The 1918 Finnish Civil War may only have lasted for less than five months, 27 January to 15 May, but the scars that remain from the brutal ideological conflict are still visible in Finnish society today.
In March 2016 the Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle asked Finns to share their family memories of the year 1918. Specifically, Yle asked people whether the Finnish Civil War is still a sensitive issue in their family circles. Over 400 responses were submitted, showing the memories of the war still lay heavily on many people’s minds.
Just 48 percent of the respondents answered that they feel they can speak openly about the Finnish Civil War. Nearly a quarter, 22 percent, says the topic is still a highly sensitive one in their family, with many of their older relatives reluctant to broach the subject. Another 30 percent said they really couldn’t say one way or another, because they have never really discussed that chapter of Finnish history in detail with their next of kin.
One thing is certain from the responses: the cruel acts of the war have left enduring wounds for many. Submitted texts talk of merciless executions and the repentance of the executioners, acts of terror on both sides, and the vindictive treatment of orphaned Red children. Like civil wars the world over, the conflict turned family members against each other. On the other hand, many ancestors are clearly venerated by later generations for their heroic struggles and survival.
A transitional upheaval
The Civil War broke out as Finland was transitioning from its former status as a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire to new-found sovereignty as an independent state. The social turmoil of World War I in Europe filtered into Finland, and disagreements broke out about how the new state should be run.
The ‘Reds’, led primarily by the Social Democratic Party, fought the ‘Whites’, led by the socialist-averse conservative Senate. Roaming paramilitary groups took to patrolling the country: Red Guards made up of industrial and agrarian workers against the opposing White Guards, largely composed of peasants and middle and upper-class citizens.
The division in effect split the country from coast to coast, running just north of the Pori-Tampere-Kouvola-Vyborg line at the start of the conflict. The Reds assumed control of the towns and industrial centres of southern Finland, while the Whites ruled central and northern rural areas.
The Finnish Civil War was a bloody one, as over a percentage of the population was lost by 1919. It is estimated that around 36,000 people were killed and another 15,000 children were orphaned out of a population of around 3 million.
People who responded to Yle’s call for testimonials used their own name or a pseudonym.
“My grandfather’s father died in the prison camp on the fortress island of Suomenlinna in 1918, leaving five children for his wife to rise alone. My grandfather supported the family, starting work at the age of 15. Their misery was indescribable. When my grandfather would return from work, he would find his brother asleep on the street, using the curb as his pillow,” said Topi Piironen.
Many people witnessed things they would never be able to forget during the chaos of the war.
“My mother’s father was 18 years old when he took part in invasion of Tampere as part of the White Guard. He once told me a story through his tears about how the Whites strung the Reds up from the branches of the pine trees on the Pyynikki ridge. He didn’t participate in the hanging, but he was forced to stand and watch the illegal executions,” said a respondent named TS.
The fate of family relatives during the bloody war still evokes a strong emotional response in many Finns, even in families where the actions of their grandparents were hushed up for years.
“My grandmother was born in 1893 and she never mentioned anything about her parents or other relatives during the time I knew her. After she died, I found out she once had two children that no one knew about. Difficult family issues like this were always repressed,” wrote Jaana.
“My grandfather and grandmother never spoke about that era. The atmosphere around it was always tense. Neighbours that supported the Reds during the Civil War were never forgiven. When we were children, we often heard them derogatorily calling people Reds,” said someone writing under the pseudonym ‘Hidden Words’.
Brother against brother
Several respondents also talked about strained family relations that resulted from people choosing different sides. For some, the bitterness and squabbles continued for decades after the war.
“A few years ago, my late grandfather spoke about being related to Cain when he was drunk, because the Civil War pit brother against brother in his family. He and his brothers took the details of the story to their graves,” wrote Lulu.
“My grandfather was part of the White Guard that rounded up Reds in Loimaa, while my wife’s family has Red stories of their own. Our children have lineage from both sides, so I consider our family’s war wounds to be somewhat healed,” said one respondent.
Proud of their forbearers
Many Finns still identify strongly with which side their family's previous generations supported in the conflict.
“My grandfather was a Jäger (elite light infantry trained in Germany), who was badly injured in the Battle of Tampere but recovered. We remember the War of Freedom with pride in our family. Without a legal government, Finland would have become a part of the Soviet Union,” said Markku Niinikoski.
“My father was the platoon leader of the Orivesi Reds. After prison, he returned to community service and became a union activist. We are proud of our father’s struggle for a more just society on all occasions,” wrote Tuomo Saarinen.
Many descendants also wrote in that their family was able to forgive their aggressors eventually. Through this process of absolution, traumatic confrontations throughout the country began to abate.
“My father’s father was killed in Vyborg fighting for the Whites. His pregnant wife was widowed at 20. My dad was born in July 1918. I have learned great forgiveness, tolerance and understanding for people less fortunate than me from my father’s side of the family,” said a woman writing under the pseudonym Nainen 68v.
Events left indelible marks
Several respondents to Yle’s call for testimonials said the throes of civil war had a lasting effect on their family’s political views.
“My father was a ten-year-old boy in 1918 when they came to fetch his father for execution. He was strongly influenced by this: he lived his entire life as a leftist and communist – a defender of the poor,” said ‘a grandchild of the Red Guard’.
“Grandmother remembers when the Red Guard came looking for her father. She crawled through red ditches with her family to escape. We ingested her message along with our mother’s milk: we have never voted for or supported any party or candidate that was Red, socialist or communist,” said Taina.