As we follow daily politics, we may forget about what made Finland as it is now, a rich and strong democratic country. The Independence Day, tomorrow, is a good opportunities to forget the hesitations, the mistakes, the lack of vision of the present politicians and the absence of cohesion when facing the present crisis.
The Independence itself: an important moment, followed by a lot of trouble
Finland has been an independent country only from 1917. Before that, is has been a Swedish province since 1323, and a Russian Grand Duchy from 1809. It does not mean that it was entirely Swedish or Russian, as Finland at the time had specific laws and, with Russia, a certain autonomy. It has also played an important role as a buffer between Russia and Sweden, and has provided large amount of soldier for the Swedish army. It is even a Finnish general, Jakob de la Gardie, who was conquering Moscow for Sweden at the beginning of the 17th century.
Finnish independence has not been particularly glorious or bloody. In 1910 the Czar severely restricted the power of the Finnish legislature, and took a number of measures for the russification of the country, which was provoking serious opposition and talks of independence in the country. Then the Czar was overcome and abdicated in March 1917. On 6 December 1917 the Diet declared Finland an independent Republic, and the new power in Russia was accepting Finland’s independence, with Finland being the first country to recognize the new Soviet Republic.
The times following the independence have not been very happy for Finland. According to Tim Lambert (“A short history of Finland”), in October 1917 a conservative government was elected in Finland. The far left decided to try and take power by force. The Red Finns seized Helsinki and other towns. However General Gustaf Mannerheim led the White Finns. In April 1918 they captured Tampere. Meanwhile the Germans intervened. German troops captured Helsinki. By the middle of May the rebellion had been crushed. Subsequently 8,000 reds were executed. Another 12,000 died in prison camps.
In October 1918, Finland became a kingdom for some days: a German Prince, Charles Frederick of Hesse was made king of Finland. However his reign was extremely short. After Germany signed the armistice on 11 November 1918 Mannerheim was made regent. Shortly afterwards, in 1919 Finland gained a new constitution. In July 1919 Finland’s first president K J Stahlberg replaced Mannerheim. Finland became a republic.
The divisions in the Finnish society continued. In 1929 the Communists demonstrated in Lapua. As a result right-wingers formed an anti-Communist movement called the Lapua movement. In February 1932 the Lapua movement tried to seize power in Mantsala. The rebellion was defeated.
The Winter War, when Finland became a united country
From my personal point of view, Finland became a nation during the Winter War. In August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact, which included a secret protocol relegating Finland to the Soviet sphere of interest. When Finland refused to allow the Soviet Union to build military bases on its territory, after a number of ultimatum, Russia attacked Finland on November 30, 1939.
The Finns were heavily outnumbered but they fought bravely. Nobody would have expected to be able to stop the Russians, who were heavily equipped in tanks and artillery, and had an unlimited reserve of soldiers, when Finnish reserve was non-existent. At some moment, the French and the British were preparing themselves to send some support (my uncle was a lieutenant in the French army, and with some thousands of French troops he was trained in the Alps in order to be sent as fast as possible to Finland), but Sweden refused the passage for neutrality and self-preservation reasons, and there were only some planes coming.
The Russians invaded north of Lake Lagoda but they were defeated at Tolvajari and Suomussalmi. Meanwhile along the Karelian Isthmus Finland was protected by the Mannerheim line, a network of forts and concrete bunkers and trenches. The Russians tried to break through but the Finns held them up for several weeks. However on 14th February 1940 the Russians penetrated the Mannerheim line and Finland was forced to seek peace. The war ended with the Treaty of Moscow on 12 March 1940.
Afterwards Finland was forced to surrender the southeast including the city of Viipuri (Vyborg) and more territory north of Lake Lagoda. About 22,000 Finns died in the Winter War, and at least 5 times more Russians.
What is very special concerning the Winter War is that all the Red and White Finns, who were fighting against each other some years before, were suddenly united and fought a common enemy, when Stalin was thinking that the Red Finns, or at least some of them, would not join the fight and facilitate the Soviet invasion. The opposite happened: he created a nation, who was bravely defending itself and stopping his powerful army, and this is what we are celebrating on the 6th of December.
This explains the importance and the solemnity of the Finnish Independence day.
Celebrations of the Independence Day
It is a very curious occasion, with a mix of serious celebration, and of enjoyment.
First celebrated in 1919, Independence Day was initially a solemn occasion with patriotic speeches and special Church services. In more recent times the Independence Day celebration has become a more vibrant occasion with the blue and white colors of the Finnish flag being proudly displayed in shop windows and bakeries producing cakes with blue and white icing.
An Independence Day tradition is for families to light two candles in the windows of their homes in the evening. This custom became commonplace during the 1920s and is said to recall a time when two candles were placed in the window as a sign to Finnish soldiers that the house would offer them shelter and hide them from the Russians.
There is something else that you cannot miss if you open your television at 6pm on the 6th of December: there is a party at the President’s residence (called the Castle by the Finns, but it is in fact quite modest). The guests initially were officials, and after the war people who have been particularly distinguished (veterans), but this last category is shrinking every year and is replaced by all kinds of VIP, such as athletes, entertainers and activists. This event is broadcast on national TV, and all Finland looks at it. It is quite funny, as the TV reporters comment about each guest, and if you have a Finnish family you will enjoy their comments and learn a lot about personalities. After that, there is a dinner and a ball, but it looks lame because there are a lot of people and no real room to dance.
Some people organize an official party at home, with friends. Finnish schoolchildren get an opportunity to have their own Independence Day Gala in all towns.
Others go much farther. Referred to as the ‘party crasher’s reception’, a random mix of largely peaceful demonstrators in front of the Presidential Palace, just to remind that this kind of expensive event takes place in a country where there are poor people who are fighting to survive. It becomes sometimes violent: in 2014, Helsinki police have kettled protesters in central Helsinki after a march that left vandalism and broken windows in its wake.
In any case, it is a very good opportunity to celebrate the creation and the situation of one of the best countries in the world.