100 years of Finnish history

Le MusÈe national de Finlande prÈsente l’histoire de ce pays depuis la PrÈhistoire jusqu’‡ nos jours. Il comprend une importante partie ethnographique.

by Katherine Larson

December 6, 1917, found much of the world in turmoil. World War I raged, and one of its major combatants, Russia, had spent the year in the throes of revolution. While these conflagrations burned, a spark of hope was lit: Finland unilaterally declared its independence.

For over seven centuries, Finland had been under the control of one or both of its two most powerful neighbors, Sweden and Russia. Then came the spring of 1917, when the Russian tsar abdicated, a provisional government was instituted, and a right of self-determination was announced. Finland moved swiftly to act on the exciting possibilities raised by this announcement.

The Finnish Orthodox cathedral in Marquette’s sister city of Kajaani, built there to accommodate the many thousands of Karelian refugees who left the eastern portions of Finland when Russia took that area over, is pictured. When the Marquette Choral Society visited the cathedral during its trip to Finland this year, the choral society sang a song and, in turn, listened appreciatively to a song sung by the cathedral’s music director. (Photo by Katherine Larson)

In summer, however, under the sway of counterrevolutionary forces, the announced right was revoked. Disappointment. But in autumn the Bolsheviks took power and again declared a general right of self-determination, including the right of secession, for “the Peoples of Russia.” This right would not last long either, but Finland acted fast so as not to let the opportunity escape. The new nation declared independence in ringing words:

“The people of Finland feel deeply that they cannot fulfill their national and international duty without complete sovereignty. The century-old desire for freedom awaits fulfillment now; Finland’s people step forward as a free nation among the other nations in the world. . . . The people of Finland dare to confidently await how other nations in the world recognize that with their full independence and freedom, the people of Finland can do their best in fulfillment of those purposes that will win them a place amongst civilized peoples.”

Without the twin distractions of World War I and civil war within Russia, Finland’s former masters would likely have declined to acquiesce in the loss of territory so close to Russia’s then capital, St. Petersburg. Under the circumstances, though, the new Soviet government recognized the reality: Finland had become an independent nation.

A portion of the Jean Sibelius memorial in Helsinki. Sibelius is widely recognized as his country’s greatest composer and, through his music, is often credited with having helped Finland to develop a national identity during its struggle for independence from Russia. His likeness appeared on the Finnish 100 note, prior to the adoption of the euro. (Photo by Katherine Larson)

One hundred years later, Finland flourishes. And all friends of Finland join in celebrating its centennial. Kunnioittavasti onnittelut, Suomi! Eläköön kauan ja menestykää!    

The path to this landmark accomplishment was not smooth. Right from the outset, clashes between the working class Reds and the nationalist Whites led to a painful and bloody civil war. A hundred-plus days of heavy fighting left tens of thousands killed and millions embittered; many people of Finnish descent in the U.P. today claim their heritage through ancestors who emigrated during the civil war or its aftermath.

The war formally ended in October 1918 with victory for the Whites and a German prince installed as the first-ever Finnish king. His reign was brief; in November, Germany’s collapse took the monarchy with it, and Finland regrouped as a republic.

A group of people take a break from building a Sauna in Negaunee. The U.P. is home to the largest contingent of people of Finnish descent in the United States. (Photo courtesy of Marquette Regional History Center)

Through the 1920s and 1930s the new country pursued an uneasy course. Clashes continued between Reds and Whites. Other clashes pitted Swedish-speaking Finns from the west against Finnish-speaking Finns from the east. And Finland’s awkward positioning between unfriendly powers placed it in the perpetually uncomfortable position of balancing the opposing demands of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

Matters came to a head in 1939, when in late August—shortly before the outbreak of World War II—Germany’s Adolf Hitler and the Soviet Union’s Josef Stalin stunned the world by entering into a pact of mutual non-aggression. A secret protocol attached to this pact divided up vulnerable nations between the two giants, including giving the Soviet Union a free hand to do with Finland whatever it wanted. Within weeks, the Soviets were on the march toward Finland.

The plucky little country had won admiration in preceding decades—it had been the only European country to pay in full all its war debts, while sporting triumphs, notably those of superstar runner Paavo Nurmi, had added glamour to Finland’s name. So did Matti Järvinen, who set 10 successive world records in javelin throwing. Still, when the Soviets invaded, no help was forthcoming.

John and Mary Kiltinen stand with the centennial card they spent months collecting signatures for, which is now on display in Finland. (Photo by Katherine Larson)

With its Winter War, Finland captured the imagination of the West. For 100 days, amid the bitterest winter weather in anyone’s memory, Finnish fighters on skis fought fiercely. (Järvinen, the javelin thrower, taught Army recruits to throw hand grenades.) The Soviets had expected an easy victory, and their heavy casualties came as an appalling surprise. Ultimately their overwhelming advantage in manpower and material prevailed, and a peace treaty was signed in March 1940, ceding territory in the Karelia Province in southeastern Finland to the Soviet Union.

Karelian refugees flooded into the rest of Finland. Finns had to move over a little and make room for their countrymen, often giving up some of their land so others had something in return for their homeland.

Peace, such as it was in the middle of another world war and with the Soviets continuing to press for more territory, did not last long. In the summer of 1941, Germany repudiated its non-aggression pact and invaded the Soviet Union. Stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place, Finland became a “co-belligerent” of Germany. Fighting was brutal for the next few years; eventually, in the summer of 1944, new President Gustav Mannerheim negotiated an armistice with the Soviets and ordered the ouster of Nazi troops from his country. This meant that Finland now had to contend with Germany. Fighting continued until the spring of 1945, when the Nazi surrender enabled general peace to fall upon most of an exhausted Europe.

Post-war negotiations seemed, at first, to pose only more problems for Finland. Despite the fact that it had itself suffered invasion, it was compelled both to cede territory—Karelia, Salla, Kuuamo, and the Kala Peninsula—and to pay “reparations” to the Soviet Union. The loss of territory was bitter, and again refugees fled and other Finns hospitably moved over a little. But the reparations, which were required to be paid mostly in heavy machinery and ships, provided Finland with an unexpected benefit: the development of domestic industry.

Industrialization provided the economic engine that powered Finland through the middle of the 20th century and enabled its transformation into a modern nation. It reached out, becoming a founding member of the Nordic Council along with its Scandinavian neighbors, and reaped the benefits of cross-border cooperation.

The Cold War found Finland threading a delicate diplomatic path through the competing demands of East and West until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. But the Soviet fall—leaving its debts unpaid—contributed to  a general economic collapse during which unemployment soared. The turnaround began in 1994, when Finns voted to join the European Union. Since then the country has largely prospered.

Powered by an effective technology industry and increasing tourism, Finland now offers its inhabitants a high standard of living with impressive scores in all indices of quality of life, including schools that are world-renowned for their effectiveness.

It has been quite a century.


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