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100 years ago today: Reds take Tampere, Finnish Civil War begins

Finland's Civil War began 100 years ago today, when the Red Guard stormed the city of Tampere. The first days of the conflict were peaceful, but death and misery were soon to follow.

Red Guard prisoners in the Tampere Market Square
Image: E. A. Bergius / Vapriikin kuva-arkisto

One hundred years ago today, the Finnish Civil War began. After Finland gained its independence in 1917, members of the Red Guard saw their chance to pursue a more egalitarian society under the flag of socialism. On 27 January 1918, they took action, marching into the southern city of Tampere to oust municipal leaders and replace them with their own administration.

"The Red Guard began to seize weapons and make arrests. It took control of strategically important targets like the railways and the phone company. It also stopped publication of White newspapers," says historical researcher Sami Suodenjoki from the University of Tampere.

Over 36,000 lives would be lost before the Red Guard would surrender to the Whites four months later, but the Tampere coup that started it all was relatively peaceful.

"There was little need for violence in the first days of the war in Tampere. The White components of the population did not take up arms in resistance because it seemed clear to them that the Reds would be victorous in usurping the city. They figured it would be wiser to wait and see what happened," says Suodenjoki.

Thought by many to be the capital of the Finnish labour movement, the highly industrialized city of Tampere became the Red Guard's most important base in Finland's interior, although the resistance was still run from Helsinki.

"A few days later, Whites in Tampere received news that the Reds had also taken control of other cities and towns. This is when the municipal leaders and business owners realized that the Reds intended to make the city a base, and started to leave the city in droves," Suodenjoki says.

Once the Whites decided to rise up in defence of the city, Tampere became the landscape of the worst fighting in the war, with thousands of casualities. The Battle of Tampere, which took place on 15 March to 6 April, is still considered one of the bloodiest conflicts to have taken place on Nordic soil.

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