dutchy and autonomy. The first half of the 19th century was mostly positive – Finland got own currency, legislature and army, Finnish became the official language and so on. However, the second half of the century turned sour as Russian Empire felt threatened by the rising nationalism throughout Europe. The thriving Finnish economy wasn't to the liking of some of the Russian bureucrats, either.
All kinds of confrontations came to head around the turn of the 20th century. There were some economic, social and political strangulations, Russia and Russians favoring laws, mandatory 5 year military service, an assassination of governor-general to name just a few of the events. The period wasn't a total loss as in the aftermath of the Russian defeat in Russo-Japanese war Finnish legislature rewrote the constitution including universal suffrage for both sexes in 1905 as the first country in the world.
Atmosphere in Finland wasn't cheery at all when Russia entered the Great War in 1914. Thus, it's no wonder that about 1100 Finns enlisted secretly as jaegers in the German army and fought on the Eastern Front. After the October 1917 revolution in Russia Finland ceased the opportunity and declared independence 6th December, 1917. While Russia worked through its own civil war between 1917-22 Finland had its similarly dark episode.
The returning jaegers took part in the Finnish civil war in the spring and early summer of 1918. In the end the winning whites suffered about 6000 dead whereas losing reds got the raw deal with well over 30000 killed. Latter number includes 11000 dead in the prison camps. As civil wars tend to go there was some wanton killing and the episode divided nation bitterly for two decades.
The young republic got quickly unwanted attention from the Soviet Union. Already from the late 1920s there were all kinds of talks about the Russo-Finnish border and the islands in the Gulf of Finland. As Finland had declared neutrality many politicians insisted there was no need to buy weapons. This attitude cost dearly later on as we'll see. However, in the 1920s and 1930s Finland prospered nicely and opened plenty of new trade routes England being a major target for timber sales. At the time many Finns thought that living so far north meant being safe. Not much history lessons learnt there...
Dark clouds over Europe gathered quickly in late summer of '39. The nazi Germany and the Soviet Union divided Eastern Europe secretly 23rd August while announcing the Molotov-Ribbentrop ”nonaggression” pact. Promptly Germany attacked Poland 1st September 1939. During autumn '39 the USSR forced the Baltic States into submission but Finland didn't yield to harsh talks from Moscow. Shortly Stalin ordered the invasion of Finland on 30th November 1939 without a declaration of war. This ”conflict” is better known as the Winter War – and it didn't go according to anyones predictions. For example, the Finnish communists in Finland joined the fight on the Finnish side and the population was united against a common adversary.
At the time Finland was still largely agricultural society and had basically a quarter of million men living outdoors hunting, working the fields and logging the woods all year round. Thus the aptitude to survive outdoors was no issue to most Finns. Nevertheless, quantity has a quality of its own and the attacking million man army eventually wore the defenders down. Exhausted Finns agreed to a ceasefire on 13th March 1940. Soviet losses were around a quarter of million to 23000 Finns killed. Furthermore, Finland lost a tenth of its territory.
It's likely that this conflict had a major impact on the whole European theatre of war as Hitler probably considered the Soviet Union militarily weak after the Winter War. In any case Germany attacked the Soviet Union on 22nd of June 1941. However, Stalin had initiated a major overhaul of the Red Army after investigations on the poor performance of the Red Army in the Winter War. As history shows, the improvements weren't enough to stop the Germans but did help to turn the tide by '43.
In '41 Finnish leadership was quite impressed by the performance of the German Army. Yearning for compensation for the Winter War Finns agreed to operate on the northern flank of the Germans. It's important to note that at the time Finland didn't have much room for political maneuvering and was dependant on food imports from Germany. Furthermore, the USSR had occupied the Baltic States in 1940 and Russo-Finnish border was beleagured with almost daily incursions. In practise Finland was tightly encircled as Norway and most of the Europe was under the iron boot of Germany. Semantics aside Finland attacked Russia in July '41 occupying its lost territory and then some but refrained from major military actions between winter '42 and spring '44.
Stalin wanted Finland out of the war and finally had the Red Army attack Finland 9th June 1944 thus leading to the biggest battles in the history of the Nordic countries. For example, the battle of El Alamein in November '42 is comparable to the battle of Tali-Ihantala alone. Surrounding the village of Tali (about 10km by 10km) 50000 Finns counter-attacked and stopped the assaulting 150000 Soviets while destroying some 600 Russian tanks. After close to three months of heavy fighting Finns managed to stop the Red Army altogether and agreed to a cease-fire on 4th September. The USSR demanded Finns to intern German Army in the Northern Finland which led to the bitter Lapland War lasting until the end of April '45.
In the World War Two Finland suffered at least 83000 military (about sixth of the army) and 2000 civilian casualties. The toll was drastically different from most of the other European countries where civilian losses often greatly outnumbered military losses. Few realize that out of all European countries participating in the war there were only three capitals not occupied – London, UK; Moscow, the Soviet Union and Helsinki, Finland.
After six years of fighting the end result was deemed somehow tolerable as Finland remained independent. Observing the fate of many East European countries behind the Iron Curtain many Finns felt even somewhat lucky. Nevertheless, the cold war period was diplomatically quite a tightrope performance. In any case, Finland hosted the summer olympics of 1952 showing remarkable recovery from the war.
After the war Finland industrialized quickly with the help of wood products, mining, metal industry and ship building. Funny tidbit – the submarine finding and filming the Titanic was made in Finland. Later on the high-tech industry was added to the success story. Nokia is probably the most famous product of Finland followed by the Angry Birds phenomenon. Modern Finland is especially known for its egalitarian society with low levels of corruption and excellent public schooling and health care – though not many are happy with the taxing system.
As the Soviet Union collapse started 1989 Finland widened its connections to the Western world. Things didn't go so smoothly and the country suffered major economical depression in the early '90s. Reasons are many but one is obvious – financial sector lost its marbles lending all over the place in the post-Soviet euphoria. One of the solutions to the aftermath was joining the EU in '95 but jury is still out on the validity of the choice. As of today Finland has about 5,5 million citizens of which 90% are Finnish speaking ie. the country still is quite homogenous. And yes, Finland is celebrating its 100th birthday on 6th December 2017.
As noted Finland has always been a kind of borderland and as such a target of plenty of destructive behaviour but with benefited from constructive action, too. For example, the Finnish workers have been estimated as a tenth of the workforce building St. Petersburg in 1700. Such a big city has drawn innumerable Finns and Finnish products have been sold there for centuries. Finnish culture has also been heavily influenced by both neighbours. Cuisine has flavours from both east and west, especially the use of berries and mushrooms is heavily influenced by the Russia. Still the quiet minding-my-own-business behaviour has nothing to do with either neighbour. There's a saying from late 1800s crystallizing much - ”we are not Swedish we don't want to become Russian therefore let's be Finnish”.
As locals seldom can judge their ways objectively here are some funny and poignant observations about Finns:
- South African student in Helsinki during the winter 2015-16
- UK based world travelling video blogger after visiting Lapland autumn 2016
- Young US man contemplates the traditional Finnish sauna
If you wish to view wartime photos and videos of Finland head over to http://sa-kuva.fi/neo#
All war time photographs are from Finnish military archives SA-kuva.
Remember to check out my Suomi 100 special edition candle HERE
Have you ever been to Finland? I would love to hear your thoughts. Please leave your comments below